Reading a New York Times review of "Free Will," I was reminded of how the have-it-both-ways notion of compatibilism doesn't make sense to me. Compatibilism claims that free will and determinism are compatible.
Huh? is my reaction. Harris' also, according to the review.
For quite a while now, philosophers and public intellectuals, including Harris’s friend Dennett, have tried to rescue something like the common notion of free will from the jaws of science and logic by embracing a position called compatibilism. Compatibilists believe that “a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions,” Harris writes, and they “have produced a vast literature in an effort” to salvage free will. “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology,” he continues, consigning it to what one assumes is, for him, the intellectual subbasement.
For some reason unrelated to my non-existent free will, I've never even been able to understand how compatibilists justify their position, much less agree with it.
I started to make my way through a lengthy philosophical examination of the subject, but couldn't handle the intellectual exertion of reading it all.
After all, it's summertime, and thinking is easy (when I do any of it). It just seems to me that if determinism rules the brain, and there's essential zero scientific evidence to the contrary, then the only way to save a belief in free will is to redefine the term.
This is what compatibilists do. They accept brain-based determinism, but somehow argue that if I can act on my fully determined motives without interference (mostly from other people, I assume), I'm free.
However, if I'm not free to choose what to do, what kind of freedom is that? To me, and Harris, free will is being able to do something different, even though the status of every neuron in the doer's brain is exactly the same as before.
This, of course, requires that a mysterious "will" be something supernatural, since if "will" is an altered brain state, determinism still rules: my will is the result of some cause, which itself is the result of some other cause, and so on -- all the way back to the big bang.
Since there is no evidence of a non-material entity (soul, spirit, whatever) which acts upon the physical brain, genuine free will appears to be an impossibility.
Here's an excerpt from the above-linked Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on compatibilism. Makes good sense. Of course, what else could I say? I don't believe in free will, so naturally I agreed with this:
Despite the classical compatibilists' ingenuity, their analysis of could have done otherwise failed decisively. The classical compatibilists wanted to show their incompatibilist interlocutors that when one asserted that a freely willing agent had alternatives available to her—that is, when it was asserted that she could have done otherwise—that assertion could be analyzed as a conditional statement, a statement that is perspicuously compatible with determinism.
But as it turned out, the analysis was refuted when it was shown that the conditional statements sometimes yielded the improper result that a person was able to do otherwise even though it was clear that at the time the person acted, she had no such alternative and therefore was not able to do otherwise in the pertinent sense (Chisholm, 1964, in Watson, ed., 1982, pp.26–7; or van Inwagen, 1983, pp.114–9). Here is such an example:
Suppose that Danielle is psychologically incapable of wanting to touch a blond haired dog. Imagine that, on her sixteenth birthday, unaware of her condition, her father brings her two puppies to choose between, one being a blond haired Lab, the other a black haired Lab. He tells Danielle just to pick up whichever of the two she pleases and that he will return the other puppy to the pet store. Danielle happily, and unencumbered, does what she wants and picks up the black Lab.
When Danielle picked up the black Lab, was she able to pick up the blond Lab? It seems not. Picking up the blond Lab was an alternative that was not available to her. In this respect, she could not have done otherwise. Given her psychological condition, she cannot even form a want to touch a blond Lab, hence she could not pick one up. But notice that, if she wanted to pick up the blond Lab, then she would have done so.
Of course, if she wanted to pick up the blond Lab, then she would not suffer from the very psychological disorder that causes her to be unable to pick up blond haired doggies. The classical compatibilist analysis of ‘could have done otherwise’ fails. According to the analysis, when Danielle picked up the black Lab, she was able to pick up the blonde Lab, even though, due to her psychological condition, she was not able to do so in the relevant respect. Hence, the analysis yields the wrong result.
The classical compatibilist attempt to answer the incompatibilist objection failed. Even if an unencumbered agent does what she wants, if she is determined, at least as the incompatibilist maintains, she could not have done otherwise. Since, as the objection goes, freedom of will requires freedom involving alternative possibilities, classical compatibilist freedom falls.