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Free Will and Compatibilism

3. Paradigmatic Examples of 'Free Will'

Although the examples of restrictions on free will given in the previous section are not exhaustive, they do represent the way ordinary folk think and talk about free will. Readers can gain more insight into folk thinking by reading comments from internet forum contributors on the freedom-restricting circumstances mentioned. The key point I am making here is that a survey of generalist literature and discussion forums reveals a paucity of thinking about the loss of free will as a loss resulting from certain brain states abandoning their acausal status and becoming fully engaged with other causal physical processes in the brain. What limits free will in ordinary people's minds is not causality, but coercion, manipulation, addiction and mental illness. This way of thinking has only been further elaborated and refined by modern developments in psychiatric practice and jurisprudence.

My point can also be illustrated by examining paradigmatic uses of the term 'free will' in common discourse. Consider this dialogue about a recent marriage.

Fred asks John: 'Did you marry Kate of your own free will?'

John answers: 'No. If I did not marry Kate, my entire family would have abandoned me and I would have been evicted and left with no money.'

Alternatively, John could have answered: 'Yes. We fell in love at university and my parents had no objections.'

In either case, Fred's query is satisfied and he leaves the conversation knowing whether John married freely or not. Crucially, Fred's question and John's answer hinged on whether the marriage was coerced or not by John's family.

Now consider a second dialogue about handing over a wallet.

Mary asks Peter: 'Did you give your wallet to that man of your own free will?'

Peter answers: 'No. He was holding a gun to my head, threatening my life if I did not do so.'

Alternatively, Peter could have answered: 'Yes. I wanted to go for a swim in my shorts and did not want my wallet to get wet.'

Again, Mary's question is answered with reference to whether the act was coerced or not. For Fred and Mary, their question was not a neurophysiological question about the causes and causal absences happening in John and Peter's brains. Their question was a practical question, rooted in their day-to-day lives.

Cartoon about free will and moral responsibility

Hard determinists have taken our modern, scientific understanding of the brain and overlaid this causal model onto what they think common language terms, such as 'free will', mean. Scientists, such as Sam Harris, have also fallen into this trap of injecting their metaphysical understanding of the world into what they think is the common person's use of ordinary-language terms. This error is akin to scientists, on discovering that atoms are mostly empty space, proclaiming that tables are not 'really' solid. A similar mistake occurred with our notion of a 'coloured object'. Physicists tell us that atoms are not coloured. It turns out our perception of colour is a function of how our brains process light of various electromagnetic wavelengths. On the basis of this insight, some philosophically naïve scientists seek to correct our common sense notion by proclaiming that apples are not 'really' red. I see hard determinists making a similar mistaken attempt to overlay our scientific understanding of human beings onto ordinary, day-to-day discourse.

The absurdity of the incompatibilists approach is also evident from looking at other paradigmatic instances of the use of the modifier, 'free', in ordinary language. This modifier is used with a number of other nouns. Consider these examples.

When we speak of a 'free range' chicken, we are not meaning a chicken whose movements are contra-causal. We are not meaning that the chicken moves in a way that breaks the laws of deterministic physics. We mean that the chicken's movements are not constricted by being housed in a cage or enclosed barn.

Take the term 'free thought'. When we advocate the right of 'free thought' in society, we are upholding the right to thought and expression that is free from government, religious and other institutional restrictions. We are not referring to thought that is contra-causal.

Similarly, a drawing done 'free hand' does not mean a drawing that broke the laws of physics during its creation. It is a drawing that is created free from the constraints of instruments, templates and guides. There are many other examples that illustrate the same point, including 'free vote', 'free fall' and 'free enterprise'. You can see the pattern here.

On 'free will' in particular, an incompatibilist may object that the examples I give showing how coercion, and the other various circumstances I bring up, limit free will only serve to reveal what people think are the behavioural and environmental correlates to deterministic brain states. This goes no way to disproving, the objection continues, that common people regard a free agent as one whose brain states are not completely determined by prior physical causes.

In support, the incompatibilist could point to studies conducted by psychologists that purportedly show that ordinary folk regard free will as contra-causal. The problem for the incompatibilist here is that some of these experimental studies conclude the opposite; that the person on the street is predominantly compatibilist. In addition, an examination of the studies that conclude that people are incompatibilists often suffer from significant methodological weaknesses. These design shortcomings consist largely of poorly constructed survey questions and priming of the participants. I examine critically a sampling of these studies in my Allan [2016b].

I think a cursory review of generalist literature and listening to 'free will' talk shows this objection to miss the mark. Take, for example, the debate conducted on Debate.org [2016] on whether an addict still has free will while addicted. Those saying yes, they do, appeal exclusively to the fact that addicts can and do make choices.

Here are two more examples. Gambling addict, Chris Wright, argued that addicts like him retain the capacity of free will, enough to regain a sense of responsibility and a 'degree of agency' to choose otherwise [Wright 2013]. He makes no mention of uncaused causes.

Journalist Andrew Brown [Brown 2016] argued that obesity is not an addiction that takes away a person's free will as addicts change their behaviour in response to improved social circumstances. For Brown, freedom of the will is about choice and not brain chemistry. In view of these examples, I think it incumbent on incompatibilists who believe that ordinary folk think in terms of contra-causality to demonstrate their thesis with examples from common usage.

The ordinary-language critique I advance here can be extended to judicial language and thinking. Throughout the modern history of jurisprudence, in determining whether a defendant was absent of the capacity for free will at the time of the crime, no jury or judge has requested or called in expert witnesses to attest to the fact that at the time of the crime the defendant's relevant brain states transitioned from a physically contra-causal state to a causal state. This is not surprising as no dualist theory of mind and body has delivered on the promise. No metaphysician yet has presented evidence for how and when particular neuron firings in a person's brain gets removed from the chains of causation to which neighbouring neurons belong. The same is the case for indeterminists advocating random quantum effects in the brain. Clarke & Capes [2017] provide a comprehensive overview of current attempts by incompatibilists to ground free will in indeterminism.

In fact, judges examine, and juries are asked to consider, whether there were any circumstances that either eliminated or mitigated the defendant's ability to choose freely. The types of circumstances that the judge and jury consider include precisely those types of encumbrances outlined above: coercion or manipulation by a third party, drug addiction and mental illness. These are precisely the impediments to free will to which the compatibilist points. For a systematic summary of judicial defenses, see, for example, Robinson [1982].

Copyright © 2016, 2018

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