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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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Jerry Coyne writes back - about free will

(Republished from Talking Philosophy (2012). This is partly of historical interest, but the reasoning hasn't been superseded by anything I've written on the subject. I remain unconvinced that scientific determinism, in and by itself, is such a huge impediment to meaningful talk of free well. There may be other impediments, but that seems to be largely an empirical question.)

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne recently wrote a post responding to my earlier post on his piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This debate can go back and forth a lot, but let me clarify a few things at least.
I’ll start by pointing out nothing that I have said in this series of posts is meant to deny that there could be threats to the idea of free will. Although I’ve stated that I have compatibilist leanings, that does not mean that I’ve outright defended compatiblism (the idea that free will is compatible with determinism) let alone that I’ve defended the claim that we have free will, let alone that I’ve defended actually using free will talk.
The points I’ve been making have been a bit more subtle than that. I’ve mainly been pointing out difficulties in certain arguments against compatibilism, though occasionally I’ve pointed out problems with certain arguments for compatibilism, and I’ve even pointed out some problems with the claim, “You have free will” – problems that would exist even if determinism is not true.
As to the latter, even if determinism is not true, there are well-known arguments as to why a mere mix of occasional indeterminism with determinism is unlikely to give us free will if we otherwise lack it (Jerry alludes to this in the Chronicle, and I agree with his brief comment on it). Moreover, even if determinism is not strictly true, it is difficult to see how I could be responsible for my own character, desires, etc., all the way down. Coming up with a picture of how this could work that is both coherent and plausible seems very difficult. But if we are not responsible for our characters, desires, etc., all the way down, that might start to run afoul of notions of moral responsibility, depending on what our intuitions are about that. And if we question moral responsibility that might lead to our rejecting the idea of free will (this assumes a widely-argued claim that an act performed with free will must be one for which I am morally responsible). Note that I am not pressing this argument, and I’m not convinced by it. I mention it only to give an example of reasoning that I simply have not dealt with (at least in any concerted manner) in these posts.
Again, what if, perhaps based on findings from Freudian psychoanalysis, or perhaps simply based on experiments in social psychology, we come to think that our psyches are sufficiently riven and/or mysterious to us that it no longer makes much sense to talk about such things as our characters or our desires? Even such words as “we”, “I”, “us”, “our”, etc., might lose their point - for what can they refer to? If the world is sufficiently like that, perhaps we (!) should abandon free will talk even in the most everyday sense. I tend to think that psychoanalysis is mainly bunk, but there’s much material in the social psychology literature that could give us pause. Furthermore, none of this concern requires that strict causal determinism operates.
So, I have not demonstrated that we have free will, or even attempted to do so. Perhaps, for all I’ve argued, we don’t have it even if determinism is false. Nor have I demonstrated that compatibilism is true, merely that some of the arguments against it are not especially compelling and even seem to contain fallacies of reasoning.
Another point that should be made to try to get all this a bit clearer is that I am not especially reluctant to concede that causal determinism is true to whatever extent is required for arguments based on it to go through (assuming the arguments have no other problems). So Jerry misreads me when he thinks that I accept determinism “only grudgingly”. On the contrary, it would make the whole debate simpler for me if we knew that determinism is true. I’m not temperamentally opposed to determinism. Furthermore, I think that it’s probably true enough for our purposes. However, I wanted to be careful to bracket off certain questions so that I am not arguing with people who say, “Determinism is not true in any event!” Recall that the six pieces I was discussing pretty much assumed determinism, so I was doing likewise. Being careful to state that I am assuming determinism, even though I am not claiming to be able to prove it, certainly in the posts concerned, is not being grudging. It’s just a matter of trying to limit the range of the arguments.
Finally, at this point, I don’t necessarily think the “could have acted (or perhaps chosen) otherwise” or “your choice could have been different” sort of definition of free will is a good one. Some philosophers argue that we have free will even in some situations where we can’t act otherwise.
However, I am prepared to accept something like this definition for the sake of argument, with the proviso that I think it becomes implausible if some unusual or technical definition is given to the word “can” and its cognates such as “can’t” and “could”. If we use these words in ordinary ways, perhaps they do bring out something in what is arguably one folk conception of free will (I won’t say the folk conception, because one theme of these posts is that the folk may not all have the same conceptions and intuitions, and that may even be a reason to use different terminology).
Having said that, however, compatiblism (the claim that determinism and the existence of free will are not contradictory) and compatibilist free will (the idea that we actually have free will of a kind that is compatible with determinism) still seem to be in reasonably good shape. Or at least they don’t seem to be in too much danger from the points made in the articles that I was discussing, i.e. the articles in the Chronicle.
In his new post, Jerry runs some of the arguments together and deals with many side issues. I can’t mop up all of them without this post becoming (more) inordinately long, so my silence on some points doesn’t signal assent. To be fair to him, he wants to deal with various matters that he raised in his Chronicle piece, whereas my own post was focused pretty much on the first paragraph of it.
One issue in the new post is that he seems to have an intuition that we can’t rightly blame someone for heinous actions such as failing to save a drowning child (when doing so would have been easy, etc.), based on the thought that the person who failed to save the child was not ultimately responsible for his/her own character, set of desires, etc.
Perhaps this intuition is right (although I doubt it) – and I didn’t attempt to deal with this argument in the earlier post. I did, however, use the scenario of the drowning child to demonstrate how we ordinarily use such words as “can” (“can’t”, “could”, etc.). Let’s return to that.
Perhaps Jerry wants to use the word “can” in a special sense, but if so the word becomes equivocal in its meaning. Normally, when we say, “I can save the child” or “I could have saved the child” we mean something slightly (but not very) vague to the effect that I have whatever cognitive and physical capacities are needed, have whatever equipment is required, am on the spot, and so on. Perhaps it includes not being in the grip of a disabling phobia and not being coerced by someone with a gun. “Can” refers to a commonsensical notion – slightly vague, but no more so than most ordinary language – of having the ability to do something.
If all this applies, but I fail to save the child (perhaps because I dislike children or because I don’t want to get wet, or because I am just too lazy), it makes still makes sense to say that (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child but I don’t do so because I don’t want to. Here, the ordinary meaning of “can” is being applied correctly to the situation. If Jerry’s argument demands throwing out this ordinary usage, it’s in all sorts of trouble. If he wants to use “can” and “could” in some other sense, apart from the ordinary one, in the context of free will talk, I see no reason to believe that his conception of free will is much like what the folk have in mind when they say, for example, “Russell acted of his own free will.” The empirical research done to date, e.g. by Eddy Nahmias and his colleagues, does not suggest that the folk, or the majority of them, have some special meaning of “can”, “could”, and “ability to act” in their minds.
Jerry says:
This statement leaves me completely baffled. When Russell says “I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise,” he seems to mean only, “had I been somebody other than Russell Blackford at that moment, I might have done otherwise.” And in what sense is that free will? It’s one thing for people to chastise somebody for making a “bad choice” (an emotion that feels natural but is at bottom irrational), but it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.
But as I’ve said, if the person can (in the ordinary sense of “can”) save the child the first time round, the person can (in the same sense) also save the child the second time round. Jerry says in the original post:
To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.
This is a bit confusing partly because of the tenses that Jerry uses. But think of it like this. If determinism is true and the tape is rerun, then I will act in exactly the same way whether I have free will or not. After all, why wouldn’t I? If the tape is rerun exactly, then I will have exactly the same abilities and exactly the same motivations, so why expect me to act differently, even if I have free will? This is just puzzling. Indeed, if I act differently on the replay of the tape, even though my abilities and motivations are exactly the same, that looks, if anything, as if we live in a world in which mysterious, spooky forces interfere with our lives – i.e. a world in which we don’t have free will!
If the way I acted the first time turned on my motivations (e.g. I don’t like children), then the way I act the second time will also turn on my (identical) motivations. Likewise when the tape is run the nth time, where “n” is some arbitrarily large number. If (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child the first time, then I can save the child in exactly the same way and in exactly the same sense the nth time. However I won’t do so. My failure to do so flows from my motivations, not from my abilities (or from the interference of something spooky such as the stars, the gods, or Fate).
Perhaps we don’t have free will. Although there are no spooky forces controlling us, someone might argue that, for example, we all have deeply discordant subconscious urges which play much the same role. As I mentioned above, there may be many worries about free will, and I haven’t tried to deal with them all. But none of this stuff about replaying tapes, and what would happen if we did so, is helpful to hard determinists like my friend Professor Coyne.

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