Why do we need free-will compatibilism?

April 30, 2021 • 10:45 am

The laws of physics dictate that, from time to time, random thoughts about the free-will debate cross my mind. The latest one, which popped into my brain for no reason this morning, was the question, “Why are we even bothering with compatibilism?”

As you know, “compatibilism” is the philosophical view that even though we cannot control our thoughts and actions beyond what the laws of physics dictate, and therefore have no “free will” in the traditional sense, we have free will in a nontraditional sense.  Those “compatibilistic” varieties of free will vary among different philosophers; Dan Dennett has expounded several versions, and other philosophers still more versions. (This all makes me wonder what we’re supposed to tell people what really constitutes our [compatibilist] “free will.”)

Opposed to compatibilism are the two forms of incompatibilism that see free will as incompatible with physical law:

a.) Contracausal free will. This is the traditional “you could have done/chosen otherwise” free will in which we are agents whose wills can effect, at a given time, two or more different behaviors or choices. It is the kind of free will that most people think we really have, and is certainly the basis of Abrahamic religions whose gods either save you or doom you based on whether you make the “right” choice about God or a savior.

b.) Free will skepticism (sometimes called “hard determinism”). As you must know, this is the view to which I adhere. Though it’s often called “determinism”, with the implication that the laws of physics have already determined the entire future of the universe, including what you will do, that’s not my view. There is, if quantum mechanics be right, a fundamental form of indeterminism that is unpredictable, like when a given atom in a radioactive compound will decay. It’s unclear to what extent this fundamental unpredictability affects our actions or their predictability, but I’m sure it’s played some role in evolution (via mutation) or in the Big Bang (as Sean Carroll tells me). Thus I prefer to use the term “naturalism” rather than “determinism.” But, at any rate, fundamental quantum unpredictability cannot give us free will, for it has nothing to do with either “will” or “freedom”.

And this question struck me, as my neurons chugged through their program this morning:

Why do we even bother ruminating about compatibilism, much less write long books about it?

To me the really important issues are a) vs. b) above, which in principle can be attacked with science, while compatibilism is more or less a semantic issue. If naturalism be true, then we should trumpet it from the rooftops, as it flies in the face of what most people think and (as I note below), does have real and important implications for society.

But why bother so much with compatibilism? The only reason I can think of—and it’s a reason often voiced by philosophers—is that people need to have a definition of free will that comports with their “feeling” that they have contracausal free will, even if the definition itself isn’t contracausal.

But why this need? Even I feel like I have contracausal free will, but I realize that at best it’s an illusion and, at any rate, I have no use for a philosopher-confected definition of some compatibilistic free will. I do just fine, thank you.

But why, according to philosophers, do people need this assurance? It always comes down to the same thing: if people think that their actions and behaviors are determined by the laws of physics, then society will fall apart. People will either become nihilists, refusing to get out of bed because their whole day is determined anyway, fatalists or pessimists, or criminals who think that determinism frees them from responsibility for their acts (it doesn’t, for social mores dictate that we adhere to a form of “agent responsibility” that justifies punishment (or “quarantine”) and praise). Dennett himself has repeatedly said this:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility  is a daunting task.

—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (naturalism.org)

That’s not true at all; you don’t need “moral responsibility” that, says Dennett is only provided by compatibilist free will, to have this kind of “responsibility”.

And then there’s the supposedly dire social consequences that flow from naturalism/determinism

There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful mistake.

. . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate consequences if not rebutted forcefully.

—Dan Dennett, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right” (Erasmus Prize Essay).

As I’ve argued, I don’t believe that a society inculcated in naturalism, and one that rejects contracausal free will, will be profoundly dysfunctional. After all, if nothing else we still retain the feeling we have free will. That alone would get us out of bed every day.

So if you can consider people responsible in some sense for their actions, as you can under naturalism, and there is no social downside to accepting naturalism, why do we need sweating philosophers to produce version after version of compatibilist free will? If you think we do, riddle me this: How would society be palpably worse if we didn’t have philosophers confecting versions of compatibilism?

Finally, I won’t dwell at length on the upside of naturalism, as I’ve mentioned it before. There is the deep-sixing of retributive punishment, a drive to reform the penal system (yes, people say that compatibilism and humanism dictate the same thing, but it’s the free-will skeptics who take it the most seriously), the elimination of the “Just World” theory in which people get what they deserve, and the elimination of the guilt that comes from thinking that you made wrong choices in the past. Naturalism breeds empathy.

In the end, I don’t think that we have a philosophical lacuna that needs to be filled with a variety of compatibilist versions of free will (which, ironically, are incompatible among themselves). To me, at least, there are better things for philosophers to worry about.

107 thoughts on “Why do we need free-will compatibilism?

  1. Even I feel like I have contracausal free will, …

    Well I don’t! I’m a compatibilist, but I think I’m arriving at “choices” in the same way that a chess-playing computer “chooses” a move, as a result of all the low-level computations. (I really do think that!) But to answer the question, why do we need compatibilism?

    That’s not true at all; you don’t need “moral responsibility” that, says Dennett is only provided by compatibilist free will, to have this kind of “responsibility”.

    Yes you do, because assigning “this kind of responsibility” is all that there is to compatibilism!. Seriously, that is all that compatibilism is saying, that we need (as a purely pragmatic matter of living together in society) to hold people “responsible” for the “choices” they make.

    Nearly every criticism of compatibilism on this website has presumed that compatibilism is asking for far more than it actually is (usually seeing it as a hankering after some sort of contra-causal free will). If you hold someone responsible (= want to punish them, to deter others) for choosing to rob a bank (as oppose to just shrugging and saying “well they had no choice, so I don’t think we should do anything about it”), then you are a compatibilist because that is all that there is to compatibilism.

    If you distinguish between a bank employee who hands over money given a gun to their head, and an employee who conspires with criminals with the expectation of a cut of the proceeds (as oppose to just saying that neither had any choice, so just shrugging), then you are a compatibilist, because that’s all there is to compatibilism, and that’s why we need compatibilism.

    1. Sorry Coel, but I don’t think you’re right about “that is all that compatibilism is saying.” In the book with Caruso, they both say people are “responsible” but the kinds of “responsibility” is very different.

      And your definition of “compatibilism” is not the same as other philosophers’ definition of compatibilism, so I don’t know what makes you the one person who can tell everyone “that’s all there is to compatibilism”.

      In fact, I could take issue with your gun metaphor, too, because you can distinguish these people on the grounds of their future likelihood of committing crimes or need for rehabilitation. I distinguish between them, but I am not a compatibilist, and I don’t need compatibilism to distinguish between them. Gregg Caruso, who is not a compatibilist, would see a difference here, too. I don’t need any concept of “free will” to see an important difference between these scenarios.

      I don’t think you speak for all compatibilists, though you say you do. If you did, there would be no argument between Caruso and Dennett.

      1. I don’t have a good understanding of Caruso’s position, but, as I understand it, he doesn’t accept punishment for reasons of deterrence. It seems to me that he starts from saying (rightly) that we can’t have moral-realist morality, but from there leaps (wrongly) to the conclusion that nor can we have pragmatic, socially-constructed moral codes (hence no “punishment”, not even for deterrence). I don’t see how society could possibly work along those lines.

        But if he (an incompatibilist) doesn’t want to “punish” the bank employee who conspired with criminals, nor does he want to “deter” others from such deeds, then that’s a clear distinction between his incompatibilism and Dennett’s compatibilism.

        1. Caruso’s view of “punishment” is in many ways indistinguishable from the kind of punishment we have now, except he thinks (and I agree), that it shouldn’t be any harsher than necessary to effect sequestration and rehabilitation. He agrees with putting people away for crimes, and trying to rehabilitate them, and if they can’t be rehabilitated they are still put away. Whether you think his view is the same as Dennett’s is up to you, but I think they’re quite different. I have to say that I haven’t read Caruso’s book, though, so I’m not sure about his “quarantine” model.

    2. Ditto on Pat’s comment; well said, Coel. And contra Coyne’s reply, you do effectively speak for me here (so that makes at least 3 compatibilists on your side!)

      I will add that perhaps part of the problem is the question of exactly what our prior intuitions about “free will” really are, which compatibilists are supposedly trying to somehow accommodate. I seriously doubt that the average man on the Clapham omnibus would say, without prodding, that this is a belief in contra-causal free will and nothing else. It is more plausibly stated as a belief that we agents are responsible for what we choose, are not fated to choose any one particular way, or have to power to resist any prediction about our behavior, howsoever well calculated, by acting contrary to do (which is definitely–and trivially–true, if we have access to that prediction). And maybe it’s all of those things (and yes, some vague idea of contra-causal free will) jumbled together into a confusing mass, rarely distinguished carefully or maintained with unwavering consistency.

      Coyne is correct, of course, that the compatibilist/incompatibilist issue (outside of the nuthouse of libertarianism, that is) is “more or less a semantic issue”–the more or less being also important, because semantics do sometimes matter, and while it may be 90% just a question of what notation to use, there’s the 10% substantive issue of getting clear on what our prior intuitions really are. And on *that* point, I’ve always felt that the compatibilists are closer to the truth than the incompatibilists, who have too often swallowed with little criticism the libertarians’ views on contra-causal “free will” being the only important or real kind.

      1. I would agree that the beliefs about this of the man on the Clapham omnibus are likely to be an inconsistent mash of things.

    3. Why bother? Because Determinists are always telling me that I “should” try to influence people to change their minds, the most often cited example: abolishing the death penalty, and not punitively treating the incarcerated. (Which I was already believed in before Determinism became popular.)

      So how do I reconcile ‘The Big Bang programed everything, and we can’t help how we act,’ BUT I can influence others to change their minds. How can I influence/change what Determinism has already laid out for me and for for them?

      1. Of course you cannot in any way change or influence what determinism has already set for you. No way.
        The thing is: you don’t know what is laid down for the future. Nobody knows that. And because of this ignorance, you – as an organism subject to the laws of evolution – have to make decisions every day, for yourself and for the environment in which you live. Would you like to live in an area where industrial companies do not comply with environmental regulations and pollute the waste water with harmful substances? You would do something about it, perhaps as an activist, perhaps through citizen protest, perhaps through voting. And if, in your circle of friends, followers of religious, esoteric faiths or ufo theories were to suddenly appear, you would try to dissuade your friends from such convictions. You will never know if you will succeed in your efforts, because you cannot see into the future; you may not succeed against the polluters, or your friends may not change their minds. Not knowing is the impetus, the driver of all action directed towards the future, which we do not know.

        1. I agree. The fact that we don’t know how the future will play out is important to the whole “free will” discussion. Even if we decide that determinism means that the evolution of the entire universe was decided at the moment of the Big Bang, our inability to know what the future holds makes all the difference in the world. If we could measure the state of the universe and compute how it will unfold, the idea of making decisions (choosing) goes out the window. The separation between the layers of description, from fundamental physics to the unrolling of human affairs, would disappear. Our everyday conception of will, free or otherwise, depends on this separation.

          1. ” If we could measure the state of the universe and compute how it will unfold, the idea of making decisions (choosing) goes out the window. ”
            That may be true, but that is not the question at issue here. These are purely hypothetical questions that lead away from the core of the problem: the misconception that 99.99 per cent of people are still convinced of today: They would be agents of themselves.
            It is a misconception that the separation of the levels of description, from fundamental physics to the unrolling of human affairs, requires the possibility of calculating the universe from the Big Bang in every state. This is not necessary, because the levels of description are already beginning to disappear, they can be torn away until nothing remains but pure physics. Levels of description such as those about human affairs are nothing more than mental support corsets for the low computational capacity of the human mind.

            1. “It is a misconception that the separation of the levels of description, from fundamental physics to the unrolling of human affairs, requires the possibility of calculating the universe from the Big Bang in every state.”

              I doubt that many believe that misconception. If the levels of description are indeed separated (I think we agree on that), then it really doesn’t matter whether the universe is deterministic or not.

              If the levels of description were to be broken down, which is possible though far away for the human brain, we would be able to compute people’s decisions and society would break down. Not in our lifetimes so I’m not too worried. On the other hand, a device that can tell us when a person is lying by detecting brain states is quite possible. I think there are already prototypes but it will be a while before they’ll be used in a police station or a court of law.

  2. why bother so much with compatibilism?

    Well, I’ll paraphrase here the answer Coel gave me in the last discussion on it: we use a compatibilist notion of free will to communicate important differences in human action, even if those differences are ultimately deterministic. “Did you do it of your own free will?” “No, I had a gun to my head at the time” communicates an important context, and isn’t typically a claim that the laws of physics were violated.

    However ‘communicating context’ seems to me about as far as it goes, and isn’t super necessary in the first place because that very same exchange could be parsed without any reference to free will at all: “Were you coerced or not?” “I was; there was a gun pointed at my head.”

    That “value in communication” also certainly doesn’t justify philosophers spilling a lot of ink over what compatibilist free will is. Though I expect that the spilling of ink on this subject is in large part because Coel has his opinion, but there are many more, and there are lots of compatiblists out there that see it as more than just a convenient linguistic shorthand for a family of ideas including responsibility, coercion, and the like.

  3. It’s the same argument the religious use – if there is no god why be good? If there is no free will why be good?

    It’s a bit like theologians telling us the little people need the literal god to be true to be good, the compatibilist philosophers are telling us the little people need some form of free will to be good.

    It’s not a great argument in either case.

    1. These two ideas are actually the opposite of one another. The religious framing eliminates our agency and insists we cannot make a moral choice without the guidance of a sky daddy. The compatibilist insists on our agency even in the face of the reality of physical determinism precisely because it preserves the social structure of moral choice.

      1. “These two ideas are actually the opposite of one another.”

        I don’t think so. The issue here is that Christian mythology and apologia are full of inconsistencies. Christians insist that humans are free agents when it suits them and they insist that everyone needs their God’s guidance, rather precisely opposite the first position, when it suits them.

        Maybe this means that you and Wrysmile are both correct. Or maybe you are both wrong? Oh, I’ve got it. Quantum to the rescue. You are both in a right/wrong superposition.

        1. I’ve heard lots of people argue otherwise even when presented with quotes that seem to fit the definition quite well. It seems clear to me that he has. If you haven’t already read the quotes Jerry posted above. If that doesn’t convince you look up the Moving Naturalism Forward videos and find where Dan talks about the dangers of telling people that there is no Free Will. Apologies, there are hours of video and I can’t provide an easy link to the relevant segment. In any case, I don’t know how anyone could watch and listen to him there and not conclude that he is making a little people argument. It is rather precisely that.

          Having said that, I don’t think that using a little people argument is automatically wrong or bad faith, or at least there is a pretty wide spectrum. I’ve no doubt that Dan has the best of intentions, but I do think he is wrong (i.e. his fears are misplaced) in this case. Of course, me against Dan makes David & Goliath look like the fairest match up in human history, so by all means don’t take my word for it.

          1. Yes, I’m familiar with those but I think Dennett is using his Compatibilist definition of free will, not Incompatibilist’s. Most importantly, he’s not advocating we tell the little people a lie for their own good. He saying how destructive it would be to convince people that making decisions is an illusion.

            1. Yes, he pretty much did say that we should tell the little people a lie for their own good.

              Dennett knows, has no argument with the facts that a significant percentage of people believe in contracasual notions of freewill, that determinism apparently does reign and that it rules out contracausal freewill, as most Compatibilists do. And he knows that ICs like Jerry are talking about contracausal freewill when they deny that we have freewill.

              He knows all that and he isn’t merely worried about ICs saying “humans don’t have freewill,” nothing more, and having the little people misunderstand because it wasn’t explained in detail. He’s worried about ICs explaining how and why humans don’t have freewill.”

              If the notion of freewill that you believe is the oldest and most widely held, being merely uncoerced choices as in “did you sign this contract of your own freewill,” were all that Dennett thought were at stake do you really think that some academic saying “we don’t have freewill” could be of the slightest concern to him? No. He’s concerned that the truth that we are simply complex meat robots, which he agrees we are, will cause bad things to happen to our society.

              1. I don’t think Dennett really is concerned that academics would convince anyone. He’s just pointing out that it would be a bad thing to wish for.

              2. Dennett’s point is more that asserting “you are not responsible for your actions” (passing “responsibility” to prior causes) is not a maxim upon which society can operate. We need to hold people responsible for their actions.

              3. Perhaps, but Dennett knows that ICs don’t think that people should not be held responsible for their actions.

                Dennett is worried that the general population will succumb to nihilism and bad behavior if they are told they don’t have the kind of freewill that Dennett agrees none of us have. Dennett understands it and does not succumb, other academics understand it, both Cs and ICs, and don’t succumb. Because he fears the common people will succumb Dennett strongly criticizes other academics for talking about how we don’t have this kind of freewill that he agrees we don’t have. This is a straightforward little people argument.

              4. Are you sure that this is what Dennett is saying? I interpret him as saying that people need the sort of “free will” that he thinks we do have, not that he thinks that the common people need a false notion of free will, that he agrees we don’t actually have.

              5. It’s not a “little people” argument because Dennett is merely stating the consequences of convincing people they don’t have free will. He’s telling the Incompatibilists that if they convinced the general public of their thesis, with which he disagrees, the results would be terrible so they should be careful what they wish for. He’s not saying to lie to the public. He maintains they already have free will (his version, not contra-causal). There’s no need to lie to them because they already agree with Dennett on the subject.

            2. Sorry. What is a “little people” argument? Are they the “common man”, the “proletariat”, those below our elevated level of understanding? Excuse me if I got this all wrong.

              1. A “little people” argument is one in which the general public is allowed to believe something false even though the experts know better because it’s “for their own good”.

          2. I’ve seen that video and am pretty sure Dennett is not making a little people argument. Roughly speaking, Dennett is saying you shouldn’t rely on peripheral associations of a term (here, contra-causality) to communicate a statement (“no free will”) that your audience will take as denying the central associations of the term (no choices, no right for society to hold you responsible).

            1. We disagree. I think he very clearly did. I think if someone else had said what he did there, or had written some of the things he has written, there wouldn’t be half the argument over this as there has been.

    2. I don’t believe most Compatibilists are pushing a “little people” argument. Instead, they are working with a definition of free will that is different from the Incompatibilists. As far as I’m concerned, deceiving people for the good of society is bad. It can’t work in a free society as the truth will eventually come out. I suppose that there’s a place for secrets but certainly not in the context of free will.

  4. Free will is popular because most people think their good actions outweigh the bad and are reluctant to divest themselves of the credit.

  5. i think there’s actually great value in pointing out that naturalism/determinism doesn’t eliminate our agency or social responsibilities, and in explaining just how and why this is so. In my view, this is all the compatibalists are up to. Yes, it is an intellectual exercise that few will understand or care about…kind of like evolution. But isn’t that what philosophers do all day? If it serves to move our concepts of criminal justice off a retributive stance over the long term, it will have had a real-world benefit.

    1. Yes, but determinists/naturalists also move our concepts of criminal justice off a retributive stance, and in a much better way than do compatibilists. Plus naturalism has the value of emphasizing science, and in a way that dispels people’s view of contracausal free will. You really have to squeeze a compatibilist hard to get them to a. admit openly that yes, we are determined to do what we do and b. say that THIS (not compatibilism) is the really important thing to realize to effect social change.

      Philosophers should be banging on a lot more about determinism, and working out the consequences, than dealing with the esoterica of compatibilism.

      1. I see a tension here between two goals, one of which is to take retribution/revenge out of justice concepts and the other to encourage good behaviour in the first place. Put on the balance, I’d say the second is slightly more important. Given a layperson’s understanding of these issues, any message that they aren’t ultimately responsible for their behaviour is often going to be taken as license to abandon self-restraint. I see a lot in progressive thinking that is eager to embrace such a paradigm – we are already told that people lack agency in many areas where they were formerly held to have it (addiction, gendered behaviour, response to challenging ideas, religious affiliation, even violence in response to social injustice, etc.). Seems to me that compatibilists are doing important work to remind everyone that even if everything is determined, our brains are still running a program that is updated with current conditions and then determines behaviour according to a flexible set of parameters. We alter those parameters at our peril – a too-liberal reading of naturalism threatens to weaken them fatally.

  6. As a philosopher, may I make a few points on this subject? There are two alternative conceptions of free will: libertarian free will and compatibilist free will. It is a simplification, but an illuminating one, to say that with libertarian free will, we can do what we want; while with compatibilist free will, we must do what we want.
    Libertarian free will is the conception traditionally espoused by Christianity and other monotheistic religions. On this conception, our choices are free but not causally determined. They originate in us; they belong to us; but they are not the inevitable effects of prior causes. This would mean that for any given action A performed by an agent X in situation S, if it were somehow possible to replay the tape, so that X were placed in situation S all over again, with no knowledge that this was a repeat performance, and none of the attendant circumstances differing in the slightest degree, then it is conceivable that X might not do A the second time around. They might do B instead. To put it more simply, whatever action one performs, it is always possible that one could have done otherwise; not if circumstances were slightly different, but if they were identical.
    Compatibilist free will, on the other hand, would not allow that an agent could have acted differently in a repeat situation where all the causal factors were identical. Compatibilists are determinists. (The name itself, of course, indicates an accommodation with determinism.) If the same causal factors are in play then the same effects must ensue. But compatibilists say this is consistent with a free will which takes the following form: for some acts, the determining factors include the agent’s own volition. Such acts are no less determined, of course, but are to be distinguished from those acts which are forced upon us by external causes. There is a meaningful difference between those acts which one is happy to perform and those which one is compelled to perform. (The difference is captured in the contrast between having consensual sex and being raped.) The former type of act is accounted free will by compatibilists; the latter type is not.
    My own conception of free will is compatibilist. I am unable to make much sense of the claim that for any given action one could have done otherwise if exactly the same causes were at work. There is no prima facie reason to think it true. And I do not see how we can get beyond the prima facie here, since the claim is untestable in any specific case. As far as our general experience is a guide, when the same causes are at work then the same effects ensue. Moreover, it seems to me that if this were not the case it would be difficult to link free acts to moral responsibility, since whether one did A or B would seem to come down to chance.
    How can compatibilist free will be worth defining or defending, if whatever we do could not have been done otherwise? It’s because we value freedom, even of this determined kind. It just is a fact that we prefer acting freely to acting under control or coercion. We value choice; and we value achievements the more when they are the outcomes of our choices. We prize the dignity of being autonomous beings, directing our own course through life. Moreover, we are moral beings with moral attitudes. We do not wish to lose those moral attitudes and we could not lose those moral attitudes. Without the possibility of praise and blame, reward and punishment, gratitude and resentment, and forgiveness we should not know how to relate to one another (as Peter Strawson argues in his 1974 essay, ‘Freedom and Resentment). Such reactive attitudes depend on a belief in some kind of free will. If somebody does me a good or a bad turn my reactive attitude only makes sense when I believe they chose to do it. That they could not have chosen otherwise is immaterial. What is material is that I understand their attitude towards me, revealed by their (fully caused and therefore determined) choice.

    1. I don’t agree that we need “moral responsibility” to justify reward and punishment or blame. They are useful incentives to promote good behavior in society. I accept the usefulness of these concepts, and yet I have NO belief in any kind of free will. Yes, we have reactive attitudes, but those were molded by evolution, and just because our reactions are molded by evolution does not mean that a. they’re always good and b. that we shouldn’t ever rethink our reactions, but just go with them.

      p.s. Please read the Roolz on word limits for comments.

  7. Compatibilists believe in a kind of free will that is really the traditional one. This idea that contra causal free will is what everyone’s wrong about is the first step of the “two-step move” mentioned in the recent Guardian article you posted on.

    I know you have studies that appear to show that most people believe in contra causal free will but I believe those studies are flawed. They ask simple questions that are easily misinterpreted by the subjects. I suspect they do this because it makes the study easier to perform. Instead, I believe the conversation ought to go like this:

    Q: Did you have coffee or tea this morning?

    A: Tea.

    Q: Could you have chosen coffee?

    A: Of course.

    Q: I want to make sure you understand the details of what I was asking. We’re talking about rewinding the universe’s clock to the moment you decided to have tea and then wondering if you could have chosen coffee. The important point here is that the state of everything in the universe must be exactly the same, including the state of every atom in your brain. What I’m NOT asking is (a) whether you could have chosen coffee on a different day or (b) on the same day but something in your brain is different from the first time you made the decision. Do you still feel that you could have chosen coffee?

    A: No, of course not. If everything is exactly the same then I couldn’t possibly desire something other than tea as I did the first time.

    I believe the kind of free will talked about by Compatibilists like Dennett is everyday free will. It’s that we all act as agents and make decisions even though we don’t have control over every force or cause acting on us while we make such decisions.

    1. If I were making that argument I would be suffering cognitive dissonance.
      While it may be true compatibilists might think ttat is free will, I certainly don’t think the general public will see it that way.

  8. If we accept that there is no causation outside that which adheres to the laws of physics, and
    accept the premise that there is no non-physical “self,” then it makes no sense to say “you” could have chosen differently, if by “you” one is referring to a non-physical entity.

    What is most important is understanding how the brain controls overt behavior, permitting the organism to respond (or make choices)

  9. Re Topping (comment 7): It doesn’t look as if you’ve read those studies, for the questions they ask people are almost exactly the same ones as you outline above. They talk about rewinding the universe and asking people if they could choose something different, and between 60% and 85% of the people say “yes.”

    It seems to me you either haven’t read those studies or are looking for some reason to discredit them because they don’t comport with what you think is “the traditional” view of free will. Is the traditional “compatibilist” view of free will, as you call it, also the one of the Abrahamic religions, in which people always have the choice to accept God? Do religionists think that they were determined by their genes and environments whether or not to accept Jesus? I don’t think so! Traditional free will in these religions is, as apparently everyone but you recognizes, contracausal.

    Traditional views of free will also permeate the justice system, in which much of punishment is retributive based on the notion that the criminal AT THE TIME THE CRIME WAS COMMITTED, could have “chosen” not to commit the crime.

    1. Even if what you’re saying about the studies is true, it just means that a lot of people who haven’t thought it about it much harbor unreasonable ideas. We know that there’s a lot of that in the world (eg, religion). You know that this is not the kind of free will that Dennett and other Compatibilists are talking about so why take it seriously in discussions of free will?

      1. Enough. We take contracausal free will seriously because most of the world believes it, and the original purpose of philosophy was to engage the “common person”, not academic philosophers. I gather, then, that you haven’t read the original papers and yet have found yet ANOTHER reason to dismiss them. That is not the way I like to discuss matters, and so I’m done here.

        I guess you’d add that we shouldn’t criticize religion or engage its ideas because “a lot of people haven’t thought about it.”

        1. No, I wouldn’t say that at all. Lot’s of people have thought about religion for a long time. Free will, as you like to define it, involves determinism, the laws of physics, brain science, etc. These aren’t things most people know about.

          I don’t want to argue about this but I agree with this quote from the Guardian:

          “Harris, Pinker, Coyne – all these scientists, they all make the same two-step move,” said Eddy Nahmias, a compatibilist philosopher at Georgia State University in the US. “Their first move is always to say, ‘well, here’s what free will means’” – and it’s always something nobody could ever actually have, in the reality in which we live. “And then, sure enough, they deflate it. But once you have that sort of balloon in front of you, it’s very easy to deflate it, because any naturalistic account of the world will show that it’s false.”

          1. You have just undercut your own argument. First you admit that yes, a lot of people might believe in contracausal free will, and then you quote someone saying that no, the idea that people have such a notion is false. For crying out loud, TONS of people becieve in that balloon. You’d have to be an ostrich to deny it. And yes, you clearly do want to argue about it, but I’d suggest that at this point you stop.

            1. Jerry, I think you are seriously misrepresenting Paul here, and should clarify this in order to have productive, respectful conversation. He did not say, at least not simply, that “a lot of people might believe in contracausal free will”–he’s rather explicitly said that various studies *appear* to show that, but what their actual data–and certainly a lot of shared anecdotal evidence suggests–that people are really just largely confused about the issue, don’t think about it in precise philosophical terms, and if you shoehorn some of their off-hand comments about into a philosophical box with blinders one, you can fool yourself into thinking that they are voicing some particular philosophical view when what’s really going on is more complicated than that. Paul is not contradicting himself or undercutting his own argument here; I think you are misreading him, and the tendency to misread people (and some evidence) in this way is, I fear, one of the error which non-compatibilists are somewhat prone to, avoiding which is itself one of my larger reasons for being more sympathetic to compatibilism.

  10. “You really have to squeeze a compatibilist hard to get them to a. admit openly that yes, we are determined to do what we do and b. say that THIS (not compatibilism) is the really important thing to realize to effect social change. Philosophers should be banging on a lot more about determinism, and working out the consequences, than dealing with the esoterica of compatibilism.”

    Yeah, getting the word out about determinism and its personal and social implications is totally what needs to happen, and compatibilists for the most part obstruct such change. Thanks for being a thought leader in this regard.

    Btw, as you may know there’s a philosophical term of art for your position on free will skepticism: “hard incompatibilism,” the idea that neither determinism nor randomness afford us the control in action required for just deserts moral responsibility. Gregg Caruso and Derk Pereboom are both of this persuasion, and it makes good sense since universal determinism is likely not the case, as you point out.

    I’d reserve the term “naturalism” for a broader worldview based in science as our epistemology, the opposite of supernaturalism. The rise of science is gradually naturalizing our conceptions of the universe and human agency, perhaps leading to the death of God (atheism), and the death of the little god of contra-causal free will (free will skepticism). But given people’s penchant for wishful thinking and superstition, it’s going to take a long time for a consistent, humanistic naturalism to become popular. Getting the word out about determinism, and promoting science and atheism, are all important parts of this project.

    1. I agree with the nomenclature you use Tom, I suppose I am a hard incompatibilist by that definition. But for convenience I call myself a hard determinist, and accept that causes may be either deterministic or indeterministic.

  11. I’m no philosopher, so forgive any flaws here. The concept of “I could have made another choice” strikes me as the equivalent of someone after an accidental bereavement continuously rerunning the fatal event in their mind and thinking “If only…”.

    Yes, you’d have chosen to keep a tighter grip on your child’s hand near the oncoming truck (or whatever) if you could have foreseen the tragedy – but you couldn’t, and nothing can change your actions in that moment, however much you wish it was otherwise.

    Part of the grieving process is coming to terms with that fact, but we don’t put the same mental effort into more trivial decisions – coffee or tea, say – and so we continue to believe that the clock can, in effect, be rewound in these less significant instances. But only because we aren’t forced to reach the same level of acceptance of reality.

  12. “Why did you give the robber the money?”
    “Because there was a gun pointed at my head”

    This does not quite work because not everyone with a gun pointed to their head gives the robber the money. Some, based on their genetics and upbringing, might try to kick the gun out of the robber’s hand and either retain the money or die trying.

    All actions are caused (coerced) by a combination of your genes and environment. There is no need for the concept of “free will.” It is misleading.

    Consider a person who kills another person. In all cases they are coerced to do so by their genes and environment. One of the environmental factors might be that someone was pointing a gun to their head and demanding they do it. In a court of law that would be a mitigating factor.

    Another person might have a large tumour pressing on a part of their brain that caused them to do it. In a court of law that would also be a mitigating factor.

    Another person did it due to a combination of something that happened when they were in their mother’s womb and their overall genetic make-up, and their upbringing. Those are also mitigating factors that can be considered in a court of law.

    We don’t need the idea of free will at all. We just need a nuanced understanding of the mitigating factors to people’s behaviour so that we can treat them accordingly based on how they are likely to act in the future.

    The answer to the question “why did you sign this legal document?” is always “I was coerced to sign it by a combination of my genes and environment.” To bring up the term “free will” in this situation is worse than pointless. We can certainly ask if a gun was pointed at their head and consider that mitigating factor just as we can inquire about other possible mitigating factors like “I was deceived.” But to ask about “free will” serves no sensible purpose. We know better than that now. Don’t we?

    1. It seems to me that this leads to a slippery slope where genes and environment can count as ‘mitigating factors’ for every possible crime. Why did you murder Jones? It’s not my fault, Your Honor, my genes and environment made me do it. Oh ok, you are free to go then. Have a nice day!

      1. I think you need to read more about free will. NOBODY who is a determinist in the sense you describe thinks that all criminals should get off scot-free. In fact, whatever you do is caused by an interaction between your genes and your environment. That’s just a fact. But to conclude that there is no reason to punish or “quarantine” criminals does not follow at all.

    2. I would add here, in a metaphor suggested by Sam Harris, that your neurons are just as coercive as a gun held to your head; it’s just that you don’t experience the fear of having been forced to do something by somebody with a gun.

      1. But the neurons are an internal coercion whereas the person threatening me with a gun is external to my person and violates my autonomy. I recognize that I have many internal coercions, natural and learned, but they are consistent with my current autonomy and (relative) freedom. The guy with the gun is not.

        1. You write that your internal coercions are consistent with your autonomy – i.e. internal coercions vs. outer coercions and only the internal ones are good because they are compatible with your autonomy? Does this consistency with your “autonomy” also apply to the internal constraints that result from a clogged blood vessel and which can be just as harmful to your health as a pistol held to your head? It can just as well be stated that inner compulsions can also violate your autonomy.

    3. Do you see no difference between a woman wearing a hijab “of her own free will” (= even if there would be no adverse consequences if she didn’t) and her wearing it because she fears a violent response by family or others if she doesn’t?

      Would you say that both are forms of coercion (“by a combination of my genes and environment”) and so are much the same, and therefore you would take no account of what she would do if left to act on her own desires, without others coercing her?

      1. Completely agree with this, Coel. If one sees a meaningful difference between behaviour caused by genes/environment and behaviour coerced by outside agency, then one is de facto a compatibilist. Of course, whether compatibilists tend to concentrate on the right things (eg reform of the penal system) is a different question altogether.

      2. Yes of course I see a difference there, but we do not need the term “free will” (compatibilist or otherwise) to denote that difference, nor do I see how it helps. I believe this is the challenge that Jerry put to you and you have not risen to that challenge. To simply point out the difference is not a demonstration of the need for the terminology “free will.” There are better ways to denote that difference.

        Also consider the woman who does not wear the hijab even in the face of violent response from her family. That is also different from the woman who wears it because of the same threat. In both cases you have the same threat (coercion) but different genes (coercion) in the 2 women create 2 different outcomes. No need to use the terminology “free will” (compatibilist or otherwise) to sort out that difference.

        Are you saying the difference is only demonstrable with the term “free will?” And therefore we need the concept of compatibilist free will? I don’t see where you’ve made that case. It’s like you think that pointing out the difference in the 2 situations is evidence enough that this term “free will” is necessary or helpful. I just don’t see that.

        How does not having the term “free will” leave us in confusion over this “difference” you point out?

        1. Well no, we don’t need the term “free will”, we can use something else. For example, we can say she is wearing the hijab of her own volition, rather than of her own free will.

          But we do need the concept of acting on one’s own desires, as opposed to being coerced into something we’re strongly prefer not to do. That sort of freedom is important to us.

          As I’ve said in previous threads, much of this argument is nothing but semantics. We all agree that our “will” is caused by prior circumstance, but, while accepting that, some of us are ok with using “free will” in the “she is wearing the hijab of her own free will” sense, whereas others would avoid that usage, since they see it as tainted by contra-causal dualism.

          1. I agree this is about semantics, and I am challenging your compatibilist semantics prescription as being not useful, not necessary, and perhaps even detrimental. Jerry’s challenge was for a compatibilist to show that we need compatibilism and I think that challenge has not been met.

            The philosophical discussion on free will is not about “did someone put a gun to your head?” Or “were you threatened into compliance?” That’s not philosophy that’s civil law.

            The philosophical question and discussion of free will is about whether or not our will itself is free or determined. The answer is it is determined not free. And there is no usefulness or necessary reason why we need to save the concept of a “free will” semantically. Not even in civil law. We can ask “did someone put a gun to your head?”

            Philosophically it is best to note our lack of free will and the extent to which we are determined. And in civil law we also do not need those terms “of your own free will” or “of your own volition.”

            We don’t need your semantics prescription. You haven’t shown that we do. And IMO it obfuscates reality rather than illuminating it.

            1. The philosophical discussion on free will is not about “did someone put a gun to your head?”

              Yes it is! The philosophical discussion on free will has always been about both the freedom to act on one’s desires and how that “will” arises. It has always had these two strands.

              Do we need any concept of the will being un-caused? No, we don’t. You are 100.000% right on that. That is not what compatibilism is suggesting. It’s about the much more mundane (but still important) matter of coercion and the gun to the head. And we do need that notion, along with notions of treating people as agents who are responsible for their choices. All that holds even though we 100% reject any suggestion that the “will” and the “choices” are un-caused.

              1. Determinism/evolution created everything, does whatever it wants, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Sound like God to me, except with Determinism, it’s not personal.

    4. All actions are caused (coerced) by a combination of your genes and environment.

      Here’s what’s actually true: all actions when described in microscopic detail correspond, by natural law, to specific micro-detailed conditions of your genes and environment. But that correspondence goes both ways; given your action and your environment at the time, we could likewise derive the earlier states. That’s why it doesn’t add up to causality, much less coercion. Causality holds between macroscopic physical systems described in coarse-grained ways. Chaotic systems like fluid flows generally prevent tracing such causal chains back very far before the probabilities of any particular result become small.

  13. In what way, I wonder, do people imagine they can violate nature’s laws in making choices? We don’t imagine we can fly, or breathe under water, or move objects with our minds. Why should we think we can break the laws when choosing from a restaurant menu? The “I could have done otherwise” claim is not proof to me because the statement is semantically ambiguous, and people are probably talking about the availability of options when they say that. I would like to see a survey of how many “average joes” even know what “contra-causal” means.

    So, if people do think that they can violate the laws of nature in making decisions, I would like to know exactly how they think they do it. Personally, I don’t think they actually think that. This is all a long-winded way of me saying that I think most people are compatibilists and just don’t know it.

    1. I think that if you asked these people, they would either say, “I don’t know how, but we can” (we have at least one reader who thinks that) or bring up mind-body dualism. I would be delighted if, like Socrates, we could roam the streets and ask people that question, and then convince them to become naturalists. Much more useful than arguing about compatibilism.

  14. Though I personally accept determinism as a fact of our existence, part of the challenge of deterministic freewill discussions is that naturalistic decision processes create boundaries which make it hard to maintain a coherent philosophy across multiple topics. I also believe that many people maintain the illusion of free will in some areas and not in others.

    For example, many argue that determinism naturally results in more lenient laws, but the opposite would also appear supportable. If we are programmed to behave in a largely predictable pattern are there individuals with such broken algorithms that corrective action isn’t possible.

    Many commenters here believe in unrestricted free speech. But if we respond predictably to stimuli, can a free society endure when entities that exploit this vulnerability go unchecked.

    If we mechanistically react, is our notion of free elections even a possibility. (Trump makes more sense in a deterministic world than a one with free will.)

    Are we individuals or merely discrete bundles of bias. Was the Age of Enlightenment an illusion?

    I don’t have the answers but it seems clear that we have to address these and other areas where the notion of true free will is a requirement.

  15. After commenting on Jerry’s last free will post, I could not help but come to the conclusion debating this with compatibilists is unproductive use of my effort. We might agree things could not have been otherwise; and, instead of discussing the ramifications of this, we discuss semantics.

  16. I think the value of compatibilism is the wrong question. Not all compatibilists center their argument on the meaning of “free will”. Some of us agree with your claim that free will implies the ability to do otherwise, holding fixed the things that are independent of the agent. But we disagree with your argument that naturalism rules out that ability. In my view, that argument rests on mistaken physics, and not because of quantum mechanics.

    Here are some right questions and their (IMHO) correct answers.
    Do most people think, or are easily led to think, free will and determinism are incompatible? Yes.
    Does that thinking rest on their intuitive physics ideas about time and causality? Yes.
    Are those intuitive physics ideas correct? No.
    Do most philosophical arguments for free-will skepticism rely on those same intuitions? Yes.
    Does that reasoning work if we substitute correct accounts of time and causality? No.

    1. I’m probably one of those Compatibilists who center their argument on the meaning of “free will”. However, I do appreciate the level at which you are making your arguments.

  17. I would suggest that compatibilism has come about, and receives the support that it gets, largely because philosophers approach this issue the way lawyers approach things, and not the way scientists do (or, at least, the way scientists are supposed to).

    When a lawyer approaches a problem, the lawyer starts with the conclusion the lawyer wants to reach (namely, whatever is in the client’s best interest), and then the lawyer seeks to find credible, plausible arguments and narratives that point to that conclusion. The lawyer would be violating the fiduciary duty to the client if the lawyer were to embark on a disinterested search for truth. (The client pays the lawyer to be on her side, not to pursue ultimate truths).

    I can only guess what conclusions the compatibilist philosophers are trying to support, but I suspect those conclusions have a lot to do with justifying retribution, moral condemnation and blaming, and even (picking up on something Sam Harris said according to the Guardian) the hate and disdain for others that are typical parts of the human psychological repertoire.

    I think that the entire commotion over compatibilism, in the face of well-confirmed scientific realities, is roughly as simple as that.

  18. “It always comes down to the same thing: if people think that their actions and behaviors are determined by the laws of physics, then society will fall apart. People will either become nihilists, refusing to get out of bed because their whole day is determined anyway, fatalists or pessimists, or criminals who think that determinism frees them from responsibility for their acts…”
    But here is the reality: Since we don’t have free will, we will not be able to become nihilists, or refuse to get out of bed if that was not what we were determined to do!
    There are some studies that supposedly show that people tend to cheat at some tasks after they were told that they did not have free will. Well, guess what: that’s exactly what they were determined to do.

    1. That test you mentioned (I think the authors were Vohs and Schooler) has not been able to be repeated, although it used to be cited all the time as justification for why people need to believe in free will. It was a pretty lame test, though, which consisted of reading two passages and then seeing if you cheated over a short period. No measurement of long-term effects, and even the short-term effect was not replicable.

  19. The whole discussion here has been largely intellectual. (I don’t have a problem with that.)

    I would like to comment more from an emotional viewpoint.

    I see nothing to criticize about determinism from a physical standpoint. And because I don’t, I find the whole concept debilitating. It makes me want to crawl in a hole and die. And, I suspect that many people who resist the whole notion do so not because they actually disagree with the logic, but because they have the same emotional reaction that I do.

    I don’t dispute the argument that accepting determinism would lead to a more humane correctional system. I see two problems with that, though. First, the best argument that punitive and vengeful corrections should be dropped is that they are enormously ineffective. The other problem is that punitive correctional systems are really for the benefit of the punishers, who are in love with their revenge. I think they will fight giving that up because it is a main source of their joy.

    The biggest problem I have with the whole idea of determinism is that while it is true that it might help with problematic behavior, it also means that we can’t take any credit for our successes. As someone who has struggled for my whole life with feelings of being a failure, I find it crushing that the few experiences I have had of being successful are just an illusion. As a psychologist, I felt like I helped a few people along the way. I could see changes in their outward behavior and their happiness. But now I have to face the fact that none of that was real. I am enjoying immensely my second career in the restaurant business. It makes me happy to see people enjoying what we make and serve. But, that too is an illusion.

    The only way I have found of coping with all of this is to ignore it whenever possible.

    I have never seen any point to life. The point I have seen for myself is to leave the place better than I found it. My sense of satisfaction with that is gone.


    1. Hi Linda. I share your feelings about this, but have come out the other side with a different sense of the benefits of adopting determinism. I have also struggled for decades with feelings of failure, but I find that embracing a deterministic understanding of myself has helped me let go of (some of) the shame I felt for under-achieving. Why did I make some of the decisions that led to bad outcomes in my life? Why did I screw up? Because stuff was happening in my brain of which I was unaware, but that stuff led to ideas or motivations or inspirations for my actions that had lousy outcomes. By embracing that idea, I no longer feel quite so ashamed of my failures.

      Somehow I don’t mind so much that these subconscious deterministic processes also account for my successes, and I don’t know why that is.

      As I said on a related thread a few days ago, the same empathy for myself associated with embracing determinism has also led to a better empathy for others and their failures or bad behaviors.

      Totally agree with you: the point of life is to leave the place in better shape than we found it. Seems like you’re succeeding! That’s not an illusion, it’s real. Just ask the people whose lives you’re making better. Take heart!

    2. To the extent that I can use words like ‘I’, to the extent that I understand the free will problem, I don’t think I have free will. But I have no problem with it. I go on as usual. I am happy when I do well and am upset when I goof things. The idea that I have no free will has as much effect on me personally as the discovery of the Higgs particle. It’s good to know, but I keep going as usual.

      To me, it is important to know how things are. Then I try to deal with it.

    3. Well expressed, Linda. I quite agree. I would love to be able to bask in the sunlight of a decision or action well done.
      It is also clear that the criminal justice system can be greatly improved without forcing determinism down people’s throats. I think it will come this way well before determinism becomes dominant in people’s minds.

  20. Free will incompatibilism should not be about incompatibility with the laws of physics per se, but about incompatibility with determinism and randomness. Suppose a higher-level process like psychological causation is discovered, which differs from physical causation in not being deterministic. Surely that would then just be incorporated into an enlarged understanding of physics. Counterposing free will and physics is an obfuscatory move, it seems to me. The real issue is whether determinism and randomness exhaust the possibilities for the kinds of processes that exist in the universe, and whether something beyond those two classes of processes is instantiated in our heads.

  21. Our host asks why we need free-will compatibilism. One answer is: to explain a human’s behavior in a useful way that rational human observers can agree upon. All determinists (which by definition includes all compatibilists) agree that the explanation -he performed that action because his atoms were in such a state at that time that he could not have done otherwise- is a correct explanation for his behavior. Compatibilists contend that that explanation, while correct, is not the most useful explanation for his behavior. Useful explanations would include, at least, humanly observable actions performed by the actor and background knowledge held by the observer (why would he do that? what was he thinking?). Whether the usefulness of an explanation necessarily entails the existence of the concept it purports to explain can be left to the philosophers, so this argument certainly does not prove that free will exists. But to answer our host’s question, we need compatibilism to explain human behavior in a useful way.

    1. Yes, but you don’t need ANY concept of free will to explain human actions. Why did Joe order chocolate ice cream? Because Joe likes chocolate more than any other flavor, based on his history. Do you need free will to explain that? I don’t see why? Why did Sam punch Tim in an argument? Sam has a hot temper, which we know from his history. What does invoking “free will” add to any of these explanations? And, of course, free will can simply be a bogus “out” when we don’t KNOW why somebody did something, which is surely often the case.

      1. But that’s what Dennett would call a ‘virtus dormativa’ answer. To a compatibilist (and I would suggest to most people), those notions of liking things or having a particular tendency to lash out are exactly what free will is! Free will is the combination of all our beliefs and wants and tendencies that makes us choose one path over another at any given moment. Most of us don’t order the same flavour of ice cream every time, so just saying ‘Joe likes chocolate more’ isn’t sufficient to explain why he chose chocolate today and mint yesterday – in order to fully explain that we need a model of decision making which includes the *feeling* of making a free choice, even if ultimately we understand that beneath it all is the deterministic jumble of particles.

        Basically, I’d turn your question on its head and ask how it helps to take free will *out* of these explanations. It’s always a boring answer to “why did Sam act this way” to just say “because the laws of physics made him do so” – I mean, yes, obviously! But it’s also true, and more usefully true, to say that Sam acted this way because he was *upset* about losing his job that day, and because he *thought* Tim had been bad-mouthing him to his boss, and because he *wanted* to get some revenge – and that language of emotions and beliefs and desires is precisely what compatibilist free will is all about.

        PS: I don’t know why my last comment never made it to the site, I hope this one will come through!

        1. To a compatibilist that may be what free will may be (but not to ALL compatbilists; you are using only one definition, and other compatibilists differ), but not to “most people”, who would not agree that at one moment there is only one choice possible. Those who says “this is exactly what compatibilism is” don’t seem to realize that they are choosing their favorite definition of compatibilism, while other philosophers think “free will” is something else.

          There is no “freedom” to my mind about a decision that simply reflects the working out of a neural computer program that gives similar answers in similar situations. What you are describing is the “free will” of a chess-playing program that makes similar moves in similar situations on the board. Does that computer have “free will” because it has a tendency to make those similar moves when the configuration of pieces is similar? I don’t think so.

          I’m sorry, but I do not accept that your conception of free will is THE conception of free will that most people accept. What you offer is a philosopher’s definition, not one that most people adhere to. There is no “will” in it, as there is no will in a chess-playing computer that’s been programmed (as we have been programmed by our genes and our experience) to move in similar ways in similar situations. Further, there is nothing “free” about it, either, since in a situation only one outcome is possible. If that is free will, then every organism on earth has free will, because they all have the “tendency” to act in similar ways in similar situations. Cogitation has nothing to do with it, which is simply our post facto rationalization of actions that we have no control over. Do plants have free will because they have a tendency to grow to the sunlight? I believe Dennett limits free will to humans, but why wouldn’t monkeys, who have “tastes” for one food or another, also have free will?

          I reject your definition because a. it does not comport with what most people think of as free will, b. there is no “will” involved, simply a neurological program that works out a behavior or decision, and c. it is a way to make people think they have free will when their decisions are neither willed nor free. It’s time to get rid of the term.

          And, like many compatibilists, you sweep the really important issue, determinism, under the rug. As I keep saying, it’s a shame philosophers worry about semantic questions like this while ignoring the one that has real social import–determinism (or what I call naturalism).

          You have had your say and I have responded. I don’t want to engage in a back and forth discussion about this as Dennett and Caruso did in their book.

          1. Sorry about that Jerry. I didn’t save my text unfortunately; can you email me my redacted comments so I don’t have to retype them as I reformat and split them up? If so you need not post this as a comment of course, but I see no other way to contact you.

            1. As I said, you’re not allowed to take one long comment and split it up into several just to evade word limits. Did you read that bit?

              I’ll send you your comment back but see above.

          2. Jerry, you keep saying that various proposed conceptions of compatibilism are not what many other compatibilists believe. While I’m sure there is disagreement on this, could you give a more specific example? The definitions you are objecting to strike me as recognizable, mainstream, standard versions thereof. I don’t want to presume too much, but I have several times found that incompatibilists objected to my carefully-explained version of compatibilism with “that makes sense, but it’s not what other compatibilists say,” when I think it is; and when they say they mean, e.g., Dennett, it seems to me that they are misreading Dennett rather than actually finding a disagreement between us.

            I have a more substantive objection; you keep talking as if “free” can only mean “contra-causally free.” But it does not, and never did. No one thinks that contra-causal freedom is involved, or more involved than usual, when a basketball player gets a free throw. This means, rather, that the shot is free *from certain extraneous factors which would otherwise typically interfere with the path towards an understood goal*. It certainly does not mean freedom from all causation, including causation from the desires which normally lead one to advance toward this goal—quite to the contrary! Nor is contra-causal freedom involved when an engineer speaks of a system’s degrees of freedom, or a mathematician of a variable freely ranging across the set of real numbers, or an auto mechanical saying that the steering wheel is wiggling too freely. (Not entirely incidentally, the latter can also be described as “having play,” which again no one thinks means the wheel is having a good time.) Libertarians have tried for centuries to convince us that “free” means, or should only mean, “contra-causally free.” But they are wrong, and have always been wrong about this.

            The same is true of “will,” more or less, for you say there is only a “neurological program.” Well, assuming that we’re not using a very simplistic, but rather a more contemporary, sophisticated, wide, and nuanced understanding of what “program,” in turn, can mean, then “will” just is such a program, and there is no distinction here (for compatibilists, anyway).

            1. Here are different definitions I’ve taken from different places:

              Free will is the view that if circumstances had been slightly different, you could have made a
              different decision and acted on it

              Our complicated brains have evolved to take in a lot of information before we make a “decision”, and thus free will is the human ability to ruminate, reason, reflect, and make considered “decisions”

              You have “free will” if you don’t make yourdecision under completely coercive circumstances

              Free will represents the “decisions” people make when they are not mentally ill; it’s
              what “well behaved people”, cognizant of punishment and reward, decide to do. (Dennett)

              Dennett is not the only person who has proposed a compatibilist view of free will. There are several others. I just give these four in some of my talks. They are not the same definition.

              And I disagree with your notion that “free” never meant “constracausally free”. It means that to most people, as the surveys from four countries show, and it means that to religious people. “Free” to them means contracausal (I’ve had this discussion with many people as well, and that is often what most of them mean as “free.”) So you are simply using another definition of free that corresponds to your view and to that of other compatibilists.
              This is purely a semantic issue.

              I think you’re just dead wrong in saying that the contracausalists are WRONG. How does that play out? It’s how one construes the meaning of the term, and for some reason you seem to know what the meaning of “free” in “free will” really is and has been over history, and (surprise!) it’s the meaning that Dennett applies to it. Sorry, but I am going by the sense that the word has been used historically, and is so used by religionists. Dennett’s view was proposed only recently and to try to make “free” comport with other uses of the term that were never meant to apply to “free will”.

              If you want to redefine a neurological program as “will”, fine, but that’s also semantic. I don’t see that as “will”, and I don’t think most people see that as will, either. This is another semantic issue.

              As I’ve said, the quibbling over compatibilist free will seems to be largely a waste of time. My concern is to dispel contracausal free will, not quibble about whether they are “wrong” about the words “free” and “will”. I don’t see how you can take the authority on yourself that centuries of people were just wrong in how they construed terms.

              I maintain my view that we should dispose of the freighted words “free will” because they have different meanings to different people (Dennett would, for example, disagree with religionists on this; just read the free will posts of the Discovery Institute!) And I maintain that the compatibilist definitions of free will add little to philosophical discourse. They don’t give us any useful guidelines about how to live, nor useful guidance about how to reform society. The really important question is determinism versus contracausalims. Philosophers may have come down on the deterministic side, and good for them, but the rest of the world has largely not.

              This is all I have to say about this.

        2. To Danny K – My latest comment does not seem to have made it through either. I hope I am not breaking the roolz by attempting to post again, but here it is. We seem to be in agreement about the usefulness of compatibilism.

          I certainly agree that, from a third person perspective, you and I don’t need the concept of free will to explain why Joe chose chocolate. Determinism says that he had no choice, and every rational person would agree with that. But if I am standing in line with Joe and wondering what flavor he is going to choose, the state of his atoms and my knowledge of his preferences are not necessarily going to tell me what he is going to choose. I must regard him as someone making a choice. Even though determinism dictates that he has no choice, at an every-day human level it makes more sense for me to talk about his choices than to talk about the state of his atoms. To say that his atoms made him do it is a correct explanation, and to say that he chose to do it is a correct explanation, but the latter explanation seems more useful. When I am standing in line with Joe, I am going to assume that he is making a choice, even though I know he has no choice. It is just pragmatic to take the so-called intentional stance to other people. This might sound like the so-called little people argument, but I don’t think it is. This thing called free will almost certainly does not exist from a scientific perspective, but it is a useful concept for understanding the behavior of other humans. I understand that useful does not necessarily equal true, but this seems to be a case where the truth might not be fully clear, so usefulness might have to suffice.

          1. Well put. I think this is how Sean Carroll puts it too. It is a matter of description at different levels. Fundamental physics says that everything is determined but human interaction says that people make choices. A wave crashing on the beach is a lot of water molecules each with their own state. Both descriptions can be simultaneously true while each is useful in different contexts.

          2. Steve, just one suggested amendment here. You are suggesting that we speak of persons choosing even though this is not correct, but it’s convenient to talk about them as if they do. I would argue that the convenience of talking this way–of taking Dennett’s “intentional stance” towards them–is, rather, precisely what the existence of people and their choices consists of. It’s a way of summarizing very real patterns in the world, not of pretending there are patterns or objects which aren’t really there. I can see how someone could read, e.g., Dennett and get the first interpretation from him; but you might want to reconsider his arguments with the second in mind, and see if that doesn’t make as much or more sense out of what he and other compatibilists are saying.

  22. If the question is “do I need compatibalism?”, the answer would be *no*, but my answer to the question “do humans need compatibalism?” would be *probably some*.

    I believe we need freewill to feed our ego’s; to keep the illusion alive that we are special and more valuable than other animals. Otherwise all our actions would feel to be the result of ‘mere behavior’ and not praise or punish-worthy. Compatibalism just tries to create a save space and justification for our actions and some of our deepest feelings, in spite of lack of scientific evidence for the existence of praise or punish-worthy things.

    However, the believe in freewill is justifying enormous amount of harm in this world based on false claims and I believe we are justified to try to prevent some of this harm and criticize these false claims.

  23. “To say something is meaningful is to say that that is how we arrange it so; how we comprehend it to be, and what is comprehended by you or I may not be by a cat, for example. If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless. And if we were to vanish, there would be no tree at all; any meaning would vanish along with us. Other than what the cats make of it all, of course. [Fossett, W. (1754) Natural States, R. & J. Dodsley, Pall Mall. London]“

  24. We don’t have any kind of free will at any level, and free will is not even worth wanting. If you were God, would you like the ability to do the best thing at every juncture, or would you like to be free? I know what Satan would answer.

    What we do have is the ability to reason because we have language. We don’t want anything else.

  25. Can we even identify what type of language to use while attempting to explain human behaviour?

    The proximal cause of all behaviour is the contraction of a muscle (whether that behaviour be vocalization, ambulation, or what have you). However, we can’t begin to explain what humans do by relying only on the language of neuromuscular physiology.

    What kinds of terms are legitimate in the science of human behaviour as explanations in the formation of theories?

    Is a science of human psychology possible in the same way a science of behavioural genetics is?

    1. Good points, Hal. I don’t know what terms are legitimate in describing human behavior, but I have no doubt that the term ‘free will’ has caused more confusion than clarity. But it would be useful to have some sort of term that succinctly refers to the neurological (or electronic) processes that occur when complicated decision-making takes place. PCC(e) said above that he believes Dennett limits free will to humans, but I don’t think that belief is correct. Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves is about how the degrees of freedom available to information-processing entities have increased over time. Whether that entity is a computer, a frog, a dog, or a human is irrelevant. There is some sort of decision-making ability that those entities possess in varying degrees, and it would be convenient to have an unambiguous term for that *something*. This *thing* appears to be related to self-awareness, so it would seem that (current) chess-playing programs have little of it if any, logs none, frogs not much, dogs much more, and humans a lot. Such a term could be completely compatible with determinism and still provide useful information for talking about the decision-making processes made by other entities.

  26. In my estimation, the motivation for advocating compatibilism is often that the the consequences, which an acknowledgement of the absence of free will would bring with it, are simply considered too drastic, too revolutionary, and the discussion, the confrontation is shied away from. Moral anchors, the theoretical foundation on which the justice system of practically all countries is based, is shaken and must be rewritten. Minor intent, first degree intent, guilt as such no longer exists.
    There are no more accusations of guilt in court, but there are also no more accusations of guilt in personal relationships. No one could act otherwise. The more this knowledge is spread in a society, the more changes, upheavals would occur; not only good, but also negative upheavals are conceivable. If the compatibilists reject contra-causal free will on the one hand, but shy away from discussing the implications of it on the other, then this is basically just an expression of cowardice. In this hesitation, in this cowardice, they know that the majority is behind them and they settle in with semantic games that lead nowhere, but appease the people, who also have no desire to question everything that has been considered right up to now.

      1. Call it what you will, perhaps it is simply intellectual incompetence, but in that the incompatibilists prefer to avoid the important and necessary discussions about the drastic consequences of recognising the non-existence of free will, I can’t really take them seriously. So why bother with them?

  27. Hmmm – I always feel the determinists think the debate is settled, and free will advocates seem worried about losing control over the self. (What a broad generalisation with no data, merit, or substantiation – ignore it…)

    But as to punishment – I am remonded of John Locke, who posits a distinction between ‘man’ (a human animal) and ‘person’ (a rational, reflective, thinking being).
    He also posits that you only share the same identity with your former self, if ther is a memory of it.
    If a person commits a crime while drunk, then forgets what he did, how can he be punished under Locke’s criteria – it was committed by a different person.
    But he says that while true, there was still a wrong action, and the’man’ (not the ‘person’) can still be held to account for the action.
    It seems to me that those who say determnism means no one should be punished for what they cannot help doing – well, a Lockean sense could be used to show that holding an entity to account does not always require a moral culpability etc.
    (Hope that makes sense – very very curtailed Lockean application).
    I am neither a compatibilist, pure free will advocate, nor determinist. I have my suspiciions, but the more I study on it, the more I read arguments (such as in this thread), and the more I think about it – the more questions I have – just enought for me to say ‘I don’t yet know’.

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