Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

4. Aim of This Talk

Book cover: The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics by Gilbert Harman

I'm not going to talk about these implications for how we view moral responsibility tonight. That is a big subject in itself. What I do find, though, is that many of the arguments against free will and moral responsibility are based on some fundamental philosophical mistakes. Many people get a big headache when they see philosophers debating free will. Tonight, I'm going to keep it simple. Tonight, I want to present to you a different way of looking at the question; a way that will challenge you while bringing simplicity and clarity. The approach I will use is called an 'ordinary language' analysis. This approach investigates what we mean by 'free will', and whether we have it or not, by looking at how ordinary folk talk about free will.

This approach is a strong antidote to the effort by hard determinists and libertarians to convince us that when ordinary folk talk of acting freely, they are referring to an undetermined or underdetermined will; that is, a contra-causal will. I will try to show you that hard determinists and libertarians are overlaying our ordinary, everyday language with their own metaphysical presuppositions. I will try to show that our ordinary 'free will' talk is metaphysically neutral. What I mean by that is that when Joe says, for example, that he freely gave up his seat on the bus, that his expression is agnostic about whether or not his brain states were completely determined by prior physical events.

So, tonight, I will present my case by:

  • first looking briefly at the etymology and lexicography of the term, 'free will'.
  • Next, I'll work through a number of examples illustrating the four kinds of situations that ordinary folk and working professionals consider limit our exercise of free will.
  • Then, I'll review what are called 'paradigm cases' of people exercising their 'free will' and how the word 'free' modifies other words.
  • Next, I'll roll up all of these learnings into a coherent theory about the four necessary requirements for an agent to choose freely. I'll call this the '4C theory'.
  • Free will skeptics deny our ability to do other than we in fact do. This skepticism impacts a range of ethical questions about how we ought to treat others. I will venture a brief, non-technical look at an answer to this question about whether we could have done otherwise.
  • I will then end on a magical note about the supposed free will illusion.

The journey I will take you on here is just a snapshot of the longer journey presented in my essay, Free Will and Compatibilism.

Copyright © 2018

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