Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Free will, definitions, and dogma

I have been thinking about free will.  I'm a compatibilist.  That means I believe free will is compatible with determinism.

For a person who has never heard of compatibilism, it may seem weird.  How can free will exist if our choices are determined before we were even around to choose them?  One possible response to this is that compatibilists are using a different definition of free will.  I do not claim to have thought this out fully, but my own conception of free will is as follows:

An act of free will is that which is proximately caused by human volition.

Take the metaphor of the chain of causation.  Each link in the chain causes the next.  If one link in the chain is human volition, then the next few links are acts of free will.  If the world is deterministic, then the chain never splits off into multiple possible branches.  But this clearly has no bearing on free will as I have conceived it.

Free will is on my mind because of Sam Harris' new book, Free Will (via Friendly Atheist).  Sam Harris argues that there is no free will.  I have not read the book, so I will try to avoid speculating on his arguments.  A commenter (Garren) on Friendly Atheist offered the following argument against compatibilism:
I see the situation as analogous to answering "Is the moon made of cheese?" with a 'yes' — not because the moon is made of cheese in the original sense, but because our society is so insistent that the moon IS made of cheese that _whatever_ it's made of, we rename that substance 'cheese.' And then philosophers can avoid the pitchforks from a public who is fooled by the use of language.
Funny thing about having a large blog archive... I have made the same argument myself!  I will not quote myself, because I was a terrible writer back then.  But my basic point was that religion has all these dogmas like "God is good", "The soul exists", and "The Bible is the Word of God."  And even as religious beliefs transform, people continue to believe these statements are basically true.  The result is a shift in the meanings of "good", "soul", "Word of God", often moving towards metaphorical interpretations.

However, I noted that this does not imply that the metaphorical interpretations themselves are wrong.  I invite the reader to name the relevant fallacy.

Now I am trying to imagine times where it is completely appropriate to change a definition.  For example, we might ignorantly define a particular person as particular set of cells.  But then when we learn that these cells get replaced with new ones periodically, we'd still want to preserve the basic truth that I am the same person as that guy from 10 years ago.  So we would need a new definition of a person.  Is that wrong?

There is also the question of whether I have in fact shifted my conception of free will.  My current conception of free will seems natural, and not like a shift just for the sake of preserving the basic truth of the statement, "Free will exists."  Of course my feelings could be wrong on this matter.  To be honest, I don't recall how I conceived of free will when I was younger.


Larry Hamelin said...

At Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne has recently been arguing that the definition should not be changed. As for me, I've decided that the label has become hopelessly equivocal and decided to stop using it.

drransom said...

I think the key terms in your definition need some considerable explication.

First, I don't understand what you mean by "proximately caused."* Why do you need to add a concept of causation into the definition, rather than saying (e.g.) that an act of free will is an act "of" human volition rather than being "caused" by it?

Second, the term "human volition" seems exceptionally vague. Some things people do are clearly volitional (playing Zelda rather than Mario when both CD's ara available) and others are clearly non-volitional (sneezing, seizures). But there's a huge gray area (breathing, addiction, some forms of mental illness) where I'm not sure if you'd classify the acts in question as "volitional" or not. I have no problem with a distinction having a gray area, but I am concerned that this distinction may be so gray that it becomes hopelessly vague.

* It has a specific legal definition that I'm familiar with, but I'm sure you don't mean that one.

miller said...

If you think that's vague, consider that I never even had the words "volition", or "proximate" in my mind until I tried to commit the definition to paper!

I think the vagueness in the definition is symptomatic of it being a natural conception of free will, rather than a definition constructed by a philosopher. Clearly, any philosopher who wants to coalesce these natural conceptions of free will into a workable definition has their work cut out for them.

drransom said...

Yes, I think a philosophically rigorous definition would be very difficult to generate. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that there have been a great many such attempts, with no success.

miller said...

I found a video of Sam Harris talking about free will.

At 33:06 he says,
"And clearly choice and effort is a part of the causal chain of life."

This is not too far off from my definition, so I think Harris would judge my definition to at least be coherent.