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Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

5. Coercion

OK. Let's get started with some basic etymology. The term 'free' arose from the Old English word 'freo' in the thirteenth century. This word meant:

free, exempt from, not in bondage

[see 'free' in Collins English Dictionary and Online Etymology Dictionary]

Between the years 1525 and 1535, the conjoined term 'free will' arose for the first time. In the literature of the day and in the ensuing decades, the term was used to denote a person's will that was not constrained or forced [see 'free will' in Wiktionary]. From its earliest uses, it meant an unencumbered and uncoerced will.

Take, for example, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra [c. 1606]. Octavia pleads to Caesar that he travelled to Rome of his own free will in spite of the constraints put on him by Mark Antony. As Octavia puts it:

'Good my Lord, To come thus was I not constrain'd, but did it On my free-will' [3.6.65].

Here is another example from the 17th Century. In Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, Nicholas begs the young Madelaine to not marry Mr. Gride as she is unknowingly being impelled to do so. Madelaine protests:

'I am impelled to this course by no one, but follow it of my own free-will. You see I am not constrained or forced by menace and intimidation'

[The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, vol. 2, 1843: 313f]

Book cover: Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction by John Heil

As you can see from these early uses, a free will is contrasted with a constrained or forced will. It is not contrasted with a caused will. The constraints identified by these characters are constraints put up by other people and not causes lurking in heritable characteristics or brain physiology, as hard determinists and libertarians want us to believe.

This idea that absence of coercion is central to the notion of 'free will' carries through to modern day. The Collins English Dictionary renders one of the two meanings of 'free will' as:

the ability to make a choice without coercion: [It then gives an example in use.]
he left of his own free will: I did not influence him

Similarly, the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary gives the first of two meanings to 'free will' as:

A will free from improper coercion or restraint. [It also gives an example in use.]
"To come thus was I not constrained, but did On my free will."

So, I want to conclude here that absence of coercion is a central requirement for an act to be considered 'free'. In my essay, Free Will and Compatibilism, you can read three modern day examples of ordinary use that further illustrate this point.

Now, with modern advances in science and jurisprudence, lay and professional folk have come to appreciate that a person's will can also be encumbered or restricted in other situations. In addition to coercion, these other kinds of situations in which a person's capacity to exercise their free will is restricted are these: manipulation, addiction and mental illness. It is to each of these that I now want to turn.

Copyright © 2018

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