A hope for the new year is that some commenters here might persuade PCC-E that many compatibilists do not see compatibilist notions of “free will” and “choice” as carny tricks or as evasion, nor as being what we tell the little people, but that we see them as useful and indeed necessary concepts for understanding human interactions. [JAC: In fact, I have several quotes from people like Dennett that we can’t spread the view of determinism in society lest there be dire social consequences; these quotes are explicitly “little people” quotes.]
To that end, I shall ask a question:
Is there a meaningful sense in which one can say that wearing a hijab is a “choice” in America but not a choice in Iran or Saudi Arabia?
Any determinist who answers “Yes” has then adopted the essentials of the compatibilist perspective (even if they then want to re-write the language).
[And I presume that no determinist will answer “no”, and say that in neither country is there any meaningful “choice” in the matter, since whether one wears a hijab is just determined by the laws of physics, are they?]
I responded with this:
What I would say, to be accurate, is this: “The government compels its citizens to wear the hijab in Iran, but doesn’t in the U.S.”
I do use the word “choice,” but I always realize that its dualistic connotation is illusory. And, as I’ve already said (but don’t want to argue this again), I frankly don’t care about the semantic machinations of compatibilists. You and I both know that the laws of physics underlie whether one wears a hijab or not, and where. What is important to me is to grasp PHYSICAL DETERMINISM and work out its consequences. It’s a semantic trick to do compatibilism because it undercuts what virtually everyone sees as “free will”: a dualistic free will. It’s as if you’re saying we can redefine “religious” to mean “full of awe” because there are similarities between religious people and Carl Sagan.
Now let me expand on that brief comment.
It’s a common notion of compatibilist “free will” that we have that sort of will when we experience no external compulsion that forces us to do something. So a hijabi in Iran is under legal compulsion to veil her head, while a hijabi in, say, New York is not; therefore the later has a “free choice.” That, say compatibilists, is a meaningful sort of free will. My contention is that there is no meaningful difference here.
While I agree that the forms of environmental constraint that make one wear a hijab in Iran may differ from those affecting hijabis in the U.S., I think it’s important to recognize that “compulsion”, whether it comes from the government or from your parents, is a.) still mediated through your neurons to result in a given behavior; b.) still a compulsion that cannot be resisted; and c.) still dictated, at bottom, by the laws of physics.
In my response I avoided using the word “choice” because I think you can express the same idea without the confusion of “choice.” But I still use that word in my daily life, yet when I think about it I always realize that it’s an ostensible or illusory choice. And in writing about free will I do try to avoid it because of its common connotations, which might confuse the reader. Or I might put quotes around it: “choice.”
Regardless, though, is there a meaningful difference between a government decree on the one hand, or one’s parents and one’s peers whose influence makes you wear the hijab on the other? Both are part of the environment that affects one’s brain, resulting in the donning of a headscarf.
But that’s not all. Your brain, though the working of the environment (both developmental and social) on your evolved neural equipment, is always the source of compulsion. If you believe, as most readers do, that at any time there is only one possible action you can take, and that is determined by your genes and environment, then you are being compelled to act by your brain. Is there a substantive difference between the government acting on your brain, making you wear a hijab because you’ll be punished if you don’t, your parents and peers working on your brain, making you wear a hijab because you’ll get social opprobrium if you don’t, or other influences working on your brain, compelling you to wear a hijab because you want to feel more “Muslim,” or you like the way it looks?
In none of those cases could you have behaved otherwise. The only distinction was which environmental circumstances dictated your actions.
That is why I think there is no meaningful difference between doing something because you’re being “forced” to or because you ostensibly “choose to.” In all cases you are being forced; the only thing that differs are the relevant forces. At what point, then, do we say that an American hijabi has exercised a compatibilist form of “free will”? If her parents pressure her? If her peers pressure her mildly? And remember that, in a social creature, external societal pressures nearly always help dictate what you do.
As I’ve always said, I don’t care so much if you want to define the absence of government compulsion—or other issues like “humans have a very complex evolved brain”—as factors giving us “compatiabilist free will”. The issue for me has always been determinism of behavior, a determinism that rests on the laws of physics. To me that’s important not only because it dispels the dualistic tenets of religion, but also can give us more empathy toward the downtrodden and the malefactors, and well as mitigating the regret we might feel for not having done different things.
Compulsion is compulsion, and it’s always enacted through your neurons, whether those neurons be conditioned by the Iranian government, the views of your parents, or your need to feel more “Muslim”.