open motives of a compatibilist

(note: originally published at previous site in March, 2015)

The other day I noticed an article by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne linking compatibilists with creationists. I was encouraged that scientists like Sean Carroll and Coel Hellier (physicists with no resemblance to creationists) replied to the article in defense of compatibilism. Sean rightfully wondered why Jerry hadn’t simply asked compatibilists about their beliefs, rather than positing motives that occurred to him during a root canal operation (wish I was kidding!). However, given the positive comments Jerry received, and the persistent opposition Coel faced, I decided to respond to the charges made against compatibilists.

While I cannot speak for all compatibilists, I certainly can speak for myself as a documented compatibilist.

In the article, after asking himself why compatibilists say what they say, Jerry says he can think of only three possible motives, with just two of those being likely. (my emphasis in all quotes):

1. It’s just an intellectual game with no consequences for the real world or how the average person thinks.”

I agree with Jerry this is an unlikely motive.

2. It makes people feel good by assuring them that, despite the advances of neuroscience that tell us we don’t really have the ability to influence how we think, we nevertheless remain active agents in our behavior, and can really make choices that could have been otherwise. After all, that’s the way we feel!”

He says this is only partly true and I agree since making people feel good about having agency might be a motive for some, but virtually no compatibilist would want people believing in the contra-causal decisions required by libertarian free will.*

Of course, one should always be careful in interpreting neuroscientific data. While it certainly provides evidence against the idea one “could have chosen otherwise”, and helps us understand the limits of agency (including how environments and other brains may influence our thoughts/behaviours), it does not remove the concept of agency altogether.

Yes, I think data from neuroscience should be interesting and uplifting (make us feel good) as it provides insight into what enables our agency. Knowing the limits of that agency should give us some humility, but not flatten our spirits. That we have come this far with what we have to work with is quite extraordinary.

3. It’s necessary to tell people they have some form of free will because if they think that determinism is solely behind their actions, they’ll start acting either immorally or will lose all ambition and lie abed.”

He says this is certainly true for some compatibilists (with nods toward Daniel Dennett), but if so that hardly leads to a conclusion about all compatibilists.

As a neuroscientist and compatibilist, I am definitely not motivated by such an idea, as desires and a sense of agency comes with having a functioning brain in the first place. Given that prominent incompatibilists such as Jerry don’t seem to change their general behaviour based on their stated beliefs, it seems likely that few would.

The worst case scenario: I suspect if people truly embraced hard-determinist incompatibilism to the extent of actually rejecting their own agency (rather than pretending to), some might feel less motivated to obtain goals (since they are alien and illusory) and so act a bit listless (every day a bit like Monday morning). But only susceptible persons or wholly brainwashed societies are likely to fall to acedia. Regarding immorality, my guess is opportunists would take advantage of the moral nonsense create by such agentless beliefs, but otherwise responsible people would not become irresponsible.

It is hard for me to understand how Jerry missed a fourth possible motivation: just plain wanting to be accurate about something, because one feels that knowledge is useful for, well… understanding the world. The main problem to me is that in embracing such hard–determinist incompatibilism as Jerry advocates people would lack a proper understanding regarding the relationship between brains and minds. You know, like people having a wrong idea about evolution. Such things are irritating to me, even if the world’s survival doesn’t depend on people getting it. Granted knowledge helps people make better decisions, but that is not the same thing as fearing we’d fall apart otherwise.

Now here comes the interesting part. Jerry jumps from his stock alternatives to the following conclusion:

“This makes compatibilists like creationists. After all, one of the motivations—perhaps the main motivation—for creationists to keep attacking evolution is that they think the theory has inimical effects on morality. If we think we evolved from beasts, they say, we’ll act like beasts. And so evolution must be denied lest the moral fabric of our society disintegrate. You hear this over and over again from creationists and fundamentalists.”

So if one motivation held by compatibilists is similar to one motivation held by creationists that makes “compatibilists like creationists”? Wow. Such a comparison is only possible if one were to ignore the vast differences between the two camps, both in motivation (creationists clearly have additional motivations that compatibilists lack) and factual beliefs (indeed all of them, including the nature of free will, are wholly contradictory).

The best conclusion Jerry could make from this is that some members of both camps are equally incorrect about the effects of embracing incompatibilism. And that is if they are incorrect, which Jerry never showed beyond personal anecdote and indirect reference to contradictory (which means inconclusive) studies.

Intriguingly, this cannon can be seized and pointed back in his direction. Jerry has long posited that continued belief in free will (of any kind) supports bad results for society, chiefly in an overly punitive (to the point of destructive) criminal justice system. One need look no further than one of his opening paragraphs, which includes the statement (my emphasis):

“[I] feel that compatibilism is merely a semantic trick, and the important thing, which none of these philosophers seem to emphasize, is the determinism behind our actions and its implications for stuff like criminal justice.

So apparently his motivation (“the important thing”) is that if his idea regarding free will is not embraced, society will suffer. According to his own criteria set out in the essay, doesn’t that make him “like a creationist”?

As it happens I do “emphasize” the limits of our agency where it is applicable to moral and legal responsibility. Yes, he probably has never heard my arguments on this topic, but he probably has heard very few. Did he even ask Dennett’s position on sentencing policy? A caveat would seem to be in order.

And in any case, even if I agreed with incompatibilism, I would not agree with all his arguments regarding how it would/should impact the criminal justice system. Not all incompatibilists agree with him either.

Ultimately we should be deciding the case of incompatibilism v. compatibilism on the merits of the arguments and not their potential effects on society. We can throw that aspect in for flavor (or as Dennett did as an intuition pump, not a prediction) but that is not the main criterion for deciding its validity.

If there is some lesson in Jerry’s article perhaps it is that bathtubs make for better epiphanies than dental chairs.


* Note:  I personally have never felt that I “could have done otherwise”, even if at times I have mistaken the limits of my mental control over current physical conditions (undergraduate student + alcohol = embarrassment). So he might feel like he has libertarian free will but I never have, outside of — perhaps — some late night pizza-fueled fever dreams.