Thursday, June 29, 2017

Recentering the "freewill" debate

The most salient change I would make, although perhaps not the philosophically most important one, is that I would not now use the phrase ‘free will’. In fact, I would not use even the adjective ‘free’—I would not speak of free actions, free agents, or free choices. Nor would I use the adverb ‘freely’ and the noun ‘freedom’. In my view, these words have little meaning beyond that which the philosopher who uses them explicitly gives them, and yet philosophers persist in arguing about what they do or should mean. They enter into disputes about what “free will” and “free choices” and “acting freely” and “freedom” really are. These philosophers have fallen prey to what I may call verbal essentialism. That is to say, it is essential to their discussions that they involve certain words: ‘free’, ‘freely’, ‘freedom’. … It would be impossible to translate their discussions into language that did not involve those words. Peter van Inwagen, The Harvard Review of Philosophy (2015), 22:16-17.

Calvinist/Arminian debates often go like this: Arminians say they believe in freewill, and they deny that Calvinists believe in freewill. Calvinists typically reply that they believe in freewill, too, they just have a different concept of freewill. But should we frame the debate in terms of freedom, viz. Can agents whose actions are determined or predetermined be "free"?

The problem with that framework is that what philosophers are typically after in this debate is a different question. Not, "Are we free?" but "Are we morally responsible?" 

Now, libertarian freedom is often invoked as a necessary condition for praiseworthy or blameworthy actions. I'm not suggesting that we can avoid the issue of freedom in debating the nature of moral responsibility. 

Yet for analytical clarity, we should distinguish between the primary issue and secondary issues. Whether or not we're morally responsible is the primary issue, the starting-point, while the question of what conditions are necessary and sufficient for an agent to be morally responsible, is secondary inasmuch as explanations are attempts to ground it–unless it is groundless (i.e. uncaused). Casting the issue in terms of freewill gets us off on the wrong foot. We need to recenter the debate. 

Because "freedom" is a cipher, both sides explicate the concept of freedom. For instance, libertarians unpack that in terms of ultimate sourcehood and/or ability to access to alternate possibilities, &c, while Fischer appeals to regulative control and guidance control. 

But in that event, "freedom" does no work. That's just a verbal placeholder. It's the underlying categories that do the work. So why not  drop the ambiguous or opaque word "freedom" and go straight to examination of the categories?

An exception would be the relation between freedom and foreknowledge, where the primary issue isn't moral responsibility, but something else. 

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