by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

Free will is the age-old question that keeps sophomores up all night. But Searle is not the best voice on this question, as he is ultimately a dualist, trying to bring in something from outside the physical world, but without evidence.

Daniel Dennett's Elbow Room is an oldie but a goodie on this topic, at least in part making the same argument that you do - we all live our lives as if we have free will, and we can't tell that we don't, so that's good enough.

Further, a big part of this question is what do we actually want when we ask for free will? Not randomness, I think, which takes quantum mechanics out of the picture. We want our decisions to be based on real preferences, which are determined by what? Well, by rules for what we prefer, of course. If we postulate some dualistic outside 'soul' or other driving force, we just push the question back a level - what are the rules by which the soul makes choices? Again, we don't want randomness, we want real preference. So we just can't get away from a rules-based, deterministic system. It might be chaotic, there might be a huge number of rules and inputs to those rules, so many that we can never be fully 'predictable,' but ultimately we WANT there to be rules. Searle usually seems to miss this point.

Another reader seconds:

My favorite book of all time is Elbow Room: Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting.  Especially the chapter 'Could Have Done Otherwise' changed everything for me, articulating a stance toward responsibility and choice that permanently resolved an existential anxiety toward ethics that had always bothered me.  It's Daniel Dennett at his very best, before he started haring off into things of which he has no particular understanding (religion).

Anyway, I found that once the whole conundrum had been flipped upside down, it made vastly more sense. Better yet, our base intuitions about what is important and meaningful emerge reconfigured but strengthened, not invalidated.

Another reader:

William James pointed out that, not only is free will pragmatically true, but more generally any philosophical argument whose truth or falsity would not result in an actual concrete effect on our actions is a mere semantic game.

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