Misunderstanding Compatibilists

Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry is “mystified” by what motivates compatibilist philosophers. (And plenty of compatibilists — me included — respond with varieties of indignation and snark in the comments.)

It seems to me that Jerry is suffering from a couple of misunderstandings about compatibilism (misunderstandings that we’ve run into in the comments section here too, e.g., in my conversation with Ron Murphy).

Here are the false beliefs:

1) Compatibilism is driven by a prior commitment to the existence of libertarian (contra-causal, supernatural, dualist) freedom, which is then frustrated by the advance of science. Rather than just admit that we aren’t free, compatibilists respond to these scientific discoveries by “concocting new definitions of free will to replace the ghost-in-the-machine contracausal free will that no longer holds” (as Jerry puts it here).

2) Compatibilists wish they had libertarian freedom. They’re smart enough to realize that we don’t have have it, but they really want it so badly that they feel driven to cook up a weak-broth substitute so they can ignore the fact that we aren’t really free. They’re (perhaps unconsciously) pining for a world in which ghosts can violate the laws of biology and physics.

These are both wrong, wrong, wrong.

Compatibilists don’t want libertarian (contracausal, supernatural) freedom. We wouldn’t take it if you offered it to us.

To begin with, we tend to think that the very notion of libertarian freedom is probably incoherent, so you’re probably offering nothing but confusion.

Further, even if the notion is coherent, we tend to think that libertarian freedom would be useless. Why would I even want to be able to violate the laws of physics. (Unless it let me fly like superman, I mean . . . but that’s another matter.)

Compatibilist freedom is all the freedom we can make sense of, and is all the freedom we want. And we all have compatibilist freedom. And it matters not a whit that the universe is (effectively) deterministic.

And compatibilists have held this position for thousands of years. So it’s not like we’re dismayed at the revelations of modern neuroscience and physics. The results are interesting for understanding how our minds (and the rest of the world) work but as far as freedom goes, it’s largely irrelevant. Of course there are natural processes that produce our decisions and actions; that’s what we’ve been saying all along.

So it’s rather irksome to have a biologist suggest that we’re trying to save some pale ghost of supernatural dualistic freedom from the onslaught of modern science. It lumps us in with the view that we’ve criticized and rejected for centuries. And it suggests that we’re craving something that we’ve explicitly argued no one should want.

It’s even more irksome when the charge is leveled against someone like Dennett (or, to a much lesser degree, your humble blogger) who has been on the front lines attacking dualism. To appeal to my earlier analogy, we’re the ones spending all our time attacking the Santa myth, and Jerry’s accusing us of concocting new definitions of presents to replace the north-pole-elven-made toys that science has deprived us of.

Dennett is among the hardest of the hard-core physicalists. And Jerry wants to accuse him (and his ilk) of being a mamsy-pamsy closet wanna-be supernaturalist?

This is why Jerry’s post elicited charges of being a cheap shot, sighs of motherly exasperation, and so on. It’s a misrepresentation, whether willful or due to carelessness.

(For my defenses of compatibilism, see here, and here.)


6 responses to “Misunderstanding Compatibilists

  1. Thanks for the post. I stopped reading the comments on Jerry’s post before you and coel had entered the fray. Your post persuaded me to go back and take another look.

    I guess I don’t understand what drives the free will deniers such as Jerry Coyne and Sam Adams.

    Whether or not the world is deterministic, and whether or not compatibilist free will is really compatible with determinism, it seems to me that the compatibilist conception of free will is the correct one, in the sense that it corresponds best with what many people take free will to be.

    • Well, Coyne, Harris, et al. will deny that many people (uncorrupted by philosophy) think of free will along compatibilist lines.

      They’re correct in that most people are naive incompatibilists.

      However, most people’s notion of freedom is a confused mish-mash of distinct concepts. The compatibilist notion is definitely in there, but it’s coupled to false dualist notions (particularly in the belief that if the physics is doing the work, then I can’t be doing it).

      The problem is that Coyne wants to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Although even there, Coyne will only go so far. He accepts a form of responsibility and thinks that punishment is warranted to a degree. The problem is that he wants to say that we have no “real choice” in what we do. In that, he’s just mistaken.

    • I think you meant ‘Sam Harris’. Sam Adams is what Harris must be drinking (lots of) when he writes about free will:


      It’s not often I link to Plantinga, but his criticism of Harris is bang-on except for the (inessential) endorsement of incompatibilism.

  2. Pingback: A Gedankenexperiment on Speciation | Physicalism

  3. Pingback: Now Jerry wants to understand compatibilism? | Physicalism

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