A long time ago, everyone thought bachelors were unmarried and that it was wrong for a married man, but not a bachelor, to have sex with multiple people. Then a philosopher got the bright idea of redefining “bachelor” to include “those married men who didn’t have much sex with their wives.” That redefinition allowed some married men to think of themselves as free to pursue other women. They were happier.
Although it’s a stretch, something like this seems to me to parallel what has happened with the rise of “compatibilism.” That is the notion that although the universe may be deterministic in a physical way—so that our actions and thoughts are not only determined by the laws of physics, but also predictable if we had enough foreknowledge—we nevertheless have “free will.” What philosophers did was redefine the meaning of “free will” away from its historical and religious sense, so that “free”, instead of meaning “independent of the strictures of your bodily makeup and environmental influences”, now meant a variety of other things, like, “your decision isn’t being made with a gun to your head.”
There is no one form of compatibilism: various philosophers have suggested various tweaks that allow us to say we have “free will.”
To me, the important aspect of this debate came not from philosophy but from science: we realized that our brains, like all physical objects, are subject to the laws of physics, and there was no way that some nonmaterial spook in one’s head could make “free decisions”. That was something new.
The idea of a deterministic universe, we all agree, was an important one, and so we can conceive of humans as immensely complicated and evolved machines. That does not mean, of course, that we know exactly how they will behave, for determinism does not equal predictability—unless we have perfect knowledge.
So determinism, and its view that the mind is what the brain does, was a tremendous advance in science. And it completely dispelled the notion of dualistic free will. Here are the questions, then, that I have for compatibilists.
What kind of comparable advance was achieved by redefining “free will” so that the only thing “free” about it was its freedom to accept determinism?
Has compatibilism had an important (or might have a potentially important) influence on humanity or its behavior?
Is compatibilism anything more than a semantic gesture?
How has compatibilism helped us understand the human brain or human behavior?
I see compatibilism as a branch of philosophy, and determinism as something that is largely scientific but has philosophical implications. And—I won’t pull any punches here—I don’t think compatibilism is of any importance to humanity.
Now when I say that “compatibilism was confected to allow humans to have free will and avoid the notion that we’re automatons,” I’m pretty serious. In response, people tell me that “compatibilism has a long and distinguished history,” and was not a response to determinism.
I’m not convinced about that, because determinism itself has a long and distinguished history. Here are two examples:
Spinoza (in Ethics): ″the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. … All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak.″
Laplace: “We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give to astronomy affords but a feeble outline of such an intelligence.”
Since determinism has been around for a long time, it’s not inconceivable that compatibilism did arise to counteract determinism, and make us feel that we really did have free agency.
But, ignoring that, I still want to know why compatibilism is considered a serious achievement in philosophy. Contrary to determinism, which does have serious implications for how we live our lives and run our societies, compatibilism is an arcane backwater of philosophy. It is not a philosophical achievement on the order of, say, Singer’s arguments for animal rights, which have real practical consequences, or Rawls’s musings on justice, which makes us rethink how we conceive of fairness and people’s rights. I see no practical consequences of compatibilism save soothing the distress of people who, upon finally grasping determinism, get distressed that they are puppets on the strings of physical laws.
Which is pretty much how it is.