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.