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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).
(Again, I'm republishing this from Talking Philosophy (2012).)
Jerry Coyne has an interesting article on free will in USA Today and a follow-up post at Why Evolution Is True. It all seems to be triggered by the publication of a new book about free will by Sam Harris.
Both Harris and Coyne point-blank deny that free will exists. The USA Today piece is well worth reading, but the passage quoted from the Sam Harris book, in the post at WEIT, doesn’t impress me. In particular, I disagree about the “changing the subject” claim as a way of dismissing compatibilism. Come on, Dr Harris, that is a rhetorical tactic to put down thoughtful and intellectually honest opponents, rather than trying to appreciate the real strength of what they are saying. (Of course, you may not have any choice as to whether or not you argue like this.)
It’s just not at all clear that the original “subject” was some spooky power to act contrary to our own desires and whatever physical substrate they supervene on. In fact, I doubt that any serious philosopher thinks of it quite like that, and I doubt that ordinary people do either – though the attempts by some libertarians (in the sense relevant to this debate) to preserve our motivations while giving us a radical power to act independently of the causes that shaped our personalities are, indeed, sometimes baffling. It seems that they want to have it both ways, which places them in danger of saying something incoherent. As for what ordinary people think about all this … well, it’s likely to be very confused.
I agree that there is no free will in any spooky libertarian sense. I don’t think the idea can be rendered coherent, whether physical determinism (at the level of the brain’s functioning, say) is true or not. But this is all a very modern way of thinking about it. It may be what’s bugging some people, but historically the questions were more along the lines of: “Am I a plaything of fate or destiny or necessity or mere chance or the will of the gods?” “Is it rational to deliberate about what I do, if the outcome is fated anyway (or, conversely, a matter of mere luck)?” “Are my attempts to shape my own life and to make a difference to the world all futile?” These are the questions that are at stake in the traditions of myth, literature, and even, to a large extent, philosophy.
Even now, much popular fiction involves themes of, “Can I overcome my destiny?” “Can I forge a better life for myself?” This kind of thing, arguably, is what gnaws at ordinary people outside of any formal theological or philosophical context. Do we have the power (or some power, at least) to shape our lives? It seems obvious that we do, or why bother making decisions at all (unless we simply can’t help it, right?). Why deliberate about what career to pursue, if it’s all controlled by God or the stars, anyway? But we do, ordinarily, think it’s worthwhile deliberating about what career to pursue, what skills to develop, etc. Deliberating certainly doesn’t seem irrational or futile.
This obvious appearance is challenged by various plausible-looking arguments, ranging from arguments about the foreknowledge of God, to arguments about physical determinism, to arguments about living in an Einsteinian block universe, to arguments based on the law of excluded middle (after all, all statements about the future are either true or false … aren’t they?). And doubtless many others. These arguments suggest that our sense of having some ability to shape our own lives is an illusion. That is exactly what Harris and Coyne think it is.
Well, perhaps one of those arguments works, but if you’re going to show why they probably don’t, and why the everyday appearance that we can make decisions, act on the world, and, to some extent, shape our own future lives, is not just an illusion after all … well of course you’re going to have to do what philosophers do. I.e. we make distinctions, try to clarify issues, etc. That isn’t arguing in a contrived or dishonest way, or “changing the subject”. It’s our job. It’s how we earn our supper.
When philosophers try to clarify, and perhaps dissolve, these concerns, showing, perhaps, that the concerns don’t make good sense on closer analysis, we are playing a time-honoured role. Indeed, the Stoics (or certain of them) gave a “compatibilist” answer to the question of whether outcomes can be up to us, in some sense – despite there also being some truth about what we will decide – way back in Hellenistic and Roman times.
The issue of free will in the specific sense that I mentioned in the third paragraph above becomes important in debates about whether God could be absolved of responsibility for evil actions by us. If some sort of spooky free will exists, it’s thought by some theologians and philosophers that this creates a gap between the creative activity of God and the evils perpetrated by us, thus solving the ancient problem of evil.
Others may try to argue for spooky free will in an effort to preserve moral responsibility. They think that we can’t be (morally) responsible for our actions unless we are somehow responsible for them all the way down. Thus, they want to create a gap, not between our actions and God but between our actions and whatever events formed us as we are. Indeed, this issue has become central in the contemporary debate about free will among professional philosophers. It’s now largely a debate about whether and when we are responsible for our own actions.
But once again, compatibilists who are involved in this debate are not engaging in any dishonest or contrived reasoning. It is strongly arguable that no spooky gap between us and the events that formed us is required for us to, quite rationally, hold each other responsible for our choices and actions. You may disagree with this, but it’s inevitable that a question like that is going to require both sides to engage in attempts at conceptual clarification. This is not “changing the subject”.
Jerry Coyne rightly points to these – i.e. theodical reasoning and arguments about moral responsibility – as two areas of discourse where a spooky gap is invoked. Since he evidently thinks that spooky gaps are needed for moral responsibility, he denies, if I read him correctly, that we have moral responsibility.
Let’s set aside the theodical arguments. I agree that the free will defence is unpromising as a solution to the problem of evil. But what about (moral) responsibility? Surely getting all this clear requires that we examine what the concept really amounts to – and that is a non-trivial exercise in conceptual analysis, since the concept of (moral) responsibility, as it appears in everyday discussion, does not look straightforward, or even coherent, and it is tied up with many other difficult concepts, such as concepts of fairness, justice, and desert. There’s conceptual work to do here, and the best approach is simply not obvious.