Sunday, February 23, 2014

Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris on Free Will.

Free will is a topic I have been interested in for a while and I was very eager to see Dennett and Harris argue it out. I had written a few posts picking through the back and forth between them but those posts were huge and not very clear. So I am attempting here to be as brief as I can manage and sum up my view of the arguments. I will fail to some extent!

I will try to sum up what the core of the arguments presented by each side first. Anyone wandering by who thinks I have it wrong in either case I would be very grateful for being corrected.

Sam Harris:  The universe is essentially deterministic. Assume that there is some indeterminacy such as that found in quantum mechanics. Neither a perfectly clockwork universe of one in which the clockwork is occasionally nudged in unpredictable ways admits the possibility of free will as understood by the general public.

This generally held concept of free will would be something like this: “I am in control of my thoughts and actions, both are choices that I make”.  Note: The “I” here is that little pilot at the controls behind your eyes. That entity that controls, but is meaningfully distinct from, the meat they are riding around in.

This notion of free will doesn’t make much sense. Harris and Dennett agree that it doesn’t. This is the illusion that Harris refers to. Harris further notes that when people stop and actually pay attention to their moment-to-moment experience, that it really doesn’t feel much like the description above. This is what he means when he talks about the illusion of the illusion.

Harris advances his argument; If we are agreed that at any particular moment we are essentially slaves to the contents of our minds as inevitably shaped by prior experience, genetics, current imputs and that the output at that moment is deterministic then we have nothing at all like free will as described above. It is at this point where Dennett would diverge from Harris. I will look now at how Dennett would progress form here and come back to Harris a little later.

Daniel Dennett: Free will in the terms that Sam Harris describes as the popular notion is completely impossible. This much is agreed. Dennett does not agree that most people view free will this way.
Dennett’s view on free will might be something like this:

“While it is true that at any given moment my decisions are deterministic in nature, I can play a role in shaping the factors which drive the deterministic outcome. Overtime, by reflection and consideration I can influence the likely outcome of the deterministic machinery’s response to input.”

I offer the following excerpt from Dennett’s review of Harris as support for the validity of this summary:

    “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.” – Emphasis Dennett.

This is where the core disagreement between the two occurs in terms of how free will could/might operate. I personally found this position by Dennett to be shockingly poor. I have subsequently seen an awful lot of smug condescension on the part of compatibilists, in some cases the suggestion that Harris book was so naive and arrogant that the appropriate response would have been silence. I am continually left wondering if I have missed some subtle, brilliant insight that ,once grokked, would completely change my mind. I haven’t found it yet after a few readings of Dennett’s response.

The problem with Dennett’s position that should be blatantly obvious to him, and hence the feeling I must be missing something, is that he seems to be using his conclusion in getting to his conclusion.
In this current moment we are at the mercy of the molding of our brains, but at some other time we are not. The problem is that when the person is “reminding himself” as in the example above, Dennett is essentially assuming the very thing he set out to show. When he is “reminding” himself is he somehow freely choosing to do so or has he been temporarily released from the bonds that will bind him later? It is in this decision that he is somehow exercising free will. The issue is that when he is reminding himself, at that very moment, it is already agreed that he is at the mercy of prior influences and not freely choosing. As Dennett put it :

”He just can’t influence them at the moment they are having their effect on his choice.”

This is necessarily always true.

His whole life is a succession of moments. In each one of those moments Dennett admits he is entirely a subject of deterministic forces. His position seems to be that a very large collection of momentary unfreedoms add up to, somehow, freedom in the long run. If Dennett could adequately explain the somehow in that last sentence, he would be well on his way to refuting Harris. It seems to me that he doesn’t even try.

Harris has accused Dennett of simply changing the subject, that Dennett might simply suggest that all of the decision making (in the form of brain machinery processing input and producing output) is part of “me” so I really am making the decision. This is nothing at all like free will as almost anyone using the term intends it, and if we accept this definition then computers and robots have free will. I will do Dennett the courtesy of assuming he means something more than this.

On to the consequences of the respective positions.
Dennett suggests that the idea of free will is necessary to make sense of justice and feels that a wholesale embrace of Harris’ position would be devastating to society. A “throw open the jails, no one is responsible for anything” position. Harris’ ,as you might imagine, disagrees. He suggests that there is still a place for punishment and reward even if people are not ultimately responsible for their actions. Punishing one person is a causal factor that influences another person to behave. Some people might be rehabilitated, their responses influenced to be less harmful. Some people will by dint of genetics or unalterable molding be dangerous and would have to be locked up to prevent them doing harm. Harris’ suggests that if we can remove the vengeance impulse by means of understanding that people are the victims of their influences; we can apply punishment in just the right proportion to get the best outcome. He further suggests that a proper understanding of these influences might allow us to get better outcomes in more cases in a general sense, and perhaps that conditions like psychopathy, properly understood, may one day be medically treatable.
Dennett seems to find this view appalling. I am unsure as to exactly why. It feels very much like an appeal to our emotional intuitions but perhaps I am being unfair.

Dennett’s response to Harris has the tone of the established wise men of philosophy putting a cocky and foolish, albeit well meaning, amateur in his place. He accuses Harris of stumbling in, all guns blazing, while not really knowing what he is talking about. It seems to me that the reverse is true. Dennett suggests a lack of understanding but never shows exactly where Harris is actually wrong, only that he is not sufficiently respectful of his learned elders. Dennett makes irrelevant points and declares Q.E.D. He routinely misunderstands Harris and then snarks about errors.

Perhaps Harris and I and the others who share our view are still missing Dennett’s devastating arguments and are completely wrong and everything else Dennett suggests we are. If so, I for one do not want to remain so. Someone please show me what I am missing. There must be more to Dennett's argument than Harris or I are seeing.

Dennett's review of Free Will PDF(via or if you prefer, it is here on Harris' blog
Harris' response to Dennett


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