Obviously Not Obvious …

So, one of the next posts after Coyne’s comment on free will was a post talking about Dennett attempting to save free will. I don’t want to talk too much about the content, but instead want to use it as a springboard to talk about something else. But to do that, I have to talk a bit about what Coyne is charging Dennett with here:

Based on statements of some compatibilists, I realized that one reason philosophers spend so much time trying to define forms of free will compatible with determinism is because they see bad consequences of rejecting all free will. Some compatibilists think that if people realized that they don’t have the kind of free will they thought they did, the world would disintegrate: people would either lie in bed out of sheer languor and despair, or behave “immorally” because, after all, we can’t choose how to behave.

I’ve been rebuked sharply for imputing these motivations to compatibilists. Their efforts, I’m told, have nothing to do with trying to stave off possible bad results of rejecting free will. Rather, they’re supposedly engaged in a purely philosophical exercise: trying to show that we still have a form of free will that really matters, even if the libertarian form has been killed off by science. I have, however, responded by pointing out statements by compatibilists like Dan Dennett warning about the bad things that could happen if neuroscientists tell us that we don’t have free will.

If you ever doubted that compatibilism is motivated largely by philosophers’ fears about what would happen if people rejected classical free will, and weren’t presented with a shiny new compatibilist form, watch this “Big Think” video by Dan Dennett. It’s called “Stop telling people they have free will”

Coyne does pretty consistently charge compatibilists with having other motives for advocating compatibilism than just thinking that compatibilism is actually true. Actually, Coyne does that for a lot of other positions as well: sophisticated theologians, for example. And the worry here, especially since Coyne does impute those motivations repeatedly and spends a lot of time trying to prove that the people he’s arguing with have those motivations, is that he’s using these motivations as a way to refute their arguments in lieu of actually refuting the arguments. Whether Dennett thinks that thinking that there is no free will causes people to act badly or not has no real impact on whether or not his view is correct. And it is clear to everyone that Dennett isn’t just saying “Shhh! Don’t tell them the truth or they’ll act badly!”, but instead really does think that there is a meaningful notion of free will, and so is really saying “Please stop telling them that false stuff that makes them act badly!”. Which is pretty much what Coyne is always saying about religion. If Dennett’s arguments can be dismissed because he thinks the position true and also sees bad consequences from believing the false or incorrect alternative positions, then so can Coyne’s.

But being fair to Coyne, although this involves me imputing motivations to him myself, I don’t think that he really uses this as a way to refute the argument, even if it sounds very much like he does. I think the key is in what he says at the beginning of the post:

I’ve long been puzzled by the many writings of “compatibilists”: those philosophers and laypeople who accept physical determinism of our choices and behaviors, but still maintain that we have a kind of “free will.” Such people reject the classical form of free will that’s been so important to many people (especially religious ones)—the kind of “libertarian” free will that posits that we really can freely control our actions, and in many cases could have chosen to behave other than how we did. This is the kind of free will that most people accept, as they don’t see the world as deterministic; and most also feel that if the world were deterministic, people would lose moral responsibility for their actions (see my post on the work of Sarkissian et al.).

I think that the key is Coyne’s puzzlement, especially when it comes to Dennett. Coyne, I think, respects Dennett and his thinking ability and rationality. But he also thinks that it is just obvious that everything is determined and that that eliminates all notions of free will. So then he is incredibly puzzled at how someone so smart, so educated and so rational can maintain the position he does in light of what Coyne thinks is the obvious and abundant evidence that it is wrong. Thus, he needs something to explain what he thinks is an irrational commitment, and thus he finds their motivation: concern that the position will lead to bad behaviour. Knowing that sometimes people can hold irrational positions because of psychological motivations, he accepts this as the explanation that best resolves the conflict, and thus concludes that Dennett is really so attached to the position despite the evidence because of that motivation … even though Dennett also certainly thinks his view is right and has made a number of arguments in favour of it.

Ultimately, I think the culprit here is the assumption of the obvious … which is something that I think philosophy, if one commits to it, helps with more than any other field I’ve ever encountered. One of the things that interested me the most about philosophy is not the answers that I got from it, but rather the questions that it promoted. Or, rather, how it challenged a lot of the things that we thought were obviously true and gave good arguments for why they weren’t, in fact, obviously true, and in fact probably should be considered false. Even if I ultimately didn’t buy the arguments, the arguments for them were always arguments that I could look at and say “Yeah, I see how that works, but I don’t think we need it because …”. For example, I’ve always been a little leery about the reference model of meaning in a language, where you have to have a direct connection to a real object in order to explain the meaning of the world (which runs into major issues when we get into fictional entities, for example). I thought that forcing that sort of reference seems like overkill, but I can see the problem that they were trying to solve: if you don’t have a link in a proposition or a statement to the real object, how can you be saying that you’re saying something that’s true about that object? The same thing applies to the “Ground of All Being” God: I don’t see why the explanation for existence has to be a real object, but again I can see the problem they’re trying to solve with that and see how they get there.

Philosophy, if you do it well and if you accept it, gives you examples of two things. First, it gives you many, many examples of things that you thought obvious that you can’t demonstrate the truth of beyond “Well, that’s just obvious”. The people who just don’t get philosophy are the ones who insist on saying “But it is just obvious! Why argue over it?” when they hit these, and these people usually end up hating philosophy and claiming that it’s just mental masturbation with no link to the world. But the key thing, I think, to take away from philosophy is not that these obvious propositions are wrong, but that they aren’t as obvious as they seem at first blush. That we should be able to justify them and we can’t, even as we have to assume or rely on them in other areas. If you come out of that still thinking that you don’t ever need to justify obvious claims, you miss, in my opinion, one of the foremost and most important lessons that philosophy can teach you.

The second thing is more practical, I suppose, but if you do any philosophy or any length of time you will come across people who are just as smart as you and just as well-educated as you and who know just as much as you do who disagree with you strongly over things that you think that just clearly and obviously true. And they’ll be able to argue for their position and show why your position is not clearly obvious and why they think they’re position is. As I’ve commented before, my favourite professors were ones that I disagreed with — with a least a couple being strong materialists about mind while I was a dualist — but who understood why I might find materialism lacking, and what the problems with it were. This is the position that Coyne is in wrt Dennett, and I think he’s getting frustrated that he can’t just cite evidence and have him agree, because citing the evidence is pretty much all you need to do in science. But in philosophy it is usually possible to cite the same empirical evidence and have people still disagree, because philosophy focuses more on concepts than on strict instances. So you spend more time arguing with people over what seems obvious … and as such you are more prepared to not cite motivations for their disagreement and instead to think that they have a concern or an argument or a problem that they are trying to solve that you aren’t seeing or that you don’t think is one.

This is the heart of my disagreements over mind, most of the time. I’m concerned about explaining qualia, and they are more concerned about explaining the behaviour that is caused by qualia. They think that not having a causal story between the mental and the physical is a major problem; I think that epiphenomenalism is a major problem. Once I came to understand this, it helped me to see what the main areas of disagreement were and how I might convince them … and how they might convince me. And, also, why we can both be reasonable in our disagreements until we can settle what we really need to care about. And this is part and parcel of what you learn doing philosophy.

The obvious benefit of philosophy is that you no longer think of things as obvious. And that’s a good, if strange, thing.


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