Free Will, Determinism, and the Possibility to Do Otherwise

27 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2011

See all articles by Christian List

Christian List

LMU Munich; London School of Economics

Date Written: July 11, 2011


I argue that free will and determinism are compatible, even when we take free will to require the ability to do otherwise and even when we interpret that ability modally, as the possibility to do otherwise, and not just conditionally or dispositionally. My argument draws on a distinction between physical and agential possibility. Although in a deterministic world only one future sequence of events is physically possible for each state of the world, the more coarsely defined state of an agent and his or her environment can be consistent with more than one such sequence, and thus different actions can be “agentially possible”. The agential perspective is supported by our best theories of human behavior, and so we should take it at face value when we refer to what an agent can and cannot do. On the picture I defend, free will is not a physical phenomenon, but a higher-level one on a par with other higher-level phenomena such as agency and intentionality.

Keywords: free will, responsibility, determinism, indeterminism, rational agency, the ability to do otherwise, non-reductive physicalism

Suggested Citation

List, Christian, Free Will, Determinism, and the Possibility to Do Otherwise (July 11, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Christian List (Contact Author)

LMU Munich ( email )


London School of Economics ( email )

United Kingdom

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