All that’s really going on here is that people called compatibilists have an emotional attachment to the idea of “free will”, so they have reassigned the conceptual target of the phrase to enable them to retain a cherished relic. This doesn’t add any new knowledge. It preserves a tradition that should have become obsolete by now.
If you visit here often, you’ll know that I pretty much agree with this. The history of the notion of “free will” seems clear. It began as frankly dualistic—the idea that there was part of your brain that could make decisions, and that part was somehow autonomous, non-determined, and could override the regular workings of your neurons. This was, of course, the basis for Christian salvation, and is still the notion held by many religious folks, as well as those theologians who rationalize moral evil as a necessary byproduct of “free will.” That “free will,” of course, means that “one could have chosen otherwise.” (Yes, I know about Calvinism, where salvation is predetermined).
Now most of us think that the notion of “free choice,” as in the sense of “could have chosen otherwise at a given moment,” is wrong. Excepting quantum mechanics—whose effects on behavior are unknown, and whose pure indeterminacy doesn’t fit most people’s idea of ‘ “free will”—our behaviors are determined by physical laws, and can’t be overridden by some spirit in the brain. Ergo, as Jeff said, libertarian free will is dead. I think that nearly all of us agree.
Nevertheless, philosophers have redefined free will, assuring us that everything is all right (the nasty fact and implications of determinism are swept under the rug). To me, this redefinition resembles the ways that Sophisticated Theologians™ have redefined God in a scientific world that has increasingly made personal deities obsolete. Instead of being a personal humanoid God, he’s seen as a “ground of being,” a “thing which can’t be spoken of” or “the vast and inexhaustible depth of the universe.” Just as the ghost has been removed from free will, so the human has been removed from God. In both cases, an idea that was tangible has been replaced with something nebulous and unclear.
Over the past months, I’ve been surprised at the number of readers who are compatibilists, comfortable with a notion of free will that accepts material determinism. So, if you’re one of these, I’d appreciate your answering the few questions below. Feel free to discuss other peoples’ definitions, but if you’re a compatibilist you have to answer the questions first. Think of it as a pop quiz given by Professor Ceiling Cat, and your answers can be short. If you’re an incompatibilist, like me, first declare yourself and then feel free to join in—in a civil manner, of course. The object of this exercise is for me to learn how readers see compatibilism by asking a few brief questions rather than divining the answers from discussion and argument.
1. What is your definition of free will?
2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?
3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?
4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?
Keep in mind the implicit incompatibilism of Jessica Rabbit.