Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Free Will: A Pseudo-Problem? Schlick on a Longstanding Metaphysical and Ethical Debate

Topics: Ethics, Metaethics, Moral Philosophy, Philosophy of action, Theoretical philosophy
Keywords: Free will, Laws of nature, Moral responsibility, Moritz Schlick, Role of ethics


Free will, famously described by David Hume as “the most contentious question of metaphysics, the most contentious science”, has long been a subject of intense debate, particularly regarding its compatibility with a deterministic universe and its implications for ethical questions, notably moral responsibility. Moritz Schlick, a leading figure in the Vienna Circle and the neopositivist movement, challenges the validity of this debate, asserting that it arises from linguistic and semantic confusions surrounding terms like ‘freedom’, ‘determinism’, and ‘will’. Reflecting the neopositivist disdain for metaphysics and normative ethics, Schlick posits that once these concepts are properly defined, the problem of free will dissolves, though addressing it may be necessary when discussing moral and legal responsibility. This paper aims to elucidate Schlick’s perspective on free will and responsibility, placing it within the early 20th-century debate, and highlighting his efforts to reconcile these concepts with the principles of physics while avoiding theoretical ambiguities.

Free will—described by David Hume (1975: 95) as “the most contentious question of metaphysics, the most contentious science”—has been the subject of a longstanding debate. As those familiar with metaphysical and ethical controversies know, the debate centers on whether free will is compatible with a universe governed by deterministic laws, thereby grounding moral responsibility for action. However, not everyone agrees that this is a genuine philosophical issue. According to Moritz Schlick, a key figure in the Vienna Circle and the neopositivist movement (Stadler 2001; Uebel and Limbeck-Lilienau 2022), the question of free will—despite its prominence in the Western philosophical tradition—is a false problem. It arises from linguistic and semantic misunderstandings, and overall vagueness surrounding concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘determinism’, and ‘will’. Once the correct meanings of these concepts are fully clarified, the problem would dissolve rather than…


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