Meaningful Choices …

Jerry Coyne has made a short post on definitions of the word “choice”.

He ends the post with this:

The point, of course, is that how one uses the word “choice” itself has implications with regards to free will.

I want to genuinely congratulate him on this, because to me this is one of the first lessons you have to learn when you’re doing philosophy: the precise meanings of words matter. Philosophy relies on common words more than science does since it attempts to relate to direct, common sense notions in the world. Thus, philosophy’s technical terms are not like “dihydrogen monoxide” or even “H2O” (for water) but are words pretty much like “water”. But common words have connotations, and so philosophers have to make certain that they aren’t relying on connotations that aren’t supposed to apply in their theories to make their points, because that would be equivocation. That’s why philsophy a) argues a lot over the precise meanings of words in ways that can seem like semantics or nitpicking to others and b) often uses odd ways of putting words together in order to eliminate some of these connotations. If you don’t get that connotations matter, you’ll often be bewildered by a lot of philosophy. I think that this is what often gets Coyne when he reads theology. Sometimes, the writing really is bad, but sometimes there’s a reason to use obscure terms just like there’s sometimes reason in science to use the term “dihydrogen monoxide”. Of course, philosophers really should define their terms, but they aren’t always going to do it if they’re presuming that if you’re reading their paper you already know what they mean by the term (for example, hardly any Philosophy of Mind paper defines dualism or materialism anymore unless they need to look at specific details or look at a specific definition).

In the free will debate, I do think that compatibilists like Dennett generally understand that they are using a different meaning of “choice” than libertarians and determinists, and a weaker one. For Dennett, though, it’s always seemed to me that his arguments relied on connotations from the stronger meanings to make the leap to being able to have free will while in a determined world. While we may agree that the coin sorting machine chooses in some sense, it isn’t clear from his argument that that’s the sort of choice we need for free will and responsibility, but his conclusions seem to be “So, see, we have choice in a determined state” which just assumes it. Maybe at some point I’ll comment on one of Dennett’s free will books, although I’d rather get to his consciousness one first.

Anyway, while I did want to leave it at that for Coyne, I do have to address one final point:

I don’t really see this, though. Let me reproduce the definitions:

1. trans. To take by preference out of all that are available; to select; to take as that which one prefers, or in accordance with one’s free will and preference.

2. with inf. obj.: To determine in favour of a course, to decide in accordance with inclination. to choose rather : to resolve (to do one thing) in preference (to another).

3. The notion of a choice between alternatives is often left quite in the background, and the sense is little more than an emphatic equivalent of, To will, to wish, to exercise one’s own pleasure in regard to a matter in which one is a free agent.

a. esp. with inf. To think fit, to be pleased (to do so and so). not to choose (to do a thing): not to be pleased and therefore to forbear.

b. To wish to have, to want. vulgar.


a. 1.a intr. or absol. To exercise choice to make a selection between different things or alternatives.

b. To exercise one’s own pleasure, do as one likes, take one’s own way; esp. as an alternative to something suggested and rejected. Obs. or dial.

So, right here, 4 a) and b) both seem to use the weaker form, not the one Coyne favours. It’s just simple selection based on “preferences”, but that’s compatible with the compatibilist definition. 4a) in fact, seems to be a precise statement of their view of choice.

2 seems about the same.

So, that leaves 1 and 3. 3 a) and b) are compatible with compatibilist positions, and the only thing that I can see that makes 1 and 3 line up with Coyne is the use of “free will” in 1 and “free agent” in 3. But this depends on what one means by “free will” and “free agent”. Coyne accepts that he has a specific notion of free will that he defines, so at that point he can’t use “free will” and “free agent” as buzzwords that automatically associate a view with his. Compatibilists, having a different definition of what “free will” and “free agent” mean, will say that their solutions maintain 1 and 3 but do not accept Coyne’s definition. Which means that to the compatibilist all four defintions reflect only the latter definition of selecting alternatives.

Which is only more evidence that understanding positions and terms is really, really important in philosophy.



One Response to “Meaningful Choices …”

  1. And I’m Free … Free-Willin’ … « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] how science doesn’t support his determinisitic view as well as he’d like, and also gone over how what it means to make a choice is really important, so I’m not sure if there’s much more to say, but I will take on, again, Coyne’s […]

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