Tag Archives: freewillseries

Fairness and free will (2)

In my previous post, I considered an argument against free will (let’s call it “the fairness argument”) along these lines:

P1. We have free will only if we sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions.
P2. We do not deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions in circumstances where such praise or blame is unfair.
P3. Praise or blame for our actions is unfair unless we are causally responsible for our relevant actions all the way down.
P4. We are never causally responsible for our actions all the way down.
C1. Praise or blame for our actions is always unfair. (From P3. and P4.)
C2. We never deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From P2. and C1.)
C3. ~(We sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From C2.)
C. We do not have free will. (From P1. and C3.)

As I indicated in the earlier post, you can quibble with this formulation if you like; however, the fairness argument, properly formalised is deductively valid.

I accepted P4. for the sake of argument, and in any event I think P4. is actually true. Beyond that, I engaged in a certain amount of fencing, some of which, I think, casts (serious) doubt on P1. Whatever you think of either P4. or P1., however, there seems to be a real problem with P3., and this turns on the nature of “fairness”. I actually see no reason at all to accept P3. – it does not strike me as intuitively compelling, or even appealing, or as something that could be given any decisive intellectual support. To be fair(!), though, something like it appears, at least from my reading and interactions, to be rather popular.

Part of the problem with P3. is that there’s a mystery about what “praise” and “blame” really amount to. Perhaps on some conceptions of these things (error theories about praise and blame), sentences that praise or blame are always false. To keep this simple, let’s stick with praise. What if, when we praise someone for an act, we are stating (perhaps among other things) that the act complied with some objectively binding standard? If no such objectively binding standards exist, it follows that we are always saying something false when we praise somebody.

Again, what if, when we praise someone for an act, we are saying (perhaps among other things) that the person is causally responsible, all the way down, for a good act? If no one is ever causally responsible for an act all the way down, it follows, again, that we are always saying something false whenever we praise somebody.

But what if, when we praise someone for an act, we simply mean that the act is a good one in the sense of one that has such properties as to tend, relatively efficiently, to bring about the sorts of consequences favoured by the people involved in the conversation? In that case, we might often say something that is simply true. There might also be non-cognitive content to our praise, such as an expression of approval, but that content cannot be true or false – and there is going to be an interesting question about how such non-cognitive content can be unfair. Perhaps it can be, but we’d need to explore some arguments to see whether this makes sense.

I suspect, meanwhile, that praise involves both more and less than any than this. E.g., when I praise someone for an act I might be saying not just that the act is good (in the sense discussed above) but that the person is good. I.e., the person’s performance of the act has provided me with evidence that she possesses certain dispositions of character (courage, kindness, honesty, or whatever they may be) such as to be a desirable person to have around: such as to tend to act in ways favoured by me and the other people involved in the conversation, etc., etc.

If this is what expressions of praise really amount to, and if something analogous applies to dispraise or blame, then there is nothing necessarily unfair about praising someone for an act for which she was not causally responsible all the way down. Indeed, the fact that the action flowed from the dispositional structure of her character might support my words of praise or blame. The action did not happen at random, but was, to some extent, caused by the person’s character (even if this also had causes).

There is a huge body of academic literature on the words “praise” and “blame”, and what they mean, but at this stage someone who wants to run the fairness argument is already in trouble. P3. depends on a highly controversial idea, perhaps far detached from the thoughts of the folk, of what it is to praise or blame people. Or so it seems.

That’s troublesome enough, but P3. also depends on a controversial idea of fairness. The idea actually seems rather vague. Its essence seems to be an absence of bias, favouritism, patronage, nepotism, hostility, “bad vibes”, etc., in situations where, first, we are allocating/withholding benefits, rights, penalties, etc., and, second, the situation is such that exercising bias, favouritism, and so on, is somehow socially inappropriate or “bad”.

So Alice is not acting unfairly if she favours Bella as her lover rather than Clarice, even if Clarice’s good qualities might exceed Bella’s from some supposedly objective viewpoint. In a situation like this, bias, favouritism, idiosyncratic feelings of liking or attraction, “good vibes’, etc., are permitted (or so we usually assume), and fairness does not even enter into the picture.

In certain other situations, we think that bias, favouritism, etc., are not appropriate, and these are the situations where questions about fairness arise. But what does “fairness” then require? Well, the requirements will vary from situation to situation, as will the justifications that support them. In some cases, the requirements and the justifications will be deeply contested. For example, we tend (don’t we?) to think it fair that a person who is on trial in the criminal courts, or who is being sued in the civil courts, be given an accurate idea of what is alleged against her before she has to answer it. She should not be denied this because of bias, favouritism, hostility toward her from the judge, or the like.

Again, we tend to think that parents should give their various children roughly equal opportunities for happiness and success in life over time, and that any blatant lapse from this is “unfair”. We don’t want a mother or father, or the combination, to show blatant favouritism to a particular child. However, a parent may normally show bias, favour, etc., toward her own child, vis-à-vis other people’s children.

In some familiar cases, things get more complicated. What if I am working out what rates of pay to give my employees? There may be a problem if I do this based on personal bias, favouritism, patronage, whim, nepotism, etc. But it does not follow that I should pay them all equally. Fine, so how should I pay them? Should I pay my employees on the basis of their respective developed skills; on the basis of the responsibility that they have willingly taken on within my enterprise; on the basis of their average or daily productivity, as individuals, compared to similar employees in the enterprise (which may bring in issues of diligence, industriousness, etc.); on the basis of what employees with similar skills, records, etc., are likely to be paid by other enterprises (within the same labour market); or some mixture of all this (in which case, how do I measure and weight these things?); or something else? These questions weigh heavily on the minds of wages negotiators, industrial arbitration tribunals, etc., and they often develop pay fixation principles that are of at least some local assistance.

So… if I praise you as having performed a good act, or as being a generally good (or morally virtuous) person, or for having certain good dispositions of character, or having made a good judgment, or anything of the kind, am I under any obligation to be fair? Well, perhaps these important judgments should not be made on the basis of whether or not I like you (or have a family connection with you, or some such thing). They should, perhaps, be based on general criteria that I would apply to others, irrespective of personal feelings, familial loyalties, or the like. But that does not tell me what criteria I should actually use!

I take it that a claim that I am, first, in a situation where fairness is relevant (I should not exercise bias, favouritism, etc.), and, second, that I should use certain specific criteria (not others) in handing out benefits and rewards, will require something like a utilitarian justification. Of course, in many circumstances there is much conventional wisdom that may be worth deferring to about when fairness is (and is not) relevant, and about what criteria should be used to make judgments and to grant benefits, apply penalties, etc. There may be some merit in not trying to review these from scratch, using explicit utilitarian criteria. Either way, to say that I acted fairly is more or less to say that I applied the criteria that were relevant (whatever they were), in a situation that called for them (i.e., in a situation where I was not entitled to act on bias, favouritism, etc.), and (if this has to be said separately) without distortion from my personal feelings toward an affected person, etc.

Nothing at all follows from this that I must praise or blame people only if I find virtue or fault with them all the way down. People can genuinely make mistakes, act badly, show poor judgment, evidence a vicious character – or the opposites of any or all of these – without being causally responsible for their actions, judgments, characters, etc., all the way down. When we appraise them, we act fairly if we apply appropriate standards to the facts in evidence, without being biased by whom we like or dislike, the wish we could help or hinder the individual, etc.

Whatever, exactly, the ideas of praising and blaming really amount to, it is not at all obvious that they can be done fairly only if the people being appraised were responsible all the way down for their actions, judgments, and characters. Accordingly, P3. is not an attractive premise at all… and hence the whole argument is in trouble.

I’d love to see a similar argument that does not (in the view of its author) fall prey to this problem.

Fairness and free will (1)

The concept of what is “fair” causes trouble all the way through moral and political philosophy, and even in the free will debate. Here is an argument against the existence of free will, based on a notion of fairness:

P1. We have free will only if we sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions.
P2. We do not deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions in circumstances where such praise or blame is unfair.
P3. Praise or blame for our actions is unfair unless we are causally responsible for our relevant actions all the way down.
P4. We are never causally responsible for our actions all the way down.
C1. Praise or blame for our actions is always unfair. (From P3. and P4.)
C2. We never deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From P2. and C1.)
C3. ~(We sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From C2.)
C. We do not have free will. (From P1. and C3.)

You can question whether the step at C3. is really needed, and you might want to rephrase something in the above to make sure this is all able to be represented in your favourite system of propositional calculus. However, at the end of the day you’ll find that it’s a deductively valid argument. So the only question is whether you accept its premises – if you do, you are intellectually committed to accepting the conclusion.

You’ll come across arguments that seem to go something like this (either expressly or implicitly), whether in the formal literature on the subject or in informal discussions on the internet and elsewhere. So, should we deny the existence of free will, based on something like this argument? (By all means, offer your improved version of it.)

Before we get to that, note a couple of points. The argument does not proceed straight from: “The world is deterministic” to “We don’t have free will.” It doesn’t even move, in a more sophisticated way, straight from: “The world is a mix of determinism and randomness” to “We don’t have free will.” That seems to be an advantage. It does not simply beg the question against theories that are compatibilist about determinism and free will (or about “a mix of determinism and randomness” and free will). Rather, it offers richer (purported) insights into how we understand free will, and if we accept these (purported) insights we might then be intellectually compelled to reject compatibilist approaches.

Conversely, note that the argument depends very much on a philosopher’s conception of free will. That may also be a strength. Philosophers are better placed than most to understand how free will has been conceived of in philosophical debate over the years and centuries. For example, they may be more familiar with the literature than scientists. If the argument shows that we lack free will, as thus understood, that is an important outcome.

Nonetheless, there may be other conceptions of free will that are not caught by the argument. What if it turns out that, when ordinary people who are not philosophers claim to have free will, they actually mean (and convey to each other) something that is rather vague and messy? Perhaps one of its primary components is merely a denial of fatalism. Or perhaps it is a denial of both fatalism and any related doctrines that involve our experienced choices being bypassed or overridden, so as to lack causal efficacy. For example, epiphenomenalism would have such an effect, even if it’s not a theory that the folk are specifically familiar with. If, as things turn out, that is really what ordinary people are trying to convey when they use the (perhaps inapposite) term “free will”, then they might not accept P1, at least not without a lot of caveats, qualifications, etc. For them, P1. might miss the point.

That said, P1. does sound rather plausible (doesn’t it?), so there is much to explore if somebody wants to reject it while also claiming that human beings have free will in some interesting sense. It seems to me that there is a lot more to be said here, but I’ll leave it for another time.

P4. is a crucial premise. It is basically a way of denying that we have libertarian free will, though again there is more to be said. Note, however, that the argument as a whole is not an argument against libertarian positions, as libertarians are likely to deny P4. Against them, I am assuming that P4. is true, and I’d support it with arguments about the world being a mix of determinism and randomness in a way that seems to preclude, if not free will (after all, there are accounts of free will that are compatible with this as far as it goes), at least ideas of ultimate self-determination and the like. The argument, then, would need to be supplemented with some further argument for P4. before it could persuade a free-will libertarian. As the argument stands, without that supplementation, it begs the question against libertarian positions on the free will question.

The drift of the argument, then, is that we cannot reject ideas of ultimate self-determination and the like while also maintaining the existence of anything that ought to be called “free will”.

So compatibilist ideas are not being rejected in P4., taken by itself. The argument is supposed to persuade compatibilists to become incompatibilists – the question is not begged against compatibilism.

Where, then, does the argument go wrong? Perhaps some compatibilists will argue that P1. is beside the point or even false, because it is not getting at what is really bugging the folk when they talk about free will (as evidenced in cultural history and contemporary popular culture). In that case, they may criticise much of the contemporary discussion of free will by analytic philosophers for having lost contact with what was bugging ordinary people in the first place. I feel some sympathy for this, as, perhaps, is evident over here, but much work would need to be done before we could be confident about this approach one way or the other.

I’ll set that aside. Meanwhile, I think an equally troubling problem arises with P3. Frankly, I see no reason at all to accept this premise. Nonetheless, it appears to have intuitive appeal for many people and to enjoy some popularity. In my next post, I’ll focus squarely on P3., asking whether we should accept it and the conception of fairness that it implies.

Eddy Nahmias reviews Sam Harris

The newest issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine contains a review by Eddy Nahmias of Free Will by Sam Harris. (For those who’ve missed my own discussions of Harris earlier this year, a good place to start would be this long reflective essay published at the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal.)

I’m a bit free-willed out from writing earlier posts in this series, not to mention the abovementioned ABC Portal piece. Still, I’m largely onside with Nahmias, and in any event this review of Harris by a philosopher who has important and original peer-reviewed publications in the field is worth drawing to the attention of … well, whichever of this blog’s readers might still be interested.

In the end, Nahmias makes a point about how this is not all-or-nothing. We can study what people seem to think free will is, what free will talk is actually conveying when ordinary folk engage in it, and then we can study to what extent we actually have such a capacity.

This sounds like a plausible position to me: “Unlike the impossible self-creation and self-knowledge Harris foists upon free will, a more reasonable and accurate understanding of free will is amenable to scientific study. Science is likely to show that we have less free will than we tend to think, and learning this may move us towards Harris’s practical goals.” Or maybe it won’t. At any rate, I look forward to Nahmias’ own (long-awaited) book on the subject.

And while I’m here, there’s lots of other good stuff in the new TPM, especially relating to the institution of sport: philosophers scrutinising it from many angles just in time for the Olympic Games.

On Sam Harris on free will

Over on the ABC Religion and Ethics Portal, I’ve written a long response to the new book, Free Will, by Sam Harris. I say “response” rather than “review”, because much of it discusses my own reflections on fate, free will, determinism, and the long cultural conversation that we’ve been having about these things in the West, going back for thousands of years.

My problem with the Sam Harris book is not so much that I disagree with his conclusions – although I do disagree with some of them – so much that I disagree with the way he approaches the problem. First, he uses a rather idiosyncratic definition of free will that doesn’t have much to do with definitions that have been used by philosophers or with whatever intuitive idea of free will the folk might have (if, indeed, they even have a unified idea of it – I suspect that the folk talk past each other on this to a large extent). Thus, much of the book has an air of attacking a straw man.

Second, and worse, Harris responds to compatibilists by accusing them of changing the subject (notwithstanding that attempts to work out what it might be for actions to be “up to us”, including the plausibility of compatibilist accounts, have been part of the conversation at least since Hellenistic times) and of writing like theologians (whatever that actually means, it is not likely to be true of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, A.J. Ayer, Daniel Dennett, or other leading compatibilists). There’s a certain insouciance, at best, about all this.

As for whether “we have free will”, I remain of the opinion that libertarian views of free will are ultimately unintelligible – this seems to me the case with agent causation views, and I doubt that event causation views of libertarian free will, such as Robert Kane’s, can fare any better. Indeed, I’d argue that they eventually rely covertly on agent causation intuitions to give themselves any plausibility. About the best libertarians can do is claim, rather lamely, that all ideas of causation are mysterious when pushed far enough.

I agree with Sam Harris on the non-existence of libertarian free will – if the idea even makes sense – though Harris shows no sign of having read at all deeply in the literature. I also think that compatibilists have enough problems to make free will, at best, a matter of judgment and degree. But the naked claim, “You do not have free will,” uttered to ordinary people, still seems to me more false than true. More research is needed on what this claim actually conveys to people (and it may convey different things to people from different social classes, educational backgrounds, parts of the world, etc. (experimental philosophers take note)), but it looks to me that what is likely to be at stake for many people is not so much the truth or falsity of something like agent causation but the truth or falsity of some kind of fatalism. Saying “You do not have free will,” is likely to convey, to many people, in many circumstances, the false (and perhaps demoralising) message that some kind of fatalism is the truth of it.

I’m painfully aware of a similar issue in metaethics. I deny that there are objective moral truths of the form, “X-ing is morally wrong.” That’s because I take a particular view as to what this conveys, and I consider what it conveys to be false. On the other hand, I’d want to explain myself very carefully before saying to the folk, “Torturing babies for fun is not morally wrong.” That can all too easily convey the false message that torturing babies for fun is not, in my evaluation, bad. And when I say bad, I don’t mean as in, “That was baaaad, dude!”

Jerry Coyne writes back – about free will

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne recently wrote a post responding to my earlier post on his piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This debate can go back and forth a lot, but let me clarify a few things at least.

I’ll start by pointing out nothing that I have said in this series of posts is meant to deny that there could be threats to the idea of free will. Although I’ve stated that I have compatibilist leanings, that does not mean that I’ve outright defended compatiblism (the idea that free will is compatible with determinism) let alone that I’ve defended the claim that we have free will, let alone that I’ve defended actually using free will talk.

The points I’ve been making have been a bit more subtle than that. I’ve mainly been pointing out difficulties in certain arguments against compatibilism, though occasionally I’ve pointed out problems with certain arguments for compatibilism, and I’ve even pointed out some problems with the claim, “You have free will” – problems that would exist even if determinism is not true.

As to the latter, even if determinism is not true, there are well-known arguments as to why a mere mix of occasional indeterminism with determinism is unlikely to give us free will if we otherwise lack it (Jerry alludes to this in the Chronicle, and I agree with his brief comment on it). Moreover, even if determinism is not strictly true, it is difficult to see how I could be responsible for my own character, desires, etc., all the way down. Coming up with a picture of how this could work that is both coherent and plausible seems very difficult. But if we are not responsible for our characters, desires, etc., all the way down, that might start to run afoul of notions of moral responsibility, depending on what our intuitions are about that. And if we question moral responsibility that might lead to our rejecting the idea of free will (this assumes a widely-argued claim that an act performed with free will must be one for which I am morally responsible). Note that I am not pressing this argument, and I’m not convinced by it. I mention it only to give an example of reasoning that I simply have not dealt with (at least in any concerted manner) in these posts.

Again, what if, perhaps based on findings from Freudian psychoanalysis, or perhaps simply based on experiments in social psychology, we come to think that our psyches are sufficiently riven and/or mysterious to us that it no longer makes much sense to talk about such things as our characters or our desires? Even such words as “we”, “I”, “us”, “our”, etc., might come to seem problematic. If the world is sufficiently like that, perhaps we (!) should abandon free will talk even in the most everyday sense. I tend to think that psychoanalysis is mainly bunk, but there’s much material in the social psychology literature that could give us pause. Furthermore, none of this concern requires that strict causal determinism operates.

So, I have not demonstrated that we have free will, or even attempted to do so. Perhaps, for all I’ve argued, we don’t have it even if determinism is false. Nor have I demonstrated that compatibilism is true, merely that some of the arguments against it are not especially compelling and even seem to contain fallacies of reasoning.

Another point that should be made to try to get all this a bit clearer is that I am not especially reluctant to concede that causal determinism is true to whatever extent is required for arguments based on it to go through (assuming the arguments have no other problems). So Jerry misreads me when he thinks that I accept determinism “only grudgingly”. On the contrary, it would make the whole debate simpler for me if we knew that determinism is true. I’m not temperamentally opposed to determinism. Furthermore, I think that it’s probably true enough for our purposes. However, I wanted to be careful to bracket off certain questions so that I am not arguing with people who say, “Determinism is not true in any event!” Recall that the six pieces I was discussing pretty much assumed determinism, so I was doing likewise. Being careful to state that I am assuming determinism, even though I am not claiming to be able to prove it, certainly in the posts concerned, is not being grudging. It’s just a matter of trying to limit the range of the arguments.

Finally, at this point, I don’t necessarily think the “could have acted (or perhaps chosen) otherwise” or “your choice could have been different” sort of definition of free will is a good one. Some philosophers argue that we have free will even in some situations where we can’t act otherwise.

However, I am prepared to accept something like this definition for the sake of argument, with the proviso that I think it becomes implausible if some unusual or technical definition is given to the word “can” and its cognates such as “can’t” and “could”. If we use these words in ordinary ways, perhaps they do bring out something in what is arguably one folk conception of free will (I won’t say the folk conception, because one theme of these posts is that the folk may not all have the same conceptions and intuitions, and that may even be a reason to use different terminology).

Having said that, however, compatiblism (the claim that determinism and the existence of free will are not contradictory) and compatibilist free will (the idea that we actually have free will of a kind that is compatible with determinism) still seem to be in reasonably good shape. Or at least they don’t seem to be in too much danger from the points made in the articles that I was discussing, i.e. the articles in the Chronicle.

In his new post, Jerry runs some of the arguments together and deals with many side issues. I can’t mop up all of them without this post becoming (more) inordinately long, so my silence on some points doesn’t signal assent. To be fair to him, he wants to deal with various matters that he raised in his Chronicle piece, whereas my own post was focused pretty much on the first paragraph of it.

One issue in the new post is that he seems to have an intuition that we can’t rightly blame someone for heinous actions such as failing to save a drowning child (when doing so would have been easy, etc.), based on the thought that the person who failed to save the child was not ultimately responsible for his/her own character, set of desires, etc.

Perhaps this intuition is right (although I doubt it) – and I didn’t attempt to deal with this argument in the earlier post. I did, however, use the scenario of the drowning child to demonstrate how we ordinarily use such words as “can” (“can’t”, “could”, etc.). Let’s return to that.

Perhaps Jerry wants to use the word “can” in a special sense, but if so the word becomes equivocal in its meaning. Normally, when we say, “I can save the child” or “I could have saved the child” we mean something slightly (but not very) vague to the effect that I have whatever cognitive and physical capacities are needed, have whatever equipment is required, am on the spot, and so on. Perhaps it includes not being in the grip of a disabling phobia and not being coerced by someone with a gun. “Can” refers to a commonsensical notion – slightly vague, but no more so than most ordinary language – of having the ability to do something.

If all this applies, but I fail to save the child (perhaps because I dislike children or because I don’t want to get wet, or because I am just too lazy), it makes still makes sense to say that (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child but I don’t do so because I don’t want to. Here, the ordinary meaning of “can” is being applied correctly to the situation. If Jerry’s argument demands throwing out this ordinary usage, it’s in all sorts of trouble. If he wants to use “can” and “could” in some other sense, apart from the ordinary one, in the context of free will talk, I see no reason to believe that his conception of free will is much like what the folk have in mind when they say, for example, “Russell acted of his own free will.” The empirical research done to date, e.g. by Eddy Nahmias and his colleagues, does not suggest that the folk, or the majority of them, have some special meaning of “can”, “could”, and “ability to act” in their minds.

Jerry says:

This statement leaves me completely baffled. When Russell says “I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise,” he seems to mean only, “had I been somebody other than Russell Blackford at that moment, I might have done otherwise.” And in what sense is that free will? It’s one thing for people to chastise somebody for making a “bad choice” (an emotion that feels natural but is at bottom irrational), but it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.

But as I’ve said, if the person can (in the ordinary sense of “can”) save the child the first time round, the person can (in the same sense) also save the child the second time round. Jerry says in the original post:

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.

This is a bit confusing partly because of the tenses that Jerry uses. But think of it like this. If determinism is true and the tape is rerun, then I will act in exactly the same way whether I have free will or not. After all, why wouldn’t I? If the tape is rerun exactly, then I will have exactly the same abilities and exactly the same motivations, so why expect me to act differently, even if I have free will? This is just puzzling. Indeed, if I act differently on the replay of the tape, even though my abilities and motivations are exactly the same, that looks, if anything, as if we live in a world in which mysterious, spooky forces interfere with our lives – i.e. a world in which we don’t have free will!

If the way I acted the first time turned on my motivations (e.g. I don’t like children), then the way I act the second time will also turn on my (identical) motivations. Likewise when the tape is run the nth time, where “n” is some arbitrarily large number. If (speaking tenselessly) I can save the child the first time, then I can save the child in exactly the same way and in exactly the same sense the nth time. However I won’t do so. My failure to do so flows from my motivations, not from my abilities (or from the interference of something spooky such as the stars, the gods, or Fate).

Perhaps we don’t have free will. Although there are no spooky forces controlling us, someone might argue that, for example, we all have deeply disordant sub-conscious urges which play much the same role. As I mentioned above, there may be many worries about free will, and I haven’t tried to deal with them all. But none of this stuff about replaying tapes, and what would happen if we did so, is helpful to hard determinists like my friend Professor Coyne.

Paul Bloom on free will

Paul Bloom’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece certainly has the virtue of raising the issues – or some of them – starkly. Bloom outright denies that we have free will, though he eventually moves on to describe a position that tends to undermine this very forthright claim. First, the stark denial:

Common sense tells us that we exist outside of the material world—we are connected to our bodies and our brains, but we are not ourselves material beings, and so we can act in ways that are exempt from physical law. For every decision we make—from leaning over for a first kiss, to saying “no” when asked if we want fries with that—our actions are not determined and not random, but something else, something we describe as chosen.

This is what many call free will, and most scientists and philosophers agree that it is an illusion. Our actions are in fact literally predestined, determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe, long before we were born, and, perhaps, by random events at the quantum level. We chose none of this, and so free will does not exist.

This most definitely has the virtue of clarity. For Bloom, “free will” means a rather spooky ability to act in ways that are exempt from physical laws and physical causes. We don’t have this ability, Bloom claims (and I, for one, don’t doubt him). Therefore, free will does not exist.

And yet, something exists, Bloom thinks, something that lies in the conceptual vicinity of free will (if he doesn’t think it does, then why bring it up in such a context?). The “something” is a set of capacities that we do have:

Many scholars do draw profound implications from the rejection of free will. Some neuroscientists claim that it entails giving up on the notion of moral responsibility. There is no actual distinction, they argue, between someone who is violent because of a large tumor in his brain and a neurologically normal premeditated killer—both are influenced by forces beyond their control, after all—and we should revise the criminal system accordingly. Other researchers connect the denial of free will with the view that conscious deliberation is impotent. We are mindless robots, influenced by unconscious motivations from within and subtle environmental cues from without; these entirely determine what we think and do. To claim that people consciously mull over decisions and think about arguments is to be in the grips of a prescientific conception of human nature.

I think those claims are mistaken. In any case, none of them follow from determinism. Most of all, the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought.

He concludes, tellingly: “It is wrong, then, to think that one can escape from the world of physical causation—but it is not wrong to think that one can think, that we can mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion. After all, what are you doing now?”

Thus, Bloom denies that we possess free will – which he imagines to be something spooky – while at the same time claiming (surprise!) that conscious deliberation and rational thought are real, that conscious deliberation is not impotent, and that we need not give up on the notion of moral responsibility. Frankly, if this is a denial of free will, then denial of free will is proving to be a very thin doctrine. It means only denying the existence of something metaphysically extravagant (and arguably not even coherent) that many of us were not in the slightest inclined to believe existed in the first place. Conversely, it does not mean denying anything that we might fear is illusory when told that we lack free will: in particular, that our desires and deliberations are efficacious in bringing about our choices, which can, at least in a large class of cases, be efficacious in shaping our lives and aspects of the world that we live in.

In fact, Bloom is not denying the existence of free will, as most philosophers understand it, at all. Nor is he necessarily denying the existence of free will as most ordinary people understand it, given what experimental data we have so far on how the folk actually imagine free will.

I don’t deny that some people might think of a spooky capacity to defy physical laws when they think of free will. This does seem to be one conception of free will that is Out There in the Zeitgeist, and some theologians seem to trade on it in various ways. But it is not evident that it is either the philosophical conception of free will or the most common conception among the folk. It’s actually difficult to see what it could add to my life if I had this spooky capacity: even if I could defy physical laws, free will does not make much sense unless it involves the ability to act on my own desires and viewpoint. But there will always be a story as to how I came to have the desire-set and viewpoint that I actually have (even if a god created me with these a few seconds ago), and that story will never be one in which I chose my collection of desires and beliefs ab initio. Even God, if he existed, could never do that.

If I chose my current desire-set, my choice as to what desire-set I wanted must have been based on an earlier desire-set that I had, and this is not the sort of thing that can go on in an endless sequence. So even an ability to defy physical laws would not give me a free will that is ultimate, or goes all the way down. Ultimate, or all-the-way-down, free will is ruled out for separate reasons. So how, exactly, do I end up being any more free, even if I have a power to violate the laws of physics? It’s very strange.

Bloom concedes that we have certain things that we want, such as the ability to deliberate, and for the actions based on our deliberations to be (to an extent) efficacious. The power that he denies us (and I agree that we have no such power) does not get us a deeper freedom, and really does not (as far as I can see) make sense at all. I’ll settle for the mundane, yet impressive, capacities that Bloom grants me … and I suggest that you do likewise.

Finally, there might still be independent worries about whether we can hold people (fully?) morally responsible for their actions. But that depends on different considerations. These worries would arise whether we had the power to violate physical laws or not, as long as the observable facts about, say, human socialisation remain true. Once again, there is always a causal story as to how I ended up with the desire-set that I have … and how some other, perhaps less pleasant, person ended up with her desire-set. That fact might shake some of our notions of freedom, desert, and responsibility, but it has little to do with the kind of causal determinism that Bloom evidently has in mind.

There will be some more posts in this series, not least to respond to various objections and other points. But that concludes my initial responses to the six pieces in The Chronicle.

Owen D. Jones on free will

We come to the fifth of six pieces about free will recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education – this time from Owen D. Jones, who ponders the relationship between constraints on our volition and the operation of the law. Jones has a forthcoming book, Law and Neuroscience, which I look forward to reading when it appears in 2013.

While Jones’s project certainly sounds interesting, my feeling is that the article doesn’t take determinism with sufficient seriousness. Perhaps this is partly to do with restrictions of space, but Jones never really responds to arguments based on comprehensive causal determinism. He acknowledges that there are constraints on our choices, but does not appear to consider the possibility that our choices are absolutely determined by the states of our brains at the particular times when choices take place. Consider, for example, this passage:

Evolutionary proc­esses pre-equip brains in all species with some information-processing predispositions. Generally speaking, these increase the probabilities that some combinations of environmental circumstances—immediate physical and social factors, contexts, and the like—will yield one subset of possible (and generally nondisastrous) behaviors rather than others.

Okay, so the idea here is that the range of choices available to creatures like us – with an evolutionary history, some kind of evolved species psychology, plus individual socialisation, plus simply the obvious constraints of circumstances – is rather limited. In any situation involving a human choice, there is only a narrow range of possibilities as to how she will end up acting. Actually, I doubt that anyone denies this if I express it in such general and vague terms.

However, current attacks on free will go much further. In essence, they suggest that the process of choosing is an illusion. This is supposedly because there is only one way that I can choose in any situation (at any three-dimensional cross-section of space-time, we might say). I must deliberate, if I do so at all, and choose in the way that corresponds to (or correlates with, or is identical to) a transformation in my brain state that is directed by exceptionless scientific laws. It’s not just that my possible choices will be constrained within certain boundaries established by human nature and personal nurture. Rather, there is one way that I will choose, and therefore only one way that I can choose. If it turned out that I (tenselessly) choose in some other way, then I have violated the laws of physics – something that I obviously cannot do. Thus, I have no power to make genuine choices, and free will is an illusion.

While the above is not a valid argument (it is relying on equivocations about the meaning of “can” and/or conflating the meanings of “can” and “will”), talk of constrained choices from evolutionary psychology and the like don’t do the apparent force of the argument full justice. In Jones’s defence, however, that is presumably not his intention. Perhaps he could say that he does not have to deal with every argument that is currently in the Zeitgeist, irrespective of how relevant or otherwise it might be to his own project. Still, I can imagine a lot of people who are interested in current debates about free will claiming that Jones misses the point … or at least that he misses their point.

Conversely, I can well imagine many people thinking that arguments based on causal determinism are missing the point. After all, philosophers have been prepared to entertain the possibility of causal determinism for a long time now – ever since classical antiquity. This is not a new idea to us at all. A common view, and one that I tend to share, is that arguments against free will based merely on causal determinism at the level of the brain, not on something more specific such as Freudian accounts of how far our own desires are supposedly alien to us, are either addressing the wrong question or are simply invalid.

Hilary Bok on free will

We come to the fourth of the six pieces in the recent batch in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Hilary Bok’s “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience.”

Before we get to that, recall that I’ve confessed to compatibilist leanings – but on the other hand, I’ve also wondered whether “free will” might be a term that we ought to abandon. I don’t say the latter because I think any particular conception of free will is incoherent, but I do think that the term is vague (vagueness is a very different thing from incoherence) and potentially confusing or misleading. So this series of posts is not from somebody who especially wants to go around saying to people, “You have free will!” … or from somebody who is especially keen to defend others who talk like that. On the other hand, people who go around saying, “You do not have free will!” also run the risk of conveying something that is misleading (e.g. that we never act freely or that there is some truth in fatalism). The safest thing to do, arguably, is forget free will talk, and try to make more precise claims about what abilities we do and do not have.

But with all that said, I think there’s much to agree with in Bok’s essay. She is surely right that these questions cannot be settled merely by establishing that determinism rules at the level of the brain (I’ve been assuming throughout my posts that it does). Although this may not be fully established, I’m happy to assume that it’s true – I’m not opposed to the idea temperamentally, have no contrary philosophical commitments, and think that the science is suggesting that the brain probably does operate deterministically, with any indeterministic quantum effects washing out on its scale. Even if this last bit is wrong, I’ll assume it for the sake of argument, as it is invoked against some of the points I’ve been making lately.

Even if we assume that determinism rules (at the required level), Bok seems to be correct in saying the following:

With the exception of those who work within a religious tradition, philosophers tend to be naturalists who see individual mental events as identical with events in our brains. When we say that a person’s choice caused her action, we do not mean that she swooped in from outside nature and altered her destiny; we mean that an event in her brain caused her to act. On this view, the claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.

For compatibilists, therefore, the problem of free will is not that neuroscience reveals our choices as superfluous. It does not. Nor do compatibilists deny that our choices cause us to do things. The problem of free will for compatibilists is not to preserve a role for deliberation and choice in the face of explanations that threaten them with elimination; it is to explain how, once our minds and our choices have been thoroughly naturalized, we can provide an adequate account of human agency and freedom.

How can we reconcile the idea that our choices have scientific explanations with the idea that we are free? Determinism does not relieve us of the need to make decisions. And when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are. For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.

Quite so, and it won’t do to accuse compatibilists of being wrong because, supposedly, “free will” just means something like indeterminism at the level of the brain, or some mysterious ability of human beings to step out of what is otherwise a deterministic causal order. Most philosophers don’t mean anything like this when they talk about “free will”, and it’s far from clear that the folk do either – the evidence is ambiguous at best, and it by no means confirms that this is how free will is generally understood in the English language, as spoken by ordinary people (not philosophers or theologians). Someone who claims that we don’t have free will, while defining “free will” in such a manner, is merely knocking down a straw man.

If anything, Bok undersells the compatibilist case. She says:

… when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are. For the purposes of deciding what to do, we need to define our alternatives more broadly: as those actions that we would perform if we chose them.

A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then, according to compatibilists, she is free.

Whether this view provides an adequate account of free will is not a problem neuroscience can solve. Neuroscience can explain what happens in our brains: how we perceive and think, how we weigh conflicting considerations and make choices, and so forth. But the question of whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with free will is not a scientific one, and we should not expect scientists to answer it.

Whatever their views on the compatibility of freedom and determinism, most philosophers agree that someone can be free only if she can make a reasoned choice among various alternatives, and act on her decision; in short, only if she has the capacity for self-government.

Perhaps, but an unnecessarily anti-Humean theory of motivation may be lurking in the background here (as may an unnecessarily restricted understanding of science). It’s not clear to me that compatibilists should require that we use reason in any strong way to choose among alternatives that are available to us. I don’t see the need, in all cases, to step back from our existing motivations and habits.

In many cases, surely, we can make a decision that the folk would count as “free” even if we don’t get much distance at all from our own psychologies. What if I calculate the expected results (weighted by probabilities) of alternatives available to me, perhaps working out how the alternatives will tend to advance or set back various conflicting values that I have – but I make no great attempt to work out what weights I put on these conflicting values? What if I merely let my unconscious mind weight them? What if I let it do even more?

Surely this sort of thing happens all the time, and there is nothing odd or worrying about it. I don’t see why this, without more, can’t be a situation where I act of my own free will, and perhaps with free will: if my choice to act in a certain way reflects my values, or desire-set, and if the action is efficacious to some extent, or is at least reasonably likely to be, that’s a long way toward saying that my choice was an example of free will, as understood in ordinary language. If we’re going to use free will talk at all, I don’t see why we should reserve it for situations where the agent gets involved in a whole lot of conscious reasoning or self-scrutiny. After all, we frequently use the phrase, “she acted of her own free will” in cases where nothing so high falutin’ is involved.

Michael Gazzaniga on free will – is free will talk without meaning?

The third of the recent pieces on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education is by Michael S. Gazzaniga. He (or perhaps a sub-editor or someone) has chosen to entitle this: “Free Will Is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible for Your Actions”.

An interesting feature of this one is the way its author dismisses the whole concept of free will as “without meaning” – asking rhetorically whether robots, ants, and chimpanzees have free will. The implication, I suppose, although Gazzaniga doesn’t quite spell this out, is that we don’t have free will, either, since we are sufficiently like these things for the purpose. He asks, still rhetorically, “Is there really something in all of these machines that needs to be free, and if so, from what?” He goes on to say that no one thing is in charge of us, according to modern neuroscience, “with its ever-increasing mechanistic understanding of how the brain enables mind”.

Something about this is attractive (too me, at least). I must say that a lot of free will talk – for example that in the work of religious apologists – strikes me as sanctimonious nonsense, often full of intellectual confusion. So why not cut through it all and simply abandon talk of free will once and for all?

Still, the argument Gazzanniga sketches in his piece is not very strong. I take it that what he is really getting at is that we are relevantly like other things – robots, ants, and chimpanzees – in that we are deterministic physical systems with no single centre of control from some kind of (non-physical?) commander of the whole thing. If the idea of free will seems silly for robots, ants, and chimpanzees, then it should damn well seem silly for human beings! So the thought seems to go. I say “deterministic physical systems” because at one point Gazzaniga refers, as if it’s important, to “brain determinism”; he tells us that this has no effect on personal responsibility, even though it (apparently) prevents us from having free will. (This will be news to those philosophers who actually define free will as having personal responsibility for our actions. But so it goes.)

But when Gazzaniga asks what robots, ants, and chimps need to be free from , that question does not easily translate to human beings. It is not just obvious that there is nothing that human beings need to be free from, even if our brains function deterministically. The fact remains that you and I are conscious beings with certain values that we’d consciously like to honour, certain desires that we’d consciously like to satisfy, certain goals or outcomes that we’d consciously like to achieve or bring about. We may also have various unconscious desires, etc., but for the moment it’s enough to observe that we have these conscious ones. It doesn’t matter if my current desire for a cup of hot chocolate is itself identical to or supervenient upon some aspect of my neurophysiology that undergoes causally deterministic transformations – that can’t take away from the fact that I have the desire. (Frustratingly, we ran out of hot chocolate here last night, and my desire not to go to the trouble of heading off to the supermarket for fresh supplies is currently more salient to me than my desire for the chocolate.)

My desire for hot chocolate right now is a rather weak and trivial one; however, there are other things that matter more to me, such as success in finishing the books that I’m working on at the moment and seeing them through to publication … and there are other things that matter to me even more, and which I seem to be able to influence, such as the happiness of various friends and loved ones. A robot has no such desires – it may be programmed to achieve certain goals, but it cannot consciously desire anything. In the absence of conscious desires, I don’t believe we can meaningfully talk about its possessing unconscious desires, either. If we talk about a robot having desires, this is just a metaphor or an instrumentally useful manner of speaking. Something similar applies, probably, to an ant. What about a chimpanzee? Well, we just don’t know enough about what it is like to be a chimpanzee, but the more like us chimpanzees are in possessing conscious desires, values, goals, a sense of the future, and the like, the less obvious it is that we can’t meaningfully talk about a chimp having free will. A very advanced chimp (or, if it comes to that, a very advanced robot or ant) with those cognitive characteristics might have much the same concerns about its choices and actions as we do. It is not obvious that that sort of chimp (or robot, or ant) would lack free will.

If I possess conscious desires, etc., and if you are capable of communicating with me (as you are), then you can reassure me that I am capable, at least in many cases, of acting in ways that reflect those desires, etc., together with my beliefs about the world. I will only be able to act in ways that fall within my physical and cognitive capacities, I concede, but within those limits (and doubtless others) I’ll be able to act on my desires (values, etc.). What is important to me is that my actions genuinely reflect my desires – that I am not, for example, being tricked or manipulated in some way that is inconsistent with this – and my choices and actions are not subject to onerous constraints above and beyond the limits imposed by my ordinary capacities. E.g., I’m not in jail or acting with a gun at my head.

I want to be able to act in a way that expresses my desires, is not the result of some kind of trickery, coercion or compulsion by others, and is the product of having at least some opportunity to deliberate: I don’t want to act without appropriate time (appropriateness being a highly flexible, pluralist, and case-specific concept, however) to work out what I want to do. This is not intended to be a complete or rigorous list, but it’s a reasonable sketch of what I and others want we say that we want to be able to act “of our own free will”. A life in which we typically act of our own free will is one that we generally aspire to.

I’ve glossed over the issue of capacities here, because it adds a complication. None of us is omnipotent, and most of us could, conceivably, be far more capable even within a normal human range. But we are generally fairly accepting of mere limitations in our capacities, at least if they are not massive compared to those of the people around us, or massively inadequate to what we regard as living a worthwhile life. Inadequate capacities to satisfy our desires are not usually what we have in mind when we discuss free will, though the level of my capacities can indeed affect my options, affect my vulnerability to coercion, etc. Questions about free will and questions about capacities cannot be kept completely separate.

There’s another thing in the vicinity that we seem to want, and this does seem to worry a lot of people. We want to live in a world where our choices and actions have some significant efficacy. Conversely we don’t want to live in a world where, perhaps as a result of the operations of Fate, or Moira, or some other overriding principle or being or force, certain outcomes that are important to us are disconnected from our choices and acts. Some things, such as my death on a certain day, might be imagined to be unavoidably fated – independently of whatever choices I make or what I actually do. In a world like that, it makes intuitive sense to say that I am not free. (I’d like to see some concerted research aimed at testing whether the folk think free will exists in such a world.) Perhaps, on this picture, I can will certain things, all right, but my will has no efficacy (in important respects) because something overrides its effects. So I might as well (in those important respects) give up. This is a counsel to … if not to despair, then to resignation and passivism, or alternatively to imprudence or recklessness.

If someone forgets that these are the sorts of concerns that free will talk is mainly about, he or she may imagine that it is possible to dismiss free will with references to causal determinism at the level of our brains, and with analogies to robots, ants, and the like. But history, experience, and the few empirical studies conducted so far suggest that the concerns I’ve described are, in fact, the sorts of things that bother people. Free will talk may, for all that be confused and misleading, and perhaps we could eventually replace it with more precise kinds of talk that eliminate the expression “free will” altogether – but it does not follow that this sort of talk is, meanwhile, just without any meaning or usefulness.

Alfred Mele on free will

Alfred R. Mele’s recent article on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education is short and to the point. First, Mele argues that most people do not have a conception of free will that involves anything obviously spooky, such as a non-physical soul. Second, he argues that arguments against free will that rely on Libet-style experiments are inconclusive. He may be right on both points, but this falls well short of vindicating free will (to be fair to him, all he concludes is that it’s too early to bet the farm on free will’s non-existence … a rather weak claim).

As to the first point, Mele refers to a simple study that he conducted (he suggests that there were more, but only offers us the one):

In one, I invited participants to imagine a scenario in which scientists had proved that everything in the universe is physical and that what we refer to as a “mind” is actually a brain at work. In this scenario, a man sees a $20 bill fall from a stranger’s pocket, considers returning it, and decides to keep it. Asked whether he had free will when he made that decision, 73 percent answer yes. This study suggests that a majority of people do not see having a nonphysical mind or soul as a requirement for free will.

Just a few points about this. First, even as reported only 73 per cent of participants in the study thought that free will is compatible with physicalism – that seems to be the essence of what they were asked. That’s an overwhelming majority, no doubt, but the fact remains that 27 per cent of people in the study apparently thought that free will is not compatible with physicalism. Furthermore, we are told nothing to assure us that the participants were a random sample of the population (any population you might consider relevant, whether it be the population of the local community where the study was conducted, the population of, say, the US, or the population of the English-speaking world). Was the study biased, for example, towards highly educated people, or more secular people, who might be more accepting of physicalism than the general population?

Thus, the study is suggestive, but it does not, at least as it’s reported, prove a great deal. It suggests that many people, perhaps a majority, think that free will is compatible with physicalism, and perhaps that it’s compatible with causal determinism (if we make an assumption that the two ideas tend to be closely linked in people’s minds). That’s important, in that the study at least provides data casting doubt on the view that “free will” just means, in the English language, something … well, something incompatible with physicalism and determinism. It provides one set of data, albeit not necessarily a very reliable one, that many people actually have a much more mundane conception of free will.

However, we don’t know enough to draw strong, specific conclusions about how the participants in the study approached the question they were asked. Did they answer quickly and intuitively, or did they think about it in a more theoretical way? Perhaps some thought it was sufficient that the person not handing back the $20 was able to deliberate, was not externally impeded or coerced, etc. Perhaps some thought it enough that nothing described in the scenario implied the truth of anything like fatalism (it is arguable that this is the issue that really bugs the folk … both now and historically). Perhaps, for all we know, the participants, or many of them, had rather confused conceptions of free will, involving a jumble of ideas, but at least the majority of them did not have a clear conception that “free will” just means (in part) the actions or deliberations of some kind of spooky non-material thing.

Furthermore, we should ask about the arguments of writers who insist that the meaning of “free will” – what the expression actually conveys in ordinary use in the English language – is the deliberation of some sort of non-material thing whose activity transcends any natural order of causation. How is this semantic claim grounded? What evidence do we have for it? Perhaps Mele’s little experiment is not decisive against the people who define “free will” in such ways, but their semantic claim doesn’t seem to have any more solid grounding. On the contrary, it generally seems to be an intuition based on the life experience of those making the claim, but that is hardly scientific and others may have very different life experiences. At the most it relies on highly indirect evidence, such as evidence that the folk tend to have a dualist theory of mind.

As for Mele’s point about how to interpret Libet-type experiments, this is an area where I hesitate to get involved. I don’t want to pretend to expertise that I lack. Still, I’ve never been convinced that the experiments prove much at all, and not for the sorts of reasons that Mele gives. While Mele argues about how to interpret the data, I wonder whether he isn’t chasing a mirage here. Even if he is correct about everything else, his arguments only seem to be relevant if he is trying to defend a position that we make decisions, or perhaps final decisions, entirely consciously – or at least that this happens in important cases. But, Libet aside, is that even remotely like the experience we actually have? While agonising conscious deliberations may play some kind of important role in reaching some of our decisions on difficult issues, we never seem to reach these decisions in an entirely conscious way.

Not surprisingly, therefore, courtroom advocates (barristers and trial lawyers) are trained to immerse themselves in the detailed evidence relating to a case, but not to think they can work out the case theory consciously. At least that’s my experience: they are told, in effect, to let the unconscious mind do the creative work, or much of it. I doubt that it’s different for other professions, irrespective of what practitioners are explicitly taught.

The way we reach factual conclusions, arrive at theories and understandings, make decisions about what to do next, and do so on, will generally, at some stage, involve an Aha! point (or more than one) where the answer (or some aspect of it) seems to “come to us” from the unconscious parts of our minds. Not only is this the actual phenomenology of decision-making, there are reasons to question whether we can coherently imagine or describe a situation in which every aspect of our decision-making is fully conscious – just try to do so! I defy you to. (Neil Levy has a 2005 article questioning whether the idea is even conceptually coherent, though I don’t know whether it represents his current view.)

A suitably deflated concept of free will may match up with the ideas of the folk, at least in a rough way, and may also be instantiated in the real world – e.g. it may be enough that fatalism is not true and/or that we are often able to make uncoerced decisions after an adequate time for deliberation (which may, in part, be conscious). If these are the sorts of things that the folk, or many of them, primarily have in mind when they think they have free will, then free will is not only compatible with physicalism and determinism. It also seems compatible with the role that is played by the unconscious mind. On the other hand, it may not be compatible with the role played by the unconscious mind if we always (or even typically) have unconscious desires, fears, etc., that are at odds with our consciously held values, and which we’d experience as alien if we knew about them.

In any event, no matter how much we fence and skirmish over how to interpret the Libet data, we are not going to be able to defend free will unless we have a conception of free will that allows a large role for the unconscious mind in our decision-making processes.