Free will or not free will?

It seems that everyone except me currently has a book about free will. As Jeremy Stangroom said when I made a similar remark on Twitter, if I had a new book about free will everyone else would have a new book about secularism. Well, so it appears … but I suppose that’s an illusion.

Be all that as it may, new books on free will or related topics have been (or soon will be) published by Sam Harris, Michael S. Gazzaniga, David Eagleman, Neil Levy, and Mathew Iredale – and there may well be others. This suddenly seems like a very hot topic, both within the academy and among a larger class of educated people.

By the way, the only book amongst this lot that I have yet read is Levy’s, which I found persuasive up to a point, although I do have the Harris book on order. Anyone who’d like to send me/get their publisher to send me review copies of the others is strongly encouraged.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has very recently published a batch of essays about free will – partly, it says, in response to the books by Harris, Gazanniga, and Eagleman – perhaps annoyingly, but not that surprisingly, philosophers Levy and Ireman are not mentioned. It’s not surprising for a number of reasons, including that their books are not aimed at a broad general audience. Or rather, Levy’s book is very much written for fellow philosophers, and more particularly those with some specialisation in this field (its approach is quite technical, which is not true of all Levy’s books), while Iredale’s forthcoming volume is from a relatively small academic press, even it’s written in a broadly accessible way. These books are not likely to receive heavy marketing. Still, it’s unfortunate that important new books on the topic by philosophers haven’t been picked up on by the Chronicle, of all places, mainly because they are too academic.

I’m planning, over the next few days, to look at the six articles in the Chronicle, taking them in order (which will mean starting with the contribution by Jerry Coyne, then, respectively, those of Alfred Mele, the aforementioned Gazzaniga, Hilary Bok, Owen D. Jones, and Paul Bloom).

Do I have a dog in this fight? Well, to an extent. I still tend to think of myself as a compatibilist, although I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether “free will talk” is actually very useful at all, one way or the other, in illuminating our situation. Perhaps everything that needs to be said can be said without actually using the expression “free will” – and perhaps both “You have free will!” and “You do not have free will!” convey false or misleading content, or are simply too unclear to convey anything very coherent at all to the average person. So I’ve become something of a sceptic about the whole concept, or, rather, the expression, while still thinking that there are useful things that can be said in the vicinity, perhaps in other language. Since these things include some of the content that affirmations that we have free will are apparently intended to convey, my scepticism is not so much about whether we have free will, whatever it is, as whether the expression “free will” is especially clear or useful.

But we’ll see. Although I do have a viewpoint that I start with, I’m open to being persuaded by all or any of these six articles. Join me over the next few days as I tackle them one at a time.

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