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Dennett makes the same claim, more explicitly in his recent Harvey Preisler Memorial lecture:

(jump to minute 20 or so.)

Sure, I take it to be a version of semi-compatibilism. More importantly, I take it to be an indicator that, for the compatibilist, the term 'free will' was never particularly important anyways; the link between "free will" in the "metaphysically robust alternate possibilities" sense and moral responsibility was severed long ago.

Randall, thanks for the link! I only watched the first few minutes but he does very clearly endorse abandoning the term "free will."


1. This is just one cut in the death of compatibilism by a thousand cuts.

2. What Dennett is suggesting here is what skeptics have been saying all along. Read the introduction to Living Without Free Will (now 13 years old), and he makes the exact same point that Dennett is just discovering (apparently): whether free will exists, and whether free will is valuable, are two different questions.

3. As a lawyer, the analogy I like to use is one with the law: billion dollar litigations can turn upon the precise definitions of smaller, seemingly silly and innocuous phrases. For example, the phrase "I admit" or "spaced relationship" - and countless other examples - we might think that these phrases are too simple to form the basis for a billion dollar litigation. We might say "that's just semantics, what really matters is public policy, or morality, or some other thing." But what the courts often say is: you have to play by the rules of the game. And the rules of the game are defined by the language of the patent or the language of the contract. So, even if though it seems silly, even though it seems like mere semantics, we have to have the discipline to play by the rules of language. If free will means X, then we decide whether free will exists according to X. We can't shift the meaning of X (or "revise" it), or substitute another term for X, or ignore X if that doesn't fit our public policy or personal morality.

We have to have the discipline to use the specific definition of "free will" (if it has one) wherever that definition leads. It's not any different, really, than having the discipline to follow experimental/scientific results wherever they lead. It's the same concept.

I think that's what Dennett is finally appreciating now, 13 years after Living Without Free Will, and I think that the same thing happens, and should happen, in the law.

Actually, I think Dennett is clearly not endorsing abandoning the term "free will." He is acknowleding that it is not necessarily a good idea to insist on using it (because many scientists are very stubborn about how they are willing to interpret the term), but he is not giving it up. He's rather saying that the people who insist on not using it are missing the point. He has not switched sides or made any substantive concessions.

No, Dan should not give in to scientists who claim they know how best to define “free will”, nor should the rest of us. These scientists (willusionists) typically assert (based on armchair assumptions about what most people believe) that the definition of “free will” obviously requires something like a non-physical mind or soul, a power of consciousness to work outside the laws of nature (a view that I argue is explicit or implicit in the work of Libet, Wegner, Haynes, Haggard, Montague, and many others). Some (e.g., Coyne) assert that *choices* are impossible if naturalism is true (most conflate naturalism with determinism). Some (e.g., Harris) assume free will requires the power to consciously control which thoughts come to mind or other impossible ideas. Do libertarian and hard incompatibilist philosophers want to accept all this baggage? Compatibilists certainly shouldn’t accept (a) that free will is defined solely in terms of ordinary usage (and/or a very specific religious-based history), and (b) that ordinary usage requires all that dualist+ baggage, especially now that there is, IMHO, some good evidence that it doesn’t.

While most on this blog have agreed that it would be beneficial for our society and legal system to become less retributive, it’s not obvious that the best way to do that is to tell people free will is an illusion (rather than, e.g., telling them that many criminals have less free will than we often assume). Conversely, if people associate the term “free will” with our capacities to deliberate rationally and to exercise self-control, then telling them free will is an illusion may have bad side-effects. Here’s one way I have presented this worry:

(1) Suppose some people believe that free will involves both ‘super-natural powers’ (e.g., to be uncaused causes) and also the ‘natural powers’ of rational thinking and self-control (and suppose that some believe that the natural powers do not depend on the existence of super-natural powers, while others believe that free will requires only the natural powers).
(2) Suppose scientists and the media inform people that free will is an illusion.
(3) Suppose neither they nor their audience are clear about exactly what is meant by ‘free will’ or exactly which powers are illusory. Then,
(4) Many people are likely to have weaker beliefs about the extent of our natural powers of free will, such as rational thinking and self-control.
(5) Weaker beliefs in our powers of rational thinking and self-control are likely to lead to weaker efforts of rational thinking and self-control.

Finally, I agree with Gregg that we should keep free will linked to moral responsibility. E.g., Free will is the set of capacities or powers of an agent to make choices and control actions such that she can properly deserve credit or blame for them.

Re desert-based moral responsibility, Dennett asks above

"For instance, does neuroscience show that we cannot be responsible for our choices, cannot justifiably be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished?"

In his review of Waller's Against Moral Responsibility and the ensuing exchange, Dennett says that we should mete out just deserts, but only as consequentialists, not retributivists. I'd say it's a mistake for consequentialists to continue to talk about just deserts given its non-consequentialist connotations. Like "free will" it's another instance in which we may want to revise our locutions to make sure they more accurately communicate our underlying commitments. Either drop the traditional term in favor of a semantically transparent substitute, or always qualify it, e.g., *compatibilist* free will, *consequentialist* desert, to help remove ambiguity. That way you wear your metaphysical and practical commitments on your sleeve, at least to a greater extent. We can then get to the question, semantics aside, of what our responsibility practices should be like given a naturalistic understanding of agency,

Tom, I agree. When Dennett talks about moral responsibility he often has in mind something closer to a consequentialist conception rather than the basic-desert sense of MR (i.e., a non-consequentialist desert-based MR). That, in itself, is a bit confusing and it allows Dennett to be easily misunderstood. I must therefore ask: Given Dennett's willingness to drop the term "free will," and given that he really seems to have consequentialist criteria for punishment and reward in mind, is Dennett even a compatibilist? Is he even a semi-compatibilist? On the standard understanding of both these positions (at least as I understand them), he is neither.

Eddy, I agree with you that we should maintain the link between free will and moral responsibility. I disagree, however, that promoting disbelief in free will would have the dire consequences you predict. I am working on a paper mow defending disillusion, so maybe I will hold off on say more until I finish it.

I do agree with you, however, that when one promotes free will skepticism, they need to make it very clear what they ARE NOT saying. As a free will skeptic, I am able to appreciate all the great work compatibilists have done on distinguishing and identifying different degrees and levels of control, etc. without saying that those powers/capacities are enough to ground FW and MR. I also think the public could be made to understand that we would still retain much of what compatibilists (including Dennett) care to maintain.

I am with you, however, that some of the assertions of (some) flat-footed scientists need to be countered, and they should equally be countered by philosophically minded free will skeptics and compatibilists.

Here's something that never happened: when Young (temporarily) resolved the dispute over whether light was composed of waves or particles, he was told by colleagues, "No, 'light' has come to mean something composed of particles; what you've discovered is that there's something, let's call it an illuminative wave, that does everything we thought light was necessary for", and scientists of the time proceeded to boldly proclaim that light did not exist.

Here's what I think would have happened if that had been the reaction to Young: members of the lay public would come to perceive science as alien and unintuitive; mistrust of science and scientists would increase; otherwise unattractive views along the lines that light is a supernatural phenomenon opaque to scientific investigation would actually become more prevalent. ("Clearly scientists can't understand light, since they claim it doesn't exist, and yet we continue to see. I blame materialism and reductionism and the arrogance of small minded scientists. And since scientists are essentially unable to understand light, their criticism of my theory of angelic illumination is entirely invalid.")

Now, I'm prepared to accept that 'free will' might have come to mean something like 'a supernatural power to do otherwise independent of external causes'. And, if it has, then we might be forced to abandon the term to communicate with others, just as Young would have had to abandon 'light' if it really came to mean something else. But I really hope this isn't the case, because it would lead to analogues of all the problems in my last paragraph - public alienation from and mistrust of scientists (and also naturalist philosophers) and an increase in irrational views about human freedom and moral responsibility, no matter how much we tried to explain that the non-existence of free will did not have to bear on those things. (It would also make teaching the history of philosophy much harder if, for instance, some of the things Hume said about freedom expressed analytic falsehoods in modern English.)

Gregg, I did not mean my argument to suggest "dire consequences." Just that people seem to associate free will with capacities like conscious deliberation and self-control, and it's probably suboptimal for people to think they have less of these limited capacities than they do. Perhaps proper care or replacement terminology would work. I should add that I don't think the Vohs, Schooler, Baumeister results tell us much about the long-term impact (if any) of willusionist claims. I would like to hear your (or others') arguments for why a no-free-will view would be beneficial (other than to tamp down our retributive legal punishment, which we've discussed a lot here).

CJ's interesting comments remind me of a passage in my chapter "Is Free Will an Illusion?": "It seems backwards for cognitive scientists to simply assume a non-naturalistic or dualist theory of free will, since the history of cognitive science can be seen as a series of attempts to demonstrate how we can put aside dualistic theories of mind and cognitive functioning. Descartes argued that humans’ cognitive capacities to use language and reason simply could not be explained in terms of natural mechanisms. As cognitive scientists increasingly explain how the mechanisms of the brain can explain language and flexible reasoning, they do not thereby conclude that we lack these capacities. Rather, they conclude that dualist theories of such capacities are false. An objective of cognitive science is to find out how the cognitive capacities of the mind/brain work, not to argue that they are illusions because they work in non-magical ways. The sciences of the mind are in a position to explain free will, rather than explaining it away."

I agree with your suggestion wholeheartedly!

I don’t think you’re playing entirely fairly here. For one thing, contrary to what you claim, these so-called “willusionists” (which, as Tamler has suggested several times here on the blog, is a lame name you should consider abandoning!) aren’t basing their claims about ordinary language and folk intuitions on mere armchair speculation. They are basing these claims on their interactions in the real world with real people. I have discussed these issues in person with scientists like Greene, Montague, Haynes, and Haggard and not a single one of them suggested that they arrived at their conclusions concerning folk incompatibilism via armchair theorizing or speculation. Instead, they, like me, have spent a lot of time speaking to friends, family members, students, audiences at talks, etc. Given that many (if not most) of these people are religious—especially in this country—these scientists have gotten the impression based on their experiences that many (if not most) of the people they’ve interacted with have both theories and beliefs about free will that trend towards dualism and libertarianism. So, while you can correctly accuse them of relying on anecdotal evidence, it is misleading to accuse them of mere armchair speculation. It’s not like they were a priori theorizing about what most people think about these issues—which is what the charge of armchair speculation suggests.*

But setting that small detail aside, I think you are overselling the case for folk compatibilism. For while there is some data that suggest that the folk have compatibilist intuitions under certain circumstances, there is plenty of data that they have incompatibilist intuitions under other circumstances. Moreover, based on the research you and I conducted during the process of constructing and validating our scale for measuring intuitions about free will and related concepts—which involved thousands of general populations participants—we found that the belief in dualism correlated pretty strongly with the belief in free will (roughly .3) and we also found that people overwhelmingly agreed with explicit statements of libertarian free will, contra-causal freedom, ultimate responsibility, etc. So, IMHO, if one takes all of the data into account, it is misleading to suggest that the ordinary usage of “free will” isn’t tied up in any way with dualist + libertarian “baggage.” Instead, what one should say is either that the data are as yet inconclusive or that the data show that there is both a compatibilist and an incompatibilist element to how people ordinarily think about free will (which is what I would say). In my eyes, if everyone would spend more time simply trying to figure out these dual elements rather than trying to (unconvincingly) explain away one element or the other, we would get closer to having a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between people’s beliefs about free will, the soul, determinism, fatalism, and moral responsibility. Indeed, given that you suggest in your comment that compatibilists ought not feel beholden to ordinary usage anyway, it seems odd that you spend so much time insisting that so few people are incompatibilists (and that those who are merely hold the view “lightly” as opposed to the “deep” folk compatibilists). After all, even if most people turned out to be card carrying, die hard incompatibilists as the aforementioned researchers suggest, you could simply define free will however you see fit. So why spend so much time trying to establish that so few people are *really* incompatibilists (roughly 20% in your estimation if my memory serves me correctly)?

*I realize this is the kind of rhetoric we adopted in some of our earlier work together, but it was a mistake that didn’t paint incompatibilist philosophers in a charitable light.

Eddy, I definitely agree with you about the Vohs, Schooler, Baumeister results. I was slightly disappointed to see Dennett make use of them as he did in the linked video above (in the comments by Randall). Not only do they not tell us anything about the long-term impact of free will disbelief, they (a) seem to be testing the wrong thing (e.g., fatalism instead of free will skepticism), and (b) the results may have more to do with ego-depletion more generally than anything specific to do with free will disbelief (as you and Nadelhoffer have long ago pointed out). [BTW, I would still like to see that latter possibility tested! Anyone interested in running an experiment? I would love to be part of it but I have done no experimental work to date.]

As for the other benefits of free will skepticism (beyond reducing retributive impulses), I think there are many. I would first point to all the issues Bruce Waller discusses in *Against Moral Responsibility*. Bruce cites many instances in which the moral responsibility system is counterproductive from a practical and humanitarian standpoint—notably in how it stifles personal development, encourage punitive excess in criminal justice, and perpetuates social and economic inequalities. He suggests that if we abandon moral responsibility “we can look more clearly at the causes and more deeply into the systems that shape individuals and their behavior” (2011, 287), and this will allow us to adopt more humane and effective interpersonal attitudes and approaches to education, criminal justice, and social policy. He maintains that in the absence of moral responsibility, “it is possible to look more deeply at the influences of social systems and situations” (2011, 286), to minimize the patent unfairness that luck deals out in life, and to “move beyond [the harmful effects of] blame and shame”

In addition to those, I think it could positively impact a cluster of other (potentially dangerous) beliefs that have been shown to be be closely correlated with free will belief. One in particular is Just Word Belief (JWB). I know that Nadelhoffer is working on this--and reported some of his initial findings in my edited collection (Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility). I know that Bruce has also discussed the tie between free will belief and JWB. And I am currently working on it as well. Again, I hope to develop some of these issues further in future work.

What I gathered from Dennett's exchange re Waller was that he thinks a consequentialist view of punishment is practically indistinguishable from a retributive view. Also, I would bet that if you asked him, he would say he's not really willing to give up the term "free will." Giving up the term would require too much heavy lifting. Really, if anyone wants to bet ...

Note that premise 1 in my argument above says that some people do indeed think free will requires super-natural powers, and I think that's true (but I don't think it's an essential feature of most people's concept). The suggestion there is that, assuming a hodge-podge of folk beliefs, when people make blanket and/or vague claims that free will is an illusion, they are likely to be misunderstood (and are misleading until clarified). I think we all agree on this point, and we can probably agree that willusionists, and certainly the media, are not as clear as they should be about what we don't have and what we do (and they often disagree about the latter). Yes, I am conflicted about the term 'willusionist' but still find it easier to use that "scientists (or science populizers) who argue that free will is an illusion." And yes, saying they come up with their definition of "free will" from the armchair is misleading and unfair. They do what you say, Thomas. However, I do get the impression that many of them (a) falsely believe that the agent-causal and dualistic view of free will is the one philosophical tradition accepts, (b) believe that if one is religious, then one believes free will requires a non-physical soul (a controversial claim, I think), and (c) believe that a naturalistic or scientific worldview rules out a causal role for conscious mental states (a controversial metaphysical view that I think most folk do not assume is true).

I know you think I oversell the claim that most people are not committed to incompatibilist (much less, non-naturalist) views of free will, and no doubt my rhetoric is overblown in places (perhaps I can rationalize this as a response to the old overblown rhetoric of incompatibilists we cite in our early papers and the new way-overblown claims of willusionists). However, I do think that there is an important asymmetry between claims that most folk have incompatibilist (or non-naturalist) commitments regarding free will and the claim that most folk do not (the latter does not require substantive metaphysical beliefs or theories). I do not think people are "deep compatibilists", since I don't think they have a (positive) theory or beliefs that involve a belief that determinism is compatible with free will). I think they are not "deep incompatibilists" and that entails that they are either compatibilists or perhaps easily revisable into compatibilism.


For purposes of clarity, since "free will" is ambiguous I wouldn't say it's free will skepticism that has all the beneficial implications you mention. I'd say rather it's abandoning *contra-causal* freedom, that is, adopting a fully naturalistic understanding of human agency that puts the agent completely within a causal context, both historical and situational. The truly nefarious idea, imo, is that individuals can somehow rise above or transcend their internal and external circumstances, and so bear ultimate responsibility for their character and choices.

Compatibilists who defend desert-based moral responsibility (fewer these days, perhaps) can't appeal to this idea but nevertheless work hard to present the agent as a legitimate target of non-consequentialist praise and blame. And, unlike the scientists like Sam Harris who debunk contra-causal free will, they routinely downplay the naturalistic revolution in our self-concept. This slows down the promulgation of all the benefits you, Waller, Pereboom, Greene, et al. rightly (imo) suggest will follow from naturalizing the self.


I wonder if one lesson from all of this is that people are too hung-up on terms—"free will" "incompatibilist" "compatibilist" rather than on questions like "can we justify these ways of treating each other?" and "is there a good reason to distinguish between this kind of agency and that sort" and "do we have true beliefs about our powers when we deliberate" and so on.

For my own part, Dennett's concession isn't particularly surprising. In the face of diverse things people have meant by "free will" it can be sensible to abandon fights over privileged-but-perpetually-contested labels and more sensible to point to particular phenomena and practices that one is concerned to vindicate or disprove.

I am sympathetic to operational definitions of free will that link it to moral responsibility, but I don't see any reason to be "imperialist" about this, i.e., denying that other people have meant/intended/referred to other things that don't turn out to be, say, control conditions on responsibility.

How many confusions and instances of cross-talk would disappear if we banned talk of free will for 50 years? My guess—a lot.

I'm surprised Manuel hasn't chimed in here about the possibility of a de facto revisionism taking place in Dennett's thinking (or maybe even an ongoing diagnostic correction of what constitutes proper folk references to FW; that's for him to say, not me). But as an amicus brief to Manuel's revisionism, I'd offer that pragmatic revision of uses of "free will" is inevitable as a function of social epistemology (and thus lexically popular reference) to capture a particular population's evolving consensus of what the term means mainly in MR terms, and perhaps that better captures what Dennett is getting at. Science, after all, cannot conquer what the folk think axiologically with mere brute facts: the state of folk-belief about evolution in the US proves otherwise. On the other hand, even bad science--one erroneous pub on vaccines and autism--can get major traction with the public because egocentric values trump facts. Maybe Dennett thus concludes that revisionism of MR and thus coordinated references to FW by direct value arguments is the way to go. Revisionism rather than semi-compatibilism.

Tom, point well taken.

Manuel, I'm up for banning talk of free will for 50 years to empirically test your suspicion! I expect we would get the results you suggest.

V. Alan, I'm not sure I would call it revisionist since abandoning the term seems different then revising it.

I really like CJ’s comment about the light waves.

It seems like one of the fundamental issues that we continue to face, is that we equate the idea that there cannot be an uncaused cause with the idea of predeterminism. I agree that there is no such thing as an uncaused cause, but I think we need to realize that it’s possible for entity A to cause entity B to come into existence wherein A doesn’t determine all of B’s emergent properties. For example, a pattern may cause an interpretation to come into existence via a decoder, while at the same time the pattern doesn’t determine the interpretation (since different decoders produce different interpretations).

If we can accept the idea that it’s possible for entity A to cause entity B to come into existence while at the same time entity B has new emergent properties that aren’t determined by A, then we open ourselves up to the possibility that our physical brains may cause our thoughts to emerge, while at the same time there are some emergent properties associated with our thoughts that aren’t determined by our physical brains (i.e., our thoughts are capable of exerting influence/control that isn’t predetermined).

If the above seems reasonable, then perhaps we’re on the road to explaining the existence of free will – it’s emergent in nature.

Hi Gregg--

I still see Dennett's move more as one of redirecting talk toward MR questions, and allowing tenable answers there to drive any further questions about what "FW" means. My point was that seems like a morally pragmatic strategy for resolving all these questions, and also a plausibly revisionist one in something like Manuel's meaning of revisionism.

I can't think of a better way for philosophers to help Willusionists "explain free will away" than by agreeing to abandon the term either altogether or by allowing these same scientists to define it. If anything, it's up to philosophers (and Neuroscientists) to re-imagine and re-conceptualize the term. A lot of good work as been done in that regard already.

By the way, in case some here haven't seen this yet, it's a good read and related to the topic at hand.

"Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness."

Coincidentally, I discovered this paper today, which I think is relevant to the discussion:

There is a response here:

I think that I had always implicitly agreed with the first paper about the concept of free will. It is still possible, though, that the term 'free will' is currently changing its meaning so that it has a purely descriptive content, i.e. so that it means something like 'a supernatural power that allows people to make choices independent of all external causes', rather than just picking out some kind of thing, whatever may turn out to be true of it, as I think it did before.

Good find, CJ. I was about to affirm a similar point to the first paper (by Heller), in response to your nice analogy about Young's wave theory of light. In my view, which I'll put as a slogan,

Common usage determines reference, and reference trumps notion.

To explain my use of "notion", start with Fregean reference, head in the direction of sense, and then keep going. Drop the requirements that sense fixes reference, and that sense is public rather than private. You have now arrived at notion. Philosophical armchairs, I would say, have an unfortunate tendency to be too busy with notion.

Note that the way common usage determines reference need not be a *causal* theory of reference a la Putnam. So in that detail I'm not sure I want to go along with Heller. I haven't read either paper yet, beyond the front page of each that your links give. But I really like the idea that we pick out some things and empirical research is a way to find out more about them - we travel theory-lite, as I think Eddy would say. (Feel free to object, Eddy, if I'm misusing the term.)

Jeff, CJ, and Paul-

The Heller piece and the Daw/Alter reply is great stuff and it is a shame that Phil language issues so rarely get any attention in these debates.

However they are smack in the middle of why some of us are inclined to go revisionist about free will. Whether you think reference is settled by stuff in the head or not, there are reasons to think there are legitimate uses of the term responsive to our interests that avoid or prune off the stuff that generates various forms of incompatibilism. Moreover, some of these "thinner" uses will carry more plausible currency precisely because they are responsive to the practical and conceptual work of the concept. If any of you are at all moved by Heller-style arguments or analogies to light, you might want to take a look at explicitly revisionist accounts. (My own discussion of these issues are on pp. 87-96 of Building Better Beings; Kelly McCormick also has a discussion of some of these things in her recent JESP piece; Shaun Nichols forthcoming book also takes up some of these issues).

A version of these moves are part of what Al White was pointing to above: if one thinks the main reason why we care about free will is moral responsibility, it is not much of a concession to scientists to let them have the word "free will" if everyone agrees responsibility is untouched.


Your comment regarding the definition of free will evolving toward something that requires a supernatural component is interesting. That’s an understandable prediction because *science* believes that something supernatural would be required in order for human actions to be controlled by something other than external causes.

We may discover just the opposite however, that free will doesn’t require anything supernatural. In fact, what we may find is that it’s as natural as the very essence of life itself; we may discover that life exerts new emergent forces (i.e., new forces that are caused, but not predetermined), and that’s the source of our free will.

Hi James--

I have admired your stringent advocacy of emergent forces to found something like incompatibilism. But it depends crucially on the concept of force, which has been under assail since Einstein's replacement of Newtonian force with the concept of inertial geodesic movement through spacetime. Sure I get that talk of "forces" still exists and even predominates some discussions of unification of laws at least as a simplified vocabulary of the metaphysics of influence, though much of that has been replaced with matters of entity-exchange through spacetime (gluons, etc.). So why should the concept of "force" even be relevant in the discussion of free will since there is some reason to be skeptical that any concept of force relates to the real world? This is the Humean coming out in me, though I really appreciate your consistent advocacy of the concept of force.

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