Apr 012017

If you frequent this blog you know that I pick on compatibilism a lot, and I do so as a point of contention about definitions, focus, and problems inherent when one uses a term in a way that causes a bypass of some serious issues of concern. And though I’m very critical of compatibilism, especially when the compatibilist is not blatantly clear to the reader about what their position is in regards to “just desert moral responsibility” or what I’ll refer to as “strong responsibility” (and does a sort of “bypass” over that issue), I do sometimes like to bring things back to where agreements can be had between the compatibilist and hard incompatibilist.

This post is really addressing those people who are somewhat familiar with the free will debate, but in short, to address the relation to how the term “free will” is defined by both camps:

  • Compatibilist: A person who (re?)defines the term “free will” to some mechanism that is compatible with determinism.
  • Hard Incompatibilist: A person who defines free will as an ability that is incompatible with determinism (hard determinism) or indeterminism.

The hard incompatibilist would suggest that the compatibilist definition is often revisionist, given the traditional view, and the hard incompatibilist often holds the definition they do because the majority of people believe in some incoherent notion of free will abilities – and that is the problem. The compatibilist might say we should revise the term free will because of a concern over telling people they don’t have free will, and potential problems that can arise that way. Most often the hard incompatibilist would agree that the “decision-making” abilities the compatibilist portrays exists, and, when pressed, vice versa. So to focus on agreements, I want to talk about certain types of each position and what is needed in order to make a compatibilist / hard incompatibilist transformation.

To do this, I want you to imagine the rare compatibilist that does make themselves clear over “strong responsibility”, and they happen to side with the hard incompatibilist such as myself who thinks the type of “free will” that would grant this “strong sense of responsibility” is out. Please check this infographic in order to see the distinction between the “strong sense” and “weak sense” I refer to:

So though I think a whole lot of compatibilists hold their position in order to bypass or obfuscate the “responsibility” issue (my main criticism), and others even denote that people still have “strong responsibility”(of whom I’m extremely critical of), I do know of some (I stress “some” in a minimal sense) compatibilist who align with the hard incompatibilist in regards to the lack of “strong responsibility” (as denoted in the above infographic) and who make their position clear on that . When this latter compatibilist position is the case, that is when the conversation becomes entirely about semantics over the “free will”. I will call this a “Non-Strong-Responsibility Compatibilist” or NSRC for short.

Likewise, not all free will skepticism or rejectionism is equal. For example, compatibilists might complain when some (I stress “some” in a minimal sense) hard determinists are also an extreme form of reductionist – what Dennett (a compatibilist) might call a “greedy reductionist“:

Greedy reductionism, identified by Daniel Dennett, in his 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, is a kind of erroneous reductionism. Whereas “good” reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to (for example, its parts and their interactions), greedy reductionism occurs when “in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists and philosophers … underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.” Using the terminology of “cranes” (legitimate, mechanistic explanations) and “skyhooks” (essentially, fake—e.g. supernaturalistic—explanations) built up earlier in the chapter, Dennett recapitulates his initial definition of the term in the chapter summary on p. 83: “Good reductionists suppose that all Design can be explained without skyhooks; greedy reductionists suppose it can all be explained without cranes.”

These type of “greedy reductionists” might make a claim that there is no real conscious thought, decision-making, and action – or that beliefs, ideas, and other mental states do not help explain behavior. Of course, most hard incompatibilists / free will skeptics do not conclude this (and I’d suggest for very good reasons), and recognize the importance of these as processes in a causal system. In fact, many free will skeptics will talk about things like “memes” (in the  Dawkins sense rather than “internet meme” sense), responses to pain and pleasure, and the like. These hard incompatibilists / free will skeptics who reject “greedy reductionism” agree with a whole lot of the “causal processes” that many compatibilists like to label as “free will”. I will call this a “Non-Greedy-Reductionists Incompatibilist” or NGRI for short. We will also assume the NGRI doesn’t fall into other traps such as fatalism (which differs from determinism). By the way, as an NGRI myself, I am just as much against a greedy-reductionist free will skeptic as I am against a compatibilist who bypasses the strong responsibility part of the free will debate, this is why I always stress the importance over how we educate the “lack of free will”, how the term should be defined and why,  what it actually means that we do not have “free will”, and what it does not mean.

Since it is the case that you can have an NSRC and an NGRI who align conceptually  –  at that point most disagreements about “free will” between the two become entirely semantic and about focus. One could, at this point, make a transformation between NSRC and NGRI to either side –  as long as they both are clear and as long as they agree to terms (and don’t use terms they disagree with). Think of a transformation as a sort-of shift from one to the other, in either direction, with both being “technically correct / equal” if we ignore the different usage of terms and just focus entirely on comparisons of base understandings.

I bring this up in order to build bridges rather than constantly destroy them. To show where agreement could be had, and where it cannot.

Of course, I will continue to criticize compatibilism for a number of reasons:

  • Most compatibilists are not NSRC friendly, where-as many hard incompatibilists are NGRI friendly. This is extremely important.
  • Revising definitions of free will to compatibilist versions causes too many confusions, even on the rare occasion that one is clear (or is a NSRC).
  • Most laypersons believe in problematic “free will ” abilities (the type the hard incompatibilist is concerned about) that fall along side of less problematic one’s.
  • Most laypersons believe in strong responsibility, and that has implications over a number of very important topics, including ethics.
  • The more people believe in free will, the more retributive and willing to blame, and the more egoism is allowed to take hold (creating an allowance for gross inequalities). This has important implications for the societal progression I’d like to see.
  • I don’t believe it is easier to turn people into NSRC compatibilists. Dismantling the term “free will”, I believe, is better to remove the bad ideas people hold over certain abilities, deserve, retribution, inequality justification, and so on. I also think we can educate people on problematic thinking that comes along intuitively when they (too quickly – in misinformed ways) learn free will doesn’t exist (a problem I think caused due to a base underpinning derived from prior free will belief and mistaken implications).
  • The term “free will” should denote the practical importance for the historical debate.

Regarding the first bullet point, when I say that “most compatibilists are not NSRC friendly”, I mean that either:

  1. They denote that strong responsibility is still viable, or
  2. They bypass the strong responsibility topic entirely with their semantic shift, or
  3. They conflate strong responsibility with “for the sake of utility” assessments (weak responsibility) as if they the same.

For the hard incompatibilist such as myself, 1, 2, or 3 are all unacceptable.

Regardless of my reasons above for rejecting compatibilism, an NSRC/NGRI transformation can take place, and that means there is much “compatibility” between these types of compatibilism and hard incompatibilism. So if you are an NSRC, I welcome my like-minded compatibilist. As long as you recognize the definition of “free will” I work under for this blog and my book, don’t let term semantics distract from the message.

And if you are a free will skeptic like I am, and having a discussion with a compatibilist – ask them what their position is on the strong sense of responsibility in this infographic, and if they agree people do not have it, ask them if their free will position addresses that very important fact, or if it simply hand-waves it away.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  17 Responses to “A Compatibilism / Incompatibilism Transformation”

  1. I must admit … I don’t agree with your continued advocating of morality.

    We could end up having Dennett’s morality worth wanting or Carroll’s most useful morality.

    Compatibilist morality for free deniers.


    • Hiya Juri,

      The fact of the matter is, a certain type of forward-looking consequentialist ethics is entirely compatible with a lack of free will. A lack of free will doesn’t imply ethical nihilism. The only thing a lack of free will implies is a lack of (after-the-fact) moral/ethical responsibility – and that fact is important for an ethical system. But given some of the things you have said on our podcast, there are a number of points of contention we will have that we should address at some point (consciousness being a prime example). Unfortunately, George wants to do a part 2 of our last convo this Sunday, otherwise we could get into this.

      BTW, I read what you asked (Blackmore’s “Am I Conscious Now”). It was really poor thinking IMO, and seemed almost new-agey. 😉

      • That is not my point Trick …. compatibilist definitions of free will are compatible with science too.
        So why would not a compatibilist definition of morality not be compatible with science?
        A lack of free will imo should induce a radical rethink of this morality lark.

        As to Sunday … will have visitors that day … so won’t be able to make it.

        Do you agree with Blackmore’s observation, never mind her thinking?

        And your replies should also be limited to 500 characters. 😉

        • A lack of free will is an important aspect to morality, but there are good (axiological, metaethical, and normative) reasons to hold on to the morality business – because conscious actions do lead to axiological consequences of importance. The problem with compatibilism is that most people believe in incoherent abilities, and compatibilism bypasses the important issue. For morality, there is a long secular history.

          No, I think Blackmore’s observation is absurdist.


          • If you say so … though I see no difference myself between compatibilist free will and compatibilist morality.

            How is your morality different to that of a common or garden compatibilist?

          • I believe you are conflating topics. For example, a free will compatibilist can be A) a moral relativist, B) a moral nihilist, or C) a moral realist. Likewise, so can a free will incompatibilist.

            Where the free will issue comes into play regarding morality is in regards to (hindsight) just-desert moral responsibility (which is not the same thing as morality in general) – which this very article alludes to the differences.

          • I believe you are conflating topics. For example, a free will compatibilist can be A) a moral relativist, B) a moral nihilist, or C) a moral realist. Likewise, so can a free will incompatibilist.

            So that is my point there is no difference … and I believe I am not conflating anything.

          • The only aspect of ethics that free will addresses is “just desert” moral responsibility. It doesn’t address whether something is ethical or not, whether ethics applies or not, nor does hard incompatibilism equate to ethical nihilism (as e-realism and e-relativism are compatible with a lack of free will)

            Your question is like asking “what is an atheists position on veganism (or any other topic that does not refer to the question about a god)”.

          • ** Also re-read the post / bullet points above for the “difference”. Most compatibilists are not NSRC friendly, and there are whopping semantic problems.

      • Just desert?

        Do you mean a measured action that will get my, your or society’s preferred response?

        Don’t need the concept of ethics or morality for this.

        • “Just desert” meaning whether one’s actions makes them “deserving” of punishment or “deserving” of a benefit (usually at the expense of others who are deemed as “less or not deserving”).

          That is what is out on the lack of free will, and has very specific implications for ethical theory – which is not “to abandon ethical theory”.

          Sidenote: Preference utilitarianism (which I’d argue against) IS ethical/moral theory as well. Don’t kid yourself. 😉

  2. This discussion makes me think about whether we can provide an inventory of everything there is, thus answering the most basic of metaphysical questions: what is there? What are the possibilities for discerning the different categories of ‘reality itself’? Are we offering a uniquely true and complete system of ontological categories? Cataloguing the highest kinds in the world itself? Generally purporting to answer deep metaphysical questions about what things or kinds of things exist?

  3. Hi. Although nobody deserves anything, will I not be at liberty to take or use resources according to my contribution to society? Or will equality cause those not contributing to start contributing?

    • Hi Carl,

      For the sake of a society, we may require incentives (really to curb irrational psychologies), but we should move away from extreme inequalities. More important is that we change our mindset on “deserve notions”, and our incentive should be a better world for all (which we live in) rather than just individual incentives. 😉

  4. (in-) Determinism tells us nothing is deserved (punishment), nothing is earned (inequalities). Our intuition tells us the opposite.
    To resolve cognitive dissonance we can, A) Refute determinism, embrace,dualism; B) Claiming that (in-) determinism has no consequences for our morals; C) Ignore intuition, deny freewill.
    A and B usually win; humans seem to have an urge to punish wrongdoers.The B’s want to appear reasonable at the same time. Some B’s are confused C’s.C’s become soft on crime.

    • Thanks – good thoughts. 😀

      The problem with A is that dualism becomes incoherent, the problem with B is that (strong) moral responsibility (which differs from morality in general) would, therefore, be as well.

      You are correct that this goes against our intuitions, which is the bigger problem -making this an uphill battle. 😉

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Comments in this section should be brief, coherent, and to the point, preferably 1 OR 2 sentences long. Due to this, I've limited comments to 500 characters. Using multiple comments at a single turn will not be approved. I'd like for this comment section to be conversational and not intimidating for people to read or respond to. Essay sized posts, though perhaps interesting, should go elsewhere.  Misinformation or fallacies may not be approved. Click here for more comment rules. I appreciate your understanding. Thanks! 'Trick.


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