I am honored to be this month’s Featured Author. While my whiskers are graying and my titles continue to change, I still like to consider myself a junior member of this great community. I have a great deal to learn from all of you and I am approaching this month as a learning opportunity. Throughout the month I will bounce ideas off of you and introduce some of my own work, all in an attempt to solidify my own thinking and to determine its weak points. I would like to begin by thanking Thomas Nadelhoffer for his gracious invitation. I would also like to thank him for making Flickers of Freedom such an amazing forum and the premier free will blog on the web! I have learned a great deal here at Flickers and I am a bit intimidated to follow in the foot steps of all the previous featured authors. I have some big shoes to fill. I would also like to say (and I’m not just buttering you up) that the free will community is one of the friendliest and most supportive communities in all of philosophy (don’t prove me wrong this month ;). All the senior members of the community—at least those I have met or corresponded with personally—have been nothing but supportive and encouraging, even when they hold positions at odds with my own. As a group we often disagree but we are not disagreeable. I am really looking forward to interacting with all of you this month.
Here is my basic plan for the month. I will start off with a post about the relationship between consciousness and moral responsibility—a topic I have written about before and believe is just starting to the get the attention it deserves. I just participated in an Author-Meets-Critics session at the Central APA on Neil Levy’s excellent new book Consciousness and Moral Responsibility and I would like to share my thoughts from that session. My position is similar to Neil’s and I share the central thesis of his book, but I disagree (a bit) on the implications of his thesis. I will present my critical thoughts on Neil’s book in an attempt to (a) highlight the importance of Neil’s central thesis, and (b) begin a conversation on the importance/non-importance of consciousness to free will and moral responsibility. I imagine most will disagree with what I will have to say, and I think Neil may have a satisfactory response to my critical concerns, but the topic is an important one and I’m interested to hear what others think. [BTW, If you haven’t had a chance to read Neil’s book yet, you can read my précis of it here. You can also find a PDF version of my critical comments here. My précis and comments are no substitute, however, for real thing! If you haven’t read the book, you really should get a copy ASAP. It’s an important book that deserves serious attention.]
My second post will focus on another important, but often overlooked, aspect of the free will debate: the role of reference. Shaun Nichols, Manuel Vargas, and Oisín Deery have done some amazing work on this subject, and it’s Shaun’s article in my edited collection that got me thinking seriously about reference. My thinking on this topic is not fully formed yet but I have a new paper out in Philosophical Studies that argues for free will eliminativism and is a response to Shaun Nichols. I will summarize my argument and see if I can convince any of you that free will eliminativism should follow regardless of whether we adopt a descriptive account of reference or a causal-historical approach.
Assuming all goes as planned, my third post will probably be about the phenomenology of free agency. I maintain that the phenomenology of free agency is not a single phenomenon but rather is constituted by a number of distinct phenomenological features of experience. I will try to identify four features of experience that play an important role in generating our sense of free agency. I will try to avoid, if possible, debating whether the phenomenology is compatibilist or incompatibilist, veridical or illusory, or undermined by the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences. I will try to convince you instead that there are aspects of the phenomenology that all parties should agree to and should equally set out to explain.
I will end the month with a discussion about the implications of free will skepticism (and skepticism about desert-based moral responsibility) for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law. I know that Justin Caouette blogged about this a couple months ago but I would like to present the other side. I am, as most of you know, a free will skeptic who maintains that what we do, and the way we are, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense—the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise. This is not to say that there are not other conceptions of responsibility that can be reconciled with determinism, chance, or luck. Nor is it to deny that there may be good pragmatic reasons to maintain certain systems of punishment and reward. Rather, it is to insist that to hold people truly or ultimately morally responsible for their actions—i.e., to hold them responsible in a non-consequentialist desert-based sense—would be to hold them responsible for the results of the morally arbitrary, for what is ultimately beyond their control, which is (on my view) fundamentally unfair and unjust. I am also an optimistic skeptic in the spirit of Derk Pereboom, Bruce Waller, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Tamler Sommers 1.0 (but not Sommers 2.0). I will try to make my case for optimistic skepticism the best I can. [If you’re interested, I recently gave a TEDx talk on the Dark Side of Free Will (a title I stole frorm Thomas and Daniela Goya Tocchetto) which is available here.]