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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