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In doing philosophy, I am in no way trying to raise the quality of public debate about free will and moral responsibility. I gave up on that a long time ago. I doubt if any philosopher has had a significant effect on public discourse, at least in America. Think about Rawls, for example. Did his theory somehow make liberalism more appealing to the American public? Redistribution of economic resources for the benefit of the least well off class? If anything, America has become more and more conservative about such issues. And, of course, I'm not supposing that this entails a lower quality of discourse--rather, the discourse is in any case of low quality in the public arena, and Rawls has had no impact. Same with other philosophers.

Actually, on some days I would consider it a miracle if I had even a small effect on the philosophical discourse on these subjects...
I'd take that!

You're right, John. I guess I was particularly frustrated by this one because the author has a philosophy degree (Stanford). I guess that you can't expect any better from the west coast.

If what John says about the influence (or lack thereof) of philosophers on public discourse is true (and I fear it is), that would be unfortunate. It also makes me wonder whether philosophers should try to do more to raise the quality of public discussion of these issues. I, for one, think that questions about free will, in addition to being perplexing, fascinating and, let's face it, just plain old fun, are actually quite important insofar as they connect with our conception of ourselves as responsible agents. Given the importance of these (and other philosophical) issues, confusion in the public sphere about them is particularly regrettable, especially when those who persist in spreading the confusions are viewed by their readers as authorities on the subject matter.


In terms of political discourse, the situation of the west coast of the USA is like that of democracy: it is the worst possible place, except for all of the rest of the places.

I commend Justin Capes' thought that we should perhaps do more to seek to elevate the discussion, and I also comment the Templeton Foundation for providing incentives to do just that. My own recommendation would be to try, if you are inclined, but to keep one's expectations very low about this. After all, my much-belowed California has produced such political luminaries as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwartzenegger in my lifetime--I have learned to have low expectations about public discourse in the USA. Perhaps we can have higher hopes for Europe, where there is more of a traditional of public intellectuals and intellectual ideas penetrating public discourse.

I have sympathy both for John's sober realism and Justin's tone of cautious and hopeful optimism. As I have tediously said on this blog before, the role of FW in US law evolved toward some consensus in the American Law Institute's Model Code, which ensconced FW considerations in one of two questions about mens rea: could the accused have chosen the good? Then, after the Code got John Hinckley off in '82 (in part because of the fact that procedurally the prosecution had to prove Hinckley sane beyond reasonable doubt!), the law has moved all over the conceptual map with respect to FW considerations. The feds dropped the FW question, and several states followed suit. Four states eliminated the insanity defense entirely as a separate exonerating defense. What FW philosophically means with respect to law is in public policy chaos. On the one hand I see (with John) that forces of emotion, rhetoric, and demagoguery seem insurmountable given that money and self-interest more than anything drives what passes for political discourse in this country. But Justin's yearning (if I could call it that) that we, through our classes, letters to the editor, blogging, and the like, might help the public to see the fact that we have come to total confusion about what FW means in terms of the criminal justice system is a worthwhile goal, both personally and professionally, because it has potential for real practical impact. Not that we agree on FW issues mind you--which of course is paralyzing in terms of ultimate influence in the public sphere to some probably ineliminable extent. But I do wish that we could get even the fact that there is confusion about FW and law out there as part of the policy dialectic.

I guess I really, really need to finish my FW book. . .oh, but first that piece on Humean compatibilism, and. . .

The issue of confusion about free will in public discourse has to be separated from the issue of the level of public discourse. After all, philosophers are also pretty confused about free will (some even think it is compatible with determinism!). I suspect the problem with public discourse is that it's rather hard to convince people outside academia that (1) they are confused, and (2) they should therefore listen to the experts, even though (3) the experts will at best show them *that* they are confused. Free will is different from, say, the case of Rawls. Rawls had some pretty clear principles that have failed to penetrate public discourse. Free will debates have lots and lots of different principles. Would the public be less confused if, for example, public discourse began to rely on a semicompatibilist model as if it were the only viable model?

In other words, anyone who wants to improve the level of public discourse has to first figure out just what that would or realistically could involve.

The following argument has recently been getting some attention in Australia:
1. There is carbon dioxide in beer (that's the bubbles).
2. Mmmm, beer.
(from 1 &2). 3. Carbon can't be a greenhouse gas.
4. The scientists are lying to us!

While this is going on, I think that the grounds for optimism about raising the level of public discourse as, let's say, not strong.


Wow--I never would have supposed that the appropriate approach for seeking to elevate public discourse would be "to rely on a semicompatibilist model as if it were the only viable model". That's a bizarre suggestion--and nothing like that would ever come from me. Actually, I think the best arguments for semicompatibilism come from taking various rival positions seriously and seeking to capture the best insights of them.

I don't exactly understand your point about Rawls either. He had "clear principles"--but he carefully considered various rivals--perfectionism, utilitarianism, and so forth. He arrived at his principles partly because other approaches left something to be desired. Various of us who are proponents of positions on free will--libertarians, classical compatibilists, semicompatibilists, and various others have clear, basic principles--as clear and "fundamental", I suppose, as Rawls's 2 PJs.

Anyway, as I said, I don't aspire to or in any way expect to affect in any way the public discourse on such matters. And, as I said, I would consider it a victory if I even had a bit of a constructive influence on the content or tone of philosophical discourse; I seem not have reached you in these respects!

Neil--I wish you were just kidding--but in some real sense you're not. Point to you (and John).

Does the fact that Palin is taken so seriously make you--like me--want to slash your political wrists?

John--sorry, I think my comment may have come off as a snarky reflection on semicompatibilism, but that wasn't at all my intention. I could just as well have referred to source incompatibilism, agent-causal libertarianism, the Real Self view, or even transcendental idealism. I was only wondering what raising the level of public discourse regarding free will would consist in. Clearly it can't involve simply picking a particular account of free will and insisting that any public discussion that doesn't adhere to that account is confused (I wasn't suggesting that this is your, or anyone else's position). Perhaps it would involve attempting to create greater public awareness of the different alternatives in free will debates; but even that seems like a stretch: understanding even some of the basic positions around today requires quite a lot of background (not to mention patience).

When I see some of the standard popular mentions of free will (e.g., Fruit Flies Have Free Will, Scientists Prove!), I tend to cringe. And my immediate response is that scientists shouldn't be talking about free will--they don't know what it is! The problem is that philosophers don't either. Which is why I wonder what we would need to do if we wanted to influence the level of public debate.


What might improving the public discourse realistically involve? Well, for starters, it would be nice to see more people who have a basic grasp of the issues getting into the public forum. Also, as John mentioned in his first post, Templeton has provided incentive for scholars who do serious work on these issues to engage non-academic audiences. Participation in projects like this should help as well.

No worries, Roman. Thanks for the clarification.

Also, yes, I strongly encourage people to get involved with the projects supported by Templeton.

Well, it is kind of like the job market: expect the worst, but hope for the best. But keep the hopes in check.


If you think Harris needs correcting, why not set him straight in your own HuffPo piece? Not sure, but I think they accept rebuttals from reputable sources. Public discourse on free will might improve if philosophers deign to get their feet wet/hands dirty. Btw, Harris has a second installment at

So much to say in response to Harris' mistakes, especially in the second post. The question is how best to say it and where (I should finish that book, but who would read it?). I've got an article I want to send to a popular source that deals with the alleged threat to free will from neuroscience. I tried NYTimes' The Stone but it looks like they have better pieces to print (ha!). If anyone has any suggestions on where to try, please let me know.

I think we need to keep bashing our heads against the wall, and hope we make some dents. For better or worse, people's views about free will and responsibility have important practical effects.

If I might be permitted to whinge a little...Earlier Alan described my attitude as cautious, hopeful optimism. After skimming Harris's latest post, I'm no longer optimistic. Now, I'm just resigned and depressed. Here's a particularly cringe-worthy quote:

"libertarians...believe that our agency rises above the field of prior causes--and they inevitably invoke some metaphysical entity, like a soul, as the vehicle for our freely acting wills."

Just after this passage, he calls Chisholm a compatibilist! We're doomed.

Just a quick point about Tom Clark's passing remark about philosophers "deigning to get their feet wet/hands dirty". Message received. But frankly I think it is simply a matter of spending time efficiently and on projects that have a chance of success. Is it somehow inappropriate to make a judgment about where best to spend one's energies, taking into account the possibilities of success? If one thinks there almost certainly won't be "uptake" of one's message, is it somehow haughty not to spend time trying to address the audience in question, but, rather, to spend one's time and energy writing for other audiences, teaching, giving feedback to colleagues and students, and so forth?

Eddy, why not follow Tom's advice and try to get the piece published in HuffPo? I'm not crazy about HuffPo: it's too often a forum for crazies like Deepak Chopra. But it has market penetration, so to speak.

A true story about my own (unwanted) adventures in the public sphere. A paper by Tim Bayne and I was cited in an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court. The brief made some claim. It then said that many philosophers would reject that claim. But philosophers are clearly insane; look at this paper by Bayne and Levy! So we should ignore philosophers.

My evaluation of Harris’ post was significantly different from most of the commentators. I have been a fan of Harris’ since reading The End of Faith, and I originally came across the material in this post while reading The Moral Landscape.

Clearly, there are some problems here. Harris seems to incorrectly assume that all libertarian accounts of free will necessarily involve positing a soul. But there are also many plausible points, and his overall position strikes me as reasonable. His overall view seems to be that there is no such thing as “deep” free will or moral responsibility, yet we can still make intelligible distinctions between different kinds of behavior in order to justify and make sense of many of our practices. This view is held by a number of reputable philosophers. Harris also makes a number of important points. He correctly points out that free will denial does not render ethical evaluation meaningless. He preempts the common misunderstanding that free will denial entails denying the importance of political freedom. He also points out the stakes in the debate, especially for retributive justice and criminal responsibility. One of the best passages in the post is on this topic, and it reminds me of an excellent passage in Tamler Sommers’ “Darrow and Determinism.” Harris makes the point that if we pay attention to the role of luck in shaping character, this should transform our approach to criminal justice. (I’m referring to Harris’ paragraph that begins with “While viewing human beings…” I admit, however, that I have trouble making sense of the two paragraphs that follow that one.)

In addition, I happen to agree that our best scientific theories leave little room for the kind of free will that most people take themselves to have. Many respectable philosophers hold this position. I also agree that the way that our minds work tends to perpetuate an illusion of free will. This position is held by some respectable philosophers as well.

In short, I understand taking issue with some parts of the post, but I also think that it has a good deal of redeeming value.

The following is from the Big Questions in Free Will website (link can be found in upper right corner of this page):

This project includes a competitive essay prize. This competition is aimed at providing incentives for scholars who work on our major themes to prepare essays related to their work that would be of interest to a non-academic audience and to publish those essays in venues of wide readership.
During the 2010-2013 academic years, scholars will be working on a wide range of scholarly projects that bear on the reality and nature of free will under the auspices of the Big Questions in Free Will Project. The Free Will Essay Prize will offer up to ten awards in the amount of $3,000 each for popular essays that present the state of the art or make new progress on our topics (see “Overview”). Essays must be at least 1,000 words in length and must be published in a popular, non-academic publication with a circulation of at least 12,000. Publications can be secular in orientation (e.g., Harper’s, Times Literary Supplement, The National Review) or religious (e.g., Christianity Today, First Things, Christian Century). Selected online publications will also be considered (e.g., Winning entries will be selected by a panel appointed by the project director, Alfred Mele.

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