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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, April 12, 2012

Another long thread about free will and compatibilism ...

... 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.


Richard Wein said...

I at least agree with you in rejecting any suggestion of intellectual dishonesty. These are difficult questions where it's easy for people to make sincere errors, and I have no doubt that Dennett and other compatibilists are serious and sincere.

What's more, I think that on the subject of morality Harris (like other moral naturalists) makes the same kind of error that he accuses compatibilists of making about free will. That is, he saves deeply felt claims (moral ones in his case) by redefining the meaning of (moral) terms. People who live in glass houses...

Perhaps I've misunderstood them, but Harris and Coyne seem to accept the truth of some moral claims while rejecting the existence of moral responsibility (on free will grounds). This seems strange to me. How can there be moral obligations if there is no moral responsibility? And how can actions be morally right or wrong if there are no moral obligations?

With regard to folk attitudes towards "free will", I think it's important to distinguish between two questions: does "free will" mean to the folk what compatibilists define it to mean; and are the folk compatibilists. It's the former question that we should be concerned with, not the latter. Observing that the folk are compatibilists would not tell us that they understand "free will" in a compatibilist sense. After all, the folk may be just as confused about the meaning of "free will" as compatibilist philosophers are alleged to be. What we want to get from the folk is what the term "free will" means to them, not their opinions. (And of course we can't just ask for their opinion on what the term means to them.)

Why does the folk meaning matter to us? I think for two reasons:
1. Philosophers need to avoid misleading the folk. If compatibilists have their own meaning which differs significantly from the folk meaning, they need to make clear that their meaning is not the folk one.
2. If there is a folk meaning which differs significantly from the compatibilist meaning, and if compatibilists have failed to observe that fact, then it's likely they are conflating the two meanings, and committing a fallacy of equivocation when they argue for the existence of free will. (I say that this is the sort of error that moral naturalists like Harris make about morality.)

It's possible that there is not just one meaning of "free will" that is widespread among the folk. There could be multiple discrete meanings or a broad continuum of meaning. But the claim that we have "free will" would be misleading under those circumstance too (though the same might be equally true of the claim that we don't have it).

Personally, I think that the meaning of "free will" is much less well-established than the meanings of moral terms, because discourse about free will is relatively unusual among the folk. To the extent that "free will" has any established meaning to the folk, I strongly suspect it is something like the libertarian or "spooky" meaning. That's what the term seems to mean to me, and as it seems to be a naive meaning, I don't think my feeling for the word has been contaminated by my philosophical thought. It seems to me that compatibilist meanings are not naive enough to be those of the folk.

But I return to the point I've made before: whatever it is philosophers want to say about the way things really are, they can say it more clearly if they avoid the disputed term "free will". What I would say is that there is no libertarian free will, and that the term "free will" is not worth using in any other sense.

Timothy said...

Hear, hear. The arrogant accusations of people having dishonest or emotional motives are getting old.

Russell Blackford said...

Richard, I don't necessarily disagree with your conclusion that we'd be better off using other terminology.

But it doesn't necessarily follow from compatibilist discussions being tricky that a notion of free will that is, in fact compatible with causal determinism is tricky or overly sophisticated. After all, it's actually the libertarian concept of free will that is virtually unintelligible and perhaps incoherent. I can make no real sense of it, no matter how often different versions are explained to me - it all seems very weird and mysterious, and hard to explain.

So why ascribe something like this to the folk?

It seems that the folk have concerns about things like fatalism (according to which future events bypass our choices for some reason, perhaps because the gods or the stars or Fate intervene) and duress. That's not a terribly difficult idea compared to libertarian ideas, which defy explanation and lead to such sophisticated concepts as "indeterministic causation", "agent causation", and so on.

I don't see any great problem attributing to the folk the idea that our wants (and hence our wills) are effective in what choices we make, that these are effective in what actions we undertake, and that these are effective in bringing about consequences - there are no strange fatalistic, etc., bypasses in the processes. Isn't that how the world looks?

But the folk don't even need to put it like that - they only have to think the simple, intelligible, slightly (but not hopelessly) vague thought that we act of our own free will if we are not under some sort of compulsion or duress or the like (or in the thrall of an external, overriding power such as Fate or the stars), and have adequate time and opportunity to make up our minds. That seems like a fairly naive (though true!) thought to me.

Laurence said...

Thanks for saying this.

Alex said...

Russell: I'm one of those who don't quite get the compatibilist positions, mostly because the claim is that the folksy concept of indeterministic free-will somehow is compatible with the deterministic nature, that it makes perfect sense to talk about a deterministic reality in an indeterministic folksy way.

Your last comment was quite enlightening for me, and I think I understand what you're saying in terms of casual determinism mirroring the folksy way of talking about free-will.

But, hmm, well, I'm sure I'm still rather confused; who you're talking to? I can understand talking about folksy free-will when talking with my mates down the pub, but between philosophers I find it, hmm, wanting? For example, what do you mean when you say "our wants [...] are effective in what choices we make", what does "effective" mean? In fact, what does it mean to have wants in a deterministic system?

I think this whole debate - and perhaps the crux of the compatibilist / incompatibilist section of it - comes down to how we define _determinism_, all the way from hard determinism up to some light casual determinism and that these definitions aren't made explicit enough.

In fact, I would be a compatibilist myself if I had any reason to believe that the brain - including its thoughts, desires, processes, decisions - had any indeterministic bits to it, any control to it that were in any way "free." But I don't, again pointing to neuroscience that tells us not so much that our decision processes are mostly unconscious (but it does that, too) but more that our thoughts are quite deterministic, predictable, affected not by reason but more unreasonable things (like smell, heat, moods, etc.). Did you accept some idea because you heard the argument for it over a beautiful lunch? Did you reject some other idea because earlier that day your coffee tasted burnt? Do you judge a man immoral because of philosophical reasons or human prejudice? Basically the brain is a massive state machine that we really don't understand very well, even less control, so even talking about it as if we are seems counter-productive.

And for me, at that point the only useful thing about the compatibilist argument is when we talk to people who haven't thought a bit harder about these things, who thinks they are freely in control. I'm not convinced this is useful, nor compatible with determinism as we learn more and more about the operations of the brain.

Anyway, that's my (incomplete) take on it. We're not bad people just because we don't get compatibilism. That's all. :)

(As an aside, I don't think there's been much call for intellectual dishonest as much as pointing out that the free-will debate has gone from talking about the nature of human thought to arguing about linguistics and making models, but I will leave it there)

Neil said...

I am looking forward to the thoughts of you guys on the whether possible world semantics supposes modal realism. Cause philosophy is real ez, right? I wasted my time getting a PhD. right? I coulda read a blog post again.

I'll get my coat.

Tom Clark said...


"...it's actually the libertarian concept of free will that is virtually unintelligible and perhaps incoherent. I can make no real sense of it, no matter how often different versions are explained to me - it all seems very weird and mysterious, and hard to explain. So why ascribe something like this to the folk?"

Because sometimes the folk believe weird and incoherent things. But of course the extent to which they do is an empirical question. Here's a nice example of belief in libertarian free will from Facebook, and this person may not be alone:

"To put it succinctly, we have free will, our actions are uncaused. We have evolved consciousness which gives us the ability to make completely uncaused choices, hence our complexity compared to non conscious life forms. Though we are tethered to our experiences and our brains, our reasons for our choices - though coming from our experiences and our brains - are never the causes of our actions. Our choices and actions happen independently of our reasons, i.e our reasons do not compel us to act in any way. Nothing compels our choices. We're always free going forward. In every moment choice is open to us. That is what consciousness, which has evolved to exist in the world, has enabled: free will among living beings."

Timothy said...

The FB quote is making me facepalm so hard....

Richard Wein said...


Libertarian free will might reasonably be described as incoherent, but as a moral error theorist I think you would agree with me that moral claims are also incoherent in some way. If you're prepared to attribute one incoherent belief to the folk (and even to many philosophers), why not another? In both cases the incoherence isn't obvious.

We don't need to be able to make sense of our words in order to use them. Children are able to speak competently before they can explain the meaning of their words. And even philosophers struggle to make sense of words that we all use successfully. So the "unintelligibility" of a concept is no good reason to think people don't use it.

I feel that my decisons are taken by a "real me" which is fundamentally free, in the sense that nothing is causing me to decide one way rather than another. It's hard to put these feelings into words, and even harder to make sense of them. But at a superficial level they seem quite natural and instinctive. I think we've evolved to feel this way, as we've evolved to feel that some things are moral/immoral.

With regard to fatalism (as you define it) I don't see anyone other than you bringing it up in the context of free will. In every discussion of free will that I've ever seen the issue has been the nature of choices, not whether our choices have any effect. Your interpretation seems quite alien to the normal meanings of the words "free" and "will". Maybe people do worry about fatalism, but I don't see them discussing such worries under the heading of "free will".

As for duress, I would agree that in normal parlance free will is often opposed to duress, as in "Did he do it of his own free will or was he under duress?" But how does this inform your interpretation of the question, "Do we have free will?". Do you think the question is asking whether we can ever be free of duress? That doesn't seem to be a question that anyone is likely to be concerned with.

Russell Blackford said...

Richard, I'm certainly not denying that the folk may, in fact, have various beliefs that, when pressed, seem very mysterious or even incoherent. They may well.

E.g., it does seem that many people have a kind of folk metaethics that is hard to describe in a way that even makes sense when we push hard on it. They seem to believe in some kind of inescapably binding standard, etc. Perhaps this phenomenon is so widespread that we must say that what is conveyed in ordinary first-level morally right/morally wrong talk (and perhaps other first-order moral talk) is false. I think something like this theory (a fairly standard error theory of morality) is probably true.

But, conversely, I don't think we're required to attribute potentially incoherent ideas to the folk too quickly.

Anyway my main point that I was making back to you is that we don't need to attribute to the folk any complicated philosophy in order for their free will talk to be often true. Nor need we attribute to them some highly sophisticated understanding of free will itself for their free will talk to be often true. All that is needed is that they conceive of free will in such a way that the concept is, in fact, often instantiated in the world.

I mean, more work needs to be done on this; I'm not going to die in a ditch one way or the other about what "free will" means to the folk. It may well be something rather vague (but again, vagueness is not the same as incoherence).

At this stage what research I have read, or read about, doesn't suggest to me that "free will" in the talk of the folk is (always?) something like the concept that libertarian philosophers and theologians have in mind.

When the folk say they believe in free will, it well be, as far as I can work out so far, that they are mainly denying fatalism. In which case, the claim "You do not have free will" will be received as mainly an affirmation of the truth of fatalism. When they say "X acted of her own free will" it may well be that they are mainly denying coercion or some sort of troubling pressure of circumstances (lack of time to think, etc.).