I was originally going to write in the title that philosopher Dan Dennett was “wrong” about free will, but whether or not humans have “free will” seems to be a matter not of right or wrong, but of semantics—how we define the term. “Compatibilists” like Dennett, who see free will as perfectly consonant with a world in which all human actions and choices are predetermined by the laws of physics, conceive of the term differently from “incompatibilists” like myself, who see free will as incompatible with determinism.
While both camps largely agree on determinism, they differ in how they conceive of moral responsibility. Many incompatibilists, including me, find the notion of “moral responsibility” meaningless in a world where one can’t choose to behave one way versus another. I do consider people responsible for their actions, for, after all, they do commit them, and something should be done about that. And I also think that punishing people for actions harmful to society is necessary to deter others, to help rehabilitate miscreants, and to preserve society from further harm until (or if) such people can be rehabilitated. But that doesn’t mean that criminals are “immoral” in the sense that they could have chosen to behave “morally.” My notion of “moral action” is simply “an action that helps society function harmoniously or increases well-being.” Whether or not you act “morally” is not something you can freely decide. If the notion of “moral responsibility” means anything, it means that in a given situation you could have decided to behave either morally or not.
But let’s put that aside, since many readers have already expressed their agreement or disagreement with compatibilism. Today I want to call your attention to a recent mini-essay by Dan Dennett in Prospect Magazine: “Are we free?” Here’s the header that includes the subtitle:
When I saw that subtitle and read the article, I realized that what many compatibilists feel is this: science has nothing to say about free will. I think this is because their argument is basically semantic, involving various definitions of “free will”; and sometimes, like Dennett in this article, they don’t even bother to define it. I don’t think they realize that their denigration of scientific studies of free will comes from their feeling that the issue is one that can be resolved only through philosophy. And so they are committed to criticizing every scientific study that undermines traditional notions of free will. Why bother? As I’ll show below, this is one of many ways that compatibilism resembles Sophisticated Theology™: both areas denigrate science as being incapable of resolving the Big Question.
My own definition of free will is a traditional notion, one expressed by molecular biologist Anthony Cashmore:
Free will is defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.
This is what is commonly called “dualistic” or “contracausal” free will, in which people can somehow, by processes that bypass physical strictures, change their behaviors and choices. In contrast, nearly every compatibilist has a different reason why we have free will, implicitly reflecting a different definition of “free will.” (I think the failure of many compatibilists to give explicit definitions of the term is that so doing would would expose the intellectual vacuity of their arguments. You’ll look in vain in Dennett’s piece for his definition of free will.) At any rate, the diverse and sometimes discordant ways that compatibilists explain why we really do have free will makes me think that the issue is by no means settled, even among philosophers.
Dennett’s article is really a review of a new book by Alfred Mele, a philosopher at the Florida State University. As Dennett notes, “Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation. (More on Templeton later.) Mele’s book is Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, which came out in October. I haven’t read it yet, but Dennett gives a good precis, and, more important, his essay is more a reiteration of Dennett’s own views than a review of Mele’s, which is fine.
I’ll try to be brief. Dennett first criticizes and discounts (as does Mele) the scientific experiments attacking traditional notions of free will: Libet’s experiments as well as others showing that brain scans can predict decisions before the “decider” is conscious of having made them; studies showing that you can manipulate people’s sense of agency by psychological trickery, either by making them think they have agency when they don’t (as in people with various brain lesions) or by making them think they don’t have agency when they really do (Ouija boards); and, finally, studies showing, as Dennett says, that:
. . . there is the unrecognised influence on subjects’ decisions of contextual factors that shouldn’t be decisive, growing out of Stanley Milgram’s and Philip Zimbardo’s notorious experiments into authority and obedience with college students back in the 1960s and 70s.
The last point puzzles me; I don’t see why contextual factors should be ruled out a priori as “not decisive”. When an authority figure in a white coat stands over you and tells you to apply more voltage to a passive victim supposedly connected to a battery, why shouldn’t that affect your behavior? Nobody denies that environmental and social pressures can change how you behave.
But never mind. What all this shows (and Dennett admits that some of those experiments have not been discredited) is that no scientific finding can refute the compatibilists’ claim that we have free will. Even if, in the future, we could predict people’s actions and future decisions with perfect accuracy using very complex brain-monitoring and knowledge of neurology, compatibilists would continue to claim that we have free will. That’s because their notion of “free will” is a philosophical one, impervious to scientific refutation. So why bother going after the science?
So where does Dennett find free will? As he always has, he finds it in the notion that we are evolved, complex beings who reason: that is, we feel that we mull things over before coming to decisions about complex issues, and that this process of reasoning, which is an evolved part of our brain (supplemented with the environmental inputs of learning the consequences of actions), gives us free will. According to Dennett, it is this reasoning that makes us free, as opposed to decisions made when we’re constrained by other factors, like a person holding a gun to our head at the ATM and saying, “Take out $1000 and give it to me.” Without the gun, we would probably withdraw less money. The decision made at gunpoint, according to Dennett, is not “free.”
In other words, for Dennett free will lies in the ability to make reasoned as opposed to coerced choices. This is supported by the two books he’s written on free will, and by statements that he makes in the Prospect article, like these (my emphasis):
It is a fact that when faced with actually tough decisions—about whether to intervene in somebody else’s crisis, for instance, or to go along with the crowd on some morally dubious adventure—we often disappoint ourselves and others with our craven behaviour. This sobering fact has been experimentally demonstrated in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments and a host of milder, less traumatic experiments, but far from showing that we are always overwhelmed by context, these experiments invariably exhibit the capacity of a stalwart few to resist the enormous pressures arrayed against them. Is there a heroic minority of folks, then, with genuine free will, capable of being moved by good reasons even under duress? It’s better than that: you can learn—or be trained—to be on the alert for these pressures, and to resist them readily.
In other words, some people can make “responsible” choices, and those are the folks with free will. The others, well, they’ve been coerced. And there’s this:
. . . people can be manipulated into doing things they know better than to do; people’s introspective access to their own thought processes is far from foolproof, and you shouldn’t play poker if you can’t maintain a relatively inscrutable poker face. People who don’t know these home truths are perhaps too benighted, too naïve, to be granted full responsibility for their actions, but the rest of us, wise to these weaknesses in our own control systems, can take steps to protect our autonomy and be held responsible for doing just that. [JAC: That last statement comes perilously close to dualism.]
I think this line of argument is bogus. There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, which are in effect billions of tiny guns pointed at our head. You don’t have the ability to decide to “take steps to protect your autonomy”, for some people can reason in a way that makes them do that while others can’t. It’s not a free decision.
Further, I think that members of some other species, like crows, elephants, and nonhuman primates, can reason and make “decisions” after some cogitation, even if their reasoning isn’t as complex as ours. Does that, then, make them “morally responsible”? If a dog attacks a human, mistakenly thinking that the human is a threat to the dog’s owner, do we hold that dog morally responsible? If not, why not?
In most cases people will indeed behave “responsibly,” for, after all, responsible behavior is behavior that endears you to society and enhances your well being. That’s precisely what our brains have evolved to do, as well as to process environmental information that is part of the evolved program. All we are doing when we make a decision is run a fixed computer program in our brain that has lots of different inputs, all of which yield a single output: the “choice.”
Some people’s decisions are better than others, and we say that those people are acting more “morally.” Others are “immoral”, perhaps because the reasoning process is faulty or because the reasoning process is sound but neglects important information. But in every case we’re running computer programs that have only a single possible output. How does that make us “morally” responsible? And where is the “freedom” in that? Whether it be guns, social pressure, or “reasoning” that feeds into our decisions, everything is constrained. We need to recognize that neurons and past experiences are just as coercive as guns. It’s just that their coercive properties aren’t as obvious as a Glock pointed at your skull.
We also need to accept that “reasoning” is just an evolved computer program run by the neuronal connections in your brain, modified by inputs called “experience.” In most cases reasoning gives a good outcome, for that’s why reasoning evolved. But sometimes reasoning doesn’t give a good or “responsible” outcome. We have no choice about that, or about how we reason.
As Michael Stipe said, “I’ve said enough.” Let me now give my thoughts on this last issue:
Why free-will compatibilism resembles Sophisticated Theology™:
- Both redefine old notions (Biblical literalism or contracausal free will) and claim nobody believes in them any more. Like scripture is for Sophisticated Theologians™, so is free will for compatibilists: both have become metaphors for more recent notions.
- The definitions of free will, like that of Sophisticated Gods, are concocted post facto, after compatibilists have decided in advance that their task is not to find the truth, but to buttress a conclusion they want to reach (i.e., we have free will)
- Both set humans aside as special—different from other animals (souls or free will)
- In both cases academic doyens (theologians or philosophers) feel that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth (about God or about determinism).
- Both groups need some sense of free will to “sustain our sense of moral responsibility”
- There are as many versions of compatibilism as there are conceptions of God (and no general agreement on them), so advocates can always say to critics, “you’re not attacking the best argument.”
- Both dismiss science as either irrelevant or inferior to philosophy for solving the Big Question at hand (free will or the existence of God).
Cute, eh? The parallels, however, reflect something more than coincidence. They reflect, I think, the fact that compatibilists set out, like Sophisticated Theologians™, not to follow the truth where it leads, but to buttress a preconceived notion—”we must have free will at all costs”. To get there, both camps simply redefine terms, so that both “God” and “free will” become notions that don’t correspond at all to how they’ve been understood through history. Compatibilists will say this is okay, but to me it’s like saying, “Jerry Coyne loves dogs—if you redefine dogs as ‘members of the Felidae’.”
But let me give Dan kudos for the ending of his piece, in which he calls attention to the fact that Mele, and the collaborators on his “Free Will” initiative, are somewhat compromised by being funded by Templeton:
So it is important to note that Mele’s research, as he scrupulously announces, and not in fine print, is supported by the Templeton Foundation. In fact, Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation, almost certainly the most munificent funding of any philosopher in history. The Templeton Foundation has a stated aim of asking and answering the “Big Questions,” and its programmes include both science and theology. In fact, yoking its support of science with its support of theology (and “individual freedom and free markets”) is the very core of its strategy. The Templeton Foundation supports, with no strings attached, a great deal of excellent science that is otherwise hard to fund. The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.
Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it. Was his decision to stay strictly neutral on the compatibilism issue a wise philosophical tactic, permitting him to tackle a more modest project, demonstrating the weakness of the scientific argument to date, or was it a case of simply postponing the more difficult issue: if, as science seems to show, our decision-making is not accomplished with the help of any quantum magic, do we still have a variety of free will that can support morality and responsibility? The Templeton Foundation insists that it is not anti-science, and demonstrates this with the bulk of its largesse, but it also has an invested interest in keeping science from subverting some of its ideological aspirations, and it just happens that Mele’s work fits handsomely with that goal. And that, as I persist in telling my friends in science whenever they raise the issue, is why I advise them not to get too close to Templeton.
Now that’s good advice!