Monday, February 24, 2014

Folk understanding of Free Will, part 1: Does it matter?

Over at one of my favourite blogs websites, two studies of folk philosophy have recently been discussed: what do average people, as opposed to trained philosophers, think about determinism and free will?

To recap, this is part of the greater controversy around compatibilism. Both compatibilists and incompatibilists assume that the universe we find ourselves in is essentially deterministic - with perhaps a bit of quantum randomness thrown in, but surely without any supernatural soul making decisions independently from the laws of physics.

However, compatibilists such as myself argue that even given complete determinism, there is still a significant difference between doing something voluntarily and doing something under coercion, or between doing something deliberately and doing it accidentally, or between being mentally sane and in control and being insane or drunk; and further, that terms like "free will", "choice" and "agency" are useful descriptors of these differences. Incompatibilists, on the other hand, do not believe that these terms make any sense given determinism.

As I have pointed out before, the funny thing is that all sane incompatibilists actually make the same difference in practice: they also treat an accident differently than harm that was caused deliberately, and they would also treat a lunatic but punish a sane criminal. So in practice every sane person is a compatibilist, and the only difference is semantic. Which is odd, because once you accept a difference, would it not be useful to have terms to describe it?

The argument made by incompatibilists for the rejection of these terms is ultimately that they are confusing, that they are loaded with supernatural meanings. They claim that when the average person hears "free will", they understand "supernatural soul doing things independently of deterministic laws of nature". And this is why we have to get rid of this terminology. I have never been able to accept this claim.

First it has to be noted that several of the terms rejected by incompatibilists very definitely do not have and never had any supernatural meaning, ever. Choice-making is something that we commonsensical apply to rats or computer programs, and some of those systems that even the most fervent religious believer would not consider to have a soul. Agency is simply a word indicating that we are dealing with a system that has internal preferences and tries to act on them; the idea that something supernatural is implied with that term is plainly laughable.

Individually, the same is true of free and will. A will is again an internal preference, while the word free has numerous uses in statistics, mechanics, politics or every day language that are entirely uncontaminated by superstition. Nobody who speaks of degrees of freedom, free speech, or freedom for Nelson Mandela intends to comment on the supernatural.

If anything, then, the whole discussion can only be about one very specific term, that of "free will". But even there I generally have my doubts. When I say, "I went to this meeting out of my own free will", I would not expect any reasonable listener to conclude that I just made reference to a spiritual event. Likewise, the commonsensical meaning of "humans have free will" would appear to be that they can decide for themselves instead of being steered, commanded and manipulated by somebody else, but not that they can override material reality.

But perhaps that is just me, perhaps I am wrong. Or perhaps the incompatibilists are. At any rate, it is good that a few days ago the discussion has finally turned to the examination of empirical studies instead of anecdotes and personal perception. More on them in the next post. For now the question is just, even if one side were decisively supported by the evidence, how much of a difference does it make?

Well, the situation is a bit asymmetric. If it turns out that people are mostly compatibilists and do not consider "free will" to mean something supernatural then the case for incompatibilism implodes. As mentioned above, we all accept that a sane person is significantly different from a lunatic etc, and here we have commonsensical and widely accepted words to describe these cases, so why not use them?

If, on the other hand, it turns out that the incompatibilists have got the measure of folk terminology, that "free will" really means "supernatural soul deciding independently of genes, experiences, brain states, etc", then we are still left with some thorny issues.

The most important of these is whether it is actually realistic to expect that one can remove these terms from common usage. People have a very strong feeling that they are making choices, that they have agency, that they have a free will that, say, a rock does not have, so telling them that they don't will not go far to convince them. More problematically, they are right: they have something that a rock does not have and that a cricket does not have to the same degree, and if they are sober and sane they have some characteristic that the drugged and insane do not have to the same degree either.

We do bloody well need words for these differences, and the incompatibilists have yet to come up with alternatives (e.g., would it really be helpful to say "what type of ice cream will you have the illusion to have chosen because you are the puppet of your brain chemistry" instead of "what type of ice cream do you choose?").

The second issue is therefore whether, realistic or not, we should wish to remove these terms from usage. Another commenter on the WEIT website has given a fantastic analogy: Assume that studies would decisively demonstrate that most people believe the terms "life" and "living" to mean the possession of élan vital, that is the state of being imbued with a supernatural spark of life. Knowing that this is false, would you (a) try to convince people that "life" is actually a homeostatic, self-sustaining biochemical process, or (b) try to convince people that they should stop using the terms "life" and "living"?

Funnily, although most incompatibilists would not in their wildest dreams chose (b), this is precisely their strategy in the free will debate. And this is probably no hypothetical; while I do not have empirical data available, just considering the state of education across the world I would not be surprised if a large part of humanity turned out to have an élan vital type understanding of biology.

Next time: the actual content of the two studies mentioned above.

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