UPDATE: For those of you who see Americans as having, by and large, a “sophisticated” view of free will, see this editorial in the student newspaper of the University of Central Florida.
It was inevitable: two of the Four Horsemen are jousting on the field of free will. Sam Harris, who like myself is an unreconstructed incompatibilist (i.e., we both think free will is incompatible with the laws of physics), has written an essay on his site about his differences with Dan Dennett: “Free will and ‘free will’.”
I’ve previously given my take on Dan’s book on the topic, Freedom Evolves, which I thought was very well written but unsatisfying. Indeed, perhaps no form of compatibilism can satisfy someone like me who thinks that the term “free will” is confusing and should be eliminated. I still see myself as a meat robot, and I don’t accept free will as meaning “I could have done something different had circumstances been different.” For in that sense computers and nearly all living organisms also have “free will”. Dan’s argument, of course, is that we’re extremely complex evolved beings, and in that ability to process and evaluate many inputs—even though only one output is possible—lies our vaunted “freedom.” Nor do I buy “free will” as “decisions made when you don’t have a gun to your head.” You can, after all, always choose to get shot.
As usual, Sam says things much more mellifluously than I, but I’m delighted to agree with him on issues like the following:
Biological evolution and cultural progress have increased people’s ability to get what they want out of life and to avoid what they don’t want. A person who can reason effectively, plan for the future, choose his words carefully, regulate his negative emotions, play fair with strangers, and partake of the wisdom of various cultural institutions is very different from a person who cannot do these things. Dan and I fully agree on this point. However, I think it is important to emphasize that these abilities do not lend credence to the traditional idea of free will. And, unlike Dan, I believe that popular confusion on this point is worth lingering over, because certain moral impulses—for vengeance, say—depend upon a view of human agency that is both conceptually incoherent and empirically false. I also believe that the conventional illusion of free will can be dispelled—not merely ignored, tinkered with, or set on new foundations. I do not know whether Dan agrees with this final point or not.
Fans of Dan’s account—and there are many—seem to miss my primary purpose in writing about free will. My goal is to show how the traditional notion is flawed, and to point out the consequences of our being taken in by it. Whenever Dan discusses free will, he bypasses the traditional idea and offers a revised version that he believes to be the only one “worth wanting.” Dan insists that this conceptual refinement is a great strength of his approach, analogous to other maneuvers in science and philosophy that allow us to get past how things seem so that we can discover how they actually are. I do not agree. From my point of view, he has simply changed the subject in a way that either confuses people or lets them off the hook too easily.
Some readers at this site have argued that the whole issue is a semantic one, lacking any substantive conclusions or consequences for human behavior. I have always disagreed with that: how we conceive of the source of our actions has enormous consequences for how we punish and reward other people’s actions. (I won’t even mention religion here, for dogmas like Catholicism come crashing down without dualistic free will.) As Sam notes:
Ordinary people want to feel philosophically justified in hating evildoers and viewing them as the ultimate authors of their evil. This moral attitude has always been vulnerable to our learning more about the causes of human behavior—and in situations where the origins of a person’s actions become absolutely clear, our feelings about his responsibility begin to change. What is more, they should change. We should admit that a person is unlucky to inherit the genes and life experience that will doom him to psychopathy. That doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up, or kill him in self-defense, but hating him is not rational, given a complete understanding of how he came to be who he is. Natural, yes; rational, no. Feeling compassion for him would be rational, however—or so I have argued.
Indeed. Sam’s written a good piece, and although he doesn’t allow comments on his site, feel free to weigh in here. I’ll call his attention to the discussion. Sam also intimates that there will be a back-and-forth between him and Dan on the issue of free will, something I really look forward to.
And here’s Sam speaking about free will:
p.s. I expect that, as usual, people will take serious issue with both Sam and my own definition of free will. If you are a compatibilist, I ask you to succinctly provide your own definition of free will in your post.