- Unsupervised Learning
- The Disambiguation of Freedom
The Disambiguation of Freedom
Much or most of the free will debate is burdened by a single misunderstanding: Incompatibilists and Compatibilists are talking about two different types of freedom. There are technical names for them, but I’ll avoid using them here. Here they are in plain language.
Freedom to be a cause
This type of freedom means, during any given “choice”, being able to do something other than what all the physical variables of the universe (including randomness) determine will happen.
So let’s say that we know of a drug user with a bad upbringing who shoots and kills a man in the middle of a fight. This standard of freedom requires that he, or you, or anyone else, would be able to have chosen differently if in the exact same position. Think about that for a second. When we say “exact same position”, we’re talking about the exact same amount of drugs in his system, the exact amount of anger, along with EVERY OTHER VARIABLE in the universe. Meaning, you would be him.
In order to satisfy this level of freedom, you have to be able to say you could have chosen not to shoot.
That’s one kind of freedom.
The Freedom to do what you want to do
Another kind of freedom is much easier to attain, and that’s the freedom to do what you want without being externally constrained. Or, in other words, the freedom to “feel” free.
So, let us say that you came into this world liking bananas. You’re not sure why. You also love being outdoors, and feel drawn to Wyoming. You don’t know why. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe it was programmed into you subliminally while you were in the crib. Doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that it’s what you want.
So, one day you decide to buy an obscene number of bananas and go on a camping trip to Wyoming. Nobody stops you, and you have a great time.
The shell game
The problem with the free will debate is the confusion of these two types of freedom. Incompatibilists are generally talking about the first kind of freedom, while compatibilists are talking about the second one.
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And we wonder why there’s disagreement. The two groups are violently ignoring each others arguments.
I think isolating this difference, and forcing each side to acknowledge it before proceeding, we can actually do something remarkable: We can move the free will debate forward.
I, as an incomptatibilist, agree to be a compatibilist if we use the second definition of free will.
Person B, as a compatibilist, agrees to be an incompatibilist if we use the first definition of free will.
Then the main obstacles we have to avoid are compatibilists claiming the first type of freedom is possible, and incompatibilists claiming the second type isn’t possible.
Once that’s sorted out in any given conversation, we can then speak directly about the truth claims that freedom type 1 (Absolute Free Will) is impossible, and the philosophical claim that even with Absolute Free Will being impossible, freedom type 2 (Practical Free Will) is both possible and useful.
And with those out of the way, we can begin the real discussion: How to build better a better society given these views. Let’s use this distinction to start that conversation.