Free will eliminativism: reference, error, and phenomenology

Gregg D. Caruso*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Shaun Nichols has recently argued that while the folk notion of free will is associated with error, a question still remains whether the concept of free will should be eliminated or preserved. He maintains that like other eliminativist arguments in philosophy, arguments that free will is an illusion seem to depend on substantive assumptions about reference. According to free will eliminativists, people have deeply mistaken beliefs about free will and this entails that free will does not exist. However, an alternative reaction is that free will does exist, we just have some deeply mistaken beliefs about it. According to Nichols, all such debates boil down to whether or not the erroneous folk term in question successfully refers or not. Since Nichols adopts the view that reference is systematically ambiguous, he maintains that in some contexts it’s appropriate to take a restrictivist view about whether a term embedded in a false theory refers, while in other contexts it’s appropriate to take a liberal view about whether a token of the very same term refers. This, according to Nichols, affords the possibility of saying that the sentence “free will exists” is false in some contexts and true in others. In this paper I argue that even if we grant Nichols his pluralistic approach to reference, there is still good reason to prefer eliminativism to preservationism with regard to free will. My argument focuses on one important difference between the concept of “free will” and other theoretical terms embedded in false theories—i.e., the role that the phenomenology of free agency plays in reference fixing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2823-2833
Number of pages11
JournalPhilosophical Studies
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Eliminativism
  • Free will
  • Phenomenology
  • Reference


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