This is the first time (I think) that I've ever used my posting privileges here, and since I don't know whether my preferences and name from my other blog will carry over here, I should say at the outset: this is Hilary Bok. I'm writing in response to a comment made by Kip Werking in an earlier thread; I'm writing a post about it since it seemed like the sort of topic that might justify it.
In the earlier thread, I wrote:
"consider an analogy. People have all sorts of conflicting intuitions about justice, and I assume this was as true in the late 60s as it is today, if not more so. What should John Rawls have taken this fact to entail? Probably: that just appealing to people's intuitions wasn't likely to get him anywhere. But it would not entail that there were no interesting, constructive arguments out there that might lead people to change their minds.
What bugs me about the current emphasis on intuitions etc. is that it seems to make the very possibility of these arguments vanish. If people's intuitions are all in accord, there's no problem to solve; if they differ, then it's unsolvable. In this way the entire constructive task of philosophy is made to disappear."
Kip asked whether I was talking about concepts or inferences, and said:
"If Hilary is saying that inferences are not a popularity content, then I completely agree with her. After all, the folk believe all sorts of ridiculous things. But it seems to me that they come to believe each of these ridiculous things through some fallacy: they have the right premises but reach the wrong conclusion. In that case, it is not a popularity contest. The folk are just wrong.
But if Hilary (and others) are saying that concepts are not a popularity content, then I beg to differ. I'm no philosopher of language (yet?), but it seems to be a bedrock principle of that subject, that terms means whatever their common usage is. And what is common usage but a popularity contest? You ask "which of these things is red" and point to some blood and some sky, if most of the folk say the blood, then that is the color "red", if most of them point to the sky, then "red" here actually means what we call "blue". This seems to be a fundamental truth about how language works. And it would be a most dangerous precedent to do violence to this principle just to (as it appears) inoculate some view from empirical investigation.
Given this distinction, the question is: is the compatibility question one of concepts or one of inferences? And it seems to me that it is much more one of concepts than of inferences. We are all bright, college educated people who know the simple rules of logic. And we know that, if "free will" means what G. Strawson says it means, then it doesn't exist, and if "free will" means what Daniel Dennett says it means, then it does exist (and is compatible with determinism). I don't know of a single fallacy that either side can point to the other, and accuse them of making. On the contrary, the only mistake either side could say is: "Sure, free will does/does-not exist if you use that concept of free will! but of course that is the wrong concept! You haven't committed any glaring fallacy, rather your argument never even got off the ground because you started with the wrong premise, the wrong concept of free will." And if this is true, and I believe it is, how can we settle this dispute, if not through empirical investigation, and determining what the common usage of "free will" is, and even confronting the possibility that it may have no common usage (as Richard Double seems to have concluded)! And if you appreciate how free will dispute is about concepts, and not inferenes, then you can understand why I tend to think that decisive answers about folk intuitions can be the "nails in the coffin" to compatibilism/incompatibilism."
Personally, I tend to the following views:
(a) I can, if I want, construct any concept I want. If I want to pick out that class of objects that consists solely of my house, Tom DeLay, and the number two, that's my business. It is of course true that I do not get to determine: whether my new concept actually applies to anything, and if so, what; what follows from the fact that it applies to something; etc. I also do not get to decide whether my concept is what most people mean by freedom (or by any other term.)
(b) What 'being wrong about a concept' means, I assume, is 'being wrong to think that I use the term 'X' to pick out the same concept as most other people', or something like that. To detect such an error, one would of course have to check and see what most other people do in fact mean.
(c) Personally, I am less interested in the question whether freedom, as most people use that term, is compatible with determinism, than in the questions: what is it that I want an account of freedom of the will to (allow me to) do? ('Do', here, isn't limited to actions; it includes things like: hold people morally responsible for their conduct, in some satisfactory sense. The parentheses are meant to indicate that you can construe this as a question about what the account can do -- e.g., can it underwrite an adequate account of responsibility? And yes, this means that I hold the same basic view on the problem of responsibility as on freedom: I need to ask what I want an account of moral responsibility to allow me to do, as well.) Why does freedom of the will seem to me, and to others, to matter? What turns on it? And is there some account of freedom that will allow me to get what I think turns on getting an adequate account of freedom?
(d) This means that I think of the problem of freedom of the will as the question whether it is possible to construct a concept that is both close enough to what we normally mean to count as a concept of freedom, and also able to do the various things we want an account of freedom to do. I take interesting versions of incompatibilism to assert that it is impossible to construct an account of freedom that is compatible with determinism/mechanism/naturalism/whatever, and that does what we want an account of freedom to do. (Since if they were only asserting that a given account of freedom is inconsistent with d/m/n/whatever, but allowing that there was some other account that gave us everything we wanted in an account of freedom, and which was compatible with d/m/n/w, their claim would not interest me.)
(e) It's hard to demonstrate this sort of impossibility -- to rule out the possibility that some new and unforeseen approach might actually succeed in letting us construct such an account. It's easy to gesture at the claim that such an account is possible, but it's pretty boring. What would be interesting would be to actually do the hard constructive work involved in coming up with one, which would of course demonstrate the possibility of doing so by, well, doing it.
Now: Kip asks whether I take my opponents to be wrong about concepts or inferences. There are, of course, people on both sides who I think have made mistakes of both kinds (I name no names ;) ) But the interesting mistake, I think, is the one I just discussed: thinking that it is impossible that any future argument will succeed where (assuming this for the sake of argument) all the existing ones have failed. This is not a mistake about concepts, but it's not obviously a mistake about inferences either -- at any rate, the 'mistake' would involve a mistake using a form of inference (induction) that no one takes to remove the possibility of error in any case.
Omitting the possibility of this sort of mistake is, I think, where Kip and I differ. And it's why I brought in Rawls to begin with. The topic of justice had been gone over pretty thoroughly when Rawls came along. Intuitions seemed to differ, and those differences seemed pretty intractable. I honestly think that had Rawls accepted, say, Richard Double's philosophical views, he would have concluded: darn, I guess people's views about justice are internally inconsistent, so there's no such thing as justice anyways. Time to move on to the next problem.
Luckily for all of us, he thought instead that there was room for constructive work: coming up with a different approach, working it out in detail, and arguing that it allowed us to reconcile things that had previously seemed irreconcilable, and to make tractable problems that had previously resisted any sort of solution. (You can play this game with lots of philosophers. Kant: "There are antinomies. So much for reason." Aristotle: "Let us consider the opinions of the many and the wise. They disagree. Darn.") And, as I said, what bothers me about the idea (Double's; I have no idea if it's Kip's) that when intuitions about some concept differ or are inconsistent with one another, we should just conclude that that concept fails to apply, is that it makes the entire possibility of doing interesting constructive work vanish. Because interesting, constructive work is what you try to do when you think that all the obvious paths have been tried and some entirely new approach is called for. This doesn't require thinking that your opponents have made mistakes either about concepts or about inferences. It only requires thinking that not all the interesting approaches have yet been tried.