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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).

Friday, January 06, 2012

More on free will from Jerry Coyne

Here, Jerry Coyne replies to his commenters at USA Today. The most important thing from my viewpoint is his response to Tom Clark, whose views probably aren't too far from mine. Jerry is actually quite conciliatory towards Tom.

In part, it probably is a matter of semantics. Jerry Coyne, Tom Clark, and I all agree that determinism probably prevails to a very large extent at the level of the brain. We probably all agree that if the brain has some indeterministic element to it - that even if its outputs are somehow affected by quantum level events that are "caused" only in the sense that they had some probability of occurring - then this does not, in itself, make us more "free". We all think that the processes by which human beings make choices are purely naturalistic and that a lot of the process (perhaps a hell of a lot of it) is unconscious.

The issue is how to interpret this in terms of the historical language of free will, etc. Should we simply say that human beings do not have free will? To me, that runs the risk of conveying something that is not intended and is not actually true. It can easily convey something fuzzy that is in the direction of fatalism. Of course, it's also possible that when compatibilists say to the folk, "You have free will," that something is conveyed that may not be intended and is not actually true.

It becomes, I think, a question of trying to understand the situation as clearly as we can, while also working out how best to convey it to others without misleading them. That does, inevitably, get us involved in efforts in clarifying concepts, making distinctions, grappling with the existing philosophical literature, and so on. Given some of the issues that are stake in the contemporary debates among academic philosophers, it can involve grappling with other difficult concepts, such as responsibility, desert, and fairness - and the relationships among them.

I only get upset when the efforts of people like Daniel Dennett, Tom Clark, and by extension me are dismissed as "changing the subject" or as being some kind of sophistry analogous to the efforts of theologians, which do seem to me to be sophistry - not always, since some useful work gets done under the broad rubric of "theology", but very often. A lot of stuff that I've been reading in the process of researching 50 Great Myths About Atheism seems to me to be sophistry, but I'd never say this of Daniel Dennett, even when he leaves me unconvinced.


Physicalist said...

"I only get upset when [our] efforts . . . are dismissed as "changing the subject" or as being some kind of sophistry"

Two additional points bug me:

1. The causal dismissal of various compatibilist accounts with the claim, "But this gives us no reason to question determinism!" This is either being purposefully evasive or painfully obtuse.

(Normally, I could just give him a C+ a move on, but he keeps coming back to it.)

2. Packaging the hard determinist thesis as something shocking an profound, while never going beyond the mere claim that we're effectively determined. Jerry just defines freedom as a lack of determinism, and then points out that we're determined.

A hard determinist worth reading should at least offer some arguments for thinking that determinism has some important consequences. This is, after all, what the free will debate is all about.

Russell Blackford said...

Perhaps I'm conflating with what I've read from other "hard" theorists - Derk Pereboom for example - but doesn't he think it has implications for such things as penal policy?

Physicalist said...

Yes, IIRC he does say that it should lead us to rethink punishment, but I haven't seen him support this claim. (I happen to agree that our penal system needs to be majorly improved, and that we should focus less on desert and more on rehabilitation, but I see this as quite tangential to questions of freedom.)

My complaint is that he recognizes the distinction between compatibilist freedom and contracausal freedom, but (as far as I've seen) he offers no argument for the claim that the compatibilist version is irrelevant to moral responsibility (or, equivalently, that contracausal freedom is necessary for responsibility).

Jean Kazez said...

I don't see why you're so bothered by the "changing the subject" accusation, as made by people like Coyne and Harris against compatibilists. I take it that the accusation is based on the contention that freedom means being able to choose otherwise. So if compatibilists accept determinism, but still say our choices are free, they must be changing the subject--talking about something or other, but not about freedom. I don't see any reason to regard this argument as offensive in any way. It's meant as a serious argument against compatibilism, presumably. It's not like there's no reply. Compatibilists will say "No, 'freedom' doesn't amount to being able to choose otherwise. It's tempting to think so, but it's not really true, because ....[whatever]." Right? It seems like the "changing the subject" talk is just part of the standard back-and-forth between compatibilist and incompatibilist positions.

Unknown said...

It seems to me that one's position on free will is determined by where one locates the origin of agency: Is it at the level of putative experience, or level or two below it? To me, the trouble of saying that the origin of agency is at a level below putative experience is that it leaves us with a form of the homunculus theory of consciousness. Determinism of that sort is a curious bifurcation of the human creature.

Physicalist said...

"I don't see why you're so bothered by the "changing the subject" accusation

I can't speak for Russell, but the reason it bothers me is that it's used as a way to avoid confronting the compatibiilist arguments.

It's fine as a starting point to say, "I think the real issue is contracausal freedom." And then the compatibilist can explain that there are perfectly robust notions of choice, agency, and power that fit in quite well with determinism.

But if the hard determinists at that point reply, "You're just changing the subject to avoid the real issue (because you're an intellectual coward)," then they aren't engaging the argument. They're simply reiterating their position and throwing in some subtle insults.

Physicalist said...

To clarify: the insulting bit is the implication that we either don't understand the incompatibilist position or that we're willfully ignoring it.

It would be rather like someone telling Jerry Coyne that his talk about the biological concept of a species is merely "changing the subject" since common folk think of animal kinds as consisting of an intrinsic immutable essence.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, it's the suggestion that there's one side that is on point and another side that is evading the real issues. Which suggests, well, evasiveness, ulterior motives, etc.

There's also just a touch of arrogance about an accusation of changing the subject, as if - if you're not being deliberately evasive - you're just too "dumb" (to use your word in your own thread on this, Jean) to know what is really at stake; and my intuitions about what is at stake are just obviously superior to yours.

Now if Sam Harris has sociological data to show that what really bugs people is what he thinks does; or some kind of analysis of the history of ideas to show that this is what has bugged people historically, from Homer, say, until now; or some kind of data from a psych lab to show that no one gets even a subconscious fatalist "vibe" from being told they don't have free will - well that could be an argument.

Ivo said...

"It would be rather like someone telling Jerry Coyne that his talk about the biological concept of a species is merely "changing the subject" since common folk think of animal kinds as consisting of an intrinsic immutable essence."

I made exactly the same point on Jerry's blog, and the similar one that, if he went about polling Americans for how they conceive of evolution, then by his logic he should then declare that evolution - as commonly and traditionally thought of - is an illusory phenomenon.

In answer to Jean Kazez's question, I second Physicalist and Russell: it is somewhat frustrating to have Jerry dismiss the compatibilist position out of hand as a psychologically motivated sophistry reminding him of theologians. Like Russell, I even used the word "arrogant" and got promptly rebuked by Jerry for insulting him on his blog. Ouch!

Russell Blackford said...

That'll teach you to insult someone on his own blog! lol

I really wish Harris hadn't used that "change the subject" line. Jean obviously thinks I'm overreacting, but it's the kind of rhetoric that we can do without in debates among allies.

As for the comparisons with theologians, I notice that they are not in Jerry's latest post that I'm talking about here. Hopefully we won't see more of them. I thought that what was in the post under discussion was pretty fair. I have no real complaints about it, even though my position is a compatibilist one to the extent that there is any label that applies to it (I do think that philosophers can spend too much time defending labels, though of course often the labels are not self-applied).

Svlad Cjelli said...

I still don't know what the "free" label adds, concerning the pragmatic communication angle. What does it serve to convey about will in a broad, general context?
I know what it means for legal distinctions involving threats, abduction and what-not.

Charles Sullivan said...

Jerry's 'blog' today about Andrew Brown leaves me really confused about where he stands. Jerry appears to be a hard determinist, yet he's trying to carve out a place for autonomy. One might think he's actually a compatibilist.

Tom Clark said...

I've replied to Coyne at http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/readers-comments-on-my-free-will-piece-and-my-responses/#comment-171335 , making clear that I'm not a compatibilist in that I don't think retributive punishment is justifiable under naturalism. I reference a book review, The Scandal of Compatibilism, in this regard, linked at http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm .

Unfortunately, both Coyne and Sam Harris suppose that without libertarian, contra-causal (spooky) free will, we end up as puppets driven external causation, mere victims of circumstances who can't control outcomes. This of course is false and demoralizing, and I've asked Coyne and Harris to publicly recant this view, otherwise it will set back the prospects for the acceptance of naturalism. Forgetting that human agents have causal powers just as much as our causal antecedents is a common mistake among those who come to realize we don't have contra-causal free will, http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm

Steve Zara said...

I would have thought that someone like Jerry who is so knowledgeable about evolution would have accepted Dennett's position about free will being something resulting from evolution. A supporter of evolution who does not accept the existence of some form of free will is left trying to explain what conscious choice is actually for given that it takes up such expensive mental resources. Conscious choice that is illusory would mean that evolution has left us as "brains in vats", not connected to the real world in ways we believe we are. That is a very strange idea indeed.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Steve, wouldn't that process serve the same function even under more explicit bondage? I don't think even the grimmest of determinisms seem to invalidate natural selection.

Steve Zara said...

Svad - this isn't about determinism as such. It's about the false view that determinism makes our sense of free will redundant, that our sense of free will is some sort of illusion. It would be odd, I'm suggesting, for the conscious sense of free will to be without evolutionary purpose. It reminds me a bit of the suggestions that we only use 10% of our brains. It would be horribly uneconomic for our brains to have evolved a reality simulation within which we only have the illusion of making choices. Far more economical biologically is for our belief that we make conscious choices to be true.

Russell Blackford said...

It could be a spandrel, though. Maybe if you build a brain in a certain way, to accomplish certain things, it ends up with certain false beliefs about itself as a by-product.

I think something like this is true in this case. The false belief in question isn't necessarily one that we all have - after all, a lot of people have almost the opposite belief and are fatalists - but it's one that seems common. I.e. the belief that when I make a decision I am some sort of unmoved mover: that there is no further causal explanation as to how that decision came about. The hard determinists seem to be onto something here, that there seems to be this widespread illusion.

But that said, when we think about it the illusion it does become apparent to many of us being an illusion. It becomes difficult even stating it in a way that makes sense.

As we focus on what is really going on, do a bit of scientifically-informed conceptual analysis to try to clarify things, and so on, it seems that some things that we think, and that fall in this ballpark are not just illusions. We really do deliberate, some of our decisions do really seem to be autonomous (to use a word from that other thread of Jerry's), and so on.

I suppose I agree with Steve to the extent that what we actually do identify as true, after a lot of conceptual analysis backed by science, has a good chance of being true. I.e. we really do act in many cases on our desires, hopes, etc., and we are often successful in producing the consequences that we want.

Whether that amounts to "free will" may be a matter of semantics, though "free will" is just a label here as far as I'm concerned - after all, it's not a translation of the original term used by the Greek philosophers, which was actually more like "up to us".

Peter Beattie said...

What I find slightly irritating is that Jerry keeps saying that spooky free will is what most people think of when talking about free will. To my knowledge, he has never given a single piece of evidence or an argument for this. And even if that actually were what most people think, that would of course not mean that we would be in any way obliged to adopt that definition—we wouldn’t dream of doing that with concepts like ‘species’ or ‘time’, either.

Also, the topic of justice is completely independent of free will, no matter what the definition. If, for example, Agent A kills Agent B (no Matrix jokes, please), then a society’s interest is to make sure that something like that never happens again and (wherever possible) that appropriate compensation is made. The same considerations could, strictly speaking, also be made if Agent A is a machine. If the character of the machine and the situation in which it killed B are such as to suggest that it will kill again, one would reasonably want to change it, lock it away, or dismantle it, to give just the more obvious choices.

And lastly, the idea of ‘could have done otherwise’ in a particle-by-particle replication of the original situation strikes me as completely nonsensical, since the only thing you could possibly gain from that kind of free will would be capriciousness. Moreover, since such a replication is impossible in principle, why should we bother with it and hitch to it a concept that we actually care about? Even moreoverer, if our free will is a manifestation of our unique personality, we wouldn’t even expect to see any difference in our choices, even if we could do the replication. The only thing we rationally can care about (which is, as far as I am concerned, 100% Dennett) is whether or not we can choose differently in a very similar situation. Which is, by the way, something that most people are completely aware of.* And which, I think pretty much everybody agrees, we are capable of.

* I know, no evidence either. But I think the burden of proof here rests primarily with Jerry et al. And what’s more, people could easily have both ideas about free will—to different degrees, in different situations, and so on.

Chris Schoen said...

after all, a lot of people have almost the opposite belief and are fatalists

But it seems sound enough to suggest that even fatalists have a feeling of being offered choices. If they are fatalists, they have (most likely) reasoned their way into that stance. Or they have some kind of psychological disability that discourages their taking responsibility for themselves.

I think Steve's "brains in vats" analogy is dead on. If we really are so deluded about our own agency, it raises serious questions about our ability to evaluate evidence or to make inferences about the world generally.

If consciouslness is a spandrel, it's a mightily interesting one, given the enormous importance of moral reasoning for our species. Is our entire civilization just a sideshow to keep us amused while the "real" questions of life and death swirl around us?

Richard Wein said...

I think the term "free will" plays no useful part in our best explanations of the world, and is better avoided (at least in truth-seeking discourse).

We can't treat "free will" as a term of art, or new technical term, for which we can stipulate any meaning we like. The word has existing meaning to people. That meaning is very hard to specify, and it's probably not the same for everyone. I'm inclined to think that the more general naive (or "folk") tendency is to take it in some sort of spooky or libertarian sense, but I may be wrong, and anyway I'm quite prepared to accept that many people don't take it that way. In any case, if we accept that there are significant differences in the way people take the term, that's a good reason for avoiding its use.

Whatever we want to say about the world, we can say it more clearly in other ways. If we want to say that there is no unmoved mover and that our actions are ultimately caused by physical processes, it's clearer to say that than to say "we don't have free will". If we want to say that our actions have effects on the world, or that conscious deliberation plays a part in causing some of our actions (or whatever else a compatibilist wants to say), it's clearer to say that than to say "we have free will".

That said, the term "free will" may have practical value. Telling people they do or don't have free will may not communicate much in the way of true information, but it can have psychological and social effects. Russell is worried that telling people they have no free will make them more fatalistic (and presumably less inclined to action). Tom Clark is worried that telling people they do have free will encourages retributive justice. To me these are practical/political issues, and might justify making statements about "free will" that don't communicate true facts. But I think the term is best avoided when we just want to discuss or communicate facts about the way the world is.

I think "free will" is an example of a term which our psychology makes seem important, and causes us to reify. Because the term feels meaningful, we believe it is meaningful. That's the power that our language has over our thoughts. But it's a power that can mislead us.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. I quite like Tom Clark's approach of saying that we don't have "contra-causal free will", as that's more specific than "free will" simpliciter. But it does seem to invite the response, "OK, we don't have contra-causal free will; but do we have some other sort of free will?"

Steve Zara said...

"Free will" may be a term rather like "life". Since the discovery of biochemistry the meaning of the word "life" has become rather vague, as it doesn't mean what it often used to, which is the presence of some sort of vital force. It may not even make much sense in terms of physics to talk of anything being "alive", but '"life" still has important uses. We can look at the interactions of atoms, and even the firing of neurons, and see no physical basis for free will, but that does not mean that like the word "life", the term doesn't have real use. I believe there is a use of the term which makes sense to most people and which is entirely compatible with determinism. It is given by Hume, and is the capability to act according to our wants. That is different from the freedom to have un-caused spontaneity, which seems to be what Coyne is arguing against, and yet we can give up with little or no moral consequence.

Thanny said...

While I fully understand how the "changing the subject" phrase can seem like an insult (and being compared to theologians is certainly not flattery), it's an accurate assessment.

I read both of Dennett's books on "free will", and would never think of claiming that he's just dodging the question. But he is definitely changing the subject, admittedly so (it's even part of the title of the first - ...Free Will Worth Wanting). He then expends no small effort to justify that decision. And ultimately, he's agreeing with Coyne - we're meat computers. He just continues to use the term "free will" while Jerry refuses to.

Russell is making a mistake by casually assuming that the spooky ghost-in-the-machine version of free will that Coyne and Harris dismiss is not the kind most people believe in. It absolutely is. These people are not interested in being told they are meat computers, but still have "free will" that's entirely compatible with determinism. They almost unanimously reject determinism, quite often because they see it as rendering free will impossible.

If there's anything to fault in Jerry's treatment of the topic, it's his relative brevity - he's left unsaid many things which, though they follow naturally from what he has said, nevertheless invite invalid or irrelevant criticisms (e.g. consequences for criminal justice).

Steve Zara said...

They almost unanimously reject determinism, quite often because they see it as rendering free will impossible.

We don't have to accept that this view is right, any more than we have to accept that a common view of what 'life' is is right. It may be that some people consider that if we accept that we are purely physical beings then 'life' is not possible, but they are wrong. They can also be wrong about what renders free will impossible.

Richard Wein said...

I myself have sometimes said of moral naturalists that they're "changing the subject", when they define moral terms in such a way as to make moral claims equivalent to non-moral claims, e.g. defining "morally good" to mean "maximising utility". For me this is not an accusation of devious intent or stupidity. I think they've made a sincere mistake on a difficult question. The point is that if you redefine the central term of a question, then you're no longer addressing the same question, and it seems fair to say so. But I can see that Coyne's accusation of "changing the subject" was made in a particularly disparaging way.

Continuing with the example of moral naturalists (but you can substitute a different case if you prefer), I would say that they are both changing the subject and not changing it at the same time, because they are conflating two meanings. At an intellectual level they may be adopting their proposed definition. But the deeper, subconscious brain states which determine their use and appreciation of moral terms have probably remained roughly the same as those of other people. At the deeper level they still mean the same as other people when they make moral claims. And this is in conflict with the definition that they've stated and are attempting to apply at an intellectual level.

I can imagine that someone will feel offended when told that they're conflating meanings, or are the object of an explanation such as this, and it's probably a good idea to offer such explanations with tact (which I'm sure I don't achieve very well). But if we are serious about finding the truth, we cannot exclude such explanations from polite discussion.

To say that someone has conflicting meanings or beliefs comes across as offensive because we tend to have an unrealistic view of ourselves as unitary minds in which it's strange to hold two conflicting positions at the same time. To be in such a state is seen as a failing, and someone in such a state is the target of disparaging labels such "compartmentalization" and "cognitive dissonance". But I think such judgemental assessments may be moderated when we take a more naturalized view of the mind, seeing it as the product of a complex brain in which many different processes are going on in parallel, not all of them pulling in the same direction.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. I'm quite willing to say about myself that I have conflicting beliefs on the subject of morality. At an intellectual level I'm a convinced moral error thorist. But I also have deeper brain states of the same sort as a moral realist, states which incline me to make moral judgements. I think such deep states could reasonably be described as corresponding to a belief in moral truth. At a deep level, the distinction between beliefs and inclinations becomes very fuzzy.

I hope that having said the above I won't be seen as unduly offensive when I tentatively attribute conflicting states to other people. It's not my intent to offend, just to explain the way I see things. So let me now return to the subject of "free will". For the sake of being specific, let's take Dennett as an example of a compatibilist. According to the SEP:

"For Dennett, free will consists in the ability of a person to control her conduct on the basis of rational considerations through means that arise from, or are subject to, critical self-evaluation, self-adjusting and self-monitoring. That is, free will involves responsiveness to reasons."

Let's call the property being referred to here R. Dennett seems to be making "we have free will" equivalent to "we have R". Yet to say that we have R seems entirely uncontroversial, and hardly worth saying, while to say that we have free will seems to be asserting something significant. Compatibilists themselves seem to think they're saying something significant when they say we have free will, or why bother making an issue of it? This suggests to me that compatibilists (at least those who take this sort of position) are saying something more than "we have R" when they say "we have free will", and it's this something that makes the claim seem significant to them. In other words, Dennett's account has omitted the most important part of the meaning of "free will", even with respect to the compatibilist's own use of that term. So I tentatively suggest that there is a conflict between the compatibilist's deep-seated meaning and his explanation of his own meaning. The compatibilist's deep-seated meaning is probably much the same as that of most people. It's his explanation of his meaning that is wrong. That's why his explanation looks like "changing the subject".

Tom Clark said...

"This suggests to me that compatibilists (at least those who take this sort of position) are saying something more than "we have R" when they say "we have free will", and it's this something that makes the claim seem significant to them."

Imo, the something more being claimed by compatibilists in saying that we have free will is that we are morally responsible and deserving of punishment: justifiably given our just deserts independently of consequentialist considerations. As John Martin Fischer puts it at Flickers of Freedom, compatibilists think that "the (proportionate) suffering of wrong-doers is intrinsically valuable." http://agencyandresponsibility.typepad.com/flickers-of-freedom/2012/01/another-scientist-on-free-will.html?cid=6a0120a8bb6b2e970b0168e51644a8970c#comment-6a0120a8bb6b2e970b0168e51644a8970c This seems to me very difficult to maintain on a naturalistic view of ourselves, as argued in "The scandal of compatibilism" at http://www.naturalism.org/fourviews.htm

Peter said...

Tom Clark,

"the something more being claimed by compatibilists in saying that we have free will is that we are morally responsible and deserving of punishment"

That seems wrong to me. It's true that contra-causal free will comes up among theists in terms of justifying an omnipotent, omniscient God punishing us (and I think God's punishment is always and only retributive). But free will is used there to get around the omnipotent, omniscient part. That's not a concern for atheists.

So that shouldn't be an issue among atheist compatibilists. I don't know philosophy, and I've gathered that for instance Kant argued for purely retributive punishment, but...are there really a lot of secular moral philosphers who think try to argue that secular justice should be retributive, and that free will has anything to do with that? I suppose I would argue that our retributive impulses (and ability to act on them) serve as a deterrent to "cheating" in our social environment. But that government provides institutions that make those impulses obsolete: we get deterrence and compensation for our loss through the criminal and civil justice systems. So we should work on not taking our retributive impulses so seriously. And that has nothing to do with free will, one way or the other.

For my part, and from what I've read from Dennett and Russell here, compatibilists think that the hard-determinists (as exemplified by Jerry Coyne especially) have the conflict between meaning and explanation (as Richard Wein says it). In particular, Jerry seems hung up on the word "free," and is interpreting it in a way that is much more restrictive than it's used in basically any other context, and seems to be putting all the value we associate with free will on his interpretation of "free." This conversation has helped me realize that Jerry's meaning is relevant to Godly justice, but...I think Jerry's throwing out more than just that when he rejects it: secular justice isn't Godly justice, we do actually choose, we shouldn't be nihilistic about physical laws, and Jerry doesn't get points for "facing up" to the impoverished reality of not having free will (I think he wants courage credit or something for it, really).

Tom Clark said...

"...are there really a lot of secular moral philosphers who think try to argue that secular justice should be retributive, and that free will has anything to do with that?"

I think there are, see http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm where I argue against retributivist compatibilists such as Stephen Morse, Michael Moore, and Tim Goldsmith, and see "The scandal of compatibilism" at http://www.naturalism.org/fourviews.htm for replies to compatibilists including Fischer, Vargas and Dennett. Tamler Sommers at U. of Houston has recently converted to retributivism, see his recent comment at the Flickers of Freedom blog at http://agencyandresponsibility.typepad.com/flickers-of-freedom/2012/01/another-scientist-on-free-will.html?cid=6a0120a8bb6b2e970b0162ff0ff0c5970d#comment-6a0120a8bb6b2e970b0162ff0ff0c5970d

In my experience, one of the defining characteristics of American compatibilists is that they want to maintain the compatibility of just deserts moral responsibility with naturalism. Opposing them on this are (I'd say) smaller numbers of hard determinists and hard incompatibilists such as Derk Pereboom, Bruce Waller, Will Provine, Richard Double and Joshua Greene. See Bruce Waller's new book, Against Moral Responsibility, for some good replies to retributivists.

Peter Beattie said...

» Thanny:
Russell is making a mistake by casually assuming that the spooky ghost-in-the-machine version of free will that Coyne and Harris dismiss is not the kind most people believe in. It absolutely is.

Why, oh why, don’t you or Jerry or anybody else even try to give evidence for this? If what you say is so obvious, then it should be trivial to do.

Richard Wein said...

Tom Clark:

"Imo, the something more being claimed by compatibilists in saying that we have free will is that we are morally responsible and deserving of punishment: justifiably given our just deserts independently of consequentialist considerations."

I think that's reading too much into the assertion "we have free will". With your interpretation, the statement "we have free will and therefore we are morally responsible" becomes a tautology. But I don't think it is one, even for a compatibilist.

I would suggest that the "something" is more like a feeling of having a self which is an unmoved mover. And I'm not limiting this to compatibilists. I for one certainly have such a feeling. And that feeling seems to incline me to feel that I have free will, even though I no longer believe at an intellectual level that it is meaningful and true to say "I have free will". I assume that other people, whether compatibilists or not, have similar feelings and inclinations. The difference between compatibilists and incompatibilists, it seems to me, is primarily at an intellectual level. Their relevant deep-seated inclinations and feelings are probably similar, because those are probably deeply ingrained by evolution (and perhaps also social conditioning). We can change our intellectual beliefs without necessarily changing all the feelings and inclinations which represent deeper beliefs.

Optical illusions are a good example of this. Having come to see that there's an illusion involved, we know at an intellectual level that we're seeing one thing, while a deeper-seated part of the brain still thinks it's seeing something else.

I do think the desire to justify saying "we are morally responsible" is the major motivation for worrying about free will. If people were uninterested in moral responsibility they would be much less interested in the question of free will, but they would probably still tend to say "we have free will" if asked. (Speaking for myself, I think the notions of moral responsibility and moral desert are untenable for reasons that are independent of the free will question, so I think I'm able to approach the question of free will in a more dispassionate way than some.)