Jerry Coyne on free will

As I indicated yesterday, I am going to comment on the six pieces about free will published recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ll start with Jerry A. Coyne’s article entitled “You Don’t Have Free Will”.

Some preliminaries

This article contains points that I agree with (for example, that the expression “free will” is used in many ways or with many meanings) and points that I possibly agree with (for example, that we should drop free will talk). I do think it’s clear that many different definitions of “free will” are used, and I’m inclined to think that that, alone, might be a reason not to use the expression. It can mean that we are all just debating at cross-purposes.

At the same time, I wonder what the expression conveys to an ordinary person in ordinary discussion. Attempts to get that clear by the sort of conceptual analysis favoured by analytic philosophers don’t appear to me to have gone anywhere near settling this, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of empirical research on the subject. To an extent, I am relying on a hunch here, but the difficulty that philosophers have had, historically, in defining “free will” makes me wonder whether the meaning of the expression is clear at all, unless a meaning is actually stipulated for the purpose of debate. In that case, we might frequently be talking past each other when we use the term.

I also suspect that the term has various connotations that are troubling. It may be that when I say, “You have free will”, I at least connote something rather spooky that is likely to be false. At the same time, if I say, “You do not have free will”, I may at least connote certain fatalistic or passivist ideas that are also likely to be false. So perhaps, if I want to avoid misleading people, I should avoid saying either of those things. (But I’d like to see some more empirical research on what these statements, “You have free will” and “You do not have free will”, actually do connote to people.)

So I can agree with Professor Coyne that we might do best to avoid the term “free will” … and try, instead, to make whatever points need to be made with other language. At the same time, my reasons are, I think, a bit different from his.

Are compatibilists just saving face?

I do not agree with him when he says the following:

Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers — most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained — have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy.

I don’t think there is any reason at all to believe that; it strikes me as overly cynical. I can report, in my own case, that my past (and certainly not entirely buried) tendency towards compatibilism is not at all a face-saving device of this kind. It is a sincerely held position based on the view that we retain certain capacities even if our decisions are the product of a causally more-or-less deterministic process. Furthermore, reflection on what is important that reasonably falls within the ambit of the free will debate leads me to think that the capacities we retain are very important.

These capacities include: the ability to deliberate; the ability, more specifically, to deliberate about what I most value or desire in a situation; the ability to shape my own future to an extent, as a result of my choices; and, more generally, the ability to affect the future of my society and my world, to an extent, as a result of my choices. Some people – certain fatalists and passivists – seem to deny the latter abilities, at least.

Consider “soft determinism”, which is perhaps best regarded as a sub-set of compatibilism (if compatibilism is regarded as something like the view that free will and determinism are logically compatible whether or not determinism is actually true). Soft determinism might be interpreted as the claim that these fatalists and passivists are wrong, even though causal determinism is more-or-less correct. If that’s a plausible interpretation of what soft determinists are trying to say, then soft determinism seems like a position that is at least arguable and that people could hold sincerely. Once again, I see no reason to believe that people who hold these sorts of positions are insincere or trying to change the subject. So I reject this talk of “face-saving” and so on.

The “couldn’t have acted/chosen otherwise” argument

Still, is the Coyne position correct to this extent: We don’t have free will in the sense defined by the article?

The first problem is that the article relies on the claim that we live in a more-or-less deterministic world, including at the level of the brain. Things could get a bit complicated if it turns out that the brain functions in an indeterministic way (to some important degree), and I’m not at all sure that the actual science accomplished to date rules this out. However, the science may be suggestive, and in any event I’m not opposed to the claim, either temperamentally or philosophically, so in what follows I’ll assume its truth for the sake of argument. The claim seems plausible enough to me, at least, even if not definitively established. For the sake of argument, then, let’s assume that the brain (along with everything else) functions deterministically to whatever extent is needed for Professor Coyne’s argument to go through.

Does this rule out free will? Well, that’s going to depend on our definition of free will, and I’ve argued that this is unclear and that different definitions may be used sincerely and reasonably. Still, what if we use the idea of:

At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise. To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.

Even this is problematic. The idea of “could have chosen otherwise” (which some philosophers do, indeed, use as a definition of free will) is at best equivocal.

On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.

What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? I was at the right place at the right time. I can swim. No special equipment that I lacked was actually needed … and so on. The parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise.

Surely there are many cases like this where the reason that I didn’t act otherwise was not any lack of capacity, equipment, being on the spot, etc., but merely that I didn’t want to act otherwise. The most salient thing determining how I acted was my desire-set. Leave everything else in place, but change my desire-set, and I would have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, it is true that I could have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

Suppose the tape is replayed. Suppose that determinism is sufficiently true that I end up making exactly the same decision for exactly the same reasons (I don’t want to get wet, I don’t like children and desire that as many as possible drown, or whatever my reasons might be). If determinism holds true to that extent (which, again, I am happy to stipulate), I’ll act in exactly the same way – speaking tenselessly, I don’t save the child. Professor Coyne says, and we’ll stipulate that he’s right: “free will means that your choice could have been different.”

But, Jerry, it could have been! It’s true that if the tape is replayed my choice will be the same. Putting it another way, it’s true that my choice wouldn’t be different if the tape were replayed. But the article is confusing wouldn’t with couldn’t. It’s a straightforward confusion of modality. As happened the first time, I could save the child in the perfectly familiar sense that I have whatever capacities, equipment, proximity, etc., are required. As happened the first time, the parents could and would rightly say to me, “It’s not that you couldn’t have; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

Now it’s true that my wants or values or goals, or whatever – my desire-set – may itself be determined causally. Indeed, I’m assuming throughout that this is so. I’m assuming (and I think this is reasonable, given the concessions I’ve made to causal determinism) that all these things are identical with states of my neurology that have a physical causal history. Perhaps that fact grounds some kind of argument against free will, if we imagine that free will involves some sort of ultimate capacity for self-creation. I agree that we don’t have free will – certainly on this picture – if “free will” means: “Free will all the way down.” Thus, on this picture, we don’t have free will of a kind that could be deployed in theodical arguments … my choices can be traced back eventually to the initial creative acts of God, if such exists.

But as long as the explanation as to why I didn’t act otherwise is just those states of my neurology – the ones that constitute my desire-set – the parents are quite right to complain that I could have chosen to do otherwise and saved their child. “You just didn’t want to,” they say, correctly. I was someone whose desire-set was such that I wouldn’t act otherwise in such circumstances, but I was not someone who couldn’t do so. Thus the “couldn’t act otherwise” argument, based on causal determinism, should not convince us that we lack free will. When I failed to save the child, I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise.

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