With the essays traded between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, free will is back in the web conversation. I wasn’t planning on making another free will post myself, having been mostly satisfied with my previous statement on it. But I’ve had a few conversations lately, both here on the site and in some other mediums, that made me realize that there are additional points to be discussed.
First, let’s be clear about something. Libertarian free will, that is a will free of the laws of nature, or free of God’s will, isn’t really part of this particular debate. The people most dismissive of free will tend to be passionate atheists, and libertarian free will is the one they’re usually aiming at, primarily due to its use by religious apologists as an answer to the problem of evil.
For people vested in theological debates, libertarian free will may seem like the only version of free will worth discussing. If we don’t have it, aren’t the other versions just attempts at trying to save appearances? Aren’t they just about people clinging to the term “free will,” simply afraid to face the reality of the situation, to bite the necessary philosophical bullet?
To answer that question, let’s think about an important clarification that Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and other incompatibilists usually make. As determinists, they note that our choices are determined by the laws of physics. However, they are careful to say that this shouldn’t imply fatalism.
Fatalism is the belief that future events are fixed in advance by the laws of physics, that we cannot avoid our fate, and it’s no use trying to. For many people, determinism implies fatalism, and any attempt to pretend otherwise is simply avoiding the reality of the situation, a failure to bite the necessary philosophical bullet. (Sound familiar?)
Of course, Harris and company don’t buy this, and they’re right not to. They are determinists, but they are not fatalists. It isn’t necessarily that the fatalists are factually wrong, it’s that their outlook isn’t productive. Our actions will contribute to determining our fate. It’s of no help when actually weighing the choice of possible actions to be preoccupied with the fact that the choice is already determined. The choice still has to be made.
But what shall we call this position, the position of accepting determinism, but not fatalism? We could call it “determinism but not fatalism”, or “anti-fatalist determinism.” Or we could use the label that most philosophers use, and call it “compatibilism,” that is, a recognition that determinism and acting as though we have useful choices, is compatible.
Compatibilism isn’t so much an assertion about what reality is, but about how we should approach that reality. This is why, despite scientific advances, free will very much remains a philosophical issue.
Is compatibilist free will a productive concept? Does it make sense to say free will exists? Isn’t it just an illusion, since we know that it ultimately isn’t a real thing? That depends on what we mean by “real”. Is this blog entry a real thing? This web site? You could argue that they are illusions since ultimately we know they don’t really exist, but are really only collections of magnetic patterns in a data center somewhere.
Ultimately, what is real? Technically, everything we consider real are just patterns of fermions and bosons. Even fermions and bosons themselves might eventually turn out to be patterns of something else. The universe may be patterns, structure, all the way down. Everything above that brute fact layer is emergent. (If there even is a brute fact layer. It may all be emergent.) Does that mean we should regard it all as illusion?
From a pragmatic standpoint, to avoid endless navel gazing, we are forced to accept the existence of many patterns as realities, despite the fact that they are emergent phenomena. We do this because it is productive to do so.
Is the concept of compatibilist free will productive? Perhaps not if you’re a fatalist, such as a Calvinist or an extreme reductionist. But to anyone who thinks there’s something to the notion of taking charge of our own lives, it remains a useful philosophy. In the end, that’s how it should be judged.
Harris, Coyne, and others often cite as their motivation the elimination of punitive justice. If someone is not “morally responsible”, they argue, then we shouldn’t want to make them suffer simply as a revenge mechanism. The thing is, many people agree with this stance against vengeful justice. Among liberals, it’s not a particularly controversial position. Indeed, it’s one that many religious believers would fully endorse under the whole “turn the other cheek” doctrine.
So, why all the fuss about free will? Well, as I said above, I think a lot of it has to do with atheist debates with religious apologists. Libertarian free will is one of the theodicies, one of the solutions to the philosophical problem of evil. But a nuanced argument against libertarian free will doesn’t seem nearly as effective as a blunt one against the phrase “free will.” Of course, many other atheists disagree, among them people like Daniel Dennett and Sean Carroll.
The result is a largely a definitional debate among naturalists about what the term “free will” actually means. And as I’ve written before, the problem with definitional arguments is that they tend to be endless and pointless. There are many evils in the world. The term “free will” is pervasive in law and culture. Is the fight to eliminate it really a productive one?