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Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

13. Conclusion

Book cover: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Before I wrap up this talk, think for a moment about how your views about free will may have changed since I started talking. Did you move at all towards to the 'free will' side of the landscape diagram with the four quadrants that I showed earlier? Or did you move away from the 'free will' side? Which quadrant did you place yourself in at the start of the talk? Which quadrant are you in now? Perhaps in question time, you could share your reasons for shifting in your view.

OK. To wrap up this talk, let me summarize what I've tried to show.

  • I began by taking a helicopter view of what the free will–determinism debate is about, its key terms and its importance for questions about the nature of moral responsibility.
  • I traced briefly the origin of the term 'free will' and how historical usage and today's major dictionaries render its meaning as 'absence of constraint'.
  • Through examining a number of cases of how ordinary folk engage in 'free will' talk, I showed four ways in which free will can be constrained: coercion, manipulation, addiction and mental illness.
  • Four common themes emerged from this survey that illustrated the central features of a free act. I labelled these four requirements for free will as the 4 Cs: absence of Compulsion; absence of third-party Control, consonance with the agent's Character and Cognitive competence.
  • Throughout this survey, we found that the hard determinist's and libertarian's notion that contra-causality is required for free will is absent from the thinking of ordinary folk. It turns out that this notion of contra-causality is a projection of philosophers' and theologians' metaphysical presuppositions onto folk beliefs. Free will talk is largely agnostic to such metaphysical commitments. Free will talk is more an expression of the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people rather than a window into their theological and neuroscientific beliefs.
  • This mundane conclusion was further reinforced by looking at other non-spooky uses of the word 'free', such as in the phrase 'free range chickens'.
  • For those worried about how we could have done otherwise in a deterministic universe, I gave a straightforward explanation that did not require us having the magical ability to contravene the laws of the nature.
  • Finally, I tried to dispel the mistaken notion that ordinary folk somehow experience the 'illusion' of contra-causal free will.

In summary, here is a list of the seven arguments for free will that I presented tonight.

  1. Etymology of 'free will' in 16th c. as constrained will
  2. Lexicography of 'free will' as absence of coercion
  3. Paradigm cases of 'free will' (marry of own free will)
  4. Non-spooky other uses of 'free' ('free range', 'free hand')
  5. Ordinary language analysis → '4C theory' of free will
  6. 'Intrinsic characteristics' analysis of 'could have done otherwise'
  7. No 'illusion' of contra-causal free will

If you'd like to examine the question of free will further, I encourage you to download my essay, Free Will and Compatibilism, or read it online. Tonight, we didn't have time to discuss how the question of free will, determinism and libertarianism impacts our notions of moral responsibility, praise and blame. If you are interested in this question, check out the final section of my essay, where I discuss the implications.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to what I had to say. We'll now open up the floor for questions and discussion.

Copyright © 2018

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