Previous: Role-playing Games: Crash Course Games #18
Next: Invisible Man: Crash Course Literature 308



View count:1,576,914
Last sync:2024-01-31 06:15


Citation formatting is not guaranteed to be accurate.
MLA Full: "Compatibilism: Crash Course Philosophy #25." YouTube, uploaded by CrashCourse, 22 August 2016,
MLA Inline: (CrashCourse, 2016)
APA Full: CrashCourse. (2016, August 22). Compatibilism: Crash Course Philosophy #25 [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (CrashCourse, 2016)
Chicago Full: CrashCourse, "Compatibilism: Crash Course Philosophy #25.", August 22, 2016, YouTube, 08:55,
As we continue explore free will, today Hank considers a middle ground between hard determinism and libertarian free will: compatibilism. This view seeks to find ways that our internally motivated actions can be understood as free in a deterministic world. We’ll also cover Frankfurt Cases and Patricia Churchland’s rejection of the free-or-not-free dichotomy and her focus on the amount of control we have over our actions.


Produced in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios:

Crash Course Philosophy is sponsored by Squarespace.


Want to find Crash Course elsewhere on the internet?
Facebook -
Twitter -
Tumblr -
Support CrashCourse on Patreon:

CC Kids:

Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace: share your passion with the world.


(0:10) Let me tell you a story that is disturbing but true. In the year 2000, a 40 year old man was arrested for possesing child pornography and molesting his 8 year old stepdaughter. The man had no previous history of pedophilia, and said he was baffled and dismayed by what appeared to be a sudden turn in his sexual behavior. 

(0:28) While he was waiting his day in court, the man began to complain of terrible headaches. A brain scan revealed a large tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain known to control sexual impulses. The tumor was removed, and, as it turned out, so were his pedophilic impulses. But about a year later, those impulses returned.

(0:45) Another scan revealed that the tumor had returned as well. So, a second surgery removed the tumor, and the pedophilic behavior diminished, this time for good.

(0:54) Now, here’s the question: Was that man’s really horrible behavior a matter of free will? Or was it determined- by what turned out to be a medical condition? Or was it neither? Could it even have been both?


(1:14) So far we’ve considered two metaphysical positions regarding the freeness- or not- of our actions: hard determinism and libertarian free will. If you’ve found both of them to be wanting, well compatibilism might just be for you.

(1:26) Compatibilists believe, somewhat like hard determinists, that the universe operates with law-like order, and that the past determines the future. But, they also think there’s something different about some human actions; that some of the actions we take really are free. This view, known as soft determinism, says that everything is actually determined, but we can still call an action free when the determination comes from within ourselves. 

(1:50) It’s like the difference between someone being pushed off a diving board, as opposed to jumping. The result is the same- you end up in the water- but it does look like the cause is different. In case 1, the cause is the pusher, while in case 2, the cause is the jumper.

(2:01) Compatibilists say that in both cases, the action is determined- that is, it couldn’t not happen- but when the action of an agent is self-determined or determined by causes internal to themself- the action should be considered free.

(2:15) This means that we have moral responsibility for our actions, since the determination for some of our acts can come from us alone. And this was something, you’ll recall, that hard determinists seemed to have to give up.

(2:27) But, it’s unclear how meaningful moral responsibility really is, in this view. After all, if we’re still determined, just by our own internal factors, then in what sense are we actually responsible?

Which brings us back to the man with the brain tumor.

(2:39) If a growth in your brain, which you have no control over, causes you to have impulses that you also have no control over - do you act freely if you act on those urges?

(2:51) Pedophilia-induced brain tumors are, luckily, rare, but there are much more common cases that are similar. For example, should we hold people who suffer from severe mental illnesses responsible for their actions? After all the causes of their actions are internal to themselves, so a compatibilist might be inclined to say that they’re free. Yet it seems wrong to blame someone who’s in the grip of, say, hallucinations in the same way that we’d blame someone who’s not.

(3:13) What about someone who becomes flirty after a few drinks? Do we assign that behavior to the drinker, or to the drinks?

The drinker’s actions are caused by factors internal to themself- the alcohol, sure, but also their body chemistry. how much they ate before drinking, and who knows how many other factors.

 Frankfurt Cases

(3:27) Last time we leaned about the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, and the long-standing belief that, for an action to be free, an agent has to have been able to do something other than what they’ve done. But contemporary American philosopher Harry Frankfurt challenges this idea, by arguing that an agent could, in some cases, be morally responsible for the things he does, even when he couldn’t have done otherwise.

We call these situations Frankfurt Cases, which brings us to the Thought Bubble to explore on in this week’s Flash Philosophy. 

 Thought Bubble

(3:51) Suppose there’s a fervent supporter of the Democratic party, and he comes up with a crazy plan to make sure his party wins the next elections. He decides to abduct voters and plant devices in their brains- something that, as far as I know, neither party has tried yet!

(4:07) Now, these devices are designed to remain dormant unless a voter is going to vote Republican, in which case it will activate and compel them to vote Democratic.

(4:14) Now suppose that you were one of the unlucky abductees, and you had to head to the polls with a device in your brain. But you’ve always been a lifelong Democrat, and device or no device, you have every intention of voting Democratic this time. You enter the polling booth, vote a straight  Democratic ticket, and head home. Since you never had any intention of doing anything other than voting Democratic, the device was never activated. 

(4:34) However, if you had decided to vote republican, you would have been prevented from doing so. The Principle of Alternate Possibilities says you were not free in this case, because you couldn’t have done otherwise. Even if you tried to vote Republican, you would still have voted for Democrats. 

(4:47) But Frankfurt argues, that you were still clearly responsible for your vote. You were responsible, because you did what you wanted to do, even though you could not have done otherwise. Thanks, Thought Bubble.

 More about Frankfurt Cases

(4:47) So what do you think? Not about the next election. I mean- can you be held responsible without being able to do otherwise?

If you wanted to watch Crash Course, and would’ve watched it on your own, but now it’s playing in class and you don’t actually have any choice, are you watching me freely?

(5:12) Frankfurt cases play on an intuition that many of us share- the idea that you’re responsible for actions you’ve chosen. And your choice needs to come from within yourself, rather than from outside factors. 

But it’s unclear whether we can actually separate internal factors from external ones. 

(5:25) A group of friends pressuring you to get high is an external factor, but your desire to conform, or maybe your desire not to care what others think of you, comes from within you. Or does it?

Isn’t your personality- and how you respond to different situations- shaped by your parents, and friends, and earlier experiences?

(5:40) Many think that these kinds of examples reveal deep problems with compatibilism. If we can’t separate internal and external causes, maybe the answer is simply to say that actions are”more or less free.” And how free they are depends on how many internal factors are influencing us, and how many external, and how much control we have over what we do.

 Patricia Churchland's views

(5:59) This is the view taken by contemporary Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland. Churchland points out that, as social animals, we can’t help but hold people accountable, and assign either praise or blame for their actions. 

But it also makes sense to think about how much, or how little, someone is in control of their actions, when assigning praise or blame.

(6:17) After all, some actions are definitely beyond our control- like sneezing. So I won’t blame you for sneezing, because you can’t really control that. But I definitely will blame you for sneezing on my lunch, because you do have some control over where you sneeze. 

Likewise, I might blame you less for rude behavior when you’ve been drinking, as opposed to when you’re sober, but I probably wouldn’t let you completely off the hook, because, at least under normal circumstances, you had control over your decision to drink.

(6:41) So, Churchland says, asking “Am I free?” is really the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking, “How much control do I have?” And the more control we have, the more responsibility we also have.

This view lets us keep what we know about the deterministic nature of the universe, while also making sense of our subjective feeling of freedom. So really feeling “free” really means “having control”.

(7:02) We know disturbances in the brain can undermine our control, from seizures and tics to the pedophilic impulse that developed in the brain tumor patient.

But we also know that our brains can be trained to develop control over many aspects of our behavior. Like the way you used to pee whenever your bladder was full, but now you’re able to control when and where you pee. Congratulations on that, by the way.

(7:21) But this means that we can choose to develop stronger levels of control over many of our actions, which is what we do when we work to break a bad habit, or ingrain a good one.

 Libertarian views

(7:29) Now, libertarians will point out that being caused to do something by internal factors still keeps our actions from being truly free. These folks won’t be satisfied by Churchland’s answer, because it says that every one of our choices is still determined by something, so we can’t ever make an undetermined choice. 


(7:44) But today, whether determined or not, we talked about compatibilism. We considered whether our internally motivated actions can be understood as free in a deterministic world. We also talked about Frankfurt Cases. And we looked at Patricia Churchland’s rejection of the free-or-not-free dichotomy and her focus on the amount of control we have over our actions.

Next time we’re going to move into a new unit, on the philosophy of language.



This episode is brought to you by Squarespace. Squarespace helps to create websites, blogs, or online stores for you and your ideas. Websites look professionally designed regardless of skill level, no coding required. Try Squarespace at for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world.


Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like PBS Game Show, The Good Stuff, and Gross Science.

This episode was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.