I’ve long been puzzled by the many writings of “compatibilists”: those philosophers and laypeople who accept physical determinism of our choices and behaviors, but still maintain that we have a kind of “free will.” Such people reject the classical form of free will that’s been so important to many people (especially religious ones)—the kind of “libertarian” free will that posits that we really can freely control our actions, and in many cases could have chosen to behave other than how we did. This is the kind of free will that most people accept, as they don’t see the world as deterministic; and most also feel that if the world were deterministic, people would lose moral responsibility for their actions (see my post on the work of Sarkissian et al.).
Based on statements of some compatibilists, I realized that one reason philosophers spend so much time trying to define forms of free will compatible with determinism is because they see bad consequences of rejecting all free will. Some compatibilists think that if people realized that they don’t have the kind of free will they thought they did, the world would disintegrate: people would either lie in bed out of sheer languor and despair, or behave “immorally” because, after all, we can’t choose how to behave.
I’ve been rebuked sharply for imputing these motivations to compatibilists. Their efforts, I’m told, have nothing to do with trying to stave off possible bad results of rejecting free will. Rather, they’re supposedly engaged in a purely philosophical exercise: trying to show that we still have a form of free will that really matters, even if the libertarian form has been killed off by science. I have, however, responded by pointing out statements by compatibilists like Dan Dennett warning about the bad things that could happen if neuroscientists tell us that we don’t have free will.
If you ever doubted that compatibilism is motivated largely by philosophers’ fears about what would happen if people rejected classical free will, and weren’t presented with a shiny new compatibilist form, watch this “Big Think” video by Dan Dennett. It’s called “Stop telling people they have free will”:
Supposedly aimed at promulgating a better concept of free will, Dan’s video in fact doesn’t do that at all. Rather, Dennett tries to show that those neuroscientists who tell people they don’t have free will are being “mischievous” and “irresponsible.” He devises a thought experiment that shows only one thing: if people don’t think they have free will, they start behaving badly, and could even commit crimes! They become “morally incompetent people.” His short talk is an exercise in consequentialism, not a philosophical recasting of free will.
Dennett even cites the Vohs and Schooler experiment purporting to show that if people read passages showing that they have no free will, they tend to cheat more on subsequent puzzle-solving tests. (Note that those supposed effects are tested over a very short span—an hour or two—and say absolutely nothing about the long term effects of rejecting classical free will.)
Dennett, however, fails to cite the work of Rolf Zvaan at Rotterdam, who failed to replicate the results of Vohs and Schooler while pointing out defects in their experimental design. (See my post on that here.) Zvaan found absolutely no effect of reading pro- and anti-free will passages on the level of cheating in subsequent tests. His paper is being submitted for publication.
But even if people behaved worse if they were told that determinism reigns and libertarian free will doesn’t exist, so what? The truth is the truth, and if science shows us something like that, we simply have to deal with it. After all, science has found no evidence for God, either, and yet there are studies showing that belief in God similarly produces better short-term behavior on psychological tests. Do philosophers like Dennett then try to confect new definitions of God—”the kind of a God worth wanting”? Maybe we should redefine God to comport with science: “God is the Cosmos.” No, of course they don’t do that. They’re atheists!
It is curious that Dennett has spent a lot of time attacking the concept of “belief in belief”: the idea that we should tolerate religious belief because, even if not based on truth, it still makes people behave better. Yet when the “belief” is in free will rather than God, then “belief in belief” becomes not only okay, but essential.
And that, I think, is why some compatibilists try to invent forms of free will to replace the libertarian version. They do it, I believe, because they can then tell people that they really do have free will, and so we’ll all continue to behave well and society will thrive.
But I don’t believe that people will either run amok or become vegetables if they become incompatibilists and realize that all our behaviors are determined (or perhaps slightly affected by quantum indeterminacy, which still does not constitute anybody’s idea of “free will”). I’m an incompatibilist, and since I became one neither I nor anyone else has noticed a change in my behavior. I haven’t started robbing banks or assaulting people, and I sure don’t lie abed in the morning!
Society will learn to live with determinism, as it has learned to live with death and the absence of God. And, as I always maintain, abandoning the idea of free will is actually good for society in several ways: it undermines religion, and it is a highly useful attitude when thinking about how to reform the criminal justice system.
BTW, while we’re on free will, reader Jim E. sent a short (2-minute) animation about the famous Libet experiment, and pointed out that Professor Ceiling Cat makes a cameo appearance as a critic of free will. And I do! Look for me at 1:05 in the video below. Dennett is in there, too—as an experimental subject!