A note on free will and semantics

I wish to dispute a claim made occasionally in relation to the ongoing philosophical discussion of free will: that the disagreement between those who I shall call ‘irrealists’ (who I take as believing that free will does not exist) and ‘compatibilists’ (who I take as believing that free will exists, but only in some sense which is compatible with determinism [1]) has no substantial content, and comes down to semantic preference. This seems wrong to me, and in this post I’ll attempt to locate the point of contention between these views. It’s worth mentioning that since it is the compatibilists who are at most risk of seeming obscure, locating this contrast is primarily in their interests. This point in mind, what follows can be read as a modest attempt to motivate compatibilism (though not to present any particular arguments in its favour).

One of the charges against compatibilism is that it redefines free will. The thought is that what most people mean by free will is ‘libertarian’ free will: the idea that choices can be made free from prior determination. This notion contradicts the deterministic idea that any given state of the world necessitates all future states (so all future events are pre-determined by past events, and the possibility of an agent being able to choose between future scenarios is illusory). If this is what free will means then to define it in a way which sidesteps this conflict is to remove the sense in which a willing can be said to be free. In short, the compatibilist stands accused of changing the subject.

This could be a valid charge. If I were to define ‘having free will’ as ‘having a nose’, I could happily say things like “I have free will” without saying anything about free will at all. But not all redefinitions are so empty, and sometimes there are good reasons for them; the issue does not concern redefinition as such, but ill-motivated redefinition. What is required from a definition of free will is some necessary and sufficient conditions (or something approaching them) which will help analyse situations in which free will is said to be exercised. These situations range from matters of inconsequential decision to cases in which uninhibited choice is deeply entwined with moral responsibility. Having a nose has nothing to do with any of that, so the redefinition can be identified as vacuous on account of its abandonment of the subject matter. What the compatibilist needs to do in order to respond to the charge is justify their redefinition.

A helpful example of well-motivated redefinition is provided by the word ‘atom’. As coined by Democritus, an atom is an indivisible unit of matter. In the 19th century when scientists postulated the existence of atoms to explain certain chemical phenomena, their theories succeeded because there really are tiny discrete entities which behave as their hypotheses required. We might say that the term ‘atom’ as used by these theorists began to track a real feature of the world.

Later it emerged that the atoms of atomic theory were not indivisible; the real feature they tracked had properties which did not line up with the Democritean connotation. The semantics of this situation can be thought of in several ways. On the one hand it could be said that ‘atom’ had changed its meaning and that a redefinition (from ‘indivisible base units’ to ‘the things referred to in those successful theories’) was warranted, because ultimately usage is the arbiter of meaning, and a definition should reflect usage (not vice versa). On the other it could be said that the meaning of theoretical terms is stipulated, so definition should here be regarded as fixing meaning. This would amount to saying that two distinct concepts came to be sheltered under the term ‘atom’.

It doesn’t matter which way we see it — the point to take from this is that a term can track a real feature of the world to some extent independently of what people think they mean by it. In the period before subatomic particles were discovered, if asked what an atom was one might have replied either with the Democritean answer or with an answer which made explicit reference to the new atomic theory. Either would have seemed fine, since it was presumed that these definitions picked out the same kind of entity. When it was discovered that this was false, the motivation was in place to do something: either redefine ‘atom’ by jettisoning its Democritean elements, or identify a new kind of atom.

The situation with free will is different to the situation with atoms in the 19th century, but some of the salient features of the latter can help illuminate some of the salient features of the former. One difference between ‘atom’ and ‘free will’ is that ‘atom’ is a theoretical term which was coined in the abstract and later came to be associated with a real feature, while ‘free will’ is a pre-theoretical concept — we deploy it and communicate successfully with it long before we have started to reflect analytically on what we mean by it, or encountered any of the philosophical problems associated with it [2].

This suggests two things. Firstly, it would be unwise to treat ‘free will’ as a concept with a stipulated meaning. Secondly, the real features of the world tracked by ‘free will’ (if they exist) may not be what people sincerely claim they are. So while it is important to ask whether what people think of as free will exists, the deeper question is whether pre-theoretical usage of ‘free will’ tracks any real feature of the world at all, and if so whether this feature has the properties required to properly underwrite such usage.

The concept of free will is typically used to distinguish a scenario in which a person holds moral responsibility for their actions from one in which they do not. Thus we might say that an opportunist thief steals freely while a pathological kleptomaniac does not, so only the former should be held morally accountable for their actions. If there is a real difference between these two cases, and it is that the opportunist exercises their libertarian free will in choosing to steal while the kleptomaniac’s is bypassed by their pathology, this would seem to provide us with the distinction required to justify our attribution of free will to the former but not the latter. The real feature tracked by the pre-theoretical ‘free will’ would be the theoretically captured ‘libertarian free will’. This is in many respects the natural way to think about things.

But if libertarian free will does not exist (as both the irrealist and the compatibilist believe) the question remains whether ‘free will’ tracks any real feature of world which can support its pre-theoretical usage. This is not a semantic question, and it is one which the compatibilist typically answers in the affirmative, using their claim that such a real feature of the world exists to justify their redefinition of free will. (What such a real feature might be is up for debate, and will have to mesh tightly with meta-ethics — see, for the popular example, Daniel Dennett’s spiel about ‘evitability’ [3]) This question splits irrealism two ways: either an irrealist can agree that ‘free will’ does track a real feature of the world which can underwrite its usage (but that this still does not warrant redefining free will to mean that real feature), or they can deny that it tracks any such feature.

If it is the first then the difference between them and the compatibilist really is just semantic: they would say that the meaning of ‘free will’ is fixed by definition as libertarian free will, while the compatibilist takes a more fluid approach. Given that on common assumption both agree that the usage of ‘free will’ can be supported by something real which isn’t libertarian free will, this leaves the irrealist in a rather weak position, akin to the Democritean who complained that the new atomic theorists were not talking about atoms at all. What’s more, this definitional purism seems artificial given the status of free will as a largely pre-theoretical concept. I take it, then, that this is not the position generally defended by irrealists, which brings us to the second option.

An irrealist about free will who denies that there exists some real feature of the world which supports free will (perhaps because they believe free will is compatible with neither determinism nor indeterminism) is saying something far stronger than that libertarian free will does not exist. On this version of the irrealist view there is no distinction at all between the kleptomaniac and the opportunist which could be couched in terms of free will without abandoning the subject matter (which primarily concerns whether moral responsibility can be attributed to the latter but not the former). This is the version that the irrealist should stand by if they wish to contrast their position with the compatibilist’s substantial claim that the concept of free will can be underwritten in a non-libertarian way.

The distinctions made here also help to sharpen the problem: the language of free will and moral responsibility is near impossible to get rid of, and this in itself is a datum to be accounted for. The compatibilist tries to do this by looking for real (if non-obvious) features of actions and actors that the language of free will hooks on to. Broadly speaking, the irrealist has two options: either they can argue that despite appearances the language of free will is empty, and can (perhaps should) be abandoned. Or they can adopt the milder stance: while there are no real features of the actions we describe as freely willed which make sense of those attributions, there may be features of us as attributers which do — to put it another way, they could argue that free will is a useful fiction.

Notes:

1. In it’s technical sense compatibilism need not commit one to any particular stance on the existence of free will, just on whether determinism precludes free will or not. But in this post I’m concerned only with compatibilists who believe in free will, so that’s how I’ve taken it.

2. A paradigm example of a theoretical term would be an abstract mathematical term like ‘differential operator’, which can be precisely defined but whose use is hard to master. At the other extreme we have words which are used constantly and unreflectively but provoke all manner of havoc when someone tries to articulate their meaning analytically — the philosophical favourite ‘to be’ is a good example. ‘Free will’ lies somewhere between these extremes.

3. Here he goes: Daniel Dennett — Free Will, Determinism and Evolution

10 thoughts on “A note on free will and semantics

  1. Quentin

    One example I like is that of the term “specie” (which I take from Laporte “natural kinds and conceptual change”).
    Apparently there were intense discussions in Darwin’s time on whether the term had to be used in the new theory of evolution. Some argued that “specie” refered to something fixed by a creator, and that Darwin’s theory was that species do not exist, while others argued that species still exist, we merely learned that they evolve. Laporte assume that the meaning of the term was vague before these discussions, and that it is a pragmatic matter whether we keep the same term or not after theory change.
    Maybe “free will” is also a vague term, whose meaning needs to be refined within a future theory of mind.

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    1. SamL Post author

      That’s an excellent example, didn’t realise it was ever contentious. That Laporte book looks interesting, shall have a look at some point. Thanks.

      Sam

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  2. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Sam,

    Some really good analysis there.

    I am a free will anti-realist, but of the “it’s just semantics” camp. My only problem with compatibilism is that I think it needlessly muddles the message of people who try to explain why libertarianism is untenable. For me, ‘free will’ means libertarianism, so the compatibilists do seem to me to be redefining the term. Whether this redefinition is justified or not is a function of how crucial libertarianism is to the concept of free will in the minds of most people, which is an open question.

    I’m not sure there’s a true dichotomy between thinking ‘free will’ tracks something in nature and thinking it does not. Phlogiston arguably tracks something in nature too, i.e. the potentiality of combustion, but it doesn’t track it particularly well so perhaps it is a concept best abandoned. This is how I feel about free will.

    In my view, free will (with its notions about ‘could have done otherwise’) serves to promote judgemental attitudes and lack of compassion and understanding for offenders. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in moral responsibility — offenders should be punished, but it should be done not for retributive reasons but for consequentialist reasons. Punishment is an evil, but it is the lesser of two evils if works as a deterrent. It is not, as many seem to think, an end in itself.

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    1. SamL Post author

      Hi there, thanks for your comment.

      A couple of thoughts (I’m afraid I’m about to disagree with you on almost everything!).

      “Whether this redefinition is justified or not is a function of how crucial libertarianism is to the concept of free will in the minds of most people, which is an open question.“

      This is exactly what I was arguing against in the post. Whether redefinition is justified has very little to do what people hold to be essential to it, in my view. The atom example was intended to show this (and in the case of free will the it is even more pronounced, since free will is a pre-theoretical concept).

      “I’m not sure there’s a true dichotomy between thinking ‘free will’ tracks something in nature and thinking it does not. Phlogiston arguably tracks something in nature too, i.e. the potentiality of combustion, but it doesn’t track it particularly well so perhaps it is a concept best abandoned. This is how I feel about free will.“

      I don’t think anything I wrote hinges on there being a strict dichotomy between tracking a real feature and not. Faithfulness of tracking will be a matter of degree, as you say, and the tipping points for warranted redefinition will be fixed by other factors (like whether we have any better ideas which already have new names. In the case of phlogiston that was oxygen.) So if you don’t feel ‘free will’ tracks sufficiently to be properly called free will any more, that would make you an irrealist of the non-semantic type, and means you have a substantial disagreement with compatabilism.

      Though you do seem to want to say that there is moral responsibility, so I don’t see how that squares (unless your taking moral responsibility in the sense that it’s attributed by the state, or society, or something, which is a slightly different thing):

      “In my view, free will (with its notions about ‘could have done otherwise’) serves to promote judgemental attitudes and lack of compassion and understanding for offenders. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in moral responsibility — offenders should be punished, but it should be done not for retributive reasons but for consequentialist reasons. Punishment is an evil, but it is the lesser of two evils if works as a deterrent. It is not, as many seem to think, an end in itself.”

      The existence of libertarian free will would not imply that retributive justice was warranted. And likewise, even if no moral responsibility of any sort existed, it would still make sense to talk about a deterrent-based system. So I’m not sure how these questions are relevant to the central one, i.e. does free will exist?

      Sam

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      1. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

        Hi Sam,

        I get that I disagree with your post. I assure you the point of your article did not go over my head! But though I disagree with it I think the analysis was very good and thought-provoking.

        So if we return to the atom example for a moment:

        Is the question of whether Democritus’s atom exists or not a burning question in the minds of most people? I would say not. I would say, when most people think of an atom, they are thinking of the atom of the chemist.

        At the moment, I don’t think this is true for free will. I think libertarian free will is what most people understand by the term ‘free will’ and I think most people think that moral responsibility depends crucially on libertarian free will. If libertarian free will does not exist, then what most people call free will does not exist so it is unhelpful for compatibilists to insist that it does. Rather than redefining free will so as to make it compatible with determinism, I think it is clearer to assert that free will does not exist but that this doesn’t mean we have to throw moral responsibility out the window.

        However, if the compatibilists succeed in changing the concept of free will in the popular imagination (or indeed if I’m simply wrong about the popular imagination) as the scientists did for atoms, then the analogy with Democritus’s atom would be more applicable and in that case I would be happy to change my view. Unfortunately, I don’t think the compatibilists are going to succeed any time soon.

        I think ‘free will’ does not track well with the real world and that is why I think it should be abandoned, but this is because I interpret ‘free will’ to mean libertarianism. I do think compatibilist free will tracks the real world but I think it is an unhelpful nomenclature, so I am an anti-realist of the semantic sort in my view.

        My view on moral responsibility is that it is useful to hold people responsible for their actions for consequentialist reasons. For me, it’s a social or legal concept, not unlike law itself.

        Free will may not in itself imply that retribution is warranted, but the denial of free will does seem to state very clearly why retribution is unjustified, which is one advantage I see to free will anti-realism.

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        1. SamL Post author

          Hi, I’m glad you found the post thought-provoking. (Last reply wasn’t intended to be snippy in any way, I’m just having a little trouble understanding what it is exactly that you’re disagreeing with.)

          “I think libertarian free will is what most people understand by the term ‘free will’ and I think most people think that moral responsibility depends crucially on libertarian free will. If libertarian free will does not exist, then what most people call free will does not exist so it is unhelpful for compatibilists to insist that it does. Rather than redefining free will so as to make it compatible with determinism, I think it is clearer to assert that free will does not exist but that this doesn’t mean we have to throw moral responsibility out the window.”

          So if we put it this way, we have an inconsistent triad:

          1. moral responsibility depends crucially on libertarian free will.
          2. libertarian free will doesn’t exist.
          3. moral responsibility exists.

          You avoid this inconsistency by saying later that moral responsibility is “a social or legal concept”. Presumably moral responsibility as a social or legal concept does not depend crucially on libertarian free will, which would contradict 1. So. in 1 you are using ‘moral responsibility’ in a different sense to in 3.

          But then I find this puzzling:

          “I do think compatibilist free will tracks the real world…”

          Because to say this is to admit that moral responsibility (of the type used in 1, i.e. as something more concrete than a social concept) is supported by compatabilist free will, because this is exactly what the compatabilist claims their version of free will can do. When the compatabilist says that free will exists, they are saying that moral responsibility exists in the sense meant in 1. So it seems to me like there’s a substantial dispute there which can’t be manoeuvred around.

          Sam

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          1. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

            Hi Sam,

            The inconsistent triad is not my position. My position is the consistent triad:

            1. people erroneously believe moral responsibility depends crucially on libertarian free will.
            2. libertarian free will doesn’t exist.
            3. moral responsibility exists (yes, as a social practice).

            Does that clarify?

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            1. SamL Post author

              It does clarify to some extent, thank you, though what I was really getting at was the relationship between ‘moral responsibility’ as used in 3 and as used in 1 (I agree with you on 2, so I guess we can leave that one alone).

              The crucial point is that if moral responsibility is just to be understood as a social practice, then its existence is trivial — it exists if we ascribe it to each other, which we do, so it does. But if this is all that’s required for the existence of moral responsibility, then the claim you make in 1 is ridiculous. No-one believes that ascribing moral responsibility to each other depends crucially on libertarian free will. This is like saying that in order for laws about human rights to exist, there must really be natural rights which exists independently of whether we enshrine them in law or not. Of course this is not true.

              What people might* believe is that moral responsibility depends on libertarian free will in the sense of ‘moral responsibility’ which would mean that a person is responsible for their actions regardless of whether others ascribe that responsibility to them or not — i.e. a more realist view of moral responsibility than ‘social practice’ grants. But then it is non-trivial that this sort of moral responsibility does exist. If it does, then we have your triad but with the “yes, as a social practice” clause removed. And this is compatabilism.

              * though mostly I think that people who have analytical beliefs about the philosophical connection between free will and moral responsibility are a vanishing subset of the people who use those terms, which is why I find the whole ‘free will is libertarian free will’ rap so disingenuous.

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              1. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

                Hi Sam,

                You’re right. I should not have said moral responsibility exists. I should have also corrected this in your triad to say that what I mean when I say “I believe in moral responsibility” is that I believe moral responsibility is a justifiable and rational social practice, and that it can be given a coherent conceptual analysis (as has been done by compatibilists such as Dennett).

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