Some folks who weren't going to be attending the Pacific APA asked me to post my SPA Meeting remarks on the future of the free will debate (thanks Andrei and Luca for organizing that session!). For those interested, here were the core of those remarks:
- The past 40 years of work on free will work has been dominated by philosophers working out the consequences of a problematic given to us by the Great Trinity
- We’re approaching Event Horizon for that work, i.e., the point where that work will have significantly less visible influence on subsequent generations.
- What comes next is hard to see, and indeed, it is entertaining but Ultimately Fruitless to speculate about what comes next.
- However, since reality is no constraint on The Provocative, I’ve made some prognostications that are at least as plausible as any random selection of theses
For the details, read on.
Claim 1: The past 40 years of work on free will work has been dominated by philosophers working out the consequences of a problematic given to us by the Great Trinity: Strawson, Frankfurt, and van Inwagen. By this I mean, roughly: Frankfurt Cases and Hierarchical approaches to agency, Consequence Arguments, and armchair moral and social psychology about the practice of moral responsibility.
A few points of clarification.
First: One could make most of the same points in terms of ideas, without attaching names. But I’m using names to imply a configuration of issues that often run deeper than a single issues or idea. Plus, naming names is more fun. At the very least, it permits you to object that I’ve overlooked someone whose work you regard as absolutely essential.
Second: a clear drawback of “The Great Trinity” talk is that it doesn’t get at some obviously important developments, antecedents, or contemporaries of those figures, without whom things would look hugely different: saying Strawson, Frankfurt, and van Inwagen doesn’t get you to moderate reasons-responsiveness, event-causal libertarianism, Lewis-style replies to the Consequence Argument, Watsonian and Scanlonian approaches to responsibility, and the resurgence of no free will views. It also submerges the really important work of folks like Ginet and Lehrer, background developments in the philosophy of action, and work that people have sometimes profitably revisited or been influenced by that doesn’t otherwise fit into my too-convenient talk of The Great Trinity.
Third: My talk of some small group of Great Figures is intended as a placeholder. So, for example, if you got your degree in the 2000s, maybe you think those figures should really be Fischer, Kane, and Pereboom (or, free willers who have spent time at FSU, or . . .) with the Great Trinity (or whomever you prefer) constituting the Titans to your Olympians. Indeed, if someone looked at my own citation patterns, I suspect my top 3 cited philosophers would (at most) include only one of the figures I mention as part of the Great Trinity. So change Great Trinity talk to Great Duality or Great Tetrality talk (or whatever works for you). My real point is that there is a recognizable set of problems and framework of solutions, given by some finite number of figures whose names we would all recognize, that characterizes huge swaths of the conceptual space that is of interest to the contemporary philosophical literature.
Claim 2: We’re creeping towards an Event Horizon for that work, i.e., the point where that work will have significantly less visible influence on subsequent generations. Partly, this is just an effect about philosophical memory and the life cycle of philosophical attention (I’ve blogged about this stuff elsewhere).
The point about an Event Horizon is the relatively pedestrian point that at some stage most philosophical works have less visibility than they had before, that they are taught less frequently, and that they become part of the background assumptions that are so familiar that no one bothers to teach them anymore. And then their grip fades away as the literature moves forward.
Of course, diminished influence doesn’t mean no influence. The basic philosophical problems may well persist long after the influential formulations of them exercise less grip on the literature. Some work seems to elude literature Event Horizons for a very long time. (“Aristotle!” John Fischer noted. Although a cautionary note: even Aristotle went centuries without lots of folks in the West reading his work.) Moreover, work subject to Event Horizon effects need not remain permanently sidelined (see Aristotle again). My thought here is just that it is plausible to think that even really great work on free will is also subject to these effects. As Scott Sehon (it was you Scott, right?) pointed out to me, it looks like that has already happened with pre-Frankfurtian work. We don’t teach Taylor and Campbell much anymore, and I bet most of you don’t put Schlick and CD Broad on your syllabi.
Caveats aside, I think the inevitably impending Event Horizon is starting to creep up on the long-standing problematic given to us by the Great Trinity. The ordinary cycle of philosophical attention isn’t the only reason for it, though. The terrain staked out by Great Trinity has been heavily mined, and it is no secret. There is clearly lots of exhaustion (although certainly not universal exhaustion) about the latest version of Frankfurt cases and Rule Beta. It is also getting harder to do respectable moral psych from the armchair. So important aspects of the Great Trinity’s problematic are under pressure that is sometimes philosophical and sometimes not.
It probably sounds like I’m negative about the current problematic and work that has been done on it. I’m not. For starters, no nomo, these claims are intended to be merely descriptive. Moreover, I think the exhaustion isn’t in spite of great work done on themes in the Great Trinity, but rather because of it. We’ve learned a ton from the hugely important and influential work by all the figures who have developed these ideas. Some issues may even have been decisively resolved. For those of us following in the wake of this work, it is a case of diminishing returns for our efforts in continuing to clear the trails those folks blazed. After John is done with Frankfurt cases, and Al, Derk, and Michael finish thinking about manipulation cases, many (not all) will be inclined to think that there just isn’t that much left to say. The explosion of wonderful reflection on these matters ushered in by the Great Trinity and anyone who published a free will book in the 1980s and 90s gave us what I think of as the Free Will Renaissance. It will surely persist for a while. And it might even persist for a good long while if aspects of the familiar debates get revitalized by unanticipated intellectual resources, such as new understandings of ethics or metaphysics or action. However, I’m starting to suspect that we are approaching a reorganization of important parts of the literature, one that will leave us with a different problematic than the one with which we are all familiar.
Claim 3: What comes next is hard to see, and indeed, it is entertaining but ultimately fruitless to speculate about what comes next. I think it is super hard to see what comes after the Renaissance wrought by the work of the Great Trinity. As I noted above, I’m starting to think we may be on the cusp of a significant shift of sorts. (Although, perhaps, this is always true. I wouldn’t be surprised if 40 years from now, someone writes up remarks on the gradual eclipsing of all the work we’re most worried about right now).
Here’s why I think there’s a generational shift coming down the pipe. There have been a huge number of new research programs developing out there, research programs that aren’t just refinements of familiar positions, and we’re just starting to see the boom of that new work. Bracketing the wave of wonderful new introductory texts that have been released over the past 2-3 years, the non-introductory, for the ninja-masters only books on free will that have just come out, or are plausibly coming out in the next 18 months include books by a ton of really smart mid-career-ish folks who have been working out interesting new research programs on these issues. At this point, I assume pretty much anyone who works on free will and moral responsibility that hasn’t authored a book has one coming out.
So: it is only after all those books come out, and there is a shakeout in the literature regarding what ideas are more and less important in those works that we’ll get, I suspect, a new landscape of problems and outlines of solutions that shapes the agenda for another generation. Without knowing what that will be, I’d say we’re on the verge of something new. If what we are in now is the Free Will Renaissance, then maybe we should call it the Free Will Enlightenment.
Claim 4: However, consulting my culturally-transcendent intuitions, and doing a totally scientific survey on this blog, I have—through the method of wide reflective equilibrium—discerned the issues that will be the conditions on the possibility of any future philosophy of free will. Here, then, are my bets, I mean, apodictic conclusions free of any bias about what will be hot on free will in 10-15 years. (Note: Andrei suggested we remark on hot in five, but five years is too soon— that’s when the top journals will be publishing articles they accepted last year.)
I think the Big Issues will fall into the following areas:
- Foundational questions: methodological questions (what are the rules on theory building, what’s the role of intuitions, what evidence counts?), metaethics of responsibility— realism, relativism, and phil language-y things like cognitivism and so on; maybe greater enthusiasm for specifying the stakes of notions of free will disentangled from concerns of responsibility
- Metaphysics of agency questions: compatibilist capacities, manipulation arguments, sorting out of the nitty-gritty of various formulations of required agent powers; various “flank threats”—i.e., non-deterministic threats to free will that Eddy Nahmias and Neil Levy tend to worry about; my bet is that the role of context in understanding powers is going to become a bigger focus than it has been. I suspect that interest in arguments about the incompatibility of free will and determinism will continue for some time, but that they will take up a smaller bit of incompatibility debates than they have.
- Normative concerns: how central is desert; what's the relevant or operative sense of desert; what’s the relationship of responsibility to punishment and retributive attitudes; what sorts of interpersonal demands structure the attitudes or forms of agency that are relevant to responsibility and free will?
- Integrating other sciences: bracketing continuing annoyance from folks in the sciences who claim to solve philosophical problems they haven't bothered to actually understand, I suspect a lot of interesting new action will be coming from psych, sociology, anthro, etc. integration (presumably, some degree of bidirectional influence, but I suspect most of us will be consumers before influencers)
I'm sure I'm missing something, and I hope you'll tell me what I'm missing.
A final thought: One thing that was apparent on the Flickers blog discussion was how much people said things of the form “I predict what will be hot is what I’m interested in.” I think these are exactly the right sorts of predictions to make, precisely because what the field is likely to regard as Important and Interesting is in no small measure a function of what its best and brightest practitioners find interesting. Of course, interests can change over time, and they presumably will. But as far as crystal balls go, looking at the interests of early to late mid-career folks who like to comment on mostly professional free will blogs looks like as reasonable a guide as any. I encourage you to take a look at that thread.