Some compatibilists like to define free will as something entirely different than the definition I’ve supplied here: FREE WILL.
Notice I have both a present tense version:
“The ability to choose between more than one viable option or action, in which that choice was up to the chooser.”
and a past tense version:
“The ability to have, of one’s own accord, chosen otherwise than they did.”
They are really the same definition in different forms. Notice that in both versions there is a qualifier, that being “up to the chooser” or “of one’s own accord”. These parts basically mean the same thing, and they are only tacked on to the definitions to address “indeterminism” (meaning if some events are acausal) and how they could never be “up to the chooser” or “of one’s own accord”. They’d just happen regardless of “us”. Most compatibilist agree with this, but they say that free will isn’t incompatible with determinism. Therefore, we can truncate my definition and take out these qualifiers under the assumption that all events are causal (at least when addressing the compatibilist). If we were to address the libertarian (who thinks free will is compatible with indeterminism), such qualifiers are important.
For this article I want to address the past tense definition, minus the qualifier, as it’s more common to hear it in this form and more relevant to the study I’m about to address. In other words, just simplify my definition down to:
“The ability to have chosen otherwise than they did.” (in a deterministic universe)
Most philosophical compatibilist (such as Dennett) would agree that people don’t have this ability, but they would also say this is not how we should be defining free will. Rather, we should define it in some way that is compatible with a deterministic universe. For example, the ability to do what one desires to do (perhaps ignoring the fact that what one desires is a causal happening as well). Some go on to say that this is the way most people think about free will, and this is the crux of the semantic disagreement between the compatibilist and the hard incompatibilist such as myself.
I say that most people think that they and others could have chosen otherwise – at least in some circumstances. That all of the options before them are often “viable” options. And it’s this notion that is problematic.
But people such as Daniel Dennett might site the study by Nahmias et all titled “Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility” as evidence that a majority of people have compatibilist ideas about free will, as he did with Sam Harris. And this may be the case in the sense that these people still think they have free will even if every event is causal. What is more important is that the definition of free will that Dennett (and the likes of most philosophical compatibilists) use are nothing like the compatibilist notions of the people in the study – so to equate the two is, to say the least, faulty (if not dishonest). What’s more, the definition I’m using does correlate with the ability people intuitively feel they possess.
First, what is “compatibilism”? It’s the idea that free will is “compatible” with a deterministic universe (again placing the possibility of an indeterministic universe to the side). So all it takes is for a person to think, even if the universe is entirely causal, that free will is still possible, and boom, they can be officially labeled a “compatibilist”. This can allow people like Dennett to claim that most people are compatibilists, disregarding that such doesn’t make their free will belief actually compatible with determinism, as I’ll go on to explain.
In other words, though most may think free will is compatible with determinism, they don’t necessarily disagree with the definition of free will that is incompatible with free will. Let me say this again, just because they think that free will is compatible with determinism, does not mean they believe in a compatible definition of free will. It’s important not to conflate these two things (as Dennett does in his response to Sam Harris for example).
So whether or not these people are “compatibilists” is irrelevant to the fact that the free will ability they believe they posses is actually incompatible with determinism.
If we were to look at the “Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility“ study, we’d notice some weird things. Let’s take a quick look at a scenario in the study. People were asked to read the below:
Scenario: Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a supercomputer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time. It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25, 2150 AD, 20 years before Jeremy Hall is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195. As always, the supercomputer’s prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195.
They were then asked to suspend belief about whether or not such could actually take place and were asked:
Regardless of how you answered question 1, imagine such a supercomputer actually did exist and actually could predict the future, including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction):
Do you think that, when Jeremy robs the bank, he acts of his own free will?
A whopping 76% said that Jeremy did rob the bank of his own free will. This, indeed, is compatibilistic. They accept (with the suspending of judgement) the deterministic scenario, and at the same time think that Jeremy has free will in that deterministic universe. But is it the compatibilism that philosophers such as Dennett propose? Lets look at another question of the study which was used to assess whether the people in the study thought Jeremy could have “chosen otherwise”.
In these cases, participants were asked—again, imagining the scenario were actual—whether or not Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank (case 6), whether he could have chosen not to save the child (case 7), or whether he could have chosen not to go jogging (case 8).
In the blameworthy variation, participants’ judgments of Jeremy’s ability to choose otherwise (ACO) did in fact track the judgments of free will and responsibility we collected, with 67% responding that Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank. However, in the praiseworthy case, judgments of ACO were significantly different from judgments of his free will and responsibility: Whereas a large majority of participants had judged that Jeremy is free and responsible for saving the child, a majority (62%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to save the child?’’ Finally, in the morally neutral case, judgments of ACO were also significantly different from judgments of free will—again, whereas a large majority had judged that Jeremy goes jogging of his own free will, a majority (57%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to go jogging?’’
So what does this say? It says that people’s intuitions about whether or not someone can do otherwise is contingent upon whether they thought the act morally problematic. 67% thought that an “otherwise” can happen in a deterministic universe (for the bank robbery), regardless if some situations it cannot.
But let’s move on to another scenario given in the study and assess the same “otherwise” notion:
Scenario. Imagine there is a world where the beliefs and values of every person are caused completely by the combination of one’s genes and one’s environment. For instance, one day in this world, two identical twins, named Fred and Barney, are born to a mother who puts them up for adoption. Fred is adopted by the Jerksons and Barney is adopted by the Kindersons. In Fred’s case, his genes and his upbringing by the selfish Jerkson family have caused him to value money above all else and to believe it is OK to acquire money however you can. In Barney’s case, his (identical) genes and his upbringing by the kindly Kinderson family have caused him to value honesty above all else and to believe one should always respect others’ property. Both Fred and Barney are intelligent individuals who are capable of deliberating about what they do.
One day Fred and Barney each happen to find a wallet containing $1000 and the identification of the owner (neither man knows the owner). Each man is sure there is nobody else around. After deliberation, Fred Jerkson, because of his beliefs and values, keeps the money. After deliberation, Barney Kinderson, because of his beliefs and values, returns the wallet to its owner.
Given that, in this world, one’s genes and environment completely cause one’s beliefs and values, it is true that if Fred had been adopted by the Kindersons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to return the wallet; and if Barney had been adopted by the Jerksons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to keep the wallet.
In this scenario 76% said that Fred kept the wallet and Barney returned the wallet of their own free will. This time 76% also said that both Fred and Barney could have done otherwise. Unlike what those doing this study assess about it, this actually says that yes, the hard determinist/incompatibilst is actually using the appropriate free will definition, and the philosophical compatibilist is not. The definition that the hard determinist/incompatibilist is using is the definition that most people intuitively feel they and others possess.
Which brings me to want to address this part of the study:
Nonetheless, we think that our results place the burden of proof on the shoulders of incompatibilists. Incompatibilists are especially apt to cite folk intuitions in support of their view, in part because their conception of free will is more metaphysically demanding and therefore requires extra intuitive support to offset the strength of their claims. Put simply: if our ordinary intuitions do not demand indeterminism, then why should our theories? If incompatibilists claim that compatibilism is a ‘‘wretched subterfuge,’’ a radical revision of commonsense beliefs, then we recommend that some empirical evidence should be offered to back up this claim.
To be clear, the people who wrote this study seem to be under the assumption that incompatibilists in general (rather than certain libertarians such as Kane) think that people hold to incompatibilistic ideas about free will. This is not, in any way, the case. Rather, they could (and most likely do) hold compatibilistic notions that (the incompatibilist is saying) are in actuality incompatible with determinism whether they happen to believe so or not. The point is, their intuitions about free will is that people could have done otherwise in a deterministic universe…and it’s these intuitions that the hard determinist / hard incompatibilist takes issue with. And such a belief is not any common philosophical compatibilist definition.
When compatibilists move to a definition that says absolutely nothing about the ability to have done otherwise, they are contriving a definition that avoids the intuitive feelings that most people think they and others possess (as these studies show). They are side-stepping an extremely important philosophical understanding, that being what it means that people could not have done otherwise.
I have more to say on this, but this will do for now.
Nahmias, E., S. Morris, T. Nadelhoffer, and J. turner. 2006. Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility.Philosohical Psychology 18:561-584.
Latest posts by 'Trick Slattery (see all)
- The Only Free Will Worth Wanting … - February 18, 2017
- The “But We Can Never Rewind Time” Response (for the free will debate) - January 30, 2017
- On The Practical Importance of the Free Will Debate - November 7, 2016