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Thanks a lot for posting this!

Very nice piece, Eddy!

DATE: 11/14/2011 07:48:06 AM

Eddy: here are some comments:

1. Huge congratulations!

2. You write: "We should be wary of defining things out of existence. Define Earth as the planet at the center of the universe and it turns out there is no Earth."

Couldn't I just as easily write:

"We should be wary of refusing to define things out of existence. Define Santa Claus as a man wearing a red suit handing out presents, and suddenly Santa Claus exists."

Do you recognize this other danger - the opposite of the one you identify in your blog post? How do we prove whether free will is more like "earth" and "marriage", or more like "Santa Claus"?

3. You've done very admirable work showing that people misunderstand the consequences of determinism. However, this is different than showing that free will is defined in a compatibilist way, which is what the compatibilist needs to prove. It might be, for example, that both:

A. people have difficulty fully understanding determinism (as you show); AND
B. people define free will in an incompatibilist manner

In fact, it might also be that:

C. (A) partly causes (B): people define free will in an incompatibilist manner partly because they have difficulty fully understanding determinism

If B is true, then A is not decisive of the compatibility question. If B is true, then incompatibilists might still win - regardless of whether A is true (even though proving A is admirable and interesting for its own sake). In fact, if B is true, incompatibilists might still win - even if C is true! Notice: to make any progress here, we need to actually determine if B is true (assuming that common usage is relevant, if not dispositive, of how to define free will)!

4. You can reasonably argue that free will exists. However, compatibilists cannot reasonably deny that the human brain does repeatedly and systematically make errors about freedom and responsibility attributions. That is simply a bedrock fact of modern cognitive psychology. This is true when you consider the fundamental attribution error, reactance, the positive illusions including the illusion of control, anthropomorphic bias and folk/naive theories of agency, the work of David Pizarro and others, not to mention the biases and errors that we don't yet fully know or appreciate. In fact - I expect you to be sympathetic to this point, considering your neuro-compatibilist tendencies.

In view of the above, one problem that I have with compatibilist views like yours is that they do not address what we should do about these undeniable errors in our understanding and attributions of agency. The compatibilist *seems* to say: "Nothing! Although we make all of these errors, their effect is so minimal that we can safely maintain the status quo of our legal and moral practices, in total, without any revisions, because our beliefs and conceptions, as error-ridden as they are, are simply good enough." Do you say this? The pervasiveness of both status-quo bias:

and wishful thinking:

should make us very suspicious of saying something that would be so convenient and satisfying!

If you don't say this, then what revisions would you make to our legal and moral beliefs and practices?

5. Another problem that I have with the bypassing research is that it doesn't explain why even some experts deny the existence of free will. Experts like Pereboom presumably do not mistakenly believe that determinism entails bypassing. Yet Pereboom still denies the existence of free will. Why is Pereboom making such a fuss? Does he have some idiosyncratic intuition that nobody else shares? Thus, bypassing as an error-theory for incompatibilism is inherently dissatisfying for persons (like myself) who like to believe that we don't engage in bypassing.

Since I could not include acknowledgements at NYTimes, I would like to thank several people who read this piece and gave me really helpful suggestions for making it more clear and accessible: Michael Lynch, Manuel Vargas, Tamler Sommers, Dylan Murray, Jason Shepard, Al Mele, Peter Catapano, and especially Andrea Scarantino.

Tamler will be happy to know that they made me cut out all talk of "willusionism"!

If nothing else, I think I win the prize for longest Stone column! I hope readers here will keep in mind that it's still not long enough to address all the issues and objections one might raise.

It was a great piece Eddy. Congratulations!

Excellent piece Eddy!! It is so hard to cover this territory for a lay audience. You've done an amazing job!

Very nice Eddy. I'm glad the editors at NYT had the good sense to let you write a longer essay and to talk you out of the term 'willusionism.' It was the free will version of New Coke. Great piece, congrats.


Your article is a nice articulation of physicalist compatibilism, but seems to me you downplay the incompatibilist intuitions among the folk that have been found in X phi studies. Since these intuitions are tied to beliefs about MR, as science (including your article!) erodes these intuitions it might have an impact on our responsibility practices as Kip suggests. A bit more on this at

Changing gears, I liked this response to the bypassing worry:

"...we should consider the role of consciousness in action on the assumption that our conscious deliberation and rational thinking are carried out by complex brain processes, and then we can examine whether those very brain processes play a causal role in action.”

On this account, what’s efficacious about consciousness is the neural processes associated with it. Since, as you say, these processes likely play an important causal role in governing complex non-automatic behavior, conscious processing isn’t being bypassed. But of course this leaves open the question of phenomenal causation: whether and how the phenomenal states associated with consciousness contribute to behavior control.

Lastly, you say “…if determinism is presented in a way that suggests all our decisions are just chemical reactions, [people] take that to mean that our conscious thinking is bypassed in such a way that we lack free will.” If we substitute “brain processes” for “chemical reactions” here, I’m wondering if this worry persists.

Great work, Eddy!

I just depressed myself by reading some of the knuckleheaded comments at the end, though. I'm going to tell myself that these folks would be responsive to careful reasoning and wouldn't be nearly so intellectually dismissive and hubristic if they were in an actual class or conversation (let me have my illusions).

Awesome stuff Eddy!

Like Dan, I made the mistake of reading too many comments.

Great essay, Eddy. As for the comments: more work to do!

The essay is #5 in most emailed NYT stories--ahead of Krugman. Not too shabby, Eddy.

Thanks for the kind comments everyone. I really appreciate them! But I must say, your comments seem way too on-topic. Can you please just write some random things you think about free will...

Free will is an expression of Eurocentric phallologocentric oppression, designed to make being-in-the-world a mode of alterity whose oppositional structures include such constructs as "libertarianism" (or freedom as denial of truth) and "compatibilism" (or freedom as compatible with conceptual colonization).

Revisionism FTW!

Don't say I never help you out, Eddy.

I completely agree with Manuel's thoughtful comments.

GREAT JOB, Eddy. Of course, you've been ready for prime time for a long time!

It is a measure of the magnitude of Eddy's achievement that most of the rest of us could only hope to appear in the NYT described as the suspect.

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