Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why I Am Not A Compatibilist

I'm new to the free will debate, but at this point I don't see how compatibilism is even a proper response to the question being asked.

The question is: do we have free will?

To understand what "free will" is supposed to mean, it helps to back up and look at why people are raising the question. First, there is the religious worry that — on some views — God either knows everything we will do in advance or outright determines what we will do in advance. Second, there is the science-based worry that human action may be fully determined by physics. So while I may feel that I could have chosen to do either A or B before I chose to do A, it was actually impossible for me to choose B in that particular instance.

The question of free will arises from the thought that if only one choice is open to us, it's not a genuine choice in some important sense. I'm reminded of the story Henry Rollins tells about a waiter with shaky English who told him, "Your choice is fish."

Compatibilists say this is nothing to be worried about, that free will is compatible with all our choices being determined by God or physics. So long as we are doing what we ourselves want to do, we have all the freedom "worth wanting." I agree it's nice that we're able to act on our own desires, but that's not what the free will question was about.

The Philosophy of Love Potions

Suppose I want a certain woman to love me and, luckily, have the alchemy skills to concoct a perfect love potion. All I have to do is put a drop of the potion in her drink and her mind will be permanently altered in such a way that she will love me more than anyone else. The effect remains after the potion has left her system, so there's no ongoing external influence. Loving me is what she herself wants to do and, since she has the freedom to act accordingly, she will.

On the compatibilist view, she would have all the freedom "worth wanting." She is free to pursue the will that I gave her. But is this freedom or the perfect form of slavery?

The answer is: both. It depends on which level we are considering. Compatibilists are right that we can call a person free who can do what she wants, but we can also call a person unfree if what she wants is up to God, or physics, or a potion. If a person's will is properly identified as "what a person wants" — and I think it is — then the unfree level is her will.

Taking a Stand

It's not that compatibilist philosophers are totally mistaken. Freedom to pursue our (possibly) unfree will is significant and worth appreciating. I would rather get what I want than choose what I want and not get it. But I don't think it's accurate to call this kind of freedom "free will" just because that's the special phrase people want to hear.

Put semi-formally:
  1. What we want is determined by outside forces.
  2. "What we want" is appropriately equivalent to "our will."
  3. Therefore, our will is determined by outside forces.
     
  4. That which is determined by outside forces is not free.
  5. Therefore, our will is not free.
I don't know if (1) is true, but I do think (5) follows from it.

7 comments:

  1. Wow, I didn't notice the comments option...

    So, copying and pasting my response:

    What I do have to say is that maybe the Love Potion isn’t quite an analogous to the situation. Reason being that we are completely erasing somebody else’s desires, without their permission and making them fit to our whims. So, that one instance of disrupting a person’s free will could possibly invalidate the side-effects. The key difference is that when we’re born (assuming Atheism) no intelligent being chose what our desires would be and thus it isn’t comparable to the Love Potion.

    Funnily enough, I do think that if we add a God who creates us and gives us our personalities, as suggest in the Old Testament, we would indeed be no different a position as the Love Potion. That and the concept of Free Will as libertarians espouse it seems incoherent to me. How can you say that somebody’s decision is their own when they don’t really have any reason to choose X over Y (because we can usually trace a reason back to some prior event) or that any given option could have been taken at a point in time…it just seems really odd and to undermine what it attempts to prove. It seems incoherent.


    Sorry about that, not used to blogs other than Luke's :P

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  2. @Steven

    No problem. I'm not very used to the Blogspot comment system either!

    I presented the love potion example specifically to counter the claim that free will means "doing what we want." At no point before or after drinking the love potion would a person be especially blocked from doing what they currently want. You could say that the post-potion person is unable to do what the pre-potion person once wanted, but it's not unusual for desires to change enough over time for that to happen without outside interference.

    Your distinction between freedom in a natural world and freedom under a determining God suggests another kind of freedom: the capacity for not doing what someone else wants. I can see the appeal in making this kind of distinction, but I still think our will can fail to be free even if determinism isn't the result of another person's will. ...of course I'd need another analogy for that!

    "That and the concept of Free Will as libertarians espouse it seems incoherent to me."

    It may be incoherent to want freedom of will (incompatibilism is neutral on that question). If it turns out that free will is outright impossible, I'm ok with saying that.

    What I don't want to do is start assigning the phrase "free will" to one side of every distinction in human freedom and pretend we're all talking about one concept. That's what I see going on in the philosophical literature and it strikes me as a huge waste of time.

    Thanks for stopping by (twice)!

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  3. I disagree with this part of your comment: "At no point before or after drinking the love potion would a person be especially blocked from doing what they currently want." But if you have to make a Love Potion, it's obvious that the person doesn't want or at least hasn't expressed interest in you, so at the point of time of consuming an unwanted substance, intentionally put there for the purpose of radically altering desires, the previous desire to not love someone without your knowledge is still present. I also don't think that desires changing over time is the same as having what is essentially a clean-slate rewritten by another personal agent.

    To the second paragraph: I guess that depends on what free is. I'm not an expert on this at all, nor have I ever read any literature, but to me, the idea of free to do our own desires seems to hold up. It may not be free from other things, but I just don't see how we can escape that.

    And yes, it does seem like the term free will is so odd. I remember reading an explanation of Plantinga's Free Will Defense and seeing that they apparently defined free will as being able to have the ability to have a completely different outcome given the same condition and called them "counter-factuals". The example they gave was of Napoleon winning or some other General whose name now escapes me. That seemed rather odd, how could the same amount of ammo, same information about the enemies' strategy, etc. lead to vastly different conclusions? So it's just...weird stuff.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I'm wondering...why did I just spend my whole Valentines Day thinking about free will? I do hope a counter-factual in some other dimension did something more productive :P

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  4. Nice post. I tend to have similar concerns about the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists on free will in that, on a certain level, I think they're talking past each other. I think our folk notion of "will" aligns better with an incompatibilist reading, but, as Steven also thinks, I think incompatibilist free will is incoherent. I think that at this point, we either have to admit a revision to our folk notion of free will or reject the notion as a useful one. I think that insofar as it would be far broader revision of concepts to reject the notion of free will altogether (which reaches into, for instance, legal and moral domains), I think the compatibilists are on to something.

    As far as the Love Potion thought experiment, I don't think it would be totally ad hoc to stipulate that our notion of freedom requires that one not be manipulated or compromised by another will, which I would be inclined to read as something like "having one's choices intentionally dominated by someone else's desires/will." Rather than run through all the stipulations, perhaps the compatibilist could just slap a ceteris paribus clause on the definition and then sort out the exceptions. This would make sense on the admission of a slightly revisionary project.

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  5. Nice blog!

    This is the first post I seem to disagree with. Well, partly. You raise a good point, but not one compatibalists aren't aware of. The key word in the compatibalist account is "autonomy", and your scenario breaks it (traditionally, I a mind-control device by an insane professor is used to make the point).

    Incidentally, your main "mistake", as I see it, is to consider the laws of nature as exterior to ourselves. Since what we want is derived from our nature under the laws of nature, it is not "imposed" on us by the laws of nature - rather, it is what emerges within us (if autonomy is preserved) due to our own nature.

    At any rate, I think we are physical beings/minds and as such compatibalist notions on free will are, when all is said and done, essentially correct. I find libertanian free will incoherent. However, I fully agree that these discussions get bogged down in semantics and word confusion.

    Yair

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  6. @Jake
    "I think that insofar as it would be far broader revision of concepts to reject the notion of free will altogether (which reaches into, for instance, legal and moral domains), I think the compatibilists are on to something."

    That does seem to be a large part of why the debate over this particular term continues. I've seen several people define "free will" (give its intension) as: the freedom required for moral/legal responsibility. This is a very different approach than asking what it means for one's will to be free. It often boils down to this:

    Will itself isn't free.
    Will itself being free isn't necessary for moral/legal responsibility.

    So whether a person affirms or denies that "free will is compatible with determinism" often turns on which definition of "free will" they intend.

    At this point I want to know how we can best clear up this layer of language confusion on top of the substantive debate about what's true.

    "As far as the Love Potion thought experiment, I don't think it would be totally ad hoc to stipulate that our notion of freedom requires that one not be manipulated or compromised by another will"

    Wouldn't that be practically impossible to achieve in real life, considering how dramatically our individual desires are shaped by society? After writing the post above, I found a great analogy from B.F. Skinner summed up by Robert Kane:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=Zx-9PFEPlhcC&lpg=PP1&dq=robert%20kane%20free%20will&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q&f=false

    What would you do with this Walden Two example?


    @יאיר רזק
    'The key word in the compatibalist account is "autonomy", and your scenario breaks it (traditionally, I a mind-control device by an insane professor is used to make the point).'

    One thing I was shooting for with the love potion analogy is a total lack of active manipulation after the drug clears the system. A day or so after taking it, the potion drinker will have as much autonomy as you or I do.

    Of course the Walden Two example above is even more like a real life case because the internal result is achieved by careful social engineering.

    'Since what we want is derived from our nature under the laws of nature, it is not "imposed" on us by the laws of nature - rather, it is what emerges within us (if autonomy is preserved) due to our own nature.'

    That's an interesting move.

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  7. Thanks for the interesting link! I'm definitely not as well versed in the issues with free will as I perhaps should be before saying anything substantive, so my opinions are perhaps insufficiently reflective. In any case, it looks like we agree on the terminological issues in the free will debate.

    With regard to Walden Two (and social conditioning), I think that the definition I provided actually avoids the problem.

    The Walden Two example fails both our intuitive understanding of free will in this instance and the freedom from a dominating willful manipulation that I had pointed out. The problem, then, would be that, if we take Walden Two to be analogous to our everyday society, then it would seem that we can't even have this notion of free will.

    However, I think our current social conditions satisfy the freedom from dominating willful manipulation where Walden Two does not. Even if there are some areas, say, in advertising, fashion, etc, where there are people aimed at manipulating our desires, I'm skeptical about whether they're sufficiently dominated and further skeptical about whether such manipulation infects the general body of our decision-making. Being in a society itself doesn't seem to be sufficient to pose a problem here, but perhaps it is a problem for modern societies. Maybe we're modernizing ourselves out of the kind of free will we have left. In any case, the fact that we're conditioned by the effects of the willing of other people doesn't mean that we're willfully manipulated by those around us.

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