From the archives: In defense of free will and experimental philosophy

This is another post I’m moving over so I can refer to it in a new post. It’s a response to a post by Jerry Coyne about free will, written before Sam Harris’ book had everyone talking about it.

Jerry Coyne is unhappy with a Eddy Nahmias’ defense of free will, published on the NYT opinionator blog. Here’s Nahmias:

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

[snip]

This conception of free will represents a longstanding and dominant view in philosophy, though it is typically ignored by scientists who conclude that free will is an illusion. It also turns out that most non-philosophers have intuitions about free and responsible action that track this conception of free will. Researchers in the new field of experimental philosophy study what “the folk” think about philosophical issues and why. For instance, my collaborators and I have found that most people think that free will and responsibility are compatible with determinism, the thesis that all events are part of a law-like chain of events such that earlier events necessitate later events. That is, most people judge that you can have free will and be responsible for your actions even if all of your decisions and actions are entirely caused by earlier events in accord with natural laws. [This view is known as compatibilism - Hallq]

Our studies suggest that people sometimes misunderstand determinism to mean that we are somehow cut out of this causal chain leading to our actions. People are threatened by a possibility I call “bypassing” — the idea that our actions are caused in ways that bypass our conscious deliberations and decisions. So, if people mistakenly take causal determinism to mean that everything that happens is inevitable no matter what you think or try to do, then they conclude that we have no free will. Or if determinism is presented in a way that suggests all our decisions are just chemical reactions, they take that to mean that our conscious thinking is bypassed in such a way that we lack free will.

And here’s Coyne’s reply:

How do people conceive of free will, though? My own definition, which I think corresponds to most people’s take, is that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently. If you couldn’t, then determinism reigns and we’re not free agents, at least as most people think of them.Philosophers don’t like that notion—the idea that we’re all puppets on the strings of physics. So they do what theologians do when a Biblical claim is disproven: they simply redefine free will in a way that allows us to retain it. Like the story of Adam and Eve, it becomes a metaphor, with a meaning very different from how it was once used.

I’m sympathetic to much of what Coyne says about philosophy and theology, but here he’s completely missing the point. The problem with a lot of liberal theology is that there’s no motivation for it, aside from a desire to somehow save tradition from scientific and moral advances. And in the worst cases, left-wing theologians end up saying things about “God” that make “God” unrecognizable to the vast majority of religious believers. We know this because surveys show that in the US, at least, a larger percentage of the population still adheres to a relatively conservative brand of Christianity.

However, while Coyne asserts that his view of free will is the one most people have, he presents no evidence for this, whereas Nahmias has done actual research on what ordinary people (or at least undergraduates untutored in philosophy) think about free will. Nahmias doesn’t say as much as he could about his research, but anyone who’s curious about it can find free PDFs of some of his papers online (Google Scholar will do better than ordinary Google here).

Nahmias’ research is part of a movement known as “experimental philosophy,” and takes a totally different approach to understanding concepts like “free will” than the one taken by most philosophers and theologians. This means that he shouldn’t be lumped in with them–and I should mention that when I’ve talked negatively about philosophy on this blog, I’m not mainly talking about Nahmias and his fellow experimental philosophers. (Unfortunately, they haven’t solved the problem of philosophers being unable to agree on anything, though.)

I could go over some of the examples Nahmias gives subjects in his research, but instead let me repurpose one of Alvin Plantinga’s examples to make my point. Suppose Curley Smith, mayor of Boston, is offered a $35,000 bribe, and given his venality (and various other conditions, including his financial situation and estimate of the odds of getting caught), it’s a forgone conclusion that he’ll accept the bribe. Maybe if he were less venial, or he felt certain he’d be caught, he’d reject the bribe, but given how things actually are, there’s no way he’s going to reject it.

Now, given this, once Curley accepts the bribe, can we say he chose to accept it? Can we say he could have rejected it? I think the answer to both questions is “yes.” And I think the answer to these questions is still “yes,” even if what guaranteed Curley would accept the bribe was a matter of the laws of psychology. But being people’s actions being determined by initial conditions and laws is just what determinism is. So it seems determinism is compatible with choice, even compatible with being able to do otherwise in a sense.

I say “in a sense” because there’s a sense in which determinism means being unable to do otherwise. It means being unable to do otherwise holding relevant all initial conditions and laws exactly fixed. But in these contexts, I think it’s natural to say “he could have done otherwise” if what we mean is, “he might have rejected the bribe if he were less venal, etc.” And the majority of Nahmias’ subjects seem to agree.

Of course, I’ve described this example at the level of psychology, in terms of personality traits and so on. So you might think bringing in neuroscientific explanations of behavior changes things. But what Nahmias is reporting is that people are mainly bothered by the idea of their actions being the product of chemistry because they think that means the psychological stuff doesn’t matter. And what neuroscience actually does is explain the psychology in terms of chemistry and cell biology. It doesn’t make the psychology irrelevant.

  • Cuttlefish

    Compatibalism is like guided evolution. Lots of people may believe it happens that way, but that pretty much means they have a misunderstanding of some aspect or other.

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      Compatibilism is a hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’. More precisely, it’s the hypothesis that there is nothing in the meaning of that expression that would make it impossible for a deterministic agent to act of her own free will.

      Guided evolution is a (false) hypothesis about how species have changed over time. More precisely, it’s the hypothesis that an intelligent being has driven those changes, or at least some of them, in a specific direction, in order to get human beings.

      Are you saying that compatibilism is false as well?

      • josh

        “Compatibilism is a hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’. ”

        I think this is rather weaselly. ‘Free will’ has existed as a term for a long time, and like a lot of terms in natural language, it does not start from a precise definition and there is no reason to think it is used in a rigorously concise fashion. I think historically, ‘free will’ has been used as an accepted term or discourse and compatibilism is the view that ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ are not logically inconsistent. That is, compatibilism is a view on the implications of ‘free will’, not so much on the meaning of the term.

        Of course, when you trace things back you may find that different assumed meanings give you different implications. But compatibilism can’t just be the view that free will is defined to be consistent with determinism. That would be as empty a statement as the view that ‘god’ is defined to exist.

        So along these lines, I don’t think much is gained by asking a sample of people if determinism and free will are compatible. Mostly one just learns that a lot of people want free will to be true, but it doesn’t necessarily get at what they mean by free will (which is probably not a consistently defined thing in most peoples’ heads) and it doesn’t address whether compatibilism is actually a coherent view.

        • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

          “Compatibilism is a hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’. ”
          I think this is rather weaselly. ‘Free will’ has existed as a term for a long time, and like a lot of terms in natural language, it does not start from a precise definition and there is no reason to think it is used in a rigorously concise fashion. I think historically, ‘free will’ has been used as an accepted term or discourse and compatibilism is the view that ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ are not logically inconsistent. That is, compatibilism is a view on the implications of ‘free will’, not so much on the meaning of the term.

          First, I did not claim that ‘free will’ started from a precise definition.
          That is definitely not required to make hypotheses about the meaning of a term. For instance, a hypothesis about the meaning of ‘adult’ would be that there is nothing about the meaning word ‘adult’ that makes it impossible for a human being to be an adult. That does not mean that ‘adult’ started with any precise definition.
          Second, a hypothesis about the implications of ‘free will’ seems to be a hypothesis about the meaning. But if you want to dispute that, in any event, I explained what I meant right after the part of my post you quoted, I explained what I meant: I said, “More precisely, it’s the hypothesis that there is nothing in the meaning of that expression that would make it impossible for a deterministic agent to act of her own free will.”.
          So, I’m not trying to be ambiguous, but quite the opposite. My post is not weaselly.

          Of course, when you trace things back you may find that different assumed meanings give you different implications. But compatibilism can’t just be the view that free will is defined to be consistent with determinism. That would be as empty a statement as the view that ‘god’ is defined to exist.

          First, that’s an unwarranted claim about compatibilism (i.e., you do not seem to provide any argument to back it up).
          Second, that claim is false.
          An analogy will illustrate that. If I claim that the word ‘planet’ is defined in such a way that there is no inconsistency between an object being made mostly of carbon and being a planet, that’s a non-empty statement about the definition of a term. Compatibilism is a similar claim about the meaning of ‘free will’, as I mentioned.
          On the other hand, to say that ‘god’ is defined to exist seems to be a confusion. Still, that depends on context. It’s not at all empty to say that some people have defined ‘God’ in a confused manner, by including existence in the definition.
          Third, in any event, I never said that the term ‘free will’ was defined by anyone, if you’re talking about a explicit definition. Neither did I claim that the term was so precise, if that’s what you’re talking about. Instead, I just pointed out that compatibilism is the view that the meaning of the expression ‘free will’ is such that there is no impossibility from a deterministic being to act of her own free will.
          There is no need, of course, for an explicit definition and/or for a precise concept in order for one to have some hypotheses about the meaning of certain words (see the ‘adult’ example).

          So along these lines, I don’t think much is gained by asking a sample of people if determinism and free will are compatible.

          That is not what they’re doing, though (not most of them, anyway). Instead, the present certain scenarios to them, and ask them (for instance; there are different questions) whether the people in question acted of their own free will.
          Still, it might be that confusions about the scenarios taint the results, and so perhaps those scenarios aren’t a good way to make an assessment about the meaning, but that’s another matter, and you’ve not presented any arguments for that claim.

          Mostly one just learns that a lot of people want free will to be true, but it doesn’t necessarily get at what they mean by free will (which is probably not a consistently defined thing in most peoples’ heads) and it doesn’t address whether compatibilism is actually a coherent view.

          Compatibilism is coherent, since it’s the claim about the meaning of ‘free will’ explained above, and there is no contradiction involved in making such a claim. The interesting issue is not whether it’s coherent (it is), but whether it’s true.
          Now, what you claim here is that what people mean is not consistently defined. I don’t think it’s defined at all, if by that you mean an explicit definition (most words aren’t so defined by the way), but if you mean that the concept of ‘free will’ in most people’s heads is inconsistent, if that is true it means that compatibilism is false, and that no agent can possibly act of her own free will.
          However, that wouldn’t mean that compatibilism is incoherent.
          To illustrate the point, if I claim that the concept of ‘adult’ is such that there is no incompatibility between someone’s being an adult and a human being, and then it turns out that the concept ‘adult’ is inconsistent (and so, it’s not compatible with anything’s being an adult), then my hypothesis about the meaning of ‘adult’ is false, not incoherent.
          So, in short, compatibilism is coherent. If you think it’s false, that’s a matter you could argue for if you so choose (I was not trying to get into a debate by the way (don’t have so much time anymore), but I guess the internet is the internet. :))

          • josh

            For someone not looking for debate you certainly wrote a lot! :) So forgive me if I answer in kind.
            Let me clarify that I’m not trying to single you out as being personally weaselly, I’m talking about the general nature of the position you seem to be defending.

            “First, I did not claim that ‘free will’ started from a precise definition.”
            And I didn’t claim that you made that claim. (And you don’t need to remind me that most words aren’t explicitly defined since I brought that very notion up in my original comment.) My point was that we should expect that the word may be used very inconsistently and unclearly across a sample of people. Therefore a claim about the meaning of ‘free will’ as determined by a poll of peoples’s opinions may not tell us much because there is no singular meaning.

            You say a definition is not required to make a hypothesis, which is formally true but irrelevant. Without some notion of a definition, a hypothesis about meaning cannot be evaluated. One might as well speculate that being “frumious” is not in conflict with being “slithy”. We could regard that as a hypothesis which is either true or false, but without more information about the definitions of those words it’s an empty hypothesis which one cannot rationally support. In contrast, you can say ‘nothing in the meaning of adult conflicts with being a human’ because we agree on the meaning of adult to the extent that it already applies to humans. But if you say ‘nothing in the meaning of adult conflicts with being a 17 year old human’, then we have a problem because the meaning of adult varies depending on who is speaking in what context in a relevant way.

            Okay, on to distinguishing between meaning and implications. You shouldn’t dismiss this. For example, I take it that we understand essentially the same thing, the same meaning by the word ‘triangle’, but it does not follow that we both realize that the sum of a triangles interior angles is alway 180 degrees in Euclidean space. That is implied by the meaning. So, by the same token, IF we agreed on some definition of determinism and free will, we might still disagree on whether they can both apply. That is, to my thinking, a central issue on (in)compatibilism. And it can’t be resolved simply by saying that they MUST be defined in a way that allows for both.

            “First, that’s an unwarranted claim about compatibilism (i.e., you do not seem to provide any argument to back it up).” It’s not unwarranted, it’s the reason I provided the comparison with defining god into existence, it’s the point of the argument I made above and am making at greater length here, please pay attention. So, again, your example with planets is only non-empty (I used empty in the sense of being irrelevant, undecideable, uninteresting, indefensible as true…) in the sense that we actually have a definition of “planet” to start from. In fact we have a nice recent example:Is being Pluto consistent with being a planet? Depends on how ‘planet’ is defined.

            So, when you assert (without much in the way of evidence or argument) that compatiblism is just the view that free will is defined in such a way that it doesn’t conflict with determinism, I’m saying no one can defend that position unless they have some additional ideas about the meanings of those words in mind. If different people have different meanings in mind then compatibilism, on your definition, can’t be true or false generally, it would depend on who is talking. If you have a single meaning in mind that you think people do use or at least should use, then we should state what that meaning is and try to determine what follows from it. But in that case, the hypothesis that the meaning isn’t in conflict with determinism is a consequence (or not) of the meaning itself, which has no need to directly reference determinism. Or, if you put determinism somewhere in the definition (as you might think to include in the definition of a planet: Blah, blah spheroid, blah center of mass, etc…which may be primarily carbon, helium, etc.), it doesn’t follow that your definition is coherent since one part may conflict with another. That’s the sense of incoherence I was using and you can see it (possibly) applies to the sense of compatibilism I am advocating.

            On experimental philosophy: I was just giving a gloss on why a survey of people’s responses is not especially pertinent to the interesting questions. Your attempted correction does not change that.

            In short, your would-be definition of compatibilism is only clearly coherent in the limit where it is utterly useless and undecideable. That’s why I prefer something like “combatibilism is the view that free will and determinism both can (do) exist without logical contradiction.” We first have to decide on what we can agree on about the meaning of free will, then we can argue whether or not incompatibilism follows. Compatibilism might be false because it is incoherent.

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    Nahmias doesn’t say as much as he could about his research, but anyone who’s curious about it can find free PDFs of some of his papers online (Google Scholar will do better than ordinary Google here).

    One can find many of his papers here.

    It seems there is a bit of a debate between Nahmias and others on one side, and Nichols/Knobe and others on the other.

    Some papers (by Nichols) arguing in support of the opposite view can be found here.

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      By the way, I think Nahmias has the upper hand. It seems to me that there are problems in the papers arguing for the opposite view, in some cases in the design of the experiments or in the interpretation of the results, or both.

      Still, I think more research would be helpful to settle some points.

  • Richard Wein

    I commend Eddy Nahmias for undertaking experimental philosophy, and for clearly saying what he means by “free will”. But as far as I’ve read his results (I’ve only read one of his papers) I haven’t seen much evidence to support the claim that his definition of “free will” corresponds to what most people mean by it.

    The observation that most people are compatibilists (or give answers suggesting that they are compatibilists) does not show that compatibilism is true, or that compatibilists are right about what those people mean by “free will”. As Josh suggests, a good alternative explanation for that observation is that people really want there to be free will. It may be that compatibilist folk and compatibilist philosophers are both misguided for much the same reasons.

    What we need to know is not what the folk believe about free will, but what they mean by “free will”. That’s much more difficult to establish, and on reading one of Nahmias’s papers I felt that his survey hadn’t asked the right questions. Unfortunately I suspect that no matter what questions he’d asked, philosophers would not have agreed on how to interpret the answers. Meaning is a very tricky thing to establish, which is why philosophers can rarely agree on anything.

    Personally I lean more towards an incompatibilist view of what people mean. But I’m also inclined to say that the meaning is so fuzzy and variable, and we’re so lacking in good evidence about it, that we can’t say with confidence one way or the other. I like to compare the topics of free will and morality. Moral discourse is such a normal part of life that we have plenty of evidence for its meaning, and even though philosphers are very divided in their interpretations, I’m confident about which interpretation is the (roughly) correct one. On the other hand, most people rarely if ever discuss the existence free will, so there is much less likely even to be any well-established meaning.

    I think the most common context of the term “free will” is probably in questions like, “Did he do it of his own free will or was he coerced?”, where “free will” is being used in opposition to external coercion, usually by another person. But it seems very hard to extrapolate a meaning from that usage to the more abstract question, “Do we have free will?”.

    I would deny the existence of libertarian or contra-causal free will, or agent causation, by which I mean broadly the idea that decisions are caused by some mysterious inner agency or real self, instead of or in addition to natural causal processes. But I think that unqualified “free will” is a term that serious truth-seekers would do better to avoid altogether. It has no explanatory or predictive value, and anything we want to say about the way things really are can be better said in other terms. If compatibilists want to say that we have “a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires”, let them simply say that. If they need a shorter way of saying it, I suggest “deliberation”.

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      I think the most common context of the term “free will” is probably in questions like, “Did he do it of his own free will or was he coerced?”, where “free will” is being used in opposition to external coercion, usually by another person. But it seems very hard to extrapolate a meaning from that usage to the more abstract question, “Do we have free will?”.

      As far as I know, Nahmias is not concerned with some obscure philosophical usage, but with the common usage, which seems to be precisely the context that you’re describing – namely, whether people can act of their own free will/of their own accord -, as well as related moral issues.

      If someone acts of her own free will (or of her own accord), then that seems to be relevant to matters of morality, blame, etc.

      I would deny the existence of libertarian or contra-causal free will, or agent causation, by which I mean broadly the idea that decisions are caused by some mysterious inner agency or real self, instead of or in addition to natural causal processes.

      I would agree, and I would even go further and argue that that would not be freedom at all, but randomness instead.

      But I think that unqualified “free will” is a term that serious truth-seekers would do better to avoid altogether.

      I tend to agree, since ‘of one’s free will’ can properly be replaced by ‘of one’s own accord’, and that reduces the changes of obscure metaphysical diversions.

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    This is a reply to josh (@1):

    For someone not looking for debate you certainly wrote a lot!

    I wasn’t looking for it, but that does not mean I will not defend my points if challenged, misconstrued, etc., or myself if claims or implications about my motivation are made.

    I just didn’t expect any of that to happen. My mistake. I should have kept in mind how the internet is.

    Let me clarify that I’m not trying to single you out as being personally weaselly, I’m talking about the general natureof the position you seem to be defending.

    It’s still a both unwarranted false claim about what I said. The word ‘weaselly’ has implications about my motivations that are not true, and you have no reason whatsoever to hold such beliefs about me.

    And I didn’t claim that you made that claim. (And you don’t need to remind me that most words aren’t explicitly defined since I brought that very notion up in my original comment.)

    But you claimed that my claim was ‘rather weaselly’, and immediately afterward went on to say that it does not start by a precise definition, so I decided to go on and point out that I did not claim otherwise, but explain that that was irrelevant to whether my point was correct.

    As for the fact that most words aren’t explicitly defined, I was explaining that that fact did not prevent us from having hypotheses about the meaning of such words.

    Regardless, these are side issues. My main point remains: Compatibilism is a hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’. More precisely, it’s the hypothesis that there is nothing in the meaning of that expression that would make it impossible for a deterministic agent to act of her own free will.

    My point was that we should expect that the word may be used very inconsistently and unclearly across a sample of people.

    That does not follow from the lack of a precise definition, especially if the word is identifying a regular feature of human psychology that is relevant to nearly all humans across social contexts, such as acting of one’s own accord.

    Therefore a claim about the meaning of ‘free will’ as determined by a poll of peoples’s opinions may not tell us much because there is no singular meaning.

    Even if that were true, it would not make my point in any way weaselly. In fact, it would not even make my point false. Once again, my point is that compatibilism is a certain hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’ (the one I mentioned earlier).

    A poll may provide some information about usage (note that they’re not asking for people’s opinions about the meaning, but testing usage), though there are potential difficulties (some of which I also explained). However, that issue is about whether Nahmias’ and others’ method of studying the meaning of the expression ‘free will’ is effective.
    It has nothing to do with either my motivations for saying that compatibilism is a certain hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’ (the one I mentioned earlier), or with whether my claim on the matter is true.

    You say a definition is not required to make a hypothesis, which is formally true but irrelevant.

    Whatever you mean by ‘formally true’, the fact is that we can and often do make hypotheses about the meaning of words that don’t have an explicit definition.
    Purely for example, a trivially true hypothesis about the meaning of ‘blue’ is that ‘Z is blue’ does not mean that Z is bigger than the Moon. That does not require a precise definition of ‘blue’. And a trivially true hypothesis about the meaning of ‘pain’ is that ‘X is in pain’ does not mean that X isn’t alive.

    Without some notion of a definition, a hypothesis about meaning cannot be evaluated.

    That’s false. Of course, we can evaluate hypotheses about the meaning of the words by taking a look at whether they match usage.
    For instance, suppose that someone posits the hypothesis that ‘Agent A acted of her own free will’ means ‘Agent A was afraid’.
    Now, let’s test the hypothesis:

    We present the following scenario to some people: Alice gave her wallet to Tom because he was pointing a gun at her head, and she did not know how else to save her own life.
    We ask them whether Alice acted of her own free will, and whether Alice was afraid.
    Most people will say that Alice did not act of her own free will, but was probably afraid. Since there is no good reason to think they misunderstood the hypothesis, that’s good evidence against such a hypothesis.

    One might as well speculate that being “frumious” is not in conflict with being “slithy”.

    No, that’s not even related to the matter at hand. Those aren’t English words, or words in any other language as far as I can tell.
    If you presented that ‘hypothesis’ to other people, they would ask you ‘what do you mean by ‘frumious’ and ‘slithy’?’, rather than trying to make an assessment, since they have no intuitive grasp of the words.

    The experiments Nahmias and others carry out try to probe people’s intuitive grasp of expressions such as ‘of one’s free will’.

    In contrast, you can say ‘nothing in the meaning of adult conflicts with being a human’ because we agree on the meaning of adult to the extent that it already applies to humans.

    You’re presenting a hypothesis about the meaning of ‘adult’ and saying that it’s true. It is, and we could also test that hypothesis asking others. We can do the same in the case of acting of one’s free will.

    But if you say ‘nothing in the meaning of adult conflicts with being a 17 year old human’, then we have a problem because the meaning of adult varies depending on who is speaking in what context in a relevant way.

    Actually, if the hypothesis is that nothing in the meaning of adult conflicts with being a 17 year old human, we can also try to test that hypothesis by presenting different scenarios to people.

    It might even be that differences in usage across competent English speakers is such that this particular case follows on one side for some competent speakers, and on the other side for some others.
    I’m not sure that that’s the case, but no matter, let’s say that that particular case follows on one side for some competent English speakers, and on the other side for some other competent speakers.

    That would not change the fact that the hypothesis that there is nothing in the meaning of ‘adult’ that entails that a person can’t be an adult and a seventeen years old human is a hypothesis about the meaning of the word ‘adult’.

    Moreover, someone pointing out that the hypothesis that there is nothing in the meaning of ‘adult’ that entails that a person can’t be an adult and a seventeen years old human is a hypothesis about the meaning of the word ‘adult’ is making a true claim about the hypothesis in question.

    Okay, on to distinguishing between meaning and implications. You shouldn’t dismiss this. For example, I take it that we understand essentially the same thing, the same meaning by the word ‘triangle’, but it does not follow that we both realize that the sum of a triangles interior angles is alway 180 degrees in Euclidean space. That is implied by the meaning. So, by the same token, IF we agreed on some definition of determinism and free will, we might still disagree on whether they can both apply.

    Yes, that is true, and that’s one of the problems that experimental philosophers face.
    As I already explained, it might be that confusions about the scenarios taint the results, and so perhaps those scenarios aren’t a good way to make an assessment about the meaning.

    Experimental philosophers need to pick scenarios that most people properly understand, so that they can make a useful assessment about usage. So, they will have to figure out how to distinguish genuine differences in the usage of words from differences resulting from mistaken assessments of the situation.

    It’s not an easy task, I grant you that, but that does not have anything to do with whether compatibilism is a hypotheses about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’ (it is), or whether my point was weaselly (it was not)..

    If you want to challenge Nahmias’ results, that’s another matter. I wasn’t debating that. I’m defending my points, since they’re neither false nor weaselly. That’s independent on whether Nahmias is correct.

    It’s not unwarranted, it’s the reason I provided the comparison with defining god into existence, it’s the point of the argument I made above and am making at greater length here, please pay attention.

    You’re the one misunderstanding and misconstruing. My points stand, for the reasons I’ve been giving, and continue to give.

    In fact we have a nice recent example:Is being Pluto consistent with being a planet? Depends on how ‘planet’ is defined.

    Because there was enough difference in the usage of the word ‘planet’ in that case, it seems.
    On the other hand, a hypothesis that the meaning of the word ‘planet’ is such that having the characteristics of Earth we know of is compatible with being a planet would have been a true hypothesis about the meaning of ‘planet’, even before an explicit definition of ‘planet’ was given.

    So, when you assert (without much in the way of evidence or argument) that compatiblism is just the view that free will is defined in such a way that it doesn’t conflict with determinism, I’m saying no one can defend that position unless they have some additional ideas about the meanings of those words in mind.

    First, I do not and did not assert such thing. Compatibilism is not a view that the term ‘free will’ is defined (if you mean an explicit definition).
    Rather, what I asserted, and still assert, is that compatibilism is a hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’. More precisely, it’s the hypothesis that there is nothing in the meaning of that expression that would make it impossible for a deterministic agent to act of her own free will.
    My assertion is neither weaselly nor false. It’s a true assertion, regardless of whether compatibilism is true, and regardless of whether Nahmias’ experiments are conducive to gain knowledge about whether compatibilism is true.

    Second, your claim about who can defend compatibilism is unclear, but beside the point on the matter of whether my claim about compatibilism is true (it is) or weaselly (it is not).

    If different people have different meanings in mind then compatibilism, on your definition, can’t be true or false generally, it would depend on who is talking.

    Actually, that seems to be false.
    If the meaning of ‘free will’ varies so much across competent speakers that some such speakers use ‘free will’ in a way that makes acting of one’s free will compatible with determinism, and others use it in a way that makes it incompatible, then compatibilism is not true, since it’s a general claim about the meaning of ‘free will’, which would have to hold for all competent speakers of the word.
    Moreover, if there is such variation, then incompatibilism is not true, either.

    But again, whether or not incompatibilism is true does not have anything to do with whether compatibilism is a hypotheses about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’ (it is), or whether my point was weaselly (it was not)..

    If you have a single meaning in mind that you think people do use or at least should use, then we should state what that meaning is and try to determine what follows from it. But in that case, the hypothesis that the meaning isn’t in conflict with determinism is a consequence (or not) of the meaning itself, which has no need to directly reference determinism. Or, if you put determinism somewhere in the definition (as you might think to include in the definition of a planet: Blah, blah spheroid, blah center of mass, etc…which may be primarily carbon, helium, etc.), it doesn’t follow that your definition is coherent since one part may conflict with another. That’s the sense of incoherence I was using and you can see it (possibly) applies to the sense of compatibilism I am advocating.

    I do not see how it applies to that sense, but regardless, my main point is that compatibilism is a hypothesis about the meaning of the expression ‘free will’. More precisely, it’s the hypothesis that there is nothing in the meaning of that expression that would make it impossible for a deterministic agent to act of her own free will. My point is neither weaselly nor false.

    I also claim that compatibilism is not incoherent, which is pretty obvious given what compatibilism is (see above).

    In short, your would-be definition of compatibilism is only clearly coherent in the limit where it is utterly useless and undecideable.

    That is false.
    First, I gave a definition of ‘compatibilism’, not a would-be definition.
    Second, my definition is correct. In other words, it matches what Nahmias and other philosophers mean by ‘compatibilism’.
    Third, compatibilism is not incoherent, regardless of whether or not it’s true.
    Fourth, my claims are neither false nor weaselly.

    That’s why I prefer something like “combatibilism is the view that free will and determinism both can (do) exist without logical contradiction.”

    Your preference is not properly motivated, I’m afraid. But regardless, that too would be partly a hypothesis about the meaning of ‘free will’, and a rather similar one.
    On the other hand, compatibilism does not assert that anyone actually acts of her own free will (or has free will, or whatever).

  • mikmik

    I wonder why Coyne is given significance in these matters. He constantly misinterprets Massimo Pigliucci and Dennet and others, and he based one of his blusterations(I’m tushcloots) on a complete misunderstanding of one(of many)of my posts.
    I can’t take him, or any reductionist, seriously any more. You want to argue definitions? Define a specific time and event that is a ‘decision’ that irreversibly leads to one specific action.
    Pin that one down, and we’ll go from there.

    It seems the whole claptrap is about the degree of freedom, from none to a little to a lot, that we have in choosing. All I know is that I always act in the way I want to, therefore I am responsible/accountable, at least some of the time.

    Actually, when someone explains conclusively why we are aware when we operate, how consciousness obtains, then you might have a starting point from which to explore the intentionality of our behaviors. If we are just particles of energy following the only path available to them, then it follows that having an awareness only to facilitate an illusion of nothing less than our purpose for thinking, is a fucking stretch in simplest of considerations, let alone one that is fundamental to our experience.

    This defining free-will BS is a red herring, plain and simple. The whole business of Coyne comparing compatabilists to theologians is very tiring. It is probably a projection, because I’ve pointed out numerous times how determinists(incompatabilists) use the same types of arguments and misapplied analogies as religious misanthropes do.

    They start by appealing to tradition and archaic uses of the term that supposedly ties it ti religion, they even state that the idea of free will was originated with religion. They keep referring to one, or at most two, studies dogmatically, and their approach and view is provincial and dogmatic. It is far, far, very far from any resolution or viable conclusion, but to listen to Coyne et al, the matter has been decided.

    They parrot over and over that free will is an illusion in a smug and arrogant manner as if thinking we just don’t understand the obvious and therefore all our points of contention are secondary or irrelevant.

    I think what pisses me off the most is that Coyne always implies or outright states that ‘free-willism’ is old and a discarded viewpoint by the important and serious majority(argument from (mis)stated authority).

    Nothing could be further from the truth. (Argh, I can’t find the link!) The results of a recent survey of philosophers showed that 59% of them stated an understanding that free will is true, and 83% of respondents to that question agreed there is meaningful free will.

    Gazzaniga, Harris, and pretenders(Coyne, nya ;]) are unimpressive at best.

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