Gregg Caruso and Daniel Dennett have a new book out: Just Deserts: Debating Free Will. Michael Shermer, in a recent podcast, hosted both of them in a debate, which I just finished listening to. Ed Gibney, on his blog, also links to a review he wrote on the book, as well as posting additional thoughts about it.
Just to be clear, I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t. Not because I don’t have a lot of respect for the views of either Caruso or Dennett. It’s just that, similar to the existence of God, I perceive that this is a very old debate, one where truly new arguments are rare to non-existent. From what I’ve seen in reviews and the podcast debate, the book might be useful for anyone still on the fence for this issue, but doesn’t particularly seem to break new ground.
Myself, I’ve posted my views on this many times. I’m more in Dennett’s camp than Caruso’s. But I think it’s worth noting that there are two issues here that often get conflated. One is the question of metaphysical libertarian free will. The other is the question of what our social mores and legal policies should be.
On the metaphysical libertarian front, there’s no disagreement between Dennett and Caruso, or among most philosophers and scientists in general. Libertarian free will is the idea that the mind is not constrained by the laws of physics in its decision making capabilities. Unless you hold to some variety of interactionist substance dualism, which modern science seems to leave little room for, that sort of free will doesn’t exist.
Many try to rescue it with the randomness of quantum mechanics, but if I can blame my actions on the fully deterministic laws of physics, there’s no reason I can’t equally blame them on laws that include randomness. It’s worth noting that quantum randomness isn’t a free for all. It still evolves according to well established laws. At best, it makes our decisions less predictable. But from a practical standpoint, even in a fully deterministic clockwork universe, the actions of agents with unique genetics and a lifetime of experiences are already effectively unpredictable, at least with any degree of certainty.
The existence or non-existence of libertarian free will might have some bearing if there is a cosmic judge who decides our fate in an afterlife. But it seems to have little bearing in the far messier and pragmatic world of social customs and legal practices. Here we get to the second issue. The two might seem related, but to me, it’s a bit like noting that life doesn’t exist in fundamental physics and taking that to mean that life isn’t worth living, essentially a type of category mistake.
What seems to matter more at the social level is whether responsibility remains a coherent and useful concept. I think it does. All that’s needed to hold an agent responsible for its actions is that it have the capability to override its impulses in light of foreseeable consequences. This is a social contract of sorts. If you can control yourself, you gain certain freedoms in society. If you violate that contract, you may not only lose that freedom, but face punishment, part of which is meant to dissuade others from similar violations.
That doesn’t mean the punishment has to be barbaric, that it can’t take into account our lack of libertarian free will. There are many good arguments for a less harsh penal system, similar to what the Scandinavian countries have. As Dennett mentions in the podcast debate, no one thoughtful is talking about torturing criminals. But as Caruso also mentions, most free will skeptics are open to consequentialist derived punishment.
It leaves the real differences between the two camps very narrow, possibly to the point of only being about semantics, of whether we should retain the phrase “free will.” People who are eager to bury the concept of the metaphysical libertarian (and theological) version of free will, often want the phrase removed from our social and legal discourse. But given how thoroughly it is seeped into law, it might be more pragmatic to find a more, well, pragmatic definition along the lines I described above.
Unless of course I’m missing something?