Monday, January 9, 2012

Free will and hot peppers

Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne are hanging around the former's apartment. Dennett goes to the kitchen, pulls a jalapeno from the coldest part of the refrigerator, and takes a bite out of it.

"Hoo boy, that's hot!!" Dennett exclaims.

Jerry impatiently corrects him: "No, Dan, it's not hot, it's spicy. Silly philosophers..."

Only the above little story is not really fair to Jerry. Really the encounter should take place in an alternate universe where, with the exception of food scientists and a handful of enlightened chefs, the vast majority of people believe with all their hearts that the chilled jalapeno really does have a high temperature despite being in the fridge all day, and find the suggestion that it might just be a heat-like sensation to be disturbing to say the least.

Capsacin really does exist, and the compound really does produce a sensation of burning in mammals when it comes in contact with their soft tissue, and it does this by stimulating sensory neurons that are involved in the perception of heat. In other words, even though there is no heat, the sensation of heat is, in a sense, real. Furthermore, the sensation is culinarily useful and it would be a shame if it were dismissed as just some silly illusion.

By way of analogy, I am increasingly of the mindset that what philosophers mean when they refer to compatibilism in the context of free will is very much a real thing; that as our understanding of neuroscience increases we will come to define its mechanisms in as much detail as we now understand the working of capsacin; that those same mechanisms are what is responsible for the sensation of libertarian free will that we all experience; and that the concept is extremely relevant and ought not to be discarded just because it creates an illusory sensation. In many ways, whether (and to what degree) an entity possesses free will in this compatibilist sense is a rather key litmus test as to what rights, etc., ought to be afforded that entity.

(This last point could be a post unto itself, so I'll simply terminate that line of reasoning right away rather than risk going into a several page digression.)

All that said, as a result of Jerry's posts as well comments from folks like Ben Goren, I am increasingly of the mindset that although all the above is true, it is confusing at best to give this phenomenon the label "free will", and at times the motive may even be deliberately obfuscatory.

In a world where people so desperately want to believe there is warmth in even the coldest jalapeno, referring to them as "hot peppers" -- even if us sophisticated foodies understand that we are simply referring to the presence of capsacin rather than some mystical ability to maintain a high temperature -- is going to be received by the vast majority of laypeople as a confirmation of what they already wish was true.

So after much deliberation, I think Jerry is right: We ought to call them spicy peppers, and we ought to start calling compatibilism by a name other than "free will".


  1. No objection from me.

    If everybody would look the other way for a little while, "accidentally" leaving a conveniently placed cutting implement, I would stroll over to our collective dictionary and amputate "free" from "will".

    It would still be hard work to treat the metastasis.

  2. I think the pepper analogy captures the issue quite well.

    I would have put it like this: "Hoo boy, that's HOT!" a naive representative of society-at-large exclaims.

    "Well, it's not *really* hot, it's just capsacin. But it *feels* hot - and that's the only kind of heat worth having," replies Dennett.

    Then Harris, Coyne, etc. interject. "It's not hot!"

    The disagreement is just a political one: all parties agree that the peppers aren't really hot, and the question is just the best way to communicate that to people. I would suggest that a variety of approaches are warranted.