So, continuing my theme for this week, Jerry Coyne is going after compatibilism again, this time comparing compatibilists to creationists. He starts by trying to figure out their possible motives, which is a very bad sign, especially since a number of compatibilists commented in his previous post on just what their view actually was and what it entailed. So what are those motivations:
1. It’s just an intellectual game with no consequences for the real world or how the average person thinks.
2. It makes people feel good by assuring them that, despite the advances of neuroscience that tell us we don’t really have the ability to influence how we think, we nevertheless remain active agents in our behavior, and can really make choices that could have been otherwise. After all, that’s the way we feel!
3. It’s necessary to tell people they have some form of free will because if they think that determinism is solely behind their actions, they’ll start acting either immorally or will lose all ambition and lie abed. That, for example, is at least one motivation behind philosophers like Daniel Dennett (see my post and the video here).
I’m not sure where he gets 1) from. The closest he can get is an argument that the average person’s view of free will is wrong and muddled, and so a number of compatibilists argue that it doesn’t matter if their view of free will captures what the average person thinks, or if the average person really thinks of free will as being dualistic and/or libertarian. Where I come from, that’s generally considered “Doing philosophy”, and for issues like these pretty much all philosophers think that they are saying something that does have an impact on, at least, how we ought to act … just as Coyne thinks that holding determinism has impacts on how we ought to behave. So the only other possible reasonable argument is that compatibilists end up agreeing with all of the things that he says follow from determinism, so all that’s left is an argument over semantics. However, the issue here is that it is not as easy as Coyne thinks to decide who is simply co-opting the other sides views and calling things by different names. As I’ve frequently argued, Coyne is the one who seems to be doing that by taking all of the behaviour of the old terms and insisting that those should be called other names … for some reason. So, no, as Coyne himself says, few compatibilists have 1) as a motivation, but that says nothing about their view and about who is right and who is wrong.
For 2), what the compatibilists are doing is indeed trying to preserve the feeling we have that when we deliberate those deliberations matter and impact our behaviour. At the neuroscience level, this means saying that what it means for us to be active agents is to have neurological processes that make choices and make decisions, and do deliberation. Thus, if our choice-making processes worked different or, more importantly, weren’t there at all, we’d make different choices and act differently than we do when they are engaged. So having decision- and choice-making processes matters to our behaviour, and that’s roughly what is meant by free will. So a compatibilist free choice, at the heart of it, is essentially a choice that was made by our decision-making processes, and nothing more.
Which, BTW, leads to an aside here about a debate that’s going on in the comments. There are too many to sort through and find the original, but I’ll co-opt Vaal’s here, talking about what free will means to compatibilists:
As to compatibilist definitions, the concept has been stated plainly over and over here.
I’ll take this from Wikipedia’s page on free will as defined in compatibilism:
“compatibilists define free will as freedom to act according to one’s determined motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions.”
And, slightly expanded:
“Compatibilists often define an instance of “free will” as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to his own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained.”
This has led some compatibilists to say that if someone puts a gun to your head and threatens you, then you didn’t do that of your free will. Commenters like reasonshark have pointed out that this seems to be equivocating on free will; if that’s all they mean by free will, then pretty much everyone agrees on that and agrees we have it, but surely it has to mean more than that for this to be any kind of a debate. And I think it does, and think that the issue here is the conflation of moral responsibility and free will. You need to have free will to have moral responsibility, but it is not the case that every case where you don’t have moral responsibility you also don’t have free will. Given my definition above, we can see that you still do make a decision; your decision-making processes are still engaged and could choose otherwise. But we tend to think that the consequence is so strong that you can’t be held morally responsible for choosing to save your life over whatever would be, in theory, more moral. But this does not mean that you don’t have free will, and also doesn’t even mean that you necessarily don’t have moral responsibility. It’s not true by definition. Stoics in fact insist that you have precisely as much moral responsibility as you did in any other case, and so ought not even steal $5 under that threat. Utilitarians can insist that you must calculate the overall utility of the action, and so if someone says to release a gas that will kill 100 people or else they’ll kill you, you ought to let that person kill you. Most importantly for free will, we do not see the joke of “Your money or your life! I’m thinking!” as being inherently contradictory. It’s funny not because no one could actually do that, but because we can’t see why anyone would do that … or, rather, we can understand why someone would and find it funny that their priorities are so out of whack.
So you still make free choices with a gun to your head, or when you’re coerced. You just don’t have moral responsibility for them. You don’t make a free choice if someone puts a chip in your head that takes over your actions and makes you pull the trigger. In the former case, your decision-making processes are still engaged, and could come up with a different answer; it’s just that no one expects them to. In the latter case, your decision-making processes are completely out of the picture. This, to me, is the sort of free will that is, as Dennett puts it, worth wanting or having.
So, on to 3). Some of them do think that not being able to be held morally responsible for your actions can lead people to at least act amorally. Coyne tries to argue that they are wrong because somehow he still tries to act well … but not morally, since he seems to reject morality, and seems to reject it because of determinism. Remember, he thinks that the reason determinism means that we don’t have moral responsibility not because it means that we don’t have responsibility, but because talk of morality doesn’t make sense. So he’s not a good example of how moral behaviour can be preserved under a deterministic mindset, arguing that morality doesn’t really make sense in that mindset and all. But even if this is the motivation of a lot of compatibilists, that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.
It’s also with this argument that Coyne seems to show a remarkable lack of self-awareness, which sounds harsh but there’s no more polite way to say it. He says this about that view:
This makes compatibilists like creationists. After all, one of the motivations—perhaps the main motivation—for creationists to keep attacking evolution is that they think the theory has inimical effects on morality. If we think we evolved from beasts, they say, we’ll act like beasts. And so evolution must be denied lest the moral fabric of our society disintegrate. You hear this over and over again from creationists and fundamentalists.
That’s how many compatibilists feel about free will. The observations, from both experiment and observation, that determinism does not make people immoral—and that incompatibilists like myself still try to behave well, and do behave well—is irrelevant.
Okay, first, doesn’t Coyne normally insist that the big reason for creationists to oppose evolution is religious, meaning that they’d have to give up their religion and their God to accept it, so they refuse to? Sure, some do argue that it eliminates morality as well, but that’s more of a “Gotcha!” than an overwhelming motivation. If it was, then creationism wouldn’t be a religious view but instead a philosophical one — since it can be made regardless of religion — and so someone who taught it couldn’t be said to be teaching religion in schools, which is one think that Coyne is consistent about. Additionally, Coyne talks a lot about how he opposes religion because of its effects, and it is obvious that one of his main issues with religion is indeed how it attacks and opposes the teaching of evolution. Thus, at this point someone could compare him to the creationists in the same way, based solely on his motivations here. Moreover, he rails against compatibilists because they don’t highlight determinism enough, mostly because he thinks that understanding determinism is important to get us to change our behaviour in the right ways, and that accepting compatibilism gets us to behave in bad ways (like supporting executions, despite the fact that most compatibilists oppose that for other reasons, and it’s actually pretty easy to justify executions under Coyne’s view because, well, it stops the bad behaviour, right?).
So the only line that Coyne has to fall back on is the weakest possible one: it’s different because I’m right. They refuse to accept what has been proven only because of their motivations, which is why they refuse to see “reason”. Except that this requires Coyne to in fact know that he’s right, or that he really has addressed all the concerns … and he hasn’t. In fact, given the muddled mess of Coyne’s views on what determinism entails, it’s more reasonable to say that he just doesn’t see what’s going on and is only taking the very strong stance he does because of his attachments and motivations. Even when compatibilists tell him what their view is and that you don’t need to hold a hard determinist view to achieve most of the gains he thinks follow from determinism, he still insists that they are saying what they are specifically not saying. So his making this charge very much risks Coyne through stones while living in a glass house … and only fools throw stones while living in glass houses (OB Kang).
Once you get into motivations, you’ve usually lost all chance of having a reasonable debate. But I can’t imagine that Coyne can’t have a reasonable debate on the issues with Dennett or Sean Carroll or any of the others who are compatibilists who comment on his site. And yet … he doesn’t seem to have come to any better of an understanding of compatibilists than he had when he started. Heck, I’m an incompatbilist like him — though I come from the libertarian side — and I get it far better than he does … and still think them wrong, and understand their motivations, even as I, again, disagree with them. If I can do it, surely Coyne can, too.
Let me end with another aside, following from the above idea that I am an incompatibilist, too, despite being a liberatarian about free will. There are two main positions here: incompatibilism and compatibilism. Incompatibilists all say that free will and determinism are, well, incompatible. Hard determinists say that free will and determinism are incompatible, but determinism is true, so we don’t have free will. Libertarians says that free will and determinism are incompatible, but we have free will, so determinism is false. Compatibilists say that they are not incompatible, so it is the case that we have free will and that determinism is true.
So imagine my dismay at reasonshark’s insistence that compatibilists who denied dualistic free will should be considered incompatibilists just because of that:
No, we’re endowed with a *non*-mysterious faculty that makes decisions.
Then stop calling yourself a compatibilist! You do not believe in free will – and don’t give me the “what definition” response, you know full well what I mean. You do not believe in mind-body dualism. You do not want to be confused with someone who thinks human decision-making is somehow something more than or fundamentally different from animal cognition or a complex physics system. You do not believe in the ghost in the machine. You are clearly an incompatibilist in the determinist or indeterminist camp, and – more to the point – not in the free will camp. The classic, dualist free will camp, I will emphasize, which is the one that matters. As far as the classic, popular, readily recognized debate between free will and determinism is concerned, you are in the same camp as I am. Yet you persist in acting like “indeterminist” is a diss-word applied to semantic pedants.
The person he was responding to holds that determinism and free will — or at least a meaningful form of it — are compatible. The goal of compatibilists would be to convince libertarians like myself that they can preserve the parts of free will that make me want to keep it around and think it just obvious that we have it without having the need for a disembodied or non-physical entity that does it. In my opinion, they fail, but they do believe in free will … and insisting that they can’t call themselves compatibilists if they think that dualism is not required is confusing at best, and dishonest at worst.
Tags: free will