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.
- What we want is determined by outside forces.
- "What we want" is appropriately equivalent to "our will."
- Therefore, our will is determined by outside forces.
- That which is determined by outside forces is not free.
- Therefore, our will is not free.