Compatibilism and Incompatibilism …

Continuing commenting on free will, Jerry Coyne is talking about it again. This time, he’s calling out compatibilists to demonstrate what intellectual and social advantages compatibilism has over incompatibilism. The first thing to note — which I’ve touched on briefly before — is that in outlining the benefits of “incompatibilism” he completely mischaracterizes what that position actually states. Incompatibilism is the position that free will and determinism are incompatible, and that if you have one then you can’t have the other. This would include both hard determinists — which Coyne is at least trying to be — and libertarians. Both agree that you can’t have a world that is both determined and yet has free will in it. Libertarians — and I am one — argue that it is obvious that we have free will, and so if incompatibilism is correct then determinism cannot be true. Hard determinists argue that it is obvious that determinism is true, and so if incompatibilism is correct then we can’t have free will. Compatibilists stake out a different position, arguing against both the libertarians and the hard determinists that determinism and free will are not, in fact, incompatible. We can have both … at least in the forms that are importantly free will and determinism.

I’ve said before that I think a large part of the confusions here is ignoring what the libertarian position actually is. Coyne ascribes that entirely to the idea that we have some kind of immaterial mind/soul, and so it is inherently dualistic. But that’s not what the position is, but one way of implementing free will so that we don’t fall to a deterministic viewpoint. Again, given QM, the idea that physical processes have to be deterministic is now in question, and so a libertarian can be completely consistent in arguing that some physical process — critically, mental ones — can have intentionalistic characteristics, in that like macro objects are deterministic and QM effect are probabilistic, they work on intentions, and reflect that. This would be a completely materialist view of free will, and yet would still be libertarian. Given that, it becomes easier to see where the clash is between hard determinists and libertarians, and given that it becomes far easier to see how compatibilists actually differ from both of them. They are like hard determinists in insisting that these processes are deterministic, but are like libertarians in saying that we still really do make choices anyway.

I’ll fill that in a bit more when I talk about the benefits of the compatibilist position. For now, I’d like to show how Coyne’s purported benefits of hard determinism aren’t really benefits of that position:

… the explicit dispelling of dualism (something that some compatibilists do, but not often enough), which kicks the props from beneath religion.

Except that neither actually does — nor can — “dispell dualism”. Dualism is a position in Philosophy of Mind, that generally is linked directly to consciousness. If dualism works, then we clearly have room for free will because non-physical objects don’t have to do causation in the same way as physical objects, and so we could definitely have physical states be determined but mental states not be. But dualism, even back to Descartes, was not invented or posited in order to preserve free will; again, it was posited to explain consciousness. So to dispell dualism, you need to dispell it in consciousness, not in free will.

In this vein, both hard determinism and compatibilism can be seen as ways to react to the evidence that all physical processes are deterministic, and mental processes are physical ones. To that end, neither dispell dualism but are instead reactions to that dispelling. And as I’ll outline later, compatibilism is actually the more credible reaction to that condition than hard determinism.

More important, incompatibilism, by arguing that our decisions are the products of the laws of physics, and are “decisions” over which we have no control, has explicit lessons for how we deal with reward and, especially, punishment. By emphasizing determinism over semantics, I think, incompatibilism leads us naturally to a reconsideration of how we treat social offenders.

The problem here is that, traditionally, the hard determinist position’s “reconsiderations” entailed the idea that no one was responsible for their actions at all — since they didn’t choose them — and so we had to toss out notions like justice, which depend on us being able to hold people responsible for their actions. If there is no difference between a kleptomaniac and someone shoplifting on a dare from their friends — and I think that both Harris and Coyne have flat-out stated that — then someone shoplifting on a dare from their friends is no more responsible for that than the kleptomaniac is. Thus, either we should punish neither or punish both … and, traditionally, we could only punish people for what they can be said to be responsible for, and neither are responsible for their behaviour. The only way around this is the behaviourist approach: we want to stop the behaviour, so we want to change the environment so that they don’t, which may include behaviouristic punishment — ie a negative stimulus — or reward — ie a positive stimulus. And this can work if doing this doesn’t just reintroduce the same distinctions under different names.

However, that’s where compatibilism becomes more credible … because you have to. Even in terms of altering behaviour, we’re going to treat the kleptomaniac differently from the person who steals to feed their family from the person who shoplifts because they are dared to by their friends and want to fit in from the person who steals because they just don’t feel like paying for it. And the differences cut across all hard determinist positions in ways that compatibilism just handles but hard determinism needs massive contortions to address in a sensible manner. For the first case, we can see that their decision-making processes are impaired, and so what we have to do is fix their decision-making process; it simply can’t make anything like a proper decision there. In the second case, their decision-making processes are working, and their values are correct, so they are held, by compatibilism, responsible for their decisions in a way that the kleptomaniac isn’t, but we don’t hold them morally responsible because we think they made the proper moral choice there (which refutes Coyne’s contentions about how moral responsibility is meaningless). In the last two cases, the decision-making processes seem unimpaired, but their priorities, goals and values are what’s wrong. In the shoplifter case, they are valuing the right things — friendship and social cohesion is important — but their determination of what you can do to achieve that is out of whack. In the straight thief case, their values are far too selfish. We can say that the last two cases are cases where they have moral responsibility because they a) were responsible and b) did what was morally wrong. We might need to punish the thief in order to get them to act properly, or lock them up because they are incapable of doing so. It probably won’t be to anyone’s benefit to lock up the shoplifter; we ought to be able to get them to see why they shouldn’t do that to make friends without doing that. So, completely different approaches are needed here, and that holds even if they all stole the same thing.

This is a natural sort of analysis for us, and thus is a natural sort of analysis for compatibilists, whose main goal is to preserve these sorts of analyses in light of determinism. And the reason they want to preserve them is because they just really, really work most of the time, allowing us to easily see the differences in these cases and derive how to treat these disparate cases in order to produce the outcomes that we want. Hard determinism starts from a position that these disparate cases aren’t meaningfully different, and then has to build that back in in order to produce the state outcomes. In a way that’s often very convoluted, very kludgey, and ends up looking like a really complicated way to say exactly what compatibilists are saying (ie they introduce long, convoluted terms that reproduce all of the functionality that, say, “morally responsible” does, neither add nor subtract anything from it).

So, what are the benefits of compatibilism? The ability to preserve all of these interesting distinctions while not denying that mental processes are physical and deterministic. Socially, compatibilism preserves these choice-based concepts that do seem to describe our behaviour and thus avoids any notion that we are somehow not really responsible for our actions and are really just puppets, which has been a common conclusion of hard deterministic positions. And doing that in such a way that it doesn’t have to contort either determinism or our views on human behaviour into a model that doesn’t have room for either. If the hard determinist is consistent, then the positions are radically different, and if the hard determinist tries to stuff these distinctions into their view then they end up being the ones arguing over semantics, as they include everything that we wanted free will for but chafe at daring to call that free will.



2 Responses to “Compatibilism and Incompatibilism …”

  1. vishmehr24 Says:

    “all physical processes are deterministic, and mental processes are physical ones.”

    But how do you answer the argument from reason that says that reasoning is essentially a non-physical process.

    I should start with three categories of physical objects
    1) lifeless things
    2) living things
    3) humans

    That lifeless things behave determinstically should be widely acceptable, quantum mechanics apart which is not adequately understood.

    But question Is it really self-evident or is the evidence so overwhleming that Living things behave determinstically?
    Pls note that I am not talking of particular physical or chemical process that may be taking place in a living organism but the organism considered as a whole.In other words, Is the motion of a dog determinstic? What evidence do we have for it?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, since I’m both a libertarian and a dualist, I’d say that there isn’t a good answer for that [grin]. I was just describing the hard determinist/compatibilist position. There used to be strong reasons for thinking that they were determined — EVERYTHING physical was, and that was essentially part of what it meant to BE physical — but with QM that’s been weakened a bit. And if mind is the brain, then brain activity seems to be physical like anything else, which means that it’s reasonable to consider it to be determined. But there are indeed a lot of issues around what choices we make, and what purpose conscious deliberation has if it isn’t actually determining the choices we make.

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