Is the Free Will Debate a Verbal Dispute?
By Paul So
I’ve noticed that academic philosophers, being fairly insulated from the wider public, have largely failed to engage educated laymen who are interested, and perplexed, about free will. In particular, most people think that there are really only two plausible positions — if determinism is true then there is no free will, and if determinism is not true perhaps free will is possible. In other words, people aren’t aware of compatibilism, don’t understand it, or find it deeply unconvincing because they think it doesn’t really talk about free will.
The only academic philosopher I know who has tirelessly tried to explain compatibilism is Daniel Dennett, but many people still find it confusing at best and unpersuasive at worst. Some, like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, have publicly accused Dennett of playing with words — Dennett is using “free will” to refer to one thing whereas Harris and Coyne use it to refer to something else entirely, and Harris and Coyne think only their notion of “free will” is one worth caring about. A public popularity contest for the vying positions has ensued, and it looks like the public jury has sided largely with Harris and Coyne — Dennett simply isn’t talking about the real, and important kind of free will.
I think that compatibilism deserves another fair hearing — a “retrial” as it were. What I want to do in this essay is try to explain the free will debate, charitably interpret people’s frustrations with compatibilism, and make a sympathetic case for the position as a substantive thesis. Moreover, I want to show that the disagreement between people like Dennett and Harris isn’t merely a verbal one, but rather is similar to other debates that have occurred in modern science. My hope is that, in the end, compatibilism will emerge as a view that is far from a mere semantic magic-trick where verbal sleight of hand is used to confuse, and ultimately persuade, people.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that one thing that motivates me is that philosophers already have a bad reputation with the public as being engaged in an enterprise that largely involves trivial verbal disputes (“when does a bunch of sand become a heap?”). Since many people seem to think that Dennett is simply redefining free will willy-nilly as a “get out of jail free” card from hard determinism, I fear that his attempt to bring compatibilism to the public may have backfired, giving people the impression that their suspicions about the petty nature of philosophical disputes are accurate. But in addition to improving philosophy’s reputation, I think the public debate on free will also needs substantial improvement. It is troubling that it essentially excludes compatibilism from discussion, because, I think, there is substantial merit to the view.
The Free Will Debate
Usually, when intelligent non-philosophers think of the free will debate they often understand it as a debate between libertarianism (not political libertarianism, mind you) and hard determinism. Both libertarians and hard determinists agree that free will is incompatible with determinism, because while free will requires that there be alternative possibilities for every action chosen, determinism excludes it. In other words, both parties agree that, in order for someone to have acted on their own free will, there must have been an alternative action that they could have chosen to perform. If you ate vanilla ice cream, and you ate it freely, then it should have been possible for you to choose not to eat the ice cream, or to eat chocolate instead. The option wasn’t merely there, but was also open for you to choose.
However, determinism states that a prior event predetermines a single outcome. Once that outcome is predetermined, there is no alternative possibility. When a billiard ball strikes another one, the second billiard ball could not have moved in any other way, given the laws of the universe and the conditions under which it was struck.
Both hard determinists and libertarians accept this basic picture about what it takes for free will to exist, and what determinism means. Where they depart is that the former denies free will exists whereas the latter affirms that it does. All of this sounds relatively plain and simple, but things become complicated once you introduce compatibilism. Compatibilists believe that free will can exist even if determinism is true. Even if all of our actions are determined like the billiard ball’s motion is, we can still act freely.
Compatibilism is an umbrella term that has many different variations, but they all agree that the existence of an alternative possibility is neither necessary nor sufficient for free will. To illustrate this, most of them will point to the work of Harry Frankfurt, and so-called “Frankfurt-style” thought experiments. Suppose a presidential race is taking place, and a mad neuroscientist installs a control chip inside of Jim’s brain in order to compel him to vote for the Democratic candidate. If Jim decides to vote for a Republican candidate, the controller will detect it and immediately hijack his nervous system, compelling him to vote Democrat. However, what the mad neuroscientist doesn’t know is that Jim was actually going to vote for a Democratic candidate all along. According to Frankfurt, when Jim, who wanted to vote Democrat all along, casts his ballot, he has done so freely even though it was what the neuroscientist wanted.
Notice that in the Frankfurt-style thought experiment there is no alternative possibility available to Jim. The control chip makes it physically impossible for him to vote in any way other than for the Democratic candidate. Yet, we still have the intuition that Jim freely voted. Why? Because his choice stems from his values, preferences, and deliberations, all of which are important ingredients to make a choice. Why aren’t those simply enough to make him a free agent? Many compatibilists think that thought experiments like this one prove that having free will doesn’t require that you have alternative possibilities open to you to choose. The free will debate, then, becomes less about between determinism and libertarianism, and more about compatibilism and incompatibilism.
Diagnosing the Debate
Many lay people find it hard to get their heads around compatibilism because, from their point of view, it ceases to talk about real free will, which requires alternative possibilities. This intuition about what “real” free will requires isn’t limited to laypeople, even John Searle raises a similar complaint. When people emphatically insist that free will requires alternative possibilities, compatibilists respond that this is begging the question, because people are assuming a conception of free will which cannot be assumed, but must be argued for.
I think there is some merit behind people’s suspicion that compatibilists are merely playing with words — compatibilists are talking about one thing and libertarians/determinists another. This isn’t to say that these people are correct, but there is a plausible rationale behind their suspicion. To see why, let’s consider what, exactly, a verbal disagreement is.
The kind of verbal disagreement that I think people have in mind here is one which takes place when people use the same words to refer to different things, and argue over whether or not the same word should be used to refer to one thing or another. This kind of verbal dispute is a linguistic, prescriptive disagreement in which sides are simply arguing over how a word should be used. The free will debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism might seem to fit the bill.
When the worry is fleshed out that way, it seems plausible. But on further investigation, the disagreement here isn’t simply over how we should use the word “free will,” but rather over the nature of free will. Does free will necessarily require alternative possibilities? Questions like this are similar to ones asked about things such as the nature of water centuries ago. People thought that water is an element, but later found out that water is in fact a compound. Scientists thought that heat consists of some kind of caloric fluid or substance, but they later discovered that heat simply is the motion of molecules. It would be bizarre to think that when scientists were debating the nature of heat they were engaged in a mere verbal disagreement. Clearly, they were disagreeing about what the nature of heat is.
Similarly, compatibilists want to claim that they are doing something similar to what scientists were doing. They are advancing a different conception of the nature of free will that still grounds moral responsibility, just as thermodynamic scientists were in favor of a mechanical view of heat that still explains why things become hot or cold. When framed this way, it becomes far less obvious that the debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism is merely verbal.
One might object that whereas scientists agree that heat exists, philosophers do not agree on whether free will exists. It’s intelligible to argue about the nature of something once there’s an agreement that it exists, but if there is an argument about its existence then it seems strange to argue about its nature in the first place. It would seem like they’re putting the cart before the horse.
One possible response is that, in some cases, if we do not know the nature of something, we cannot assess whether or not it exists. After all, what exactly are we verifying or confirming the existence of in the first place? There was a time when it was an open question on whether not the black holes exist. Einstein provided a definition and description of a black hole before astronomers discovered it. Peter Higgs had to define and describe the Higgs Boson before physicists could finally confirm its existence, and philosophers need to know the nature of free will before they can jump to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist.
Perhaps what really irks people is that there just is a very strong intuition that free will requires alternative possibility. But people have strong intuitions about a lot of things that are simply wrong. For example, people had strong intuitions about time — that it is necessarily invariant and absolute throughout the universe, but it turns out that time is relative to a frame of reference. People thought species are necessarily individuated by essences that are separate from other species, but Darwin showed that all species share similar ancestries. Yet, no one complains that Darwin wasn’t talking about species anymore, and people readily assent to the idea that Newton and Einstein were both talking about time. Why can’t we extend the same courtesy to free will?
I’ve tried to make a sympathetic case for the idea that the free will debate is substantive rather than merely verbal. I’m not really committed one way or the other, but I do think people like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, John Searle, and the interested public should (freely) consider compatibilism as a viable position.