Who’s phrase is ‘free will’ anyway?

There is a good post by Bill Skaggs on his blog (http://weskaggs.net/?p=1452) in which he comments on the Sam Harris – Daniel Dennett debate on free will. Skaggs puts it nicely: “Both Dennett and Harris agree that the “folk” concept of free will is hopeless nonsense. Dennett has spent a substantial part of his career trying to persuade philosophers and the public to redefine free will in a more reasonable way. Harris does not think that redefining a folk concept is a viable strategy. Regardless of who is right, this is the sort of thing that they should be able to argue about without insulting each other or flaming each other.” Skaggs is not taking sides here.



It has been clear for a long time that the compatibilists do not actually believe in old fashioned free will, but have redefined it so that they can say that they believe in “free will”. Like Harris, I find this the wrong way to go, simply dishonest and confusing. I also think that it just postpones some very needed readjustments. What readjustments?



  1. If we drop the use of the phrase “free will” then we can also drop the idea of “determinism”; we can stop thinking that these are opposites and mutually exclusive. We do not have a conscious will that is free from physical constraints and we also are not part of a clock-work type of causal universe where our decisions are fixed before we do the deciding. This useless argument consumes a lot of time and energy.

  2. We can re-examine responsibility and figure out when, how, why we are responsible for our actions. We should resolve the ways that we are responsible for our values, habits, morals, and unnecessary areas of willful blindness. What is our responsibility to actually put effort into doing things right?

  3. We could find out and face what consciousness is and is not. This is difficult when some of its models are mixed up with theories of free will and others are not. The understanding of decision making is also hampered by the contamination with free will. This is also a problem with other areas of neuroscience.

  4. We can produce a legal system that makes sense. The principles that hold up the current legal systems really need to be cleaned up. And there are other civic ideas that could do with a re-think. I get the feeling that many compatibilists are trying to avoid any changes at all to the legal system at all cost. It is like they feel the system is so fragile that it will collapse without free will. But changes in the system can be good and not lead to any breakdown in law-and-order. I don’t see it as that perfect a system that needs to be protected from scientific knowledge.



Changing the definition of free will makes these tasks harder and postpones facing them. But there is more. I also think that there is something very arrogant about setting out to redefine well established words. What is wrong with coining a new word? So if someone writes a paper or book, redefining a word, does he really expect hundreds of millions of people to say “yes, sir, I’ll obey, sir”.



Some words are fairly easy to hive off with some technical definition. But when the word is used by a large non-technical population in the same or similar contexts, then it is not reasonable to continue using the technical term without some marking of it. For example “tolerance” has an engineering definition and a social one, but the context in which they are used is so different that there is little confusion. But “rational” has a philosophical meaning, an economic meaning and a folk meaning. The economic and folk meanings do overlap in the media and this causes confusion. It would be better to use “economically rational” or a different word entirely. When people insist on causing confusion, they should not be surprised if they get accused of wanting the confusion.



Words change meaning naturally as the knowledge, need and context of their use changes. But changing them by fiat when they are in general use takes a lot of coercive power. Nor can people really control how their statements are put to use. So someone defines their terms and uses those terms to say something but he cannot be sure that the definitions and the quote will not get separated and the quote used to say the opposite of what was intended. Isn’t it better to avoid the confusion?




3 thoughts on “Who’s phrase is ‘free will’ anyway?

  1. quen_tin

    I think most of what people mean by “free-will” can be retained for all practical purpose. That is the main point of compatibilists.

    What people mean is: the ability to make personal decision without external constraints. It rests on a notion of personhood and identity which is a social notion, contextually and culturally interpreted.
    Contemporary neuroscience is of no help when deciding one’s intentions, motivations, external constraints in a social context (except maybe in the case of brain disfunction). We don’t have yet a strict definition of “jealousy” or “greed” or “authority” or “abuse” in purely neural terms, so what is the point? How exactly would you revise our justice system?
    Our justice system is social, not biological. Neuroscience is an interesting but basically irrelevant topic (except for brain disfunctions) for that matter. Sociology is much more relevant as a potential source of revision.

    Note that metaphysical determinism (or indeterminism) is as much irrelevant to our justice system as far as one’s decisions are practically unpredictable (if we had permanent EEG that could be different but this is not the case).

    So the point of compatibilism is this: the folk might associate questionable metaphysical or scientific intuitions to their concept of free-will, but as far as these intuitions are irrelevant for all practical purpose, there is no reason to abandon the notion of free-will altogether. Harris just doesn’t see the big picture. What is important is the role of the notion of free-will in relation to other social concepts (personhood, external constraints, responsability…).

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      Thank you for your comment. You say that ordinary people using the phrase would mean free-will is “the ability to make personal decision without external constraints.” This is not how I hear people use the word (except, of course, compatibilists). Most people include the idea that the personal decision is made consciously – ie not made consciously means not made with free-will. And many would say that you can do the right thing even if there is a gun to your head – the choice is between being a dead martyr or an alive evil doer and your free to make the choice, of your own free-will. It is the conscious component that gets in the way. That is why the Libet type experiments are so disturbing to ordinary people. They think that if something is not decided consciously then it is not decided by “them” and it is not done with free-will. If ordinary people actually believed the compatibilist’s definition, I would not have a problem with the phrase. I don’t think the leading compatibilists believe that decisions are made consciously and I think they do accept the Libet type experiments. If they try and fog the issue so that ordinary people do not know that their decisions are made unconsciously before they register in consciousness (if they register in consciousness at all), that is being misleading. I also think that the compatibilists are wrong about the metaphysical and scientific intuitions being irrelevant to ordinary people – my ears hear them being very important to ordinary people. But I do agree that the notion of free-will has many important (but I would say negative) effects on the concepts of “personhood, external constraints, responsibility…” For the life of me I can see nothing lost and much gained by abandoning free-will as an ingredient for decision making.

      1. quen_tin

        I think that there is an important distinction between conscious and unconscious decisions that can be made regardless scientific or metaphysical concerns (such as those one could draw from Libet’s experiments). There is a difference between someone asleep or awake or under drug, between a reflexe and an action which result from a deliberation, between being forced to do something or being willing to do it — whatever the underlying neural processes (Maybe there is a continuum but most people would accept that).

        So the same goes for free will and consciousness in general: the notions are embedded in a web of practical and social representations. There is no need to change the word we use because the intrinsic nature associated to these change with new discoveries, as far as the role they play in the more global picture remains more or less the same.

        Before thermodynamic theories were formulated, some thought that heat was due to a caloric fluid. They were plain wrong but this is no reason to change the name ‘heat’, and most practical use of the term ‘heat’ remain valid until now. Thermodynamic allow for new applications but does not call for a complete revision of previous conceptions.

        Most people are interested not only by the practical distinctions between ‘free’ and ‘constrained’, or ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’, but also by the very nature of consciousness and will — and so are philosophers and scientists, otherwise there would be no research in neuroscience and no debates on free-will. These issues are fascinating and new scientific discoveries can broaden our views but I remain convinced that the practical, prescientific layer of these issues remains relatively independent of the more elaborate scientific layer.


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