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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I have a post on free will coming

Okay, this is my first day back from a holiday and it's a bit chaotic here, but the discussion on my most recent "true self" post has largely turned into a debate about fatalism, determinism, and free will. Quite a few misconceptions - at least as I see them - are being thrown around, so I think I need to write a separate post setting out my position. This is not that post.

I'm still wondering why so many people are confident as to what the folk think about this issue. It's not a subject that comes up from day to day in my experience, so if I didn't have a fair bit of experience teaching this stuff I wouldn't have a clue what the folk think. As to my teaching experience, I taught a first-year university subject largely about this topic for several years - in fact, for maybe three of those years I was in charge of running the subject on one of Monash's campuses.

I lectured on this material, with a fair bit of interaction in lectures, and also ran a large number of tutorials over the period concerned. I've specifically discussed the issues with hundreds of students coming into university from high school, and marked numerous essays and other papers on the subject, in which students have had the freedom (!) to express their own views.

I've also discussed the issues with colleagues with far more teaching experience in this area than what I've just described, and I've listened to their advice and heard about their experiences. In all that time, I encountered exactly one student who insisted strongly that "free will" means libertarian free will and cannot be what is known as compatibilism ... that compatibilism just doesn't give us what we really want.

That student was one of my best; he was quite a brilliant young man. But I must observe that he came from a religious background. I'm not saying he was the only student who took the libertarian position, but most were not attracted to it, and even those who were were usually not attracted to it strongly. He was the only clear exception that I can recall.

My overwhelming impression is that the bright young people who entered the philosophy program at Monash University had rather vague, inchoate concepts of free will, which they were happy to clarify by engaging with the readings and the arguments - philosophy is largely about the clarification of vague concepts - and which the majority tended to clarify in the direction of a compatibilist conception of free will. I was told by the person who designed the course and had cross-campus responsibility for it for many years, and probably taught thousands of students in that time, that the pedagogical problem was getting students to take libertarian free will as a serious possibility. Students were not pushed towards compatibilism. If anything, the contrary.

All of my own experience teaching the course was consistent with this.

I don't think the people who took this subject were wildly divergent from the typical bright young people entering into Monash's arts and humanities program from high school. They were not a massively self-selecting bunch, as the subject was a bit hard to avoid for anyone who was interested in philosophy, especially on the campus where I did most of my relevant teaching.

Now, maybe my experience is not even typical of other teachers in the same subject, or in similar subjects even in Australia, though as I say it matches that of the person who designed the subject at Monash.

Perhaps someone who has taught this stuff at other universities in Australia will have different experiences - I know some of y'all read this blog, so speak up. Maybe there is something special about Monash (though I can't imagine what in this case).

I don't claim that my anecdotal evidence proves much, but then again neither does the anecdotal evidence of other individuals. We'd really need a proper survey to get an idea of what the folk think, and it would need to be designed very carefully to take into account the fact that a lot of this stuff is very difficult conceptually, that a lot of it goes over people's heads when they first hear it, and that the folk may actually have very vague concepts indeed. At a minimum it would need an "I don't know" option of some kind.

As I say, this post is not meant to set out my position on the "free will" debate. It does, however, set out why I think I know as much as most people do how bright young members of the folk think when confronted with the issues. And it says why I am continually puzzled when I see people claim confidently, even dogmatically, that the folk conception of free will is some kind of libertarian free will in which, when we make choices, we somehow step outside the causal order of nature. It puzzles me when I see the claim that any other conception of free will, however long and respectable its philosophical pedigree, is a redefinition of the concept, by fiat as it were, rather than a legitimate attempt at clarification.

Where does this confidence come from? I'm really very puzzled by it. Even if you have some basis for confidence relating to your experiences in your own locality or country, does it generalise to the rest of the world? I'm starting to hypothesise that there may, indeed, be a difference between Americans and others with this, and that it has to do with the far greater religiosity in America than in most other Western countries. Maybe it also has to do with a more general American cultural ethos. But in any event, I just want to get a handle on why so many people are so confident about what the folk think.


Alex said...

Well, most people think they themselves are the arch-typical example of what "folk" is. I'm part of the "folk", therefore "folk" is whatever I think. Oh, and the fallacy of thinking you have a soul detached from the physical realities probably has a say, as well.

It's an interesting observation that the embrace of libertarian free will is so strongly held given its reasonably weak platform (IMHO, of course), but again I suspect this is from a poor definition of what "will" means, and the almost never-talked-about constraints that nature wraps around us human beings (people often think that their hunger isn't related to their morals, for example, which is demonstrably false).

Simply, we're flimsy characters, and we assert our vague and flimsy notions as if they were true, surely enhanced by the virtue of youth (as in your situation :).

James Sweet said...

I guess I'm just confused what compatibilism actually IS. It seems trivial to point out that not all actions are "coerced or restrained" by some outside party. Unless you're a Calvinist I guess, but I feel no need to go into heady philosophy to undermine that position! I mean... So, we know some people make decisions that, while being the deterministic outcome of the laws of physics together with the state of the universe(s), aren't being forced on them by some external 3rd party. Uh.... yeah, and?

I am sure I am missing something here, of course. I'm an abject layman here. It just seems to me that to make any claims about free will that aren't trivially true, you have to be claiming libertarian free will (which IMHO is pretty clearly an illusion, though not quite trivially so -- it takes a little bit of reasoning to discover that the concept is basically unrecoverable even in a supernatural context). I'm just wondering who other than Calvinists are denying compatibilist free will -- unless I'm not understanding what that term actually means?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, there are lots of points here. But one is this: lots of Muslims, New Age people, or just ordinary people who think it sounds attractive seem to believe in some kind of fatalism which would deny that we possess free will in any sense ... that we don't steer our own course in life, even in some proximate way whereby our choices reflect our own desires, affect our futures and so on. It's not just certain kinds of Calvinist thinking within Christianity that can push people in that direction.

Historically, fatalism has been a live option and we still hear people even in Western societies say, apparently sincerely, "Everything happens for a purpose" or "It was meant to be" or "Your number comes up when it comes up, and there's nothing you can do about it", and so on. If we really want to know what the folk think, we should take seriously the possibility that a lot of them are fatalists, or at least have confused inclinations that way.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I need to read the relevant papers more carefully than I have, but I think Eddy Nahmias' finding was that most people have have compatiblist intuitions as long as you're just talking about compatibility with determinism, but most people also have the intuition that free will is incompatible with our actions being determined by physical stuff--chemicals or genes or what have you.

Confusing these two is then what leads many people to think the folk are incompatibilist, indeed, it's what leads many people to be compatibilist.

Another reason to think the folk are incompatibilist is just the number of people who seem to find incompatibilism just obvious. Heck, Bertrand Russell often (at the very least) talked like an incompatibilist, and seemed to find his position there just obvious.

Alex said...

That's a funny thing, isn't it, that people are perfectly happy to accept that entity X (god, fate, whatever) drives their future but not their actions. They're happy to concede that meeting some friend or their future partner randomly on the town on day is fate, yet entity X did nothing to guide them into each other (because that's a breach of free will), a mix of libertarian free will and determinism.

Everybody really believe in fate, but perhaps need free-will to deal with it? And isn't fate just another word for attributed (caused by an entity) constraints on our thoughts and behavior rather than it just being nature (either by random or by being in a system)?

Jambe said...

Hm. I have no concrete idea what "the folk" think of free will. It would be interesting to know, certainly.

One thing in your comment, Mr Blackford, that I thought I would address:

"Your number comes up when it comes up, and there's nothing you can do about it"

I understand you're referring to the woo "GOD HAS A PLAN FOR EVERYTHING" nonsense, but there is a kernel of truth there in that unavoidable accidents happen all too readily (e.g. being hit by a drunk driver or being a civilian in an area of collateral damage in a warzone).

My sticking point in all this is that I don't understand why fatalism is a problem, fatalism (by my understanding) amounting to something like "the past is a script for the future from which there is no derivation". That sounds fine to me. The defeatism angle seems like a red herring, though, as it's about how people should react to reality instead of about reality itself.

Also, after having thought about it some more, I suppose I have a distaste for the term "free will". I would be more comfortable if it were always referred to as "the illusion of free will" or if the phrase "free will" were only associated with the "libertarian" notion and a new word were created for the logical "illusion" connotation. Perhaps I'm just too anal about semantics.

Svlad Cjelli said...

I'm mostly familiar with fatalism from the defeatism angle, actually.

As with what Alexander Johannesen says on a "mix of libertarian free will and determinism", my anecdotes suggest a horror movie perspective in which a discreet entity Death hunts some young people who didn't die "when they were supposed to die", alternatively obtained a prophecy regarding their deaths - while the young people continue to resist and flee in futility. There may or may not be a timer and particular order of death.

So that in effect Death inflicts wounds, rather than wounds inflicting death, and actions are implied to all have the same ultimate effects.

Richard Wein said...

@The Uncredible Hallq

I'd been thinking, "we could do with some experimental philosophy on this", not realizing that some had already been done, so thanks for drawing my attention to Eddy Nahmias. He has some relevant papers on his web site, and I'll try to take a look at them soon.

Larry Spencer said...

Hello from one of your loyal American readers! I think you're right about [Christian] religion influencing Americans' concept of free will. Over and over we're told that "whosoever will" may come to Jesus, that God holds us accountable for our choices, etc. Plus, we supposedly have an immaterial, independent soul/spirit that's really in the driver's seat and is not subject to the laws of nature.

Of course, the Christian notion of "the elect" and predestination could not be more directly contrary to libertarian free will, but most Christians I've known try to explain away or de-emphasize the parts of the Bible that teach it. They are forced to do this because God's judgement would be anything but just if we did not have libertarian free will.

As for myself, I used my free will to leave the Christian faith with its many incoherent beliefs. :)

John Ostrowick said...

Hi - thanks for the interesting post. I was also surprised to discover this (South Africa) that most people, when cross-examined, turn out to be compatibilists. I also agree that the incompatibilist position - specifically libertarianism - possibly has a religious influence. But here's a counter-example. Sartre seems to be a libertarian to me - on the free-will question. Yet he's an atheist. I also doubt that Kane et al are, forgive me saying so, illiterate enough to be theists, especially when punting a quantum-mechanics model of the self. So I think that whatever the popular notion of free-will may actually be is moot. The real issue is the actual answer to the question.

I agree re the religious point; in fact, I think that christian eschatology probably requires libertarian free-will. And this is probably what attracted me to the debate initially.

However, and here are my cards - I am sympathetic to Pereboom's view - that actually, Compatibilism does not represent a correct understanding of free-will, and that incompatibilism - probably deterministic - is more likely true.

I sometimes think I must be really thick because it seems to me that there are very few people in my camp. At any rate, more on academia.edu if you're interested, including a paper.

Magnus Solberg said...

To me it seems nonsensical to use the term 'free-will' if all we mean is that we're not forced or coerced into doing something we don't want to do and that it *feels* like I'm choosing freely.

If science shows us that my conscious brain is slave to brain processes that I have no access to nor control over, 'free-will' makes no sense. If we're to use free-will in that sense, it seems I also have free-will to control my pancreatic secretion of insulin. There's a difference in that insulin secretion doesn't *feel* free, but is free-will just a feeling?

If we're "simply" fooled by our brains to feel like we have free-will, is 'free-will' really the term we want to use for such a phenomenon?