• Dennett, Harris and Free Will

    Daniel Dennett has finally responded (it has been long-awaited) to Sam Harris’s short treatise Free Will. The review can be found at the Center for Naturalism, here. I am going to look at what Dennett says, and what Harris’s idea of free will is compared to Dennett. Essentially, whilst there is lots to like about what Dennett says, there is also much I disagree with.

    Essentially, Harris is a hard determinist, Dennett a compatibilist, or soft determinist. A hard determinist is an incompatibilist who states that the idea of free will is incompatible with the fact of determinism. This determinism can, in my case, be adequate determinism: the world adhering to deterministic behaviour of natural laws, even if at quantum level things are a bit weird. I.e. quantum could be deterministic (Many Worlds interpretation, de Broglie-Bohm, etc.) or indeterministic (Copenhagen interpretation, etc.) at the micro level, but this does not affect the macro level. Libertarian free willers, on the other hand, believe in fully-fledged free will.

    Both compatibilists and hard determinists adhere to determinism. The hard determinists deny free will, whereas the compatibilists claim it to be compatible with determinism. However, the problem and the difference between the two camps really comes down to the definition of free will. My contention, and Harris’s, is that compatibilists have to redefine free will to make it fit with determinism; that really there is little difference between the two camps, they are just talking past each other; determinists would be compatibilists and vice versa if they could just agree on one of the two terms.

    Dennett’s beef with Harris is not over the style or accessibility of the book, which he recommends, but over the myriad philosophical mistakes that Harris supposedly makes. Essentially, Dennett claims that Harris’s view is scientistic and naive; indeed, that in many other disciplines, definitions move and evolve as terms encompass new meaning through improved understanding. This may be seen in the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics, for example, where new understanding saw the term evolve through adopting new knowledge.

    That may be, but such terminology (eg thermodynamics) is not so relevant to everyday parlance, unlike with free will. If most uneducated and certainly most theists believe a certain understanding of the term, then we need to either support such a concept as is, or debunk it as is.

    So what is this term; how should we define free will?

    The way I see it is in the classical context of being able to do otherwise. In any given situation where an agent chooses X, if we were to rewind back to that moment from any later stage (exactly that moment with absolutely everything remaining the same), then the agent would be able to choose, say, Y. This Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) is certainly what I took as defining free will in my book Free Will? 

    Both determinists and, generally speaking, compatibilists deny this ability. In other words, if this is how we understand free will, then this does not exist. This is what Sam Harris and myself take on as a debunking exercise, this notion of contra-causal free will, since this notion defies laws of causality. It all becomes about what grounds a decision, because the LFWer needs the decision to be owned by an agent, but also to be rational. And herein lies the problem. As mentioned in another post, grounding can be done in three ways, known as Munchausen’s Trilemma: circular, infinite regress or axiom. In the context of causality, the infinite regress is determinism (back to the Big Bang, for example, then it gets complicated); the LFWer can’t get away from the axiom. The agent originates a causal chain, so the agent becomes a brute fact axiom. If causality passes through the agent, then this implies determinism, since there is antecedent causality for an agent’s actions, so the LFWer needs origination.

    What the LFWer wants to stay away from is something which grounds the decision, but which is not rationally derived. In other words, an axiomatic “just because” does not suffice to be grounds for a decision with moral responsibility attached. If a freely willed decision is reasoned as being done “just because” then the agent is carrying that out with no more rational grounding than a randomly derived decision. The derivation of why questions is important here. If we keep asking why, why, why to the agent when they carry out an action, then the determinist will see these decisions have their causality pass through the agent (by means of “because my past/biology/genetics’learning before this point/neuroscience/brain state was X, Y or Z”) and antecedently back further; meaning that the root grounding of that causal chain for that decision does not originate from the agent.

    Anyway, all of that is good and well, but what about Dennett and Harris?

    Well, Dennett does address the previous understanding of LFW in a dismissive paragraph:

    Some have gone so far as to posit an otherwise unknown (and almost entirely unanalyzable) phenomenon called agent causation, in which free choices are caused somehow by an agent, but not by any event in the agent’s history. One exponent of this position, Roderick Chisholm, candidly acknowledged that on this view every free choice is “a little miracle”—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else. (p. 3)

    Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with Dennett here, he does not seem to regard this traditional version of free will or worthy of discussing at length. The idea is that Harris, and my, claim that the PAP version of free will is widely held by laymen (and theists) is called into question by Dennett. It is this PAP theory which implies origination. Dennett talks about this understanding with regard to a thought experiment involving J.L. Austin:

    This variation is not a bug to be eliminated from such experiments, but a feature without which experiments could not show that Austin “could have done otherwise,” and this is precisely the elbow room we need to see that “could have done otherwise” is perfectly compatible with determinism, because it never means, in real life, what philosophers have imagined it means: replay exactly the same “tape” and get a different result. Not only can such an experiment never be done; if it could, it wouldn’t’ show what needed showing: something about Austin’s ability as a golfer, which, like all abilities, needs to be demonstrated to be robust under variation. (p. 7)

    But it is irrelevant whether we could or could not replicate such scenarios in real life; this is a thought experiment. If such ability to do otherwise is incoherent with everything we know, then the inability to do otherwise is massively important with regard to crime, punishment, and rather importantly too, a judgemental god (certainly of primary interest to my case, and I imagine Harris’ too).

    As Harris claims:

    However, the ‘free will’ that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have. (p16).

    But Dennett is not so easily convinced:

    First of all, he doesn’t know this. This is a guess, and suitably expressed questionnaires might well prove him wrong. That is an empirical question, and a thoughtful pioneering attempt to answer it suggests that Harris’s guess is simply mistaken. The newly emerging field of experimental philosophy (or “X-phi”) has a rather unprepossessing track record to date, but these are early days, and some of the work has yielded interesting results that certainly defy complacent assumptions common among philosophers. The study by Nahmias et al. 2005 found substantial majorities (between 60 and 80%) in agreement with propositions that are compatibilist in outlook, not incompatibilist.

    Harris’s claim that the folk are mostly incompatibilists is thus dubious on its face, and even if it is true, maybe all this shows is that most people are suffering from a sort of illusion that could be replaced by wisdom. After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. They were wrong, and it took some heavy lifting to convince them of this. Maybe this factoid is a reflection on how much work science and philosophy still have to do to give everyday laypeople a sound concept of free will. We’ve not yet succeeded in getting them to see the difference between weight and mass, and Einsteinian relativity still eludes most people. (p. 4)

    Dennett need only really stop at this, because I think this is almost the be-all and end-all of the discussion. This is the semantic difference which separates the two camps. Both Dennett and Harris agree that if this is the understanding of free will which prevails, then perhaps it is just a case of increasing wisdom amongst laypeople. Well, yes. That is precisely the rationale behind my book, and I am sure Harris’s. So there is a need to change people’s ideas of what should be understood by the whole discipline. I suppose it then becomes a question of whether we keep the label of free will or create a new one. Perhaps volition does the job. Harris and I think that the term free will is defunct. It does not make sense. But since most people use this term in the sense stated (we claim), then it is easier to say it flatly does not exist as understood, rather than allow it to be morphed over time into a new meaning, also causing there to be undoubted amounts of equivocation and confusion over whether people mean free will or… free will.

    Dennett continues:

    When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive. (p. 4)

    This is incorrect. Free will is not “the sun” but “the sun revolving around the earth”. The latter is found not to be true, so is no longer used as an idea or claim. This is a false analogy. Also, sunsets are not key components of our legal systems and social understandings of moral responsibility. These are terms which we need to get right, which can’t hide any misunderstanding.

    Again, Dennett tries to dole out a false analogy:

    …when social scientists talk about beliefs or desires and cognitive neuroscientists talk about attention and memory they are deliberately using cleaned-up, demystified substitutes for the folk concepts. Is this theology, is this deliberately obtuse, countenancing the use of concepts with such disreputable ancestors? I think not, but the case can be made (there are maddog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions—all there is is just neurons and glia and the like). (p. 5)

    But these are all terms which are vociferously fought over, within philosophy, science and particularly religious philosophy! Yes, Dennett might have a coherent (and perhaps even correct) understanding of some or all of these terms, but it is far from settled, and reflects, somewhat, where free will has been. But I think the free will debate is easily settled now, and, as such, the term should be consigned to the attic to gather dust. It is not ‘free’ in any kind of coherent sense. In fact, as Dennett argues in Freedom Evolves, free will needs determinism and constraint to make anything like any kind of sense.

    Dennett quotes of Harris:

    We do not know what we intend to do until the intention itself arises. [True, but so what?] To understand this is to realize that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose [my italics]. (p13)

    and then says himself:

    Again, so what? Maybe we are authors of our thoughts and actions in a slightly different way. (p. 5)

    Again, I have to disagree and perhaps this is indicative of the circles that Dennett moves in. As one of the more prominent philosophers of our day, Dennett has spent time refining and polishing his philosophy in this area. But if he were to talk to people whom I talk to, argue with people whom I argue with on the internet, in person, and at the Tippling Philosophers evenings I attend, then he would realise that when you explain these concepts, like the authoring of thoughts and intentions as Harris mentions above, the penny drops, the light goes on, or the person vehemently disagrees in some way. In other words, these are “aaah!” moments, not “so what!” moments. Certainly in my experience as a philosopher talking to (intelligent) laypeople. Dennett might think these points so obvious as not to warrant attention, but I sent an excerpt of Harris’s Dangerous Ideas lecture on free will, from the Sydney Opera House, to a friend online who is really interested in the free will debate, who has been studying it for years, and he found that idea of authoring intents and ideas, as Harris explains it, fascinating. It was powerful. In fact, here is his response by private email:

    He [Harris] makes a real, and usually successful effort, to be understood without resort to the argot of his profession. Almost  any adult audience should understand.

    Who authors your thoughts is great because its answer is provided by one’s own experience. No better proof for most people. After all, it’s why people are certain they have it.

    What a pity, only some 93,000 people have viewed this!

    With a lot more money, I would find a way to multiply that number.

    Many thanks for sending it.

     The importance of Harris’s approach and content cannot be understated.

    Dennett again:

    Again, the popular notion of free will is a mess; we knew that long before Harris sat down to write his book. (p. 5)

    So Dennett actually contradicts himself here and admits that this is the popular notion of free will; that the popular notions are a mess. Well, that is our point! And then he claims Harris should go after refinements of this. Well, yes, that is the job of a refined philosophical text for other philosophers to read. But if those refined ideas of free will are not what laymen believe, then that is not, and should not be, the aim of a book like Harris’s. Nor mine for that matter. Popular books for the general public are a different kettle of fish to philosophical tracts and have different agendas. This is about dispelling a popular myth. And judging by the the thousands of people whom Harris talks in front of, and the hundreds in my rather meagre case, this really is a popular myth which does need debunking.

    But Dennett states:

    He needs to go after the attempted improvements, and it cannot be part of his criticism that they are not the popular notion. (p. 5)

    Goodness. Who is Dennett to tell Harris what his agenda should be? Talk about constraining free will… In answer, no, he doesn’t. That, Mr Dennett, would be your job if you so desire it. And you have written a book which seeks to set out your account of compatibilism.

    And herein lies another problem for Dennett’s criticisms. Dennett has one idea of compatibilism, one which invoked ideas of rationality, prediction and self-reflection within an evolutionary paradigm, which allows him to claim that his free will is compatible with determinism. But that is his version of free will, not necessarily the version of other compatibilists, and certainly not the account. I have spoken to different compatibilists who give different accounts for what free will means to them. And yet Dennett insists these should all be called free will? Or only his version? That is grounds for a good deal of equivocation and confusion. It is easier and clearer to say what free will isn’t, than to establish what it is.

    Dennett goes on to discuss Harris’s scant treatment of what we should do in light of the fact of the illusion of free will. He says Harris does not go nearly far enough in discussing the ramifications of hard determinism. That may be, but it has no affect on the reality or not of this understanding of free will, which was, it appears, the main thrust of Harris’s book. It appears, yet again, that Dennett is trying to define what book Harris should be writing. But given the favourable reviews in popular circles, and the amount that the book and similar books, like mine, are inspiring talk of the debunking of such free will notions, then Harris was perfectly justified in writing the book he did. I have given my free will talk a half dozen times, and each time it is met with the same really favourable reception. The “folk” idea of free will is the prevailing concept through lay-society, and it needs debunking for its falsity. Dennett does concede some thanks to Harris, and these are the sorts of concepts and ramifications which I find most fascinating surrounding the illusion of free will. Indeed, these are the ideas about which philosophers like Derk Pereboom concern themselves:

    Here more than anywhere else we can be grateful to Harris for his forthrightness, since the distinguished scientists who declare that free will is an illusion almost never have much if anything to say about how they think people should treat each other in the wake of their discovery. If they did, they would land in the difficulties Harris encounters. If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task. Harris at least recognizes his—dare I say?—responsibility to deal with this challenge. (footnote 4, p. 8)

    And it is around this area which Dennett’s criticisms, for me at any rate, gain more purchase. Given that LFW, this idea of contra-causal free will, can be shown to be false (let Dennett grant us that much), then what are the implications for moral responsibility?

    This emerging idea, that we can justifiably be held to be the authors (if not the Authors) of not only our deeds but the character from which our deeds flow, undercuts much of the rhetoric in Harris’s book. Harris is the author of his book; he is responsible for both its virtues, for which he deserves thanks, and its vices, for which he may justifiably be criticized. But then why can we not generalize this point to Harris himself, and rightly hold him at least partly responsible for his character since it too is a product—with help from others, of course—of his earlier efforts? Suppose he replied that he is not really the author of Free Will. At what point do we get to use Harris’s criticism against his own claims? Harris might claim that he is not really responsible, isn’t really the author of his own book, isn’t really responsible, but that isn’t what the folk would say. The folk believe in a kind of responsibility that is exemplified by Harris’s authorship. Harris would have distorted the folk notion of responsibility as much if not more than compatibilists have distorted the folk notion of free will.

    To me, this is the crux of the free will debate. The pragmatic issues associated with the removal of personal responsibility and ascription of that responsibility to the universe itself. But if humans do do this en masse, and there is a reality of fatalism, how would this then affect the way in which humanity conducted itself? All of those various conditions which led the entity which we label Sam Harris to write that book, if one or more had not been in place, then he might not have written the book. And so each of these conditions (such as Mackie’s INUS conditions in his idea of causality) are on their own insufficient, but they contribute in a necessary way. Thus perhaps in strict terms, Harris isn’t responsible, but in other Dennett style ways, he is and should be held so.

    I find this area fascinating. Can we cut off causality within the agent in such an arbitrary manner (enter stage right the Sorites Paradox)? Can we look at the vast and universal causal matrix which lends it self to a tiny and insignificant (ultimately so) agent and say, “That temporal piece of causality = the agent, and caused the agent’s actions in such a way that it empowered them with moral responsibility?”

    This is the challenge which compatibilists seek to solve. Dennett, and perhaps society, needs an agent to harbour moral responsibility to provide social cohesion. Blameworthiness and praiseworthiness are perhaps inconsistent with the idea of the natural lottery, as John Rawls would have put it. Can we praise Ian Thorpe, Australian gold medal swimmer, for being born with the genes for massive feet, good physique and metabolism, supportive parents and willpower to practise endlessly? In the same way, should we praise and blame people born with certain brain structures and suchlike which cause criminal behaviour? Of course, there is then the pragmatic argument that even if we can’t rationally do so, we should on pragmatic grounds (or as P. Strawson would say, on psychological grounds).

    Dennett claims:

    Harris can’t take credit for the luck of his birth, his having had a normal moral education—that’s just luck—but those born thus lucky are informed that they have a duty or obligation to preserve their competence, and grow it, and educate themselves, and Harris has responded admirably to those incentives. He can take credit, not Ultimate credit, whatever that might be, but partial credit, for husbanding the resources he was endowed with. (p. 11)

    Dennett makes the rather ordinary mistake of claiming that at the point of making a decision, Harris cannot claim responsibility for the luck of his birth, outside of his control, but he can take partial credit for husbanding the resources he was endowed with. But what does this mean? Were these husbanding resources, at the time of a given decision, outside of his control? I am sure biological and genetic components must feed into these husbandry skills; I am most certain that previous learning and experiences feed into such proficiency, and these are clearly no longer in his control at the point of the decision. In other words, Dennett is possibly cherry picking things over which Harris has control and from which he can garner responsibility.

    Dennett digs himself into a further hole, in my opinion, when looking at Harris’s claim:

    Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. (p7)

    To which Dennett states:

    Not so. He can influence those internal, unconscious actions—by reminding himself, etc. He just can’t influence them at the moment they are having their effect on his choice.

    But this creates that infinite regress of causality – what makes him influence? Either Dennett is invoking the magic of agent causation or he accepts that the act of reminding himself is itself determined. What makes the agent the sort of person who would remind themselves and influence themselves in that particular way and at that particular time?

    Perhaps one of the sources of confusion here is conscious will. As we know from a good deal of evidence, and personal experience, our subconscious mind does the lion’s share of the work . If one adheres to epiphenomenalism, then it does all of the work, and consciousness is merely a reflection, a steam boiling from the kettle, of this process. Whilst this may explain how agents can be authors, it does not show that they are conscious authors, that we have conscious will. And conscious will is the holy grail to proponents of free will.

    This prompts discussions of consciousness and the I, particularly with regard to ideas of Cartesian Theaters, as Dennett likes to claim such internal views of the I are. Harris does have a naive sense of mind, perhaps, with a sort of internal dualism (not mind/body dualism) whereby he is looking back in on himself, which is admittedly how we feel often. As Kurt Keefner claims:

    I wrote a response to Sam Harris in which I addressed his philosophical, neurological and introspective arguments against free will. I charge Harris with unwitting dualism – not of mind and body, but of conscious and unconscious processes. I discuss the category of action in which free will most resides and which Harris utterly neglects: actions involving deliberation. And I conclude with a sketch of what free will is actually like.

    Harris needs to refine his ideas of mind, it seems.

    Now, given the broadly semantic nature of the compatibilism / hard determinism divide, Dennett sets off from page 12 onwards illustrating some of Harris’ weaker attacks on compaibilism. One of Harris’ quotes,

    (B) The problem for compatibiism runs deeper, however—for where is the freedom in wanting what one wants without any internal conflict whatsoever?

    is seen off with an incisive counter:

    To answer a rhetorical question with another, so long as one can get what one wants so wholeheartedly, what could be better? What could be more freedom than that? Any realistic, reasonable account of free will acknowledges that we are stuck with some of our desires: for food and comfort and love and absence of pain—and the freedom to do what we want. We can’t not want these, or if we somehow succeed in getting ourselves into such a sorry state, we are pathological. These are the healthy, normal, sound, wise desires on which all others must rest. So banish the fantasy of any account of free will that is screwed so tight it demands that we aren’t free unless all our desires and meta-desires and meta-meta-desires are optional, choosable. Such “perfect” freedom is, of course, an incoherent idea, and if Harris is arguing against it, he is not finding a “deep” problem with compatibilism but a shallow problem with his incompatibilist vision of free will; he has taken on a straw man, and the straw man is beating him. (p. 13)

    I think the points that Dennett makes, in a Humean strain, are good ones, though it does remind me of Schopenhauer’s oft quoted maxim, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” We are constrained in our choices, and any compatibilist ideal recognises this since it adheres to determinism. Thus we are reverting back to discussions of what free really means in this context. Dennett’s ideal being the ability to choose in line with one’s desires. Which is fine. I don’t have a problem with that at all other than the fact that this is not the layman’s understanding as far as I have experienced. Of course, many of the people who use the PAP idea of free will have not thought long enough to understand the sheer incoherence of it.

    Dennett continues to look at Harris’s scant critiques of compatibilism and posits:

    But, comes the familiar rejoinder, if determinism is true and we rewound the tape of time and put you in exactly the same physical state, you’d ignore the six of clubs again. True, but so what? It does not show that you are not the agent you think you are. Contrast your competence at this moment with the “competence” of a robotic bridge-playing doll that always plays its highest card in the suit, no matter what the circumstances. It wasn’t free to choose the six, because it would play the ace whatever the circumstances were whereas if it occurred to you to play the six, you could do it, depending on the circumstances. Freedom involves the ability to have one’s choices influenced by changes in the world that matter under the circumstances. Not a perfect ability, but a reliable ability. (p. 14)

    Now, I think this is problematic for Dennett. He seems to claim that what makes (human) free will free is its variability, its reactiveness to the environment; but this is surely just a case of the robot version of will being claimed here as being overly simplistic. Either we are simply incredibly complex moist robots only differentiated from the one in the quote by a matter of scale, or the robot is a very simple metal human separated from us by a matter of scale. The goal of artificial intelligence is to garner that reactiveness to the environment. Neither entity could do otherwise. That one can reflect and plan and be more variable makes one a human for sure, but does not, in this context of free will, make it a different category of decision maker, just a far more complex one. As Dennett talks about in Freedom Evolves one can view simple biological organisms as simple situation-action machines where an input garners an output. Humans, surely, are very, very complex situation-action machines. But with trillions of synaptic events taking place in short time spaces, then one can expect a different looking type of decision.

    Dennett continues (p. 16) to look at free will as a veto, or an omission, rather than a positive act, and this is something I touch on in my book. By not having overridden any given action, we are implicitly endorsing our authorship of it, and by so doing are communicating our desires, thus enabling the action or omission to be labelled as free.

    This authorship underlies a further criticism that Dennett has in store for Harris who claims “thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.” (p53). Indeed, Dennett does take Harris to task over what he means by “authored” and how there is potential equivocation or confusion.

    Dennett states:

    But notice that if it were true, then it would be hard to see why “human choice is important”—except in the way lightning bolts are important (they can do a lot of damage). If your choices “come out of the darkness” and you did not bring them into being, then they are like the involuntary effusions of sufferers from Tourette’s Syndrome, who blurt out obscenities and make gestures that are as baffling to them as to others. In fact we know very well that I can influence your choices, and you can influence my choices, and even your own choices, and that this “bringing into being” of different choices is what makes them morally important. That’s why we exhort and chastise and instruct and praise and encourage and inform others and ourselves. (p.17)

    I think that in the same way there is confusion over Harris’s understanding of authorship (given his own authorship of the book in literal and causal terms) and the Cartesian Theater, I think Dennett is under-communicating his sense of consciousness and the I. The notion that I can influence your choices is actually a supremely complex idea; that every causal variable, internal and external to me, interacts to enable something labelled “I” to influenced “you” to change a state of affairs is really problematic. First of all, the implied notion of changing some course of events (influence) is incoherent on determinism since what will happen will happen. Though if Dennett is being more nuanced, as I am sure he is, then the I is influencing by being a contributory causal factor in the other agent’s own network of causality and suchlike. I think causality is too often simplified down to a linear understanding of billiard ball A hitting ball B. But the trillions of events going on at any one time acting internally, externally and through an agent, which contribute to the agent’s actions, make it hard to simply assert that “I influence you”, no matter how gloriously simple it sounds, and no matter how much it would make it easier to understand and navigate our way through the everyday philosophy of this world.

    This feeling of a continuous I is troublesome and pervades all conversations about agency, such as with the free will debate. I think (yes the use of I here is interesting…) that it is easy to smuggle in assumptions about everyday existence, but the continuous I is problematic. I seriously do not think I am the same person I was at age 1, 5, 17, 35 or yesterday or even last minute. As all of our physical units replace one another over time, like the ship of Theseus, we have genetic blueprints and memories giving us some kind of continuity but even they are notoriously unreliable or changeable.

    Dennett tries to make sense of this issue with infinite regress of Harris’s authorship:

    You may know exactly what train of thought led you to that policy. But then, you can’t know why that train of thought occurred to you, and moved you then. No, you can, and often do. Maybe your candy-banishing is the nth level result of your deciding to decide to decide to decide to decide . . . . to do something about your health. But since the regress is infinite, you can’t be responsible! Nonsense. You can’t be “ultimately responsible” (as Galen Strawson has argued) but so what? You can be partially, largely responsible. (p. 18)

    And yet again there appears to be this recurrent assertion that responsibility, albeit partial, can be imbued in this process, without really explaining how. Perhaps he is relying on readers delving into Freedom Evolves or his other writings in order to understand how this might work, but this paper seems little able to do that past mere assertion.

    On the subject of compatibilism and Harris’s claim that compatibilism entails an agent having free will is like the puppet loving its strings, Dennet claims this  implies that Harris believes that the world around him is pulling his strings and that to believe in free will is to end up being able to do what one desires even though those desires are themselves defined by the environment. In other words, as long as the agent wants those strings to act in such a way and they do, he has free will. Dennett tries to criticise this idea by bringing in other agents. Other agents can confuse matters and inhibit free will with their intentionality. The sun reflecting off an apple can act as a stimulus which constrains, imagine, some free will, making the agent want to pick it off a tree. Dennett claims that this does not make the agent pick it off the tree, but vice versa as the agent manipulates information from the external world. I think this is simplistic and assertive. To me, this is a false differentiation. Predictions based on external stimuli are exactly that, irrespective as to whether the objects being observed and experienced and predicted are intentional agents or apples on trees.

    Of Harris’s approach, Dennett states:

    So unlike the grumpy child (or moody bear), we intelligent human adults can “grab hold of one of our strings”. But then if our bodies are the puppets and we are the puppeteers, we can control our bodies, and thereby our choices, and hence can be held responsible—really but not Ultimately responsible—for our actions and our characters. (pp. 19-20)

    The issue here being that Harris did refine his claim “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives” with the all important “(while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).” (p47) I grant here that Harris’s language is somewhat confusing since he gives intentional agency to a person in being able to get behind their conscious thought without being able to really steer. There does seem to be some equivocation. Perhaps Harris is trying to have his cake and eat it here.

    Now, if Harris really is saying, as Dennett reports:

    But the idea that all punishment is, in the end, unjustifiable and should be abolished because nobody is ever really responsible, because nobody has “real” free will is not only not supported by science or philosophical argument (p.20)

    then I would have to agree with Dennett since such an approach would be insane. Punishment has good philosophical grounding, a good analysis of which can be found in the work of Derk Pereboom (Living Without Free Will), although one must tread carefully when treating crime and punishment in a world of determinism with merely prima facie consequentialist ethics (again, see Pereboom).

    But this is a problem for Harris, as Dennett rightly claims, though Harris spends precious little time discussing it. Without moral responsibility, then, punishment and reward make little sense when doled out to the agent. Can such agents be ascribed moral value? I would say yes, though I have no the time or space here to set that out. Dennett is rightly defiant here:

    He blandly concedes we will—and should—go on holding some people responsible but then neglects to say what that involves. Punishment and reward? If not, what does he mean? If so, how does he propose to regulate and justify it? (p. 20)

    This is the challenge, pragmatically and philosophically, for hard determinists; this is where society and policy makers should be concentrating efforts in world full of social scientific research, and I am sure many people do work within this paradigm.

    So after this long ramble, what is it that I have really said? Well, I guess the main gist is that the difference between compatibilism and determinism, by and large, is one of semantics.

    …the chances that Harris has underestimated and misinterpreted compatibilism seem particularly good, since the points he defends later in the book agree right down the line with compatibilism; he himself is a compatibilist in everything but name! (p. 3)

    If, as Ted Honderich states in How Free Are You?, free will is effectively synonymous with non-determinism, then how can determinism and non-determinism be true? So, of course, free will becomes redefined.

    Dennett, though seems unconcerned by or in denial of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities in this context. But hard determinists define their stance or position on this definition of free will. Therefore, Dennett and Harris are talking past each other, and I don’t think Dennett’s piece will do much to change this issue. This ‘one path’ account of reality actually does seem to pervade the laypeople in our society, despite Dennett’s best protestations. And it is precisely this idea that thinkers like Harris and myself take a stance against. If, indeed, in some time to come it is recognised that this is no longer the prevailing idea of what free will is and entails, then our points will be moot. But our jobs will have been done.

    Apologies for the ramble, since I was going through Dennett’s paper and writing as I went, stream of consciousness style. But you get the picture. I did not spend too much time looking at the stuff I agreed with, just out of time consideration.

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce