Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Annoyed with Coyne (on free will)

I still haven't explained why I think Harris' response to Dennett is embarrassingly bad.  It's not because Harris is wrong about free will.  It's about the arguments he gives and the tone with which he gives them.  But I'm not going to get into that in this post.  Instead, I want to discuss why Harris is wrong about free will.  I've recently laid out a brief argument on the topic, but I suspect that unsympathetic audiences are not likely to be satisfied by it.  They say they have a better grasp of how people think about free will.  I don't know what makes them think they're experts on the subject, but what I do know is that they seem very confused about the issues.

Look at Jerry Coyne, one of Harris' sympathetic readers: "I still see compatibilism as a wasted effort by philosophers to save our felt notion that we have agency; that we could have chosen otherwise. . . . Even Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg, a determinist if there ever was one, was resistant to the idea that he could not have chosen otherwise at a given moment (he told me this at the “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference sixteen months ago)."  I wonder if Coyne asked Weinberg the following question:  "Do you mean that you think you could have chosen otherwise had you wanted to?"  Because if that is what Weinberg meant, there is no conflict with determinism.  I doubt Weinberg meant that he felt he could have acted differently even if he had the exact same beliefs, desires and emotions--that is, if he had the exact same will in the exact same conditions.

Here's the thing:  We do not experience causality as such.  We can only infer causal relationships.  So there is no such thing as "the experience that x determined y to happen."  The implication is obvious:  There is no such thing as the experience of being determined to do something.  We can, however, experience the feeling of compulsion:  the feeling that we are acting against our will.  So what's going on here?

We have an experience of rational agency, of choosing to act based on an evaluation of our beliefs and desires.  This is a complex phenomenon.  On the one hand, we have the experience of evaluating our beliefs and desires.  On the other hand, we have the experience of making a decision.  This is the experience of acting according to our beliefs and desires.  We might be misled about our beliefs and desires.  However, the experience as such is a psychological reality, and it is the experience of free will.  If this experience is an illusion, that means we do not actually make decisions according to our beliefs and desires.  We think we're acting according to beliefs and desires, but we're really acting according to something else.  Or maybe we're not really acting at all.

I wonder if Coyne thinks that we act, just not rationally, according to our beliefs and desires.  That's probably not what he thinks, since he puts a lot of stock in rational argument.  Maybe he believes that there are no beliefs and desires at all.  That would be absurd, of course, because he could not say "I believe there are no beliefs" without looking like a fool.  Actually, I don't think Coyne knows what he thinks, since he says he agrees with Harris, and Harris believes that people are capable of acting rationally.

What Coyne and Harris want to say is that the experience of free will is misleading.  It makes people think that their agency is somehow their own, and not the result of other causes.  But this is a false dilemma.  Agency is our own, but it is also the result of other causes.  There's nothing about being a rational agent that precludes being caused.

It's true that a lot of people, maybe most, have a hard time understanding this.  They believe they have to choose between free will and determinism, and they choose free will, because the experience is so compelling.  They have very little, if anything, invested in determinism.  But abandoning determinism does not make room for free will.  So why frame it as a conflict between free will and determinism in the first place?

People are confused because they don't understand rational agency and all that comes with it (including the relationship between mind and body, the foundations of moral responsibility, and so on).  These are topics that professional philosophers have been struggling with for a long, long time.  And yet, when a leading philosopher (that's Dennett, if you're new to the scene) who has specialized in this area tries to bring some sophistication to the table, every lay person out there thinks they know better.  It's a bit maddening, really.

Sure, there are professional philosophers who give the discipline a bad name.  There are scientists who give science a bad name, too.  But for some reason, people like Harris and Coyne are not willing to respect the authority of a professional who has spent decades engaging other professionals on these topics.  It's not that Dennett has the authority to tell us whether or not we have free will, but he has the authority to tell people like Sam Harris that they have not done their homework.  And yet, Coyne actually criticizes Dennett for pulling authority.  That's not just an insult to Dennett, but to the entire profession of philosophy.

Here's the deal.  People have many intuitions about free will.  The central intuition is that some of their actions are based on a rational consideration of their beliefs and desires.  While there are philosophers who deny the reality of beliefs, desires and agency, such a position is simply untenable in the practical world.  One would have to regard all of their own thoughts and experiences as fundamentally wrong.  They would have no intellectual barometer of any sort to rely on.  They would have to stop talking about beliefs, thoughts, actions, intentions, ideas, desires, and so on.  And why?  What is the reason for denying the reality of these things?  It seems much easier to deny the reality of physical causality than the reality of thought and action.  We don't even experience causality!  Fortunately, we don't have to choose.  There isn't even any sense in framing it as a choice.