Currently, I’m reading Lee M. Silver’s new book, Challenging Nature, a defence of biomedical science against more or less irrational attacks from both the right and left of politics. It’s a goldmine of information, and Silver’s thinking is sometimes more sophisticated than that of many philosophers and bioethicists who have considered the same issues. But he does sometimes overreach, where a traditionally-grounded philosopher might be more careful.
For example, early in the book, he attacks the belief in free will, as if such a belief must be unscientific. He doesn’t seem to realise that most philosophers (though, to be fair, perhaps not most philosophers who have been publishing about the problem of free will in recent years) are compatibilists. I.e., we see free will and physical determinism as compatible.
On this conception, free will does not mean the freedom to act in a way that somehow transcends physical nature, of which our brains and bodies are part. It simply means the freedom to act without being subject to certain kinds of coercion, manipulation, inner compulsion, etc. I doubt that there is such a thing as free will in any absolute sense, i.e. we may sometimes know all the facts, with no additional fact of the matter in borderline cases that “this person is acting with free will” and “this person is not”. It is just that there are various things we fear, which we see as impediments to acting as we would really like to: we fear people putting guns at our heads; we fear being overtaken by some psychiatric condition that drives us to act in ways that strike us as alien and would cause us trouble; we fear addiction to drugs, which could compel us to act in ways that, again, are against our current values; we fear being tricked into acting against our better judgment; we fear (not very seriously) the science-fictional prospect of a mad scientist taking over control of our personalities by wiring us to his damnable machine. On this conception of free will, I act freely whenever I act in accordance with my own values and beliefs, without being compelled by any of these feared things. It may be a matter of degree, as when economic circumstances may greatly limit my range of options - still, although we do fear poverty we don’t usually interpret economic circumstances as taking away free will, exactly. This may be because they (usually) still leave a range of possible actions, rather than compelling one in particular.
It seems to me that this is the only kind of free will worth having. The spooky contra-causal free will that metaphysical libertarians claim we possess does not even make sense to me, and Silver evidently feels the same way. However, I do think that we have free will in the worthwhile and meaningful sense, at least most of the time, and at least to a large degree. In short, people who - when asked - say that we possess free will are not necessarily claiming anything incoherent or mystical. If we want to find out how many have the spooky libertarian belief that Silver is deriding, we need to ask a different question.
Of course, if it turns out that the popular concept of free will is the spooky libertarian one, I am quite happy to be an error theorist about that concept. I’m not at all sure, though, that anything like this is meant by most of us when we use the expression in our ordinary lives. In fact, it looks to me like something dreamed up by theologians wanting to explain how there can be evil in the world when an all-powerful, perfect being is supposedly in charge - how could that being somehow not be responsible for evil? Belief in free will does not necessarily mean commitment to anything as difficult and metaphysical (possibly even irrational) as that. Silver should at least make the distinction before castigating people about this particular point.<