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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).

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Free will fest

I have a new post at Talking Philosophy on the subject of free will.

This follows from a post by Jerry Coyne, which follows up Jerry's more detailed piece in USA Today.

Since writing my Talking Philosophy piece, I have seen (and briefly commented on) a response to Jerry by Jean Kazez. The latter is interesting, in part because it seems to me to make the same mistake that Jerry is making. I.e. it runs together two distinguishable issues: first, have we been shaped by our pasts (including, but not limited to, genetic potential and early upbringing) to have certain desires, beliefs, etc., with the result that we will, in fact, act in certain ways in certain circumstances?

Second, when we act do we thereby, at least sometimes, produce the results that we want? The answers to both questions appear to be, with some qualifications, "Yes." It's not a matter that if the answer to one question is "Yes" the answer to the other must be "No." A positive answer to the first does not entail a negative answer to the second.

I guess it's up to you - or maybe it's fated for you - which of these questions bugs you the most.


Steve Zara said...

It's pleasing to see your views on this. I have not been much impressed by Harris' approach on this subject. Indeed, his philosophy seems inconsistent, as he tries to promote both a mysterian view of consciousness and the absence of free will, surely mutually incompatible! I do feel that Harris is trying to re-invent the wheel with his own arguments, when this is not the simple matter he seems to give the impression it is.

Anthony Hopper said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to Coyne's article. I posited some of my thoughts on the 'USA Today' article under your blog post at 'Talking Philosophy.' I also want to apologize; my response focused entirely on Coyne's article. Nonetheless, I agree with your attempt to differentiate between different types of choices (deliberate, unlimited--"spooky free will") and ground your discussion in a historical/epistemological context.

With that said, I think that this issue is as important to the "average man/woman" as it is for philosophers. Thus, interested, non-academics like myself, benefit from reading blog posts like the one here and at 'Talking Philosophy.'

Physicalist said...

Yeah, I've gotten frustrated with Jerry's failure to engage the issue in any substantial way while continuing to return to his soap box.

How many times has it been pointed out to him that it's simply wrong to say that determinism implies that we don't make choices?

And yet he just goes ahead claiming "Perhaps you've chosen . . . or maybe you've decided . . . You haven't. You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision . . . was determined long before. . . And your "will" had no part in that decision."

Yes, Jerry, my will did have a very important part to play in the decision. When it came time for the decision to be made, it was made by me.

He claims he's been reading up on compatibilism, but you wouldn't know it from his writings. Is there really any philosopher out there who argues "that while we may not be able to choose our actions, we can choose to veto our actions"? Doesn't sound like any philospher I've ever read (except perhaps when discussing irrelevance of certain experiments).

Russell Blackford said...

There are lots of arcane models of free will, so someone may well say this.

Jeremy Stangroom said...

""that while we may not be able to choose our actions, we can choose to veto our actions"? Doesn't sound like any philospher I've ever read (except perhaps when discussing irrelevance of certain experiments)."

I've not read Jerry's stuff, so not sure of the context, but that line is always trotted out when people talk about Benjamin Libet's work (normally by non-philosophers, admittedly).

Steve Zara said...

I remember having read a criticism of the interpretation of Libet's work by Dennett. I'm going to have to remind myself what Dennett said, but I remember it seemed convincing. Some of the interpretations of brain data seem to be way off the mark considering that we are able to play high-speed sports and make conscious decisions as we do so!

Unknown said...

A few thoughts:

1.) My favorite book on the topic of free will is still Martin Luther's On the Bondage of the Will. Surprisingly, it still has some philosophical value beyond being merely an historical contribution to the free will/determinism debate.

2.) Sam Harris' most recent projects reminds of a very true observation of Stanley Cavell's: The practice of philosophy is for many the art of renunciation.