... at Why Evolution is True. I thank Jerry for the civil way in which he discusses this.
I don't see a lot of point in responding at length right now, as there are plenty of people involved in the debate on the thread who are making the sorts of points that I'd want to make. It's not as if the points are not getting made unless I have another go at it. There are some excellent contributors there, and I won't try to identify them all. Among them is one Gregory Kusnick - I don't know him, but he's one who seems to "get it". If Jerry is reading this, I urge him to have a look at Kusnick's comments, among various others along the same lines.
Also, I'll be reviewing Free Will by Sam Harris, fairly soon, and that will give me a chance to talk at some length on various issues that have arisen in these debates. A long post here at this stage (or at Talking Philosophy) would be duplicating effort.
But I do think that it's worth noting one point. I keep seeing dogmatic statements about the "real" meaning, or the "traditional" meaning, or the common meaning (supposedly the meaning of most ordinary people) of the expression "free will" - sometimes accompanied by claims that anyone who departs from this definition is playing games, changing the subject, or engaging in some sort of slippery quasi-theological casuistry ... all, it is sometimes suggested, because of some ulterior motive. This claim, which is tantamount to saying that people like Daniel Dennett are intellectually dishonest, could not be further from the truth. What we are seeing from people like Dennett are careful attempts to sort out difficult, potentially confusing expressions and concepts, and to see how the concepts match up with our actual world. It's not surprising if the result is rather messy.
In an interview in the current issue of Free Inquiry, the mild-mannered and careful Dennett sounds a bit pissed off at the way some recent authors approach the problem, and I think he has reason to be (the interview is not available on the internet - you'll need to buy or borrow a copy to see what I mean).
There is a long history to these debates about free will (or what is "up to us"), fatalism, and determinism - a history that goes back thousands of years. The record is there for anyone who wants to see the range of concerns emerging in this rich ongoing discussion. The concerns have been addressed in myth and literary narrative, and in the various schools of philosophy since ancient times. They are reflected in popular culture, often in seemingly confused ways. What the record shows is that compatibilists are not changing the subject at all - they stand squarely within the tradition.
Indeed, the main compatibilist points (points about the sense in which our actions might be "up to us" even if causal determinism is true) were known to Stoic thinkers, and discussed by them, in classical antiquity. In Enlightenment modernity, you can see them discussed by David Hume. The problem is not a new one, and philosophers did not suddenly realise a few decades ago that the world may - shock! horror! - be deterministic at the level of us and our actions. This was discussed by philosophers some two thousand years before the emergence of the modern field of neuroscience.
As well as the record of the history of ideas, we now have some empirical studies of folk conceptions of free will. These studies are open to interpretation, but it is arguable that the folk conception is actually a compatibilist one, or at least that it has a mix of compatibilist and incompatibilist elements that need to be sorted out (partly, I think, because it is easy for people who are not trained in philosophy to conflate determinism and fatalism). Perhaps we need further empirical research; perhaps we need further exercises in conceptual analysis, and in interpreting the current data; most likely, we need both. But one thing now seems clear: the folk are not universally and straightforwardly incompatibilist in their conceptions of free will.
Given these facts about the long history of the discussion, and given the current state of empirical research on what is probably conveyed to people by the term "free will" in ordinary conversations, I'm very surprised when I see dogmatic, ex cathedra pronouncements about what the expression means. Especially when it is combined with suggestions of intellectual dishonesty on the part of compatibilists.