Tag Archives: compatibilist

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?