Living Without Free Will

So, it’s only in the last two chapters of “Living Without Free Will” where Pereboom finally gets around to talking about how we can live without free will or what life would be like without free will.  But for the most part all he does is try to talk about how hard incompatiblism doesn’t seem to have the problems that we think it does, and so ends up making the same mistake that a lot of hard incompatiblists — like Jerry Coyne — do in that he ends up essentially trying to stick with the general structure of a society that we currently have while taking specific cases where hard incompatiblism says something different to show how it’s better.  The problem is that even those purported improvements are dependent on the structures and ideas that we developed in a world where we at least thought that we had free will, and so it ends up not being clear that those underlying structures make any sense in their model.  And even worse, if all they want to do is keep most of the ideas and structures of free will but alter some of them as a reaction to determinism, that seems to be pretty much what compatiblism wants to do, so it becomes difficult to see why it’s not just a form of compatiblism with a different approach.  So hard determinists like Pereboom often make strong statements about us not having free will and how we need to throw the entire concept out, but then either continue to use things that assume some form of free will, or else throw out the terms but then reinsert them with different names but without a justification.

The example that most struck me is the one where Pereboom talks about someone who constantly does something that harms or irritates you, but then when called out on it seems genuinely apologetic and committed to avoiding doing that.  The first problem with this is that it’s difficult to say what it would mean for someone to be genuinely apologetic under hard incompatiblism.  That apology is just as much a determined reaction as the original event was.  What does it mean for them to be genuine?  They’d have to be able to act differently if they weren’t being genuine, but again they can’t react differently.  Being genuine does imply that the main difference is internal to the person, and that their internal state is the real difference.  But if that internal state is totally determined by external factors, then what meaning is there to saying that they are being “genuine”?  Presumably, they could be just as genuine when they are taking that harmful or annoying action, and certainly under hard incompatiblism both cases reflect them equally well, because under hard incompatiblism neither case can really reflect “them”, being determined by external factors and not things specifically about them.  If we wanted to claim that these things were still determined but that the internal processes are importantly the ones that determine their actions — and so that the actions are critically determined by them in and of themselves and so really reflect them — then we’re pretty much pushing a compatiblist line.  So it’s very difficult to see how the term “genuine” can even have meaning under hard incompatiblism.

But hard incompatiblism also seems to have a problem deal with this situation.  Under libertarianism or compatiblism, in such a case we would see an obvious contradiction that needs to be resolved.  If they really do genuinely want to avoid hurting us but nevertheless keep doing it anyway, then we can identify that as a specific issue that needs to be resolved.  And we can see that either they really don’t want to avoid hurting us, or else they have some kind of overwhelming compulsion to commit that action that we need to help them break.  But under hard incompatiblism, their purported compulsion to commit that action is exactly the same thing as their expressing that they “genuinely” don’t want to take that action and hurt us.  In the “normal” cases, we have a contradiction that we need to explain and resolve.  In the hard incompatiblist case, that purported contradiction is nothing more than what the agent does in those situations, and so isn’t a contradiction at all.  We have to contort the philosophical position of hard incompatiblism to even get to see it as a problem that needs to be fixed, and contort it even more to decide that the actions that harm us are the ones that need to be fixed.  And yet the entire example relies on us understanding it as a contradiction that we care about and, presumably, want to resolve.  So it’s entire basis is a model that it is purportedly rejecting.

So, to finish off Pereboom, there wasn’t much in this book that I didn’t get from “Four Views of Free Will”, and so it wasn’t all that interesting to me from that angle.  But at the end, I came away even more convinced that hard incompatiblism is a non-starter because he hit the same problem that most people do when they promote that position, which is coming up with a way to talk about “Living Without Free Will” that isn’t totally nonsensical.  Since this is very difficult to do, most of them end up importing terms from our free-will-infused world and using them in at least slightly different ways.  But those terms only make sense because of their association with free will — at least in our minds — and so when we look a little deeper and remove those associations as seen above it isn’t clear that those terms still make sense and make sense in the way that the hard incompatiblists need them to to make their theory work.  Compatiblism has the issue of allowing for real decisions in a determined world, but at least it is far easier for it to reuse our everyday terms and so make sense than it is for hard incompatiblism.

And that’s the real issue I have with hard incompatiblism:  if we shake out its philosophy, it has to be a radical departure from how we view and talk about the world today (but the ones that cleave closer to that are libertarianism and compatiblism).  But that makes it really difficult to talk about hard incompatiblism in a way that aligns with our current views of the world, and trying to do so often smuggles in the very concepts of free will that they deny.  At the same time, hard incompatiblists don’t seem to have been able to come with a new way of talking about these issues that lets us get into the right mindset to see how it would work.  So they themselves seem to want to appropriate the original terms, with all the attendant risks.  My impression, then, is that hard incompatiblism becomes nonsensical if we actually try to take it seriously, and the only way to make sense of it is to import the very concepts associated with free will that it’s trying to convince us are nonsensical and not real.  So then it’s very difficult for me to see how hard incompatiblism is even a coherent concept, let alone the one that is most likely to be true.


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