You don’t get much more respected as an academic than John Searle, a philosopher of mind and language who’s been teaching at Berkeley for 56 years. I’ve read some of his stuff, which I generally like, and admire him for still being an active, non-retired professor at 83. He must love his job! When Sam Harris tw**ted what’s below two days ago, I went over to see what Searle had to say about free will, pleased to see that he was still doing philosophy.
The link in Sam’s tweet goes to a 10-minute interview of Searle by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, which, it turns out, is part of a larger series of videos on free will at the “Closer to Truth” site. There are dozens of them! I’ll watch a selection over the coming weeks and report on any that seem interesting.
Sam liked this video, as I do, because Searle agrees with us on the main issues, and is quite articulate. As he notes, while other areas of philosophy have advanced over the centuries, there’s been no advance in the philosophy of free will. I’d take some issue with that, since over the last decades the idea of determinism, and the scientific evidence for it, has gradually pushed aside the of dualistic, I-could-have-done-otherwise form of free will that is not only beloved of religionists, but is the type of free will that most people accept. When determinism dispelled that, philosophers stepped into the breach with notions of “compatibilism”—the philosophical idea that there are forms of free will that can exist side by side with determinism. (Yes, I know that some compatibilists operated long ago.)
But I suppose Searle doesn’t see the rise of compatibilism—Dan Dennett is a prominent exponent—as a philosophical advance. Neither do I: rather, I see it as a diversion, as a waste of brainpower. At any rate, when Searle talks about “free will”, he’s talking about the dualistic form that is so widespread.
Searle sees that form of free will as an illusion, which it is if you accept “illusion” as the notion of “something that isn’t what it seems.” The big philosophical problem with free will, which has been highlighted repeatedly by Sam Harris, and here stressed by Searle, is this: we feel as if we are free agents, that we are in control of our decisions—but we’re not. How can that be? Compatibilism simply doesn’t deal with that question, and Searle calls compatibilism (at 6:25) a “copout.”
So does free will remain as a philosophical problem? It is if you need to confect other ways to define free will, and justify them. But if you reject compatibilism, then the philosophical problems are considerably narrowed. As Searle notes,”If the neurobiology level is causally sufficient to determine your behavior, then the fact that you had the experience of freedom at the higher level is really irrelevant.” Yes, that’s true, but then what’s the problem.
Most of the problems of free will, it seems to me, involve evolution and neuroscience rather than philosophy. Why did our feeling of agency evolve (evolution and neuroscience)? How far in advance are our decisions “determined” (neuroscience)? And which factors determine them (neuroscience)? But there is still room for philosophy, of course. Its ambit would involve questions like, “In a deterministic world, is there any meaning to the term “moral responsibility?” Or “in a deterministic world, how do we structure the system of reward and punishment to produce the most well being for society and its members?” The last question, of course, involves not just philosophy but empirical observation of how people behave, or are “cured” under different systems of treatment and punishment. (That’s sociology.) As I’ve always said, I think philosophers would do much better to deal with these critical and important questions—questions about real issues in society that have import for us all—rather than spinning their wheels about the “right” definition of free will.
But listen to Searle. His straightforward talk reminds me a bit of Richard Feynman.
h/t: S. Krishna