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03/30/2014

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Sorry for the messy post but I had trouble posting form my iPad....and the tequila shots didn't help either.

1. Shaun Nichols' paper really is a must read (aren't all of his articles)?

2. I don't understand the analogy with witches: for political reasons, we revised the concept of witches in order to eliminate them. How can that example favor a preservationist approach to "free will"? Yet Nichols mostly uses the witch example to ultimately reach a sympathy with Vargas' preservationist approach. This baffles me. I'm happy to say free will is like witches: neither exist!

3. I am not sure that empirical work on the first-person experience of agency is going to overcome Nichols' argument here. I would need to see this argument fleshed out in your final paper, Gregg (which I would love to read). I am not sure there is any reason to prioritize a first-person, as opposed to second/third-person, focus on free will - the term seems intentionally ambiguous between these different perspectives. (It's worth noting that some cognitive biases create an illusion of first person free will - like the illusion of control - while others create the illusion of third person free will - like the fundamental attribution error). Ultimately, I think what is needed is a systematic review of what people actually think the term "free will" means. Eddy and Thomas and others have begun such a project, and so far the results are not decisively compatibilist or incompatibilist.

4. With apologies to my libertarian friends, the jettisoning of libertarianism would definitely be a step forward.

5. What is needed, I think, is a systemic method for distinguishing between when eliminativism is correct (e.g., unicorns, Santa Claus, Big Foot), and when preservationist-revisionism of some sort is correct. My impression was that this kind of argument was missing from some of Vargas' earlier papers, but is more thoroughly explored in his book, which I still need to read.

Gregg, do you really favour eliminativism towards free will more than you do towards witches?

But, setting that aside, here is a difference between the concept of free will and that of witches: even if the existing concept of free will were libertarian in some sense, there are more plausible alternative candidates for a referent of 'free will' than there are for 'witch'. That is, there are things that significant numbers of people take for free will even though it doesn't satisfy the libertarian concept, viz, the things that compatibilists might say free will is. And for this exact reason, the concept of free will is more contested than that of witches, and therefore is more amenable to revision. It's like deposing a monarch - if there is already a rival claimant to their crown, you can just give it to that rival rather than having to dissolve the kingdom entirely (think William of Orange as opposed to Cromwell).

I can't read the papers you reference on the phenomenology of free will at the moment. But I don't understand how it could ever seem that indeterminism is true (or false). People might report that they believe it's true on the basis of how things seem, but that's irrelevant if they can't actually have such a basis, and I don't see how anything in my phenomenology could amount to a seeming of indeterminism.

All that said, it strikes me that the concept of free will should be no more in need of either elimination or revision than that of, for instance, memory. It's not that 'memory' couldn't fail to refer successfully, but it would take a massively broad and deep illusion for my attempts to refer to it to fail. I have always seemed to be able to identify the sources of my active beliefs as either memory or some other faculty. I might not know what memory is, or how to explain how it is constituted in the brain. I may hold erroneous philosophical views about what memory requires, or erroneous empirical views about what memories I am capable of (maybe I think that memory involves Lockean representations being stored in the brain for re-use, or that I can remember past lives). But unless I have never remembered anything successfully at all or can't tell the difference between what I remember and what I deduce or perceive (which would be quite something), I can successfully demonstrate and refer to memory.

I think the same goes for free will. I can distinguish between those of my actions that I do from panic, compulsion, reflex, etc. and those I do, either on the basis of reasons, or at least while responsive to reasons (e.g. I can do something absent-mindedly, but if called up on it, can acknowledge that I could and should have done it differently for certain reasons) on the basis of whether I seem to be using a certain faculty or not. As long as there is some faculty for making responsible decisions, whether or not I am right even most of the time about whether I'm using it, and whether or not I hold erroneous philosophical beliefs about the compatibility its existence with determinism, and so on, I successfully refer to it in the same way I do the faculty of memory. And notice that people who aim to prove that free will is an illusion are acting as if I am correct about this. They aren't just trying trying to show that I can be wrong about when I act freely (though there are results from neuroscience that help to show us when we are likely to be wrong), but that I am subject to a global illusion, so that my attempts to refer to whatever distinguishes unfree actions from free ones must all fail.

(In the last thread, Manuel was, quite reasonably, unwilling to grant me that free will is known by acquaintance. The above analogy to memory isn't exactly an argument for that position, but I hope it illustrates what I meant and why I think that. There's something, and I don't pretend to know the nature of it, that I can pick out as the difference between my free actions and my unfree ones in the same way I can pick out the difference between active beliefs proceeding from memory and ones from other sources. Whatever we argue about when we argue about free will, it's *that*. I may not know which of the competing philosophical accounts of it is correct, but if it turns out that freedom requires indeterminism, then *that* thing is indeterministic; if freedom requires certain dispositions, then *that* thing requires those dispositions; if freedom requires agent causation, so does *that* thing; etc.)

Thank you Kip and CJ for your comments. I cannot repond in full at the moment but I would just like to point out a few things about the focus of the paper:

(1) I am trying to respond in particular to Nichols's argument, so I am starting with the assumption that there is already agreement that the folk concept of free will contains significant error. Nichols starts with granting that assumption. Vargas does as well, at least with regard to the diagnostic task (correct me Manuel if I am wrong). I know that many here will disagree about that starting point but in terms of the question I want to raise (revisionism or Eliminativism), I'm interested in in which direction we should go *agreeing on this assumption*.

(2) I am trying to create a dilemma of sort. As Nichols describes it, free will eliminativists typically employ a descriptivist convention for reference, according to which a natural kind term refers by means of an associated description. Hence, on a descriptive account of reference, eliminativism appears to follows since nothing satisfies the description—i.e., the folk conception of free will contains significant error. (I believe Nichols grants this horn of the dilemma--but I could be wrong.) Revisionists, however, maintain a causal-historical convention for reference, according to which an initial baptism sets the referent of a term, even if the nature of the object referred to be misunderstood at the time of baptism. It is this horn of the dilemma that I am really trying to argue against since I think there are different ways we can imagine the initial baptism taking place. It is here that I believe phenomenology can play (and probably does) and important role. I grant that I still need to make the case for the erroneous nature of the phenomenology, and its role in the intial baltism, but I will put that task off for the moment. I'm curious however how others conceive of the initial baptism. My thesis would be that we are not just baptizing the concept of FW in reference to some compatibilist-only priorities (e.g., reasons reponsiveness, etc.).

Clarifying those two points, I am curious which referential convention you have in mind CJ? When we eliminate "witches" it is because we are employing the descriptive convention. When we preserve the the concept "whales" it is because (according to Nichols) we employ a causal-historical convention of reference. Since I am assuming for the sake of this argument, the description convention likewise leads to Eliminativism for FW, I'm curious how you conceive of the causal-historical account working with FW.

Kip, I think your fifth point it right on! In fact, that is exactly the question I am trying to rais in this paper.

Gregg,

OK, so the picture is this: insofar as 'witch' refers descriptively, there are no witches just if nothing satisfies that description; insofar as 'witch' refers via causal chains, there are no witches just if those chains aren't founded in a successful baptism of the term. (One thing I don't understand: does Nichols think there are two concepts of free will, one for each way that 'free will' can refer, or one confused concept?)

Can I dispute that picture for a minute? There is always going to be some leeway for revision even on the descriptive account of reference. That might be because there is nothing satisfying the description, but something that very nearly satisfies it - for instance, if it is essential to the concept of witches that they be warty, but there are no warty witches, just things exactly like witches would be except that they merely seem to be warty, then the concept 'witch' ought to be revised rather than abandoned. It might also be because we revise some of the concepts used in the description - for instance, if there are no warty witches, but plenty of things that are like witches would be except that they have moles instead of warts, and we revise our concept of warts so that it also covers moles, then the concept 'witch' ought to be revised in turn.

Now, there might be some terms that only refer through very strict descriptions that cannot be revised at all. Perhaps mathematical definitions are like this. But I doubt that any natural kind will be referred to in such a way. And free will definitely isn't - even if it is essential to free will that it involve, say, agent causation, if there is something sufficiently like agent causation that we have instead, or if we revise our concept of agent causation so that it is something we have, the concept 'free will' ought to be revised rather than abandoned.

On the baptism of 'free will', I think the picture looks something like the following (though others are invited to correct my history). We have some faculty for coming to actions (and intentions, etc.) that is present in, for instance, clear-minded deliberation and absent in, for instance, cases of panic or compulsion, and we can recognise it as the source of our actions in the same way we can recognise memory or deduction or perception as the source of a belief. I don't think that we recognise it *as* reasons-responsiveness - that's just an account of what the faculty is that may or may not be correct, though I think it's a good one. If it is the same thing as reasons-responsiveness, we can only learn that after philosophical reflection and empirical investigation, rather than immediately.

Having this faculty is essential to our phenomenology as agents, reasoners and moral beings, and has become part of our self-conception as agents, reasoners and moral beings. In part, this is because a number of philosophers recognised it, clearly or unclearly, and tried to account for it. It's what Lucretius' 'swerve' was intended to preserve, whether or not he had a good account of it, and recognition of it is what inspired Augustine to talk about free will, whether or not he got it right. The concept then gained popularity and importance in the public mind because people could recognise something in themselves that they thought it referred to. (This isn't to say that there wasn't a pre-philosophical concept of the same thing, but the present concept is definitely influenced by the history of philosophy.)

The concept has a host of philosophical and religious connotations that influence how people use it and what they think is true of it, and it is a very confused concept as a result, but the same is true of, for instance, the concept of knowledge. Knowledge is a thing encountered every day that has become a special subject of philosophy in much the same way as free will; people will make all sorts of silly claims about what knowledge requires, partly as a result of the historical influence of philosophy, but we mostly think that there is something we experience for ourselves that the philosophically-influenced concept is intended to capture and that explains why that concept exists at all; otherwise, appeals to intuition in epistemological thought experiments would be worthless (unless, perhaps, they are anyway).

Do you think that 'memory' and 'knowledge' refer successfully, that they were successfully baptised? If so, why not think that the case of free will is a similar one?

I have a question about your views on the phenomenology of free will, though I understand if you don't want to get into it right now. Do you think something like the following: people believe they have free will only because they believe they have libertarian free will, and what seems to them to be their free will is something that seems like libertarian free will (not that this could be true), but because libertarian free will is impossible, they can't be successfully referring to anything by 'free will'? But imagine that I think have fingers only because I have immaterial fingers, and what seem to me to be my fingers also seem to me to be immaterial - that doesn't stop me from successfully referring to my fingers, does it? Why would the case of free will be different?

It also strikes me that, insofar as 'free will' (or 'witch') refers via the causal-historical path, it can't really be revised. If any supposed feature of free will is sufficiently central to the concept of it that for us to reject the feature amounts to revising the concept, then previously 'free will' referred only to things with that feature, and so was not a case of pure causal-historical reference, but at best of mixed causal and descriptive reference. Whereas, if 'free will' refers without any descriptive contribution, then whatever it refers to after we reject some supposed feature of free will is just what it referred to before, so it seems better to say that the concept is the same but we have learned something about what falls under it.

For instance, if we learn that agent causation is impossible, and that leads to a revision of the concept of free will, it can only be because, previously, 'free will' meant something involving agent causation. We will also have learned something about humans - that we aren't agent causes - but we won't have revised our concept of humans, and 'human' won't refer any differently, because 'human' referred in the causal-historical fashion rather than meaning something that is an agent cause. So if we ever did revise the concept of free will like that, it would be because we were relying partly on a descriptive theory of reference in that context.

That is to say, I don't agree that revision corresponds to causal-historical reference and elimination corresponds to descriptive reference. Instead, descriptive or mixed reference can correspond to either elimination or revision, and causal-historical reference corresponds to sheer bloody-mindedness, on which we can learn new things about what falls under a concept, but not revise the concept. (Eliminativism is, of course, also possible wrt causal-historical reference, if there was never any successful baptism of the term, and some people think this is true of 'free will', but it's more difficult than for reference that relies on description.)

I'm mostly echoing CJ's remarks: it is a mistake to read revisionism (at least as I understand it) as requiring a causal-historical theory of reference. That is one way one can get to revisionism, and there is a lot to recommend revisionism of this sort. But one can also be an internalist or descriptivist about reference and still produce a revisionist account. (Note: these issues are the bulk of what Ch. 3 of BBB is about; a quick sketch of the main ideas are below.)

The core idea of revisionism is just that there is a conflict in what prescriptive theory one espouses and folk commitments about that subject.

There are several axis on which revisionist accounts can differ from each other. On one, we can ask how big the departure is (i.e., how revisionist the account is). On the other, we can ask whether the revision away from folk notions requires us to give up referencing-fixing content or whether it just gives up connotational content (i.e., associated content that doesn't fix reference). If we do have to give up some reference-fixing content, there are further questions about whether and how much of that content can be given up without changing the subject. (But notice, especially if you have a weighted cluster view, it isn't obvious that giving up some reference-fixing content means that we are never talking about the same thing as the folk were talking about.) '

Unfortunately I have to check out of the discussion for a bit (deadlines!) but I should note that I think one can say all of this without needing to use the word "concept" anywhere.

FWIW: I used to want to focus on concepts but I'm now less confident that this is helpful and have been shying away from it of late. That said, if you do want to talk about concepts, then it can help to have a view about the conceptual role or the "work of the concept" that one is presupposing in talking about free will and/or responsibility. (My view: any concept of "moral responsibility" has the primary inferential role of regulating judgments about justifiably (and deserved?) praise and blame. I use "free will" as a term of art, roughly picking out the control condition on responsibility.) We can, of course, disagree about the right way to characterize these things but it seems to help reduce the amount of confusions and cross-talk that emerges in this domain if we foreground what we have in mind about these things when we introduce concept-talk.

I'm going to piggy-back on Manuel's comments here and emphasize what I also take to be the key feature of revisionism: a conflict between diagnosis and prescription. If this is right, then Gregg might not be able to motivate such a clear cut dilemma. I think there's a third option not mentioned above, which is that the revisionist can allow that their prescriptive account of free will abandons some reference-fixing content, and perhaps even content that is downright constitutive of our folk concept. In that case, I think the brand of revisionism on offer might be more aptly called "replacementism". (Manuel, I think you're down with replacementism, but correct me if I'm wrong!)

I think this kind of view would benefit from more discussion, especially in conversations like this where the focus is on revisionism/eliminativism and reference. I see it as a kind of hybrid of eliminativism and revisionism. The replacementist can grant that they are changing the subject, that our folk use of the term 'free will' fails to refer or that the folk concept is hopelessly error-ridden, but that a change in subject is warranted because there is a nearby concept that we can successfully refer to that "does the work" (to borrow Manuel's terms) that we want a concept of free will to do for us. Maybe in this case the replacementist should introduce a new term of art to refer to this distinct, but nearby concept. But, it still looks like we can get a middle ground between eliminativism and revisionism on this kind of view. So, to sum up, I'm not sure that the dilemma you set up, Gregg, can be motivated quite so clearly. I'd be really interested in taking a look at the paper though, if you don't mind!

Hi Kelly-

Just confirming that yes, I'm down for replacementism. Whether we do better to think of it as a species of revisionism (as I tend to) or as alternative to revisionism and eliminativism is unclear to me, but I'm very sympathetic to the idea that there is a view here that is importantly different than the connotational revisionism I tend to most favor.

Do you think of replacementism as you characterize it as distinct from denotational revisionism? So long as the work of the concept is preserved I think I'm officially supposed to think of it as a form of revisionism. But I admit that I don't have any real views about the case where it violates the kind of role given by the work of the concept.

Another excellent post, Gregg!

To piggy back on Manual and Kelly, if I may.

Pereboom, in his (2001) seems to be advocating for a form of replacementism (nice phrase)as mentioned by Kelly (sorry, I'm working on the diss and have been engrossed with his work as of late). He argues that certain concepts might have to be replaced with analogues if Hard Incompatibilism were true. Concepts like forgiveness, moral obligation, anger, basic-desert, etc. Is this what is meant by replacementism?Further, is this a link that the revisionist shares with only the incompatibilist? Looks that way. If so, I am finally starting to see that revisionism is quite distinct from compatibilism and incompatibilism. Or, maybe it's just late and I have been typing for far too long for an online class discussion board I'm teaching in the states...


Thank you for all the thoughtful comments everyone. You have given me much to think about. And I blame you all (well, if I believed in justified blame) for my wife saying I have been preoccupied while on vacation!

CJ, Your point is well taken that there may be some leeway for revision even on the descriptive account of reference. I guess it comes down to what descriptive features we consider essential. On the baptism of "free will" you write: "We have some faculty for coming to actions (and intentions, etc.) that is present in, for instance, clear-minded deliberation and absent in, for instance, cases of panic or compulsion, and we can recognise it as the source of our actions in the same way we can recognise memory or deduction or perception as the source of a belief." I guess I disagree that the baptism is only in reference to such a compatibilist-friendly faculty. I'm also dubious that in such pre-theoretical times, the baptism would be to a "faculty for coming to action" rather than to a mistaken conception of the self or some such thing. In my book on free will and consciousness I identified various aspects of the phenomenology of free agency, and I do not think all these aspects are so easily embraced on a causal-historical baptism to our first-person phenomenology. Nicholas, himself, acknowledges an indeterminist intuition in our folk conception of free will and in the phenomenology of freedom. I would also add a (mistaken) conception of the Self as a unified, robust author of action. To see how important this phenomenological component is to our sense of free will, we only need to examine disorders of the self such as thought-insertion, alien hand syndrome, etc. which include a loss of authorship and ownership (both important components to our sense of free will). [I need to further consider your mixed reference proposal. It's an interesting one.]

Manuel, thank you for your comments. I need to think further about how Nichols's taxonomy, which he lays out in my edited collection, lines up with your own view. I also need to consider other routes to revisionism, via other accounts of reference. I will be sure to check out ch.3 of BBB. I'm curious, however, how one determines or differentiates between referencing-fixing content and connotational content (i.e., associated content that doesn't fix reference). I agree that this is an important distinction but I imagine people will disagree about what is essentially reference-fixing content. Do you have a proposal for determining which is which?

Kelly, I really like your introduction of "replacementism." My main concern here, however, would be the potential for confusion. If we are going to go this far, perhaps we should just opt to use related cognates (autonomy, levels of control, etc.) that can capture all we care about but which doesn't require such a deviant conception of FW. Relating back to my earlier post, perhaps Dennett was originally a "replacementist" about free will but has now decided to just drop the term. (I always thought he was more of a revisionist than a traditional compatibilist anyway.)

Interesting discussion! Notice that 'witch' has not been eliminated. My daughter dressed up as a witch for Halloween. And there are lots of witches in movies, like Wizard of Oz. I'm not sure what to make of this fact in the context of this discussion. But it makes me wonder: Witches in movies have powers (e.g., to cast spells and fly on brooms) that the witches the concept was baptized to refer to were presumably thought to have. So, now when we make movies about witches, we can see that they have powers that are physically impossible.

Suppose we made a movie about agents who had the (let's presume) physically impossible libertarian powers of free will. It's hard for me to imagine how that movie would not look just like reality, with those agents going around making their choices in a way that looks just like we do. Even if we had cool new technology to allow us to experience the movie as if we were one of those agents, it seems like it wouldn't feel any different to have their libertarian powers.

I'm not sure what to make of these ruminations. But it makes me wonder whether there is some important disanalogy between witches and free will and whether our experience of other agents and of ourselves as making free choices really picks out libertarian (or indeterminist) content.

"Suppose we made a movie about agents who had the (let's presume) physically impossible libertarian powers of free will. It's hard for me to imagine how that movie would not look just like reality, with those agents going around making their choices in a way that looks just like we do."

Except that, with the libertarian ego/self in charge, they wouldn't know what to do next since that self isn't fully subject to determining influences, so has no reason or motive to choose one way or another. Unlike in real life, these agents would be doing things against or disconnected to their character and desires, for no obvious, caused reason. Or they'd be standing around paralyzed waiting for their libertarian free will to decide what to do next. No good reason to want LFW that I can see...

Manuel - I think of replacementism as pretty much the same thing as denotational revision. In conversation I've found some folks to push back on denotational revision and call it a form of eliminativism, not genuine revision, and started using the term to make the distinction (as sort of an intermediate between the two) a bit clearer. That brings me to Gregg's point...

Gregg - yes, I think there is a lot of room for confusion here, and the replacementist has a special burden to show that the thing they are talking about is closely enough related to free will to merit it's inclusion in the overall taxonomy of views about 'free will' or 'moral responsibility' (and avoid charges of changing the subject entirely). I'll direct folks to Manuel's book here, where I think he does a killer job motivating the claim that even denotational revision or replacementism (as opposed to connotational revision) can preserve the "work of the concept," or at least the important features of what we care about most in our discussion of free will and moral responsibility. If this is right, then the replacementist can largely sidestep questions about what fixes the reference or what's constitutive of the concept of free will and just say something like, "Hey, here's this nearby thing, and maybe it's not what we've been talking about, but it sure seems close to what we've been trying to talk about, and may even be what we should have been talking about all along." (This is pretty much exactly what Manuel says about denonational revision, in fact)

Justin - I sometimes think Pereboom sounds like a replacementist, too. Especially in more recent work on blame (in the new volume on blame edited by Coates & Tognazzini, for example), where he seems to be arguing that a desert-free kind of responsibility can be preserved on the hard incompatibilist view along with most of what we care about.

I think the take home point is that it would help to have a clearer view of "what we care about" or the "work of the concept". There seems to be some agreement that it's whatever powers or abilities will ground desert (in the basic, not consequentialist sense) of praise and blame. But, not everyone agrees on this either! Sometimes I think it would help to stick to use of 'free will' and 'moral responsibility' only when it comes to views that deliver basic desert of praise and blame (and stipulate a new term of art for consequentialist views), but then again I'm not especially sure that this is in fact what most folks "really care about". If anyone's thinking about doing any empirical work on this question (or knows of some already out there I'm not familiar with), that would be awesome.

Gregg, this is a very interesting topic, and Nichols’s paper is great. Notice however his footnote 3, in which he recognizes that ‘the appeal to reference in these arguments only works if one assumes a substantive rather than a deflationary account of reference’. If the correct approach to reference is a deflationary one, then the ‘flight to reference’ (to quote the Stich and Bishop’s paper that has inspired Nichols) is simply impossible. And I think there is every reason to be a deflationist about truth, and by extension about reference (and existence). It would be great if you could improve on Shaun’s treatment and show me why I should not be a deflationist about these topics.
Secondly, irrespective of which is the correct theory of reference, it seems to me that your way of framing the revision/elimination dilemma presupposes that free will is a substantive property. I do not think it is, and I do not think that the correctness of our practice of ascribing responsibility depends on ‘having’ something. This is just a misleading way of speaking that we might have inherited from the Christian tradition, which is committed to a conception of free will as the substantive property that makes us responsible in front of God. But now that many of us are prone to look at responsibility in a purely secular way, there is no reason to retain that outdated framework.
Thirdly, I think that phenomenology is a very shaky ground to assess those issues. It is based on mistakenly modeling introspection on perception, and think that one can learn things by watching the internal world in the same way as one learns things by watching the external world. But I would not even accept that there is such a thing as the internal world. However, I admit I do not have much to say here. Phenomenology, introspection and experience are not my words.

Stefano, I doubt I could improve on Nichols's treatment! Anything I'm liable to say would not do him justice. I will leave it to Nichols, therefore, to respond to your first concern. My paper is simply working within Nichols's own constraints and categories--I understand, however, if you do not accept these.

As for your second concern, I'm not exactly sure why free will *must* be viewed here as a "substantive property." Do descriptive accounts of reference, for example, always refer to substantive properties?

I'm not sure what to say about your last point. I agree that introspection is not very reliable (something I've argued extensively myself), but to deny "that there is such a thing as an internal world" seems to be going too far for me.

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