I was recently asked, by Sofia Bonicalzi, to answer seven questions about free will and moral responsibility as part of a forthcoming special issue of a new online philosophy journal, Methòde . She has invited 29 philosophers to share their views, so it should be quite interesting! The issue will be published in October; my answers to the questions can be found below.
1. Much of the recent discussion concerning the problem of free will has been centered on the compatibilism/incompatibilism dichotomy. Do you think the central role attributed to this dichotomy is well deserved? If so, which of the two alternatives is preferable in your opinion?
I don't generally find it helpful to do philosophy in terms of "ism's" -- compatibilism, incompatibilism, illusionism, eliminationism. These are technical without being precise. To be clear about what compatibilism means you must first be clear about what ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ mean.
'Free will' is not a technical term, but philosophers have appropriated it to mean many different things. Some philosophers say that we cannot meaningfully talk about free will without talking about moral responsibility (or "moral freedom" or "the freedom worth wanting" or some such thing). I criticise these ways of talking about free will in "How to Think about the Free Will/Determinism Problem" ( Carving Nature at its Joints, edited by Campbell, O'Rourke, and Slater, MIT 2011).
The belief that we have free will -- that we make choices, that we are often able to choose and do other than what we actually chose and do -- is as firmly entrenched in common sense as other beliefs that only a philosopher would question -- that we have hands, that there are other minds, that we continue to exist through time.
I define 'compatibilism' as the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism, given the now standard definition of determinism due to van Inwagen. In my recently published book, Causes, Laws, and Free Will: Why Determinism Doesn’t Matter (OUP 2013), I defend the claim that we have free will and that free will is compatible with determinism. This makes me a minority among contemporary philosophers. There are many philosophers who defend the claim that moral freedom or moral responsibility is compatible with determinism, but few who defend the claim that the ability to choose and do otherwise is compatible with determinism.
2. In the last three decades the discussions of the so-called "Consequence Argument" have convinced many philosophers that compatibilism is not a viable theoretical option. What is your opinion of that argument?
"The" Consequence argument turned out to be a family of different arguments. Some of these arguments have been interesting springboards for discussion of questions concerning the metaphysics of free will and the logic of counterfactuals. But at the end of the day, I think we should all agree that none of the arguments work.
3. Assuming that libertarianism is a viable position, which of the possible libertarian views is preferable?
The libertarian view that is most clearly a rival to the compatibilist theory that I defend is an incompatibilist version of the theory of agent-causation. Some libertarians think that we have the kind of powerful control that is a necessary condition of free will and moral responsibility only if we have the power of agent-causation. Agent-causation is supposed to be a species of substance or object-causation; when a substance (object) causes an event it causes the event in some way that does not reduce to or consist in event-causation. Like many other philosophers, I used to be baffled as to what this could possibly mean, but I recently figured out what agent-causation might be and in my book I defend the claim that there are possible worlds at which we might have reason to posit the existence of such a power. However, I argue that once we understand what the power of agent-causation is (and must be, if it is distinct from the kind of causation that takes place when a rock breaks a window), we will realize that the possession of this power isn't necessary for either free will or moral responsibility.
4. In the last few years, a growing number of philosophers and scientists have advocated sceptical, eliminationistic, pessimistic, or illusionistic views on free will. What do you think of these kinds of views?
I haven't read anything by any scientist that gives me any reason to doubt that I have free will or that having free will is incompatible with determinism or with any plausible thesis about causation, or the mind/body problem, or any doctrine that says that we are parts of the natural world, governed by its laws.
The arguments offered by many scientists and popular writers like Sam Harris are sophomoric and embarassingly bad. The arguments offered by philosophical skeptics seem scarcely better.
5. A very recent debate concerns the nature of our pre-philosophical views regarding free will. However, some surveys seem to suggest that we tend naturally towards compatibilism, others that we tend naturally towards incompatibilism. What do you think the value of this kind of "experimental philosophy" is in regard to the issue of free will?
Because compatibilism and incompatibilism are technical terms it makes no sense to say that we have a natural tendency towards either. The proper definition of determinism is very hard to grasp by anyone not versed in modal logic and that, sad to say, doesn’t come naturally to most people.
But suppose we understand "natural tendency" as follows: once someone understands what the thesis of determinism says, they have a natural tendency to think that this means that we don't have free will. From many years of teaching the free will/determinism problem to undergraduates (slowly, over the course of an entire semester devoted to the problem), I think that may be so. But so what?
If you think that our natural tendencies towards philosophical views provide any reason to believe that these views are true, then you are, it seems to me, in the grip of a mistaken picture about the nature of philosophy -- the belief that philosophy is the kind of enterprise that is somehow grounded on “intuitions”. This is not how I do philosophy. I don't argue on the basis of intuitions. I don't have intuitions; I only have opinions. I don't think that my unargued for opinions provide reasons for anyone else to accept my views.
6. What do you think the relationship between free will and moral responsibility is? With regard to this, do you think that the famous Frankfurt scenarios are crucial for assessing the issue?
I think that free will is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of moral responsibility. If determinism has the consequence that we have no free will, then on my view it also has the consequence that no one is ever morally responsible for anything.
The stories Frankfurt tried to tell way back in 1969 were supposed to be counterexamples to the claim that moral responsibility requires free will. They are supposed to show that someone may be morally responsible even though he is never able to do or choose (or even begin or try to do or choose) anything other than what he actually does.
But the stories failed, right from the beginning. They never quite succeed in convincingly describing an agent who does not retain at least a “flicker of freedom”. Articles were written and responded to; new and more arcane versions of the stories were told, only to lead to more arcane counter-examples. This has been going on for over 40 years. The literature on "Frankfurt-style examples" is now an entire sub-field of philosophy.
I think this literature is a dead end. I have argued in print -- more than once -- that the stories are badly designed thought experiments and that if we are tempted to think that the agent in the stories is unable to do otherwise it is only because we have been taken in by a modal fallacy. But my arguments have had little effect. In my book I have tried yet again to explain why Frankfurt stories fail. But I am pessimistic that this will make much difference. It appears that it is almost impossible to stop a publication-generating philosophical bandwagon once it gets rolling.
7. Given the evidence coming from neuroscience and genetics, in the last years a growing number of scholars have been arguing that the idea that we deserve blame for our bad deeds (and punishment for the worst of them) is ungrounded and should be abandoned. What is your opinion of this view?
Neuroscience and genetics might tell us something about the kind of free will we actually have -- perhaps we have fewer choices than we think we have, perhaps our conscious thinking plays a smaller role in the causation of our choices and actions than we think -- but it seems to me a mistake to think that scientific discoveries about our brains or genes could tell us that we are never to blame for anything or that punishment is never deserved and always unfair. Showing that would take philosophical arguments and, alas, neuroscientists and geneticists aren’t very good at those. Most of the scholarly excitement in this area seems to me only the most recent outbreak of that perennial philosophers’ disease: science envy.