Podcast: Defining Free Will

Atheistically Speaking with Thomas Smith

ON AIR with Atheistically Speaking. Host Thomas Smith and guest Ryan Born discuss the meaning of free will.This week, I returned to Atheistically Speaking to discuss free will. Back in June, Thomas and I had a good chat about moral philosophy and The Moral Landscape.

Earlier in July, Thomas aired two episodes on free will, AS49 and AS50. He shared his thoughts on an exchange between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Dennett wrote a review of Harris’ book Free Will. Harris replied to Dennett on his (Harris’) blog.

Our discussion spans episodes AS53 and AS54. We talked about how to define free will. Read on for a quick introduction to topics we discussed, along with some helpful links.


Free will is a capacity to make choices. Given this very minimal definition, free will sounds rather ordinary. Yet whether anyone actually has such a capacity remains debatable.

Free will skeptics say a truly free decision would be rather extraordinary—even impossible. Often, these skeptics are incompatibilists. They believe that free will is incompatible with determinism. Roughly put, determinism is the idea that present events are fully constrained (i.e., caused or necessitated) by past events plus the laws of nature. Incompatibilists say that if our universe is deterministic, then we don’t have free will.

Thinkers who identify as compatibilists disagree. These individuals believe free will is compatible with determinism. They think free will can exist in a deterministic universe.

Which side is right depends on what it means to choose freely. Incompatibilists propose that being free requires having alternative possibilities at the moment of choice, or perhaps even knowing and controlling all the factors that lead to the choice one makes. In contrast, compatibilists tend to say free will requires only that our conscious plans and deliberations contribute to how we choose and act.

Both camps claim to define free will in a way that best captures what free will feels like or what commonsense tells us it requires.

As I discuss with Thomas, psychologist Daniel Wegner studies the “experience of conscious will.” Wegner believes his research shows that free will is an illusion, no matter which camp’s definition we accept.

Thomas and I also talk about the work of experimental philosopher Eddy Nahmias (whom I studied with when getting my Master’s degree). Nahmias, a compatibilist, has conducted several experiments that suggest most people don’t find incompatibilism intuitive. Nahmias’ more recent research suggests that, contrary to what Harris argues in Free Will, most people don’t believe free will conflicts with (hypothetical) brain scanners that perfectly predict our decisions. Check out Nahmias’ short review of Free Will to learn more.

Also be sure to check out the two, one-hour podcasts I recorded with Thomas. Both part 1 and part 2 are available for free from Atheistically Speaking.

 

Comments 10

  • You are a sharp man, Ryan, please keep up the good work! In spite of my inconsistent commenting (I have been busy and left a couple of our past discussions midstream), I do regularly check out your blog and look forward to getting your thoughts. 🙂

    On the debate between Harris and Dennett about “free will”, I find this problem to be mostly immaterial and boring. As you might guess, I essentially side with Harris and have a very difficult time wrapping my head around Dennett’s compatibilism and how it square’s with the rest of his work in the philosophy of mind and religion. For the debate is ultimately about syntax, for goodness sake(!), and if the term ‘free will’ is a valid one for speaking about our cognitive decision making. (The two camps agree about the meat of the subject, which is that there is nothing “spooky” above deterministic processes and randomness operating in human decision making.) So my problem is, Why keep this out-dated term alive in the discussion?

    To my mind, the term ‘free will’ is a relic of western theology; along with terms like ‘faith’, ‘soul’, ‘God’, etc. it is a highly dubious term with multiple vague connotations, and so is incapable of sustaining any rigorous analysis. For, just as we saw in the debate between Harris and Dennett, any time a person critically examines one facet of these kinds of terms’ connotation, they are always open to being criticized by someone for being intellectually foolish while being slapped in the face with a different, presumably “truer”, connotation. (I see this happen often in debates about “faith”. See SEP on Faith for an insight into how slippery this term is; my current position remains that either faith is a cognitive bias [which is how I think it is popularly utilized] and vice, or it is superfluous with logic and rationality [which is how modern theologians will use it, so Christian belief will not appear blatantly irrational].)

    Furthermore, most of western society is religious and hold a spooky, folk theory of consciousness (viz. “substance dualism”), which Dennett has criticized as committing a humunculous, infinite regress fallacy. But this naive and fallacious conception of mind is consistent with Harris’s claims about the popular conception of free will.

    Therefore, I think (1) the public probably has merely vague and probably inconsistent views about determinism, consciousness, and freewill, e.g., (so polling them helps very little in the matter) and any ways (2) theological terms like ‘free will’ are out dated and not useful in rigorous contexts due to their ambiguity. (What is a “will” and what is “free” about it?)

    So why does Dennett defend it so strongly, especially given that he is an eliminative materialist and atheist! I don’t understand the compatibilists marriage to the syntax of the term ‘free will’, and their project to revamp its semantics with philosophically and scientifically rigorous concepts. Lets just speak in terms of modern cognitive science and ditch that old language and its baggage! At least in formal contexts of discussion, anyway.

    • Thanks for listening to the podcast and sharing your thoughts, Brad.

      About the term “free will,” check out (if you haven’t already) this post at Flickers of Freedom. Apparently, Dennett is thinking about surrendering the term “free will” to incompatibilists. Eddy Nahmias offers some comments on the post that attempt to address some of what you suggested. It’s all rather short and should be worth the read.

      • Thanks for the link, Ryan. I did not know that Dennett may be considering altering his position. I hope he does and, ultimately, that the term ‘free will’ gets left out of formal discussions.

        As for Nahmias, his argument is sound, i think, insofar as he critiques experts (like Harris) for making public statements about free will and it being an illusion. However, his solution–to semantically revamp the term with rigorous philosophical and scientific concepts (as I put it above)– is ridiculous, and I don’t understand why he and (in the past) Dennett have been so passionate about this. The term is ambiguous and outdated, and the discussion simply needs to move on without it.

        Why are people so desperately attached to semantics here?!

  • To make one further point, I am highly skeptical of the poll question by Nahmias which you gave in the interview. Laplace’s demon in this question sounds a lot like the monotheistic God, which is omniscient. But Christians, e.g., have no problem with this apparent fact about God in their sustaining “spooky” beliefs about souls, indeterminacy, and free will. E.g., see Alvin Plantinga.

    My point here is along the lines with what I argued above: I question the legitimacy of Namias’s poll, because (1) I don’t think most people will immediately understand it as inconsistent with their spooky, indeterminant views about conscious decision making, and (2) I think most people hold such a spooky view because (a) most people are religious, and (b) most people I have had this discussion with indeed take the “free” in ‘free will’ as conscious decision making operating as a “soul” outside the causal physics of the world.

    To test this, I asked my girlfriend (who is from a Christian Republican family and dislikes philosophy) the Nahmias poll question you presented. With some reluctance, she finally answered consistent with Nahmias’s findings, that free will exists in such a scenario. But then I asked her what would defeat free will and convince her that it didn’t exist. She replied that robots don’t have free will (because robots operate solely according to determinant algorithms). But once I then explained to her that an implication of the initial question was that human decision making was as constrained as a robots, she then changed her answer and said that free will does not exist in that given hypothetical scenario.

    Thus, my prediction, based on points 1 and 2 above, was correct. My girlfriend didn’t understand the initial question and its deterministic, anti-spooky “freedom of the soul” implications. Once she did, she changed her judgement.

    This isn’t rock solid evidence, but it warrants–I think–my prima facie firm skepticism of critiques against Harris’s definition of free will. I think the common, “intuitive” meaning of free will is indeed something vague and spooky and inconsistent with the work of modern neuro and cognitive psychology. And I would be shocked if this wasn’t in fact the case, given my background knowledge of naive religious beliefs held by the common (non-academic) person.

    (Note, this opinion is not formed upon arm-chair naval gazing–as Nahmias likes to claim–but upon a collection of subjective background experiences. What is questionable about it is whether this background experience, and presumably Harris’s as well, is an unbiased sample representative of the larger public thinking. Furthermore, for it to be established that such a connotation of ‘free will’ is indeed a traditional one of possibly many is enough to warrant its uselessness in formal literature and discussion–that is if the object is intellectual honesty, and not the political manipulation of people into thinking that science is coherent with traditional faith.)

    • Religious belief is common, and its popularity seems to provide a prima facie case for widespread belief in libertarian free will (perhaps as a complement to dualism). But whether incompatibilism is intuitive (rather than a belief formed/encouraged though religious study) is a matter we just might settle scientifically.

      It’s not easy to investigate, however. A central challenge is getting subjects to understand determinism without giving them a philosophy lesson. If Nahmias et al fail, that’s a cue for others to craft better experiments. If no one can, or if the results shouldn’t matter (e.g., because folk intuitions are a mess), then maybe intuitions (folk or philosophical) should be scrapped as a starting point for what “free will” means. But then scrapping intuition seems to leave the debate either unmoored or else irrelevant to everyday discourse about persons and the interpersonal. So I think x-phi should keep at it. At the very least, x-phi may give us a more rigorous take on the “psychology of freedom,” if you will, than either (a) the potentially biased intuitions of philosophically informed/committed participants in the free will debate or (b) speculation based on informal anthropological or psychological inquiry (which includes appeals to the popularity of religion).

      • But I still don’t understand the insistence on inquiring into ‘free will’ and its meaning. For a “more rigorous take on the psychology of freedom”? I don’t know what this means or to what end it would be informative. I think the terms meaning has been revealed–and it is many faceted, inconsistent and covers way to much philosophical territory.

        What I argue is that the inquiry into ‘free will’ and its meaning should stop altogether. For this is a poor term, with many ambiguous connotations, and any rigorous definition applied to it is blatantly ad hoc, to my mind. I.e. ‘free will’ terminologically appears entirely unrepresentative of anything in the fields of cognition and decision making. Again, what is a “will” and what is “free” about it? It’s simply an unnecessary piece of relic terminology.

        I think that if one is asked, “Does free will exist?”, the appropriate response should be, “This is a poorly formed question which cannot be directly answered due to the ambiguity of the term ‘free will’. Can you state your question more precisely?” This response then forces the conversation into a more precise and appropriate language. And if this response is utilized enough, I predict people will eventually stop asking about free will–but rather will get straight to the point of their inquiry– and a lot less time will be wasted on unnecessary argument for the sake of maintaining some awful fragment of traditional semantics, viz. the collection of letters: ‘free will’

        • Let’s consider the question, “Does free will exist?” You answer that this questions is “poorly formed.” By “poorly formed,” you appear to mean the locution “free will” is imprecise.

          But imprecision, understood as vagueness, isn’t necessarily a problem. We don’t reject the terms ‘bald’ or ‘heap’ because they’re vague. Of course, we also wouldn’t use them when precision is needed. For instance, in scientific work, we’d operationalize ‘baldness’ somehow, and we wouldn’t measure quantities in ‘heaps.’

          For any science (or philosophy) of free will, we’d need to give ‘free will’ a precise definition. However, you seem to say there’s no such science to be done. Free will doesn’t refer to “anything in the fields of cognition and decision making.” Put another way, free will, understood as a psychological capacity, doesn’t exist.

          But how do we support the claim that free will doesn’t exist? Imprecision alone doesn’t support it. Starting from a non-natural, incompatibilist conception of free will probably would, though. But why assume that conception? I think you want to answer with this sort of argument.

          1. Most people hold a religious belief in free will.
          2. Religious belief in free will is belief in dualism-based libertarianism.
          3. Dualism-based libertarianism is false.
          4. Therefore, free will doesn’t exist.

          In Nahmias’ comment on the FoF post, he assumes that (1) and (2) don’t preclude most people from also having compatibilist intuitions about free will. Based on his experiments, he thinks that most people do, and that these intuitions associate free will with “capacities to deliberate rationally and exercise self-control.” While there’s still some imprecision here, it can be operationalized away in a naturalistic framework. That is, we can have a science of free will. A science of rational choice or self-control seems to be what Nahmias has in mind.

          But the relevant x-phi work is still all pretty new. Some shortcomings of Nahmias’ work are discussed in the Philosophy Compass entry on Experimental Philosophy and Free will.

          Lastly, about what I mean by a “psychology of freedom,” I’m just thinking about the psychological mechanisms or processes (including any concepts) that underlie people’s judgments about free will. Importantly, such scientific work isn’t the same as the science of free will Nahmias envisions. A psychology of freedom wouldn’t have to assume the existence of free will, compatibilist or otherwise. All it would require is that people make judgments about free will. Given the close link between free will and moral responsibility, a psychology of freedom would probably overlap some with moral psychology, which likewise doesn’t have to make any philosophical (e.g. metaethical) commitments.

          EDIT (8/3/2014 1:30am EST): A “psychology of freedom,” as I’ve just described it, would refer to the x-phi work on free will. But it would also include Wegner’s work on the experience of freedom, which doesn’t have to assume incompatibilism. My reference to moral psychology may have made it seem like I think a psychology of freedom is just hypothetical. By talking about the former, I really only meant to illustrate how the latter didn’t have to pick a side in the free will debate.

  • I think the deduction you offer only partially captures my thinking. What do you think of this:

    1. ‘Free will’ is an ancient term formulated within a theological theoretical framework.
    2. ‘Free will’ has acquired over time an inconsistent baggage of connotations, a predominant one being theological libertarianism.
    3. What is desired is a science of “rational choice” and “self-control.”
    4. “Rational choice and self-control” and “free will” are not synonymous (or propositionally equivalent) [Due to premises 1 and 2.]
    5. Thus, we should inquire into (and speak in terms of) “rational choice” and “self-control”, not “free will”.
    6. Therefore, a science of free will is not desirable.

    ‘Free will’ is a relic of a term originating from a framework fundamentally different from that of modern science. And it seems futile to me to try to kill off all its connotations with a definition of modern terminology and concepts. Lets just speak in terms of the modern terminology, I say. ‘Free will’ reeks of theology and is unnecessary to the conversation, but always requires one to explain what they mean by it. Here is one more argument with the same message which I think may be more poignant:

    1. ‘Faith’ is a term of theological origin with many connotations, ranging from “belief without or in spite of the evidence” to “rationally held confidence or trust in a propositions truth.”
    2. So either faith is a cognitive bias or it is equivalent with logic and rational belief. (This is a proper dilemma.)
    3. So either faith is a vice or it is superfluous.
    4. Therefore, creating a science (or logic) of faith is absurd.
    5. ‘Free will’ is an analogous theological term to ‘faith’, with connotations ranging from “theological libertarianism” to “rational choice and self control.”
    6. So either free will has metaphysical implications inconsistent with modern cognitive science or it is equivalent with the sciences of rationality and cognition.
    7. So either free will is unscientific or it is superfluous
    8. Therefore, creating a science of free will is absurd.
    • Thanks for laying all this out, Brad.

      About your first argument, I’m not so sure about the “ancient” claim in (1). Granted, the ancient greeks had some things to say about free will (see, e.g., Lucretius and his ‘atomic swerve’). But I think medieval theologians are primarily to blame for (2). I also think (2) is the real workhorse here. Even if (2) has identified a problem with ordinary usage of ‘free will’, I’m not yet convinced people have incompatibilist intuitions, as opposed to enculturated incompatibilist—namely,dualism-based libertarian—beliefs. We need to figure out whether incompatiblism is something deep in human psychology—much the way that, say, viewing ourselves and other as minded/intentional agents is. Various free will skeptics propose that we’re natural incompatibilists. But there’s insufficient scientific work to support this claim. Further, Nahmias’ research suggests there may be a bit of compatibilism in us by nature. (But, as I’ve said in other comments, more work is needed.)

      In your view, finding out that compatibilism is intuitive still wouldn’t justify keeping the term ‘free will’ around, since it’s just too corrupted by religious usage (like the term ‘faith’). Maybe so. After all, what’s lost by just talking about conscious deliberation, planning, self-control, etc., if that’s where free will is to be found?

      I think it comes down to public communication of science and philosophy. The term ‘free will’ remains popular. It’s closely linked to our everyday reasoning about how we shape our lives, as well as about when to take or assign responsibility for our actions. Attacking or eschewing ‘free will’ can send the wrong message to laypersons, particularly if we have the wrong idea about what they intuit free will to be. So I think caution is warranted regarding the public message we send about free will and whether science (or philosophy) has shown that we don’t have it. (Note that Nahmias makes basically this same argument in his comment on the Fof post.)

  • I basically agree with everything you’ve said here.

    What we have is a popular term in ‘free will’ with an imprecise meaning, and more precise terminology which, perhaps, is yet to be established in the public consciousness. And I concede the point about precaution being necessary in public denunciations of ‘free will’.

    Thus, I think the most straight forward tack is for experts to entirely leave ‘free will’ out of the discussion (because its only legitimate connotation makes the term superfluous, and its an awkward term anyhow within science) . And if someone else brings it up–then it should neither be attacked as an illusion nor defended as legitimate–but merely pointed out for the propositionally ambiguous/problematic term that it is. And in this way, from the intellectual top down in society, the conversation on this aspect of human cognition will get framed in its appropriate and more direct conceptual/terminological framework and eventually made more intuitively clear to everyone.

    Anyway, I think such an approach represents a strong possible middle ground solution to the debate between Harris and Dennett/Nahmias.

    Thanks again for the stimulating conversation, Ryan. 🙂 And please do more podcasts as well!