May 162016

free-will-umbrellaThe term “free will” is an umbrella term that has a whole lot of added abilities under it that cannot be easily partitioned away from the minds of the majority. It is a term that is simply too baggage laden. This means that it can be used in a narrow way, but those narrow ways do not remove the excess metaphysical abilities that are often inherent in the term.

One of the ways in which some compatibilists (people who think free will and determinism are compatible) try to partition away the baggage is to suggest that the things that people believe disqualify free will implies that a lack of a disqualifier is exactly what qualifies a “free will” ability and nothing more. This is a faulty generalization fallacy and confuses the important distinction between a disqualifier and a qualifier.

Just because X disqualifies Y, doesn’t mean that Y equals “that which is not X”. This is the mistake I see compatibilists make time and time again. To give an example, the compatibilist might point out that most people would agree that:

“If a person has a gun to their head forcing them to choose an option “against their will”, they no longer have free will.”

They might then go on to suggest that as long as the person is not coerced (for example, at gunpoint), that this lack of coercion is really the only thing qualifying the person’s conception of free will.

This fact alone, however, says little about the free will abilities that most people feel they and others possess. Rather, it just shows a single dis-qualifier of the free will they think they and others possess.

Here is a sample list of “free will” disqualifiers:

  • Being coerced at gunpoint to do something you normally wouldn’t want.
  • Being pressured by family or friends to do something you normally wouldn’t want, such as an arranged marriage where you did not want to marry the person but would be ostracized if you do not.
  • Being controlled by hypnosis or brainwashing.
  • Having your brain manipulated by another person, which makes you act in a certain way.
  • Having a mental illness that has control over your actions.
  • Having a brain tumor that presses on your brain in a way that makes you behave in a certain way.
  • Being addicted to drugs or alcohol, and acting due to those addictions.

This list of free will “disqualifiers” can go on and on. The compatibilist might say something like: As long as there are no free will disqualifiers, free will simply means not having those type of “constraints”, in other words, being free from those particulars.

The problems arise, however, when they suggest that this is the entire story of the term “free will” for most people, or that people do not have an intuition or belief in a different kind of free will other than not being constrained by “free will” disqualifiers. This, however, is that faulty generalization, and studies have begun to show that most people’s ideas about free will are far more convoluted than that.

Do those things disqualify “free will” for most people’s conception of it? Indeed. Do those disqualifiers create the “whole story” of the free will abilities most people intuitively feel they and others possess? Hardly.

When pressed, most people feel they or others could have done otherwise, even given a completely deterministic scenario. Depending on the questions asked, they hold both:

  • Incoherent compatibilist ideas about free will – meaning they think free will and determinism are compatible, but not in the more coherent way that most philosophical compatibilists represent with the way they define “free will”.
  • Incoherent libertarian ideas about free will – meaning they think that some form of “randomness” or “uncaused” events can help grant free will.

These “abilities” are logically incoherent (in both a deterministic and indeterministic universe) and a part of most people’s ideas surrounding free will and moral responsibility. The fact that these “abilities” are considered negated when disqualified by some other constraint, do not make them any less pertinent to the term “free will”….and more importantly to the ability that most people intuitively feel they and others possess.

So we really need to understand what it means that “free will” is an umbrella term that hosts a whole lot of really bad and incoherent baggage under that umbrella, along with other things that are perhaps more coherent.

And it only takes a single restriction to disqualify someone from thinking they have”free will” at one moment, but when they do think they have free will, all of that extra baggage is along for the ride on the backs of their conception.

And even if these studies didn’t exist or are rejected on one ground or another, if you have even been under the illusion of free will yourself, it will probably be obvious to you that most people think they have these free will abilities portrayed here: Free Will – and those abilities are not only incoherent, but lead to some very serious and harmful problems.

I will be addressing in more detail common intuitions on free will in later posts. Here are a few posts and studies if interested:

Further reading:

Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)

Surveying Freedom: Folk Intuitions about Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions

Experimental philosophy: testing folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility

Free Will Intuitions: Fred and Barney Case Study – InfoGraphic

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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.

  2 Responses to ““Free Will” is an Umbrella Term”

  1. I would have to say that determinism and/or indeterminism would be the ultimate free will disqualifiers. The people think they are free as long as they don’t have any disqualifiers that they are aware of. Therefore the feeling of freedom is based in ignorance.

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