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:
- They denote that strong responsibility is still viable, or
- They bypass the strong responsibility topic entirely with their semantic shift, or
- 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.