Now Jerry wants to understand compatibilism?

Even though Jerry Coyne banned me from his “Why Evolution is True” website, I still occasionally pop over there when I’ve run out of other blogs to procrastinate on. Today I find that he’s posed a few questions for compatibilists. Since I can’t answer them there (because banned, remember?), I thought I’d do so here.

Not that there’s much point to it. My answers are basically identical to those that most compatibilists would give, and I see that, e.g., Neil Rickert has already explained the basics to the crowd there.

But, for the record:

1. What is your definition of free will?

Acting without coercion from one’s sane desires and commitments.

2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?

It is free because it is the action of a person’s character and abilities. The person was able to do many things, but chose from among those possibilities to perform a particular act.

We would need more details to decide how free each of these individuals was. If the brain tumor caused someone to act against her desires or commitments, then such an act was not free. A test that reveals some of the relevant features is the following: Give the person a button that will eliminate her or his desire to kill someone. Would the person push the button? If not, then this indicates that the person is indeed acting in accord with her or his character. If, on the other hand, the person would rid herself of the influence of her brain tumor, then she is not acting freely when it causes her to kill.

3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

Freedom is a matter of degree, not a simple yes/no. Some non-human animals (dogs, chimps) certainly have a degree of freedom. It seems plausible that humans are more free than other animals (having more developed ability to consider possibilities and weigh desires), but this would have to be decided empirically.

Current computers could be considered to have some rudiments of free choice/will, but they are very far from having the degree of freedom that (e.g.) most mammals do.

4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?

We’ve been through this many times before.

The reason is simply that when you tell the average person, “We have no free will,” they will ascribe more false beliefs to you than they will when you say, “We have free will.”

I draw my sample of “average persons” from well over a thousand undergraduates I have taught over the decades, and from internet discussants such as Dr. Coyne.

Now either way you’re going to get some false beliefs, because people are have a naive confused dualist notion about what we are and how we fit into the physical world. But the false beliefs that you get from affirming free will are easily dispelled: You just say, “We have free will, and we are also effectively determined.” This invites them to understand compatibilism, and the false notions of dualism can be safely flushed away.

A further important point has to do with the pragmatics of argumentation. Of course any vocabulary can be jettisoned in principle, but there are some strong reasons to try to keep old terms and concepts by modifying them as necessary but not rejecting them outright. (See my analogy to Christmas presents here.)

We’re going to need a term to distinguish between coerced actions (that one is not morally responsible for) and actions that follow from one’s character and desires (which actions one is responsible for). I take it even Dr. Coyne admits as much.

But why would we want to come up with some new term for this distinction? We already have the language for it. Actions I do because I wanted to are free. Coerced actions, on the other hand, are not free.

This is precisely the freedom that is under debate in discussions of “free will.” It would be a mistake to give up this language just because many of the common folk are dualists who think that “real freedom” is incompatible with physicalism.


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