Jun 172015
 

geocentric-free-will

Some compatibilists think we should redefine the term “free will” to be something that is consistent with reality, rather than accept a more common definition that is incoherent or outside of the facts. Today I want to address this little snippet from Daniel Dennett’s response to Sam Harris. Dennett is a compatibilist who wants to redefine free will, Harris is an incompatibilist who does not. In one part Dennett says:

After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. They were wrong, and it took some heavy lifting to convince them of this. Maybe this factoid is a reflection on how much work science and philosophy still have to do to give everyday laypeople a sound concept of free will. We’ve not yet succeeded in getting them to see the difference between weight and mass, and Einsteinian relativity still eludes most people. When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

Harris is absolutely correct when he says in his response:

Of course, the sun isn’t an illusion, but geocentrism is. Our native sense that the sun revolves around a stationary Earth is simply mistaken. And any “project of sympathetic reconstruction” (your compatibilism) with regard to this illusion would be just a failure to speak plainly about the facts.

Though Dennett is the one that derived the initial thought in order to make a point about changing the definitions of words, Harris’s point truly does make the case for why we shouldn’t be redefining free will to something different. The term “geocentric” didn’t become redefined with the understanding that the sun didn’t revolve around the earth, rather, we say that such is not geocentric. In fact, we now have an entirely different word that is used, which is “heliocentric” – which describes that the earth, in fact, revolves around the sun.

The idea that the sun was being defined by people as “that which revolves around the earth” totally ignores that “sun” is more commonly assessed simply as the large, hot, ball of fire in the sky (which obviously exists even if it moved in a bouncy ball pattern). So no, of course we wouldn’t say that the sun doesn’t exist with the rejection of its orbit around the earth, just as we wouldn’t say that any celestial body doesn’t exist if we understand something different about its behavior. Rather, we assess that the behavior is different, and in the case of the solar system, the word for the behavior indeed does gets rejected.

If we thought that someone turned right when in fact they turned left, we don’t change the semantic of the word right into the semantic of the word left. We say we were wrong about them turning right and that they turned left instead. Similarly with “geocentric”, we don’t simply redefine the word, we reject that such actually applies given the facts. We say that the belief in a geocentric solar system is false.

But why is this? Why didn’t we just redefine geocentric rather than use heliocentric?

There are a number of important reasons not to change definitions:

1) CAUSES CONFUSIONS

Confusions arise with the change of terms, especially when most at one time believed that the earth was at the center. If, for example, we redefined geo to relate to sun rather than the earth, geocentric now meaning the sun is the center of the solar system, most people would hear the word “geocentric” and not know such was referring to the new definition. They’d still hold the belief that the sun rotated around the earth. They’d still think “geo” relates to the earth. And even when some explicitly assert this new redefinition of “geo”, such would most likely cause more confusion rather than a semantic adjustment in the minds of the population. In fact, such would quite often lead people to just think the other made a mistake or that they have said something they actually didn’t.

This applies to the term “free will” as well, changing such a definition just causes confusions. It’s more analogous to people redefining the word “god” as “the universe” or “nature”. Considering that most people think of some conscious entity when they hear the term god, someone telling them god exists because the universe exists only causes confusions as to what they are actually referring. For example, is the person just asserting a creationist account that the universe was created by the conscious entity known as god, rather than them just asserting the universe is god?

Changing definitions allows people to conflate the use of the word that some display a new definition for to contrive that the old definition is still viable. I suspect some compatibilists may want to redefine such words as free will due to these very confusions. In other words, it allows some of the ideas that revolve around the old “free will” term to be incorrectly blended into the new usage.

2) INCREASES AMBIGUITY

Redefining words and terms to something outside of common intuitions and thoughts doesn’t produce a shift on such words, rather, it is more likely to produce a word that is even more ambiguous, meaning that the word or term now has to be clarified to an even larger degree than before every-time it is used.  Take the word “objective” as an example. This word causes great confusions simply due to the numerous ways it can be used. For example, the scientific method might be considered an “objective” methodology, or “objective” might simply mean that something “exists in the universe (is real)”, or it might mean anything that is not “subjective”, or it might even mean anything that is not “subjective opinion”, and more. All of these differing usages makes the word “objective” problematic unless it is clearly defined. The problem is that it’s a pain to define a word precisely every-time it’s used,  and often never happens. The more ambiguous a word becomes the more problematic such a word becomes for clear language and discourse.

The term “free will” already contains some ambiguity, but there is a more common intuition that exists about the “free will” ability people feel they possess. As soon as we move too far away from it, such only, as Harris puts it, causes a “failure to speak plainly about the facts”. 

3) PLACEHOLDER REMOVAL

The term geocentric is an important place-holder to describe what people once believed in. This might seem unimportant, but for us to correctly assess history, changes in semantics of important words tend to become problematic. When we say that most people at some time in the past believed in a geocentric solar system, we are saying that they thought the sun and other planets revolved around the earth. If we remove that placeholder, we then cannot use it for the belief they once had as such would today be defined differently. In other words, if we redefined geocentric to mean the planets in the solar system revolved around the sun, if we use the same word to say that people believed in a geocentric solar system at that earlier time, it seems as they believed the same. But of course they did not. The word “geocentric” was used at the time to denote a specific position that we wouldn’t want to confuse if we don’t have to.

Same thing with the term “free will”; at some point in the future we’ll want to tell others about how way back when, people believed in the destructive idea of free will. It means something historically, and is something that we wouldn’t want to change. Like geocentric, if we want to talk about other conscious mechanisms we have that are unrelated to the free will most people had intuited, that is one thing. By all means, create a word around such if you find it important for some reason. But let’s not unnecessarily remove historical placeholders, as a clear account of history helps educate us on where we went wrong and how we should adjust for the future.

As you see, the problems of changing the word geocentric are similar to the problems of changing the term free will. That being said, the problems of changing the term free will are actually far worse than changing the term geocentric, even though it would be wrong-headed to change the word geocentric for the above reasons. Here is why it’s worse:

1) FREE WILL REDEFINITIONS DO NOT ABANDON OLD DEFINITIONS/INTUITIONS

If we redefined geocentric as the earth and other planets revolving around the sun, at least such new semantic would rule out the older definition of the sun and planets revolving around the earth (for someone that wasn’t simply confused by the semantic shift). On the other hand, if we redefine free will in the way most philosophical compatibilists want to, such definitions say absolutely nothing about no longer having “the ability to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise”. Most compatibilist redefinitions work with a semantic that says nothing about the past definition being impossible.  This is important because such:

2) BYPASSES TOPICS OF IMPORTANCE

Such a semantic shift bypasses topics of much importance. For geocentric points of views there may be some other ideas that are attached to “our planet” being the center. Indeed, such has implications for certain religious ideology, ideas about our own importance, or cosmological finding. But even if the redefinition takes place these other becomes technically “ruled out”. For free will such does not, as the above suggests.

The implications for a geocentric definition shift are minor compared to the implications if we don’t have free will in the sense of being able to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise. If we make a semantic shift for the term free will, and such doesn’t address the removal of the other as a possibility, it allows people to disregard the implications of what it means that we don’t have such an ability while focusing entirely on a new semantic that doesn’t infer that we don’t have the ability. This makes the definitional change of the term “free will” even worse than a definitional change of “geocentric” would be.

This is because there are a number beliefs, ideas, and even psychological adjustments than need to take place with the understanding that we could not have, of our own accord, done otherwise.  See here for just a few: 10 Benefits of Not Believing in Free Will

So not only would such a “free will” redefinition 1) cause confusion, 2) increase ambiguity, and 3) problematically remove a historical placeholder, just as doing such with the word “geocentric” would, but such a definitional change of “free will” that most compatibilist are looking for: 1) do not on the face of it rule out the other definition and 2) bypasses many topics of extreme importance that rest on the assumption of the more common free will.

Someone might ask why I’m so adamant that compatibilism isn’t the way to go, but it’s because  of all of these reasons and more. Such redefinitions are not only unnecessary, but way too problematic. Let’s just speak plainly that free will doesn’t exist and understand the implications for such.

So compatibilists, go ahead and call “the ability to make rational decisions” something new such as, how about this: “rational decision making”. That’s quite unique.

Just don’t redefine free will as such while avoiding all of the problems with doing so and bypassing what it means that we don’t have free will in the sense of being able to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise, or in the present tense of having the ability to choose between more than one viable option, in which that choice is “up to the chooser”. We don’t have such abilities and it’s very important to understand why and what it means for so many other topics and how we think, feel, and behave.

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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.

  14 Responses to “Redefining “Free Will” is Like Redefining “Geocentric” – Except Worse”

  1. This is one of your best blog posts ever. I am highly against redefinitions of old terms because it causes us to misunderstand what was written when those words were understood differently.

  2. Regarding the present-tense case in the last paragraph:
    First, all present alternatives are actually potential future actions whose viability can only be estimated, never certain until after choosing.
    Second, choice IS “up to the chooser” if that phrase is taken to mean “the organism as a whole” and not some fantasy self like the apparent conscious subject.

    • First, all present alternatives are actually potential future actions whose viability can only be estimated, never certain until after choosing.

      Epistemically we cannot know which one will be the output. We can, however, understand that only one was ever ontologically viable even before such choosing …unless we have an acausal event (in which case such would not be “up to the chooser”).

      Second, choice IS “up to the chooser” if that phrase is taken to mean “the organism as a whole” and not some fantasy self like the apparent conscious subject.

      The “up to the chooser” part is only referring to an acausal event that can never be “up to a chooser”. If we are saying that every event has a cause, there is only one viable option and that part isn’t needed. If we are saying that some events do not have a cause, it’s possible to have more than one viable option, but any that stem from an acausal event wouldn’t be “up to the chooser”…it would be dictated entirely by an event that is outside of such chooser.

      In the past tense version, the “up to the chooser” part aligns with the “of one’s own accord” part…and is only used to address indeterministic (libertarian) notions of “freedom”.

  3. “Ontologically viable”? “Viable” means simply “capable of living”. There is no way of knowing (with certainty) whether a potential action is viable (able to be enacted (and able to produce a desired result)) before it is attempted. Thus the chooser is never faced with “viable options” but with the need to predict the viability of apparent options. No outside observer can predict with certainty which action will be chosen. The chooser (organism as a whole) is the proximate cause of the action chosen. The ONLY possible meaning of freedom is the organism’s ability to act according to its present nature (however “deterministically” evolved) in the present circumstances without overt outside compulsion to do otherwise (gun pointed at head). The notion that the ultimate cause of a choice is the “Big Bang” and the totality of quantum interactions in the universe thereafter (for example) is very cute, but absolutely irrelevant.

    How is “up to the chooser” acausal? If so, you’re being too tricky (i.e. insincere). Ah, well, what to expect from someone so named?
    I’d like to discuss “responsibility”…..later, though.

    • ““Ontologically viable”? “Viable” means simply “capable of living”.”

      Viable in this context simply means it’s a possibility. That, for example, in an entirely causal universe only one option is actually “feasible” (regardless if we know which one).

      “There is no way of knowing (with certainty) whether a potential action is viable (able to be enacted (and able to produce a desired result)) before it is attempted.”

      We don’t need to know which is viable, we only need to know that if one is viable the others never were. In other words, we can understand that only one of the options actually IS viable, regardless if we can know which one (unless we invoke acausal events).

      “No outside observer can predict with certainty which action will be chosen.”

      I never said they could. It’s important not to conflate the ontic (what is) with the epistemic (what we can or cannot know):
      Existence Conflated with Knowledge and the Free Will Debate

      “The ONLY possible meaning of freedom is the organism’s ability to act according to its present nature (however “deterministically” evolved) in the present circumstances without overt outside compulsion to do otherwise (gun pointed at head).”

      Again, this goes against the common intuitions that people hold, and also invokes the fact that the microchipped person has just as much freedom.

      “The notion that the ultimate cause of a choice is the “Big Bang” and the totality of quantum interactions in the universe thereafter (for example) is very cute, but absolutely irrelevant.”

      It’s not irrelevant to the question of multiple (ontologically) viable options.

      “How is “up to the chooser” acausal?”

      It’s not acausal, it’s referring to why an acausal event cannot give free will.

      “If so, you’re being too tricky (i.e. insincere).”

      Not at all, saying “up to the chooser” is no different than saying “of one’s own accord”. It’s simply addressing that a non-caused (acausal) event cannot be an event that is “up to a person”. It’s not really tricky at all, in fact most philosophical compatibilists would agree that such indeterminism cannot help with free will for this very reason.

      “I’d like to discuss “responsibility”… later, though”

      This is fine, just know that such words are ambigious so we need to clarify what we mean:
      No Free Will and the Ambiguity of “Responsibility”

      Later friend. :-)

  4. Your preferred definitions are ones carefully chosen to make free will impossible.
    Your definition of “viable” is ridiculous. As I’ve said, “apparent viability” of discernible options at the moment of choice is what’s real. To escape this lion, run right, run left, throw rock, climb tree “A”, climb tree “B”….all (perhaps) possible actions. Your insistence on strict determinism simply renders possibility impossible. Meaningless. This does not relieve the organism of the need to make choices, preferably “freely”.
    You maintain that there are no options, ever. If that is your religion, so be it. It’s not mine, nor that of most others, no matter how confused their notion of “free will” may be. My preference is to define it in a way that it is clear, understandable and possibly real (and thus worth discussing and investigating). Yours is simply an a priori denial. Ce sera, sera.

    • “Your preferred definitions are ones carefully chosen to make free will impossible.”

      It is actually very common. For example, Sam Harris has a similar one, and much of the historical debate has addressed the “otherwise” notion. Either way, I’m glad that you at least concede with this sentence above that we couldn’t have, of our own accord, done otherwise (that free will defined as such is “impossible”). For the incompatibilist what matters is that people understand this and understand what follows from such (regardless if you don’t want to call it “free will”).

      “Your definition of “viable” is ridiculous.”

      “Feasable” and “possible” are common synonyms of “viable”, and there is nothing “ridiculous” about this.

      “As I’ve said, “apparent viability” of discernible options at the moment of choice is what’s real.”

      “Apparent” is epistemic, not ontic. For the free will debate we are talking about what “is” or “is not” (ontic). It is very important not to conflate these two things.

      “To escape this lion, run right, run left, throw rock, climb tree “A”, climb tree “B”….all (perhaps) possible actions.”

      Again, we can use the word “possible” in the epistemic sense, but that does not imply that such is “possible” in the ontic sense (that such is “really” possible). This is what matters for the topic.

      “Your insistence on strict determinism simply renders possibility impossible. Meaningless.”

      First, I’m not a “strict determinist”, I’m a hard incompatibilist – meaning I think free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism. Second, most philosophical compatibilists are “deterministists” or at least understand that indeterminism cannot help with free will (that random events can’t be willed events).

      “You maintain that there are no options, ever.”

      I maintain that in a deterministic universe there is only one “option” (not that there is “no” option), and in an indeterministic universe any options that diverge from such can never be “up to the chooser” (or of one’s own accord).

      “If that is your religion, so be it.”

      Please try to avoid ad-homs or insults in the future (such is unwelcome on this platform). It’s better for productive discourse if we can have a modicom of respect even if we disagree. No, analytic reasoning has nothing at all to do with “religion” or being religious-like.

      “It’s not mine, nor that of most others, no matter how confused their notion of “free will” may be.”

      Logical reasoning isn’t a popularity contest. Again, most people believe in an incoherent free will ability, as I already have shown. They certainly don’t take a philosophical compatibilist semantic such as Dennett’s.

      “My preference is to define it in a way that it is clear, understandable and possibly real (and thus worth discussing and investigating).”

      Redefining words outside of common intuitions and understandings of such words is anything but “clear” and “understandable”…regardless if such is “possibly real”. Again, it’s no different than defining “god” as “the universe” or “nature”…making god exist – even though the vast majority of people believe in some type of conscious deity. And I have many reasons that my semantic is “worth discussing” in which a compatibilist semantic just simply evades.

      “Yours is simply an a priori denial.”

      A better way to put it is that mine is a logical rejection (rather than denial which has a connotation to it) of the common intuition people feel, and that understanding that people don’t have such abilities is important for so many other topics of concern. Moving the goal posts away from such is just a way to evade the things that need to change due to this understanding that people couldn’t have, of their own accord, done otherwise. I’ve given you the reasons why compatibilist redefinitions are problematic already in the above post.

      Have a spiffy day! :-)

  5. I must admit that “could have done differently” is an oxymoron. It is obviously impossible to substantiate such a claim, ever. So what you assert to be the “common intuition” is incoherent. Better define “free will” in a consistent manner.

    • I don’t simply “assert it” to be a common intuition, it is a common intuition:

      Free Will Intuitions: Fred and Barney Case Study – InfoGraphic

      And just as we wouldn’t redefine geocentric after we learn that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, we shouldn’t redefine free will after we learn it’s incoherent (for the very reasons this article expresses). 😉

      Side note: Should be qualified with “of one’s own accord” to address indeterminism: Could have done, of one’s own accord, otherwise. Also keep in mind that we can push this semantic to a present tense definition as well that is equally as incoherent: FREE WILL

      Later. :-)

      • Regardless of the “of one’s own accord” part, the “could…differently” in itself is pure fantasy and can NEVER be substantiated. QED: any intuition or argument based upon it MUST be incoherent.
        “Free will” is not ONLY (or even substantially) a “common intuition”, but a philosophical issue. You seem to aspire to playing in that wider, deeper field. Inherently incoherent definitions don’t cut it there. We are not redefining “geocentric”, which is not, in itself, incoherent, but a carelessly (un)defined incoherent intuition.
        Failure of the “common intuition” has no effect on blame, shame and guilt. Well, maybe the common idiot disagrees. Blame may be reasonably assigned to an active (causal) agent whose actions have not been compelled by any other similar agent (or by extenuating EXTERNAL circumstances). An unacceptable action arising from the momentary status (regardless of any causal chain, other than compulsion by another such agent, leading to that status) is blameworthy.

        • “Regardless of the “of one’s own accord” part, the “could…differently” in itself is pure fantasy and can NEVER be substantiated. QED: any intuition or argument based upon it MUST be incoherent”.

          If the universe is causally deterministic I agree with your above assessment.

          “Free will” is not ONLY (or even substantially) a “common intuition”, but a philosophical issue. You seem to aspire to playing in that wider, deeper field. Inherently incoherent definitions don’t cut it there.

          Regarding philosophical discourse they certainly due “cut it”, just as we can assess if someone believes in a god with self-contradictory traits and explain why that god is “incoherent”.

          We are not redefining “geocentric”, which is not, in itself, incoherent, but a carelessly (un)defined incoherent intuition.

          We now know that such geocentricity does not exist, but we don’t redefine it to something that does.

          Failure of the “common intuition” has no effect on blame, shame and guilt.

          Blame and guilt in the “desert” sense (they “deserve” such) are only rationalized through the idea that someone could have and should have done otherwise. Of course it has everything to do with such.

          I crossed off “Well, maybe the common idiot disagrees” as that is just an insult. Let’s avoid that type of thing in future discourse please. Obviously I disagree with your assessment here.

          Blame may be reasonably assigned to an active (causal) agent whose actions have not been compelled by any other similar agent (or by extenuating EXTERNAL circumstances). An unacceptable action arising from the momentary status (regardless of any causal chain, other than compulsion by another such agent, leading to that status) is blameworthy.

          We can only blame a person in so much as we can “blame” a hurricane for ripping the rooftop off of a house, or “blame” a person with a brain tumor causing them to do something, etc. Blame in the “desert” sense is not at all reasonable, and that is the sense we are discussing for this topic:

          No Free Will and the Ambiguity of “Responsibility”

          C-ya. :-)

          • Blaming a hurricane cannot alter future weather patterns. Hurricanes include no choosing agency; humans do. Blaming/shaming a person can alter their future behavior. “Deserving” blame is not really an issue, except where blaming cannot possibly have a useful result (insanity/feeble-mindedness/brain-tumor). Human beings can, indeed (sometimes) be “reformed”. Empathy/sympathy (for a perpetrator’s life history) has a valid place in human affairs, but so do blame, shame and guilt.
            What I’ve said about “could….differently” applies regardless of the determinate/indeterminate (or anything in between) nature of reality. It is a result of the non-repeatability of every moment. I hope you can appreciate this point.

          • The actions we take because we blame people is irrelevant to the fact of whether they are actually “blameworthy”…even if such actions “worked”. In fact if they did “work” it would make more sense to apply the actions without the notion of blame entering the picture (just the notion of deterrent).

            Blaming/shaming a person can alter their future behavior.

            Usually in the worst ways. We actually can “deter” people without ever irrationally blaming or shaming them for something that they couldn’t have done otherwise.

            “Deserving” blame is not really an issue, except where blaming cannot possibly have a useful result (insanity/feeble-mindedness/brain-tumor).

            We don’t “blame” or “shame” people in mental hospitals for their actions not because it isn’t “useful” but because they aren’t blameworthy. The “usefulness” of blaming and shaming is overshadowed by the problems that occur when we think a person is actually “blameworthy”.

            Empathy/sympathy (for a perpetrator’s life history) has a valid place in human affairs, but so do blame, shame and guilt.

            This is where we disagree, we’ll never progress if we don’t move away from irrational blame, shame, and guilt.

            What I’ve said about “could….differently” applies regardless of the determinate/indeterminate (or anything in between) nature of reality. It is a result of the non-repeatability of every moment. I hope you can appreciate this point.

            “Could have done otherwise” doesn’t imply that one is repeating the event. It just addresses the ontic possibilities prior to the event. An acausal event could allow for a differentiation of variables (it would just never be “willed”).

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