The Argument From Theology …

Jerry Coyne is talking about free will again. In this post, he summarizes a number of discussions, many if not all of which are from the Templeton dialogue, but at the end he says this:

I’ll end by saying four things. First, I believe that much compatibilist philosophy, whether it’s stated explicitly or not, rests on the Little People Argument: believing in some kind of free will—even if it’s cooked-up and also bestows free will on computers and amoebas—makes our society more moral and harmonious.

Second, there are many ways to define “compatibilist” free will. Are they all right? Shouldn’t we decide what we mean by free will in advance and then see if we have it? If there are many ways to achieve compatibilism, shouldn’t only one be the right answer?

That leads us to my third conclusion: compatibilists don’t define free will at the outset and then see if we have it. Rather, they start with an assumption: we do have some sort of free will, and then they make an argument to support their view. This exercise involves justifying an a priori conclusion, and is more akin to theology than to science—or even to good, rational philosophy.

I left out the fourth because it talked about the Templeton Foundation specifically, which I have no real interest in discussing.

The interesting thing is in what he says third, which seems to follow from the first two: he compares compatibilism, as a philosophy, to theology. Which is something that he does in a lot of cases: take an argument, try to argue that it works like theology, and then dismiss the field in its entirety because it looks like theology. Even in a lot of his posts on free will, he doesn’t particularly engage the arguments, but simply says that having free will means dualism — and even resorting to quoting what the common person believes literally as if that should define the philosophical position — which is a religious concept (it actually isn’t) and that we have to get rid of that stuff as much as we can, and that compatibilists have some psychological reasons for preferring it as opposed to having real philosophical or factual reasons for it, and so they can be dismissed. But he’s completely wrong about this.

What compatibilist philosophy rests on is the fact that hard determinism and libertarianism present two incredibly unpalatable positions when examined philosophically. Libertarianism, if correct, implies either some new form of causation or a non-physical entity that’s involved in this, and forces us to accept that all of the evidence that all physical things are deterministic at least fails when it comes to human decision making. But if we accept hard determinism, then we have to accept that all of our talk about decisions, and justice and pretty much everything we’ve come to understand and learned about human behaviour at best has a completely different meaning than what we thought it did, and at worst is completely meaningless. So, we can’t see how a libertarian free will can work in our current scientific framework … but the hard deterministic scientific framework seems to force us to give up all of those useful psychological and moral terms that have been working for and seem to provide a good understanding of human behaviour. So either toss out science or toss out psychology; take your pick.

So compatibilists have reasonably asked if we really do indeed have to choose. Can we keep the important aspects of free will — all of those psychological and moral terms that do seem to work in describing our behaviour — while accepting that the world is indeed deterministic? So despite Coyne’s assertion here, they don’t just say “We have some kind of free will, so now let’s argue for that”, but instead say “The evidence for and usefulness of the decision-making aspect of ‘free will’ seems too strong to be denied, and the evidence and usefulness of the deterministic view seems too strong to be denied … so maybe we don’t have to deny either“. In short, maybe it really does act like both a wave and a particle; maybe we really do make decisions in a meaningful way even though the world is determined.

So, while it may indeed be the case that a number of compatibilists find the idea compelling because they see that a world where people deny that their decisions matter has nasty consequences, philosophically there’s much more to it than that. If you are going to place compatibilism into an analogy with religion, I think most of them would fall much more into the “New Atheist” camp: you are telling them something that isn’t true/you don’t know and them believing that would cause massive societal issues and harm. Stop telling them these harmful things that you don’t know are true. That’s almost certainly Dennett’s view here, as his view of consciousness probably isn’t compatible with hard determinism — he wants to think that mental processes still do stuff — but he’s as naturalistic as they come.

And this is coming from someone who is an unabashed libertarian. I think their position wrong, but I can see the philosophical underpinnings that motivate it. Coyne, despite having many opportunities to see it, doesn’t see it yet. But that does not mean that it isn’t there.



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