Daniel Dennett to talk on free will in NYC, with free lunch!

Although I’d claim that compatibilism is a free lunch, readers of 3 Quarks Daily can actually hear Dan defend compatibilism and get a free lunch by replying in the comments section of the website here.  The talk is in New York City on November 23:

Free Exclusive Invitation For 3 Quarks Readers to Attend a Lecture and Lunch with Daniel C. Dennett entitled “What can cognitive science tell us about free will?” 

THE ELEVENTH HARVEY PREISLER MEMORIAL SYMPOSIUM

Saturday, November 23, 2013

International House

500 Riverside Drive
New York, NY 10027

www.ihouse-nyc.org

10:00 am:       Welcome and Tribute to Harvey Preisler by Sheherzad Raza Preisler

10:15 am:       Introduction of Dr. Dennett by Azra Raza

10:30 am:       Dr. Daniel C. Dennett: “What can cognitive science tell us about free will?”

11:30 am:       Q/A session moderated by Dr. Raza

12:00 pm:       Light lunch

Now I’m a bit torn about directing misguided compatibilists to this lecture, but there are free noms after all, and perhaps the incompatibilists among you can ask Dan some hard questions. At any rate, RSVP now if you want to go, for I suspect the slots are limited. I’m also worried that the “free lunch” is an illusion, and that “free” doesn’t mean “you don’t have to pay” but has been redefined by the sponsors to mean something else.

My own lecture on this topic would consist of but one sentence: “Cognitive science tells us that we don’t have it, but philosophy says we do.”

60 Comments

  1. David Duncan
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    ‘My own lecture on this topic would consist of but one sentence: “Cognitive science tells us that we don’t have it, but philosophy says we do.”’

    If determinism is true would that make the argument against free will from cognitive science redundant?

    • Kevin
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Physics tells us that we do not have free will. Experience tells us that we all live as if we do have it. Cognitive science has far to go before providing convincing evidence that we do not have free will. And most philosophers today think we do not have free will. Likewise, the majority of compatibilists that we hear from are not philosophers.

      • Robin
        Posted November 4, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        I would be interested in hearing an explicit argument to show that physics rules out free will.

        I have just been reading Hawking’s “The Grand Design” and I notice that when he is selling us the “universe from nothing” pup he implies that we have so much free will that we can even choose our own histories. But when we are being sold the “free will is an illusion” pup then suddenly we are back to having a unique history which forces that choice.

        So I would love hear someone actually lay out the complete inference that physics rules out free will.

        • Robin
          Posted November 4, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

          Agreeing on a definition of free will would be a good start. Free from what, for example?

          I have always defined the term to mean that a conscious intention can be a major proximate cause of an action.

          • Kevin
            Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            That is as good a definition as any: a conscious intention can be a major proximate cause of an action.

            I would not say that physics rules out free will, but it appears to provide only evidence to the contrary. We are discovering physics all the time, but so far, it appears to suggest that everything is determined. Particles go where they want to…except that they can only go where the laws of physics say they can go…um, a paradox?

            Daily experiences, those that humans have, appear to provide evidence that we all operate with free will…those conscious intentions, pragmatically unconstrained, but constrained by physics…again, not a simple answer.

            • Robin
              Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

              That is what I think too.

              I like Ed Lorenz’ answer – he says that we should choose to believe in free will because we know that we will not have chosen wrongly.

              Either we chose the right answer or we did not chose at all.

        • Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

          It’s pretty straightforward, actually.

          http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2010/09/23/the-laws-underlying-the-physics-of-everyday-life-are-completely-understood/

          Those laws are overwhelmingly deterministic. The few exceptions are even more random than a coin toss. We are, therefore, exceedingly complex clockwork machines, maybe with a couple coin-toss-detectors thrown in here or there.

          If you think that a clockwork machine, perhaps an especially ornate Rube Goldberg contraption, can be described as somehow having “free will,” then I suppose that would apply equally well to humans. But I don’t see where the freedom enters into it, and that’s exactly the sort of example the overwhelming majority of people would use of what it means not to have free will.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Robin
            Posted November 4, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

            Of course a clockwork machines’s actions are not based on an understanding of consequences.

            Also, I could create a computer model of a clockwork machine that would display the behaviours of the actual machine. Do you consider that when computers become powerful enough and our understanding of the mechanisms has increased that there could be such a computer model of a human?

          • Robin
            Posted November 5, 2013 at 12:51 am | Permalink

            And assuming the answer to the previous question is “yes”, the next question is – would that simulation be conscious in the way that you are conscious right now?

            Let’s suppose that it was an algorithm running on a register machine – could it be that I was that simulation without knowing it – in principle?

          • Robin
            Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:02 am | Permalink

            Of course you have got to understand what is happening in a register machine..

            There are a set of high and low values arranged on some storage all having no special meaning in nature and all unprocessed.

            A CPU reads one set of these and, based on a lookup table, reads some other values, performs an operation and stores the resulting operation back to the storage..

            Then it repeats this with some other, unrelated, algorithm, then another then another, then another.

            At some point it returns to process the next instruction for the original algorithm.

            There is nothing in nature that knows which operation goes with which algorithm.

            And yet I see a complete face, a complete word, a complete clock face.

            This is not possible if I was an algorithm on a register machine.

          • Robin
            Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:02 am | Permalink

            On the other hand if the algorithm running on the register machine was not conscious then we would have a situation where a simulation of our neural processes claimed to be conscious, seemed to be incorrigibly convinced it was conscious and was not conscious. One which screamed in pain and yet there was no pain.

            It would appear to suggest that the reason I say I am conscious has nothing to do with the fact that I am conscious.

            The idea that I am just some clockwork device brings me up against one or other of these absurdities.

            The only way of avoiding them is to abandon the idea that I am that clockwork device.

            So the idea that free will is an illusion is far from obvious to me.

            • Andrew Platt
              Posted November 5, 2013 at 4:35 am | Permalink

              Absolutely, Robin. Well said.

              “Cognitive science tells us that we don’t have it, but philosophy says we do.”

              I need a little more than that. If cognitive science cannot explain the nature and origins of consciousness, creativity and intelligence – and my understanding is that it cannot – then where does the certainty about free will come from? We know almost nothing about how the brain works.

              I am not knocking science. After all, we are talking about the most complex object in the known universe here. Can any machine ever understand itself?

              With that in mind, surely any statement about free will can be no more than an opinion.

              Denying free will reduces us to the status of clockwork automatons and I see no mechanism by which an automaton can truly understand. If free will is an illusion then so is cognition.

              • Posted November 5, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

                Yes. Cognition is as much of an illusion as free will — and it’s the exact same type of illusion that permits you to see though all that’s happening is various electrochemical impulses course down your optic nerve and into your brain.

                We can break down and trace and reassemble what goes on in the brain, though not yet in the detail and completeness we’d like. Still, it’s more than enough to have absolute confidence that that’s all there is. It is possible, for example, to construct crude video of what an individual is looking at solely from brain scans. Unless you want to posit the brain as a transceiver into the spirit realm or some other such nonsense, that doesn’t leave any room for vision and visual cognition as anything other than a mechanical function of the brain — and, by obvious extension, everything else that happens in the mind as well.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted November 5, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

                Um, you DO realize that in Cognitive Science cognition turning out to be implemented that way isn’t actually a problem, right? And it doesn’t even make it an illusion, but an actual phenomenon that is implemented that way in humans but might be implemented completely differently in, say, sufficiently advanced AIs.

                The low-level neurological model doesn’t work very well unless you assume that only things with actual neurons can do cognition and be conscious and have anything like a mind … but then you’d have to argue that AIs can’t have minds, nor could any, say, alien species that didn’t happen to have a brain like we do. That’s fairly absurd, so the most popular approach is some kind of functionalist approach, which works under an assumption that the specific implementation of those functions isn’t all that important. But under a functionalist model, that you can identify the brain implementation of those functions is not only not an issue, but is expected, and yet the functions still exist, do what they’re claimed to do,and aren’t in any way illusions.

            • Posted November 5, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

              You managed to work through most of it on your own just fine, all the way up until your last conclusion.

              The answer lies not in your retreat into dualism, for that’s what you’ve done — posited a ghost in the machine that’s somehow separate from but integral to its operation.

              The answer is twofold.

              First, when you’re pointing to what you call your free will, you’re almost certainly pointing to your decision-making process, in which you imagine a series of alternate universes which result from various choices you have before you. Based on your analysis of the likely outcomes of your choices, you pick the one that’s most attractive to you.

              But! This is an entirely deterministic process.

              You have the illusion of freely navigating at a whim between the various alternate realities you imagine, but those only exist in your head. Back in the real world, you only make the one decision, and it was a series of clockwork events that led you to that decision.

              That leads to the second part of the answer: that the illusion of consciousness and what you describe as “free will” is nothing more nor less than the internal, subjective experience of clockwork devices with sufficient sophistication to be capable of these sorts of analyses.

              And why should it not be so? We have the illusion of seeing an entire 3-D world around us, but our first interaction with it is a flat image projected onto our retinas, and the next thing that happens is said image gets transformed into a series of electrochemical impulses on the optic nerve. But a series of electrochemical impulses in the brain is hardly useful for analyzing said input; it needs to get abstracted and re-assembled into a model of what our eyes are pointed at. And that model is the illusion of vision, of seeing.

              Is it really so hard to extrapolate from the electrochemical impulses from vision being all there is to the illusion of vision to similar electrochemical impulses elsewhere in the brain being all there is to our internal monologues?

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Robin
                Posted November 5, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                By the way, what is your opinion about an algorithm running on a register machine which models the clockwork processes of our brain that I wrote about earlier.

                Would it, in you opinion, be conscious in they way that you are conscious?

                To put it another way could the conscious experience you are having now be, in principle, a result of that algorithm?

              • Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

                Absolutely yes.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Robin
                Posted November 5, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

                Interesting reply.

                Even given what I said about the nature of a register machine? Actually I think that it is a pretty silly idea that we could be a computation done on a register mschine for the reasons I gave.

                In principle the same calculation could be done by hand, although it might take teams of people working in shifts billions of years just to complete a short moment of mind simulation.

                Would you say that the hand calculation would be conscious in just the same sense?

              • Posted November 5, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

                Absolutely yes, once again.

                See here to help you put it in perspective:

                http://xkcd.com/505/

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Robin
                Posted November 5, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

                Can’t get your link to work. I will try again later. But it is not really a realistic position for the reasons given.

                There is no super process that pulls together these disparate events and they have no special meaning in nature.

                If I am running an algorithm and give you two numbers to add together as part of it – say 259 and 299 and then get others to complete it – you cannot tell me how the 259 and 299 are arrived at, or what will be done with them after but you can still do the calculation.

                The events in a register machine calculation are like that the events are essentially unconnected.

              • Robin
                Posted November 6, 2013 at 12:42 am | Permalink

                Got it now – very funny.

                But it is still an absurd position that an algorithm running on a register machine would be conscious in the way that I am conscious.

                Seems doubly absurd to believe an absurd proposition in order to believe that something that seems to be true is an illusion.

              • Posted November 6, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

                Which is more absurd: accepting that we’ve thoroughly investigated this from all angles, and observation and theory both agree that there’s nothing going on in the brain but Turing-equivalent computation…or that there’s some mysterious phantasmagorical and undetectable ectoplasm responsible for consciousness?

                Spend some time looking at some optical illusions, and notice just how thoroughly and easily you can be tricked into believing something that has no actual bearing on reality. Now, consider that, in all those cases as well as un-illusioned vision, everything you see gets encoded as electrochemical impulses in your optic nerve before being propagated throughout the electrochemical processing network in your brain. Why can’t your perception of consciousness be just another variation on that same theme? Or do you think that the electrochemical encoding of visual input in human brains is somehow fundamentally different from the electromechanical encoding of visual input in a digital videocamera?

                b&

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

                I am accused of positing a ghost in the machine but nothing could be further from the truth. I just don’t accept determinism. The universe is fundamentally indeterministic in nature so what goes on in the brain at any given moment does not depend entirely on what happened a moment before: there is uncertainty, randomness, and therefore an opportunity to “do otherwise” in any given situation.

                Or at least, there could be! To be certain free will does not exist means demonstrating why this cannot be, or at least why it is much less likely than a purely deterministic brain. No-one has demonstrated it to me yet but perhaps they will.

                Interestingly, contributors seem to be of vastly different opinions. Ben Goren tells me, “Cognition is as much of an illusion as free will”; yet Verbosestoic claims, “the functions still exist, do what they’re claimed to do, and aren’t in any way illusions”.

                So is cognition an illusion or isn’t it?

                I am asked what is most absurd: accepting that theory and observation agree or that there is mysterious ectoplasm responsible for consciousness. I reject ectoplasm and ghosts but I also reject the notion that brain function is even approximately understood. Cognition is undoubtedly a more difficult problem to crack than the origin of the universe – no small problem itself – because the universe, starting as it did from a singularity, is infinitely simpler than the human brain.

                We have much to learn. If we avoid extinction, maybe someone will be able to say whether or not we have free will in a couple of hundred years. We may even have a few new branches of physics by then too.

                Let me ask what is most absurd: that genuine free will and cognition might exist, or that a machine that is no more than sophisticated clockwork could compose great music, write great novels and devise a way to get to the moon?

                I hesitate to suggest it, and do so respectfully, but could it be that years of arguing with evolution and climate change deniers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists and other assorted nutcases has bred a confidence across all subjects that, in some cases, cannot really be justified? All I am suggesting is that free will MIGHT exist. Is leaving the possibility open really so wrong?

              • Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

                The universe is fundamentally indeterministic in nature so what goes on in the brain at any given moment does not depend entirely on what happened a moment before: there is uncertainty, randomness, and therefore an opportunity to do otherwise in any given situation.

                I fail to see the relevance of randomness. What intention lies in the flip of a coin? What freedom is gained when one chooses to abandon responsibility to fate as decided by a roll of the dice?

                Further, every indication is that quantum effects, especially quantum indeterminacy, play no significant role in the brain. Anything that might exist is no different in principle nor practice from what chip designers already take into consideration when designing computers.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted November 7, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

                Ben Goran asks me what intention lies in the flip of a coin. Where did I mention coin flipping in what I said?

                True, I mentioned randomness; but suggesting that decision making or cognition comes down to the mere flip of a coin is a gross oversimplification. I am sure he is just as capable as I am of thinking of any number of ways in which a deterministic algorithm could be allied to genuinely random activity to provide an outcome which is sensible, rational and largely predictable but which is nevertheless not fixed and guaranteed in the way that a clockwork mechanism would be.

                For me that would be enough to constitute free will. If we could repeatedly place our meat computer in the same situation over and over again, ensuring its internal state were the same each time, different outcomes may arise.

                If anyone can explain why such a model is impossible then please do so. Until then I will continue to believe that free will – at least on the basis I have outlined – is at the very least a possibility.

                I am pleased Mr. Goran acknowledges quantum effects because all I keep hearing on this board is that the universe is deterministic. He claims that indications are that quantum effects play no part in brain function. Well, the word *indications* falls well short of the sort of certainty that is oft repeated here. Nevertheless, if he could explain what the evidence is for this statement I would be interested in looking at it, as long as it is not of too technical a nature.

              • Posted November 7, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

                Um…hello? I’m right here. No need to write of me in the third person.

                And there’s no “a” in my name.

                I am sure he is just as capable as I am of thinking of any number of ways in which a deterministic algorithm could be allied to genuinely random activity to provide an outcome which is sensible, rational and largely predictable but which is nevertheless not fixed and guaranteed in the way that a clockwork mechanism would be.

                Randomness is really only useful as a statistical technique to get a representative subset from a pool of data that’s too large to completely analyze.

                First, there exists no situation in which you get better results from a random sampling than from a complete calculation. We use random sampling when complete calculation is impractical or unnecessary.

                From that perspective, it should be obvious that randomness when used effectively doesn’t actually gain you anything. If your sampling techniques are good, you wind up at the same decision you would have with a complete census. If your sampling techniques are bad, you wind up making a decision you never would have made had you known all the facts.

                You might (effectively) define “free will” as “uninformed decision-making free from knowledge of all relevant facts,” but I’m sure nobody else will recognize that definition nor find it useful.

                At a more technical level, what you’re describing is known to some as a Non-deterministic Turing Machine. Go read that article if you’d like to learn how such a construct is logically equivalent to a fully-deterministic (regular) Turing Machine.

                As far as quantum effects in the brain go…they’re irrelevant, a red herring.

                The brain is a classical device. There is as yet not even a hint of anything remotely relevant to quantum mechanics going on in the brain, and we wouldn’t expect there to be: the brain is much, much too big for that sort of thing.

                But, of course, we haven’t absolutely ruled out the possibility, and there are a couple phenomena that are not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

                Most likely — or, rather, least unlikely, for it’s really not at all likely — would be that quantum indeterminacy introduces unwanted noise into signal propagation at some critical juncture, and so the brain has redundancies of some sort to prevent interference. This is something that today’s IC engineers have to contend with in their designs. We have no reason to suspect such a thing, but it hasn’t yet been ruled out. Even still, if it exists, it’s something that the brain would be designed to minimize and protect against and certainly wouldn’t be contributing anything meaningful to cognition. And it wouldn’t be any sort of a random pool to draw from, as there’d be just as much true randomness from cosmic rays disrupting things in your skull, or from radioactive decay. And the brain wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from either, and none of that rises to the level of detectability — let alone significance. Such an effect truly would be indistinguishable from flipping a coin — but, worse, flipping a coin when you really don’t want to because you actually do have a preference, and by flipping that coin you wind up with the option you didn’t want.

                The next least unlikely possibility would be some sort of efficiency gained by taking advantage of quantum-scale phenomena. This is a really, really, really long stretch, but not entirely unprecedented, as that sort of thing does actually happen in chloroplasts, and there’s work to do similar things with photovoltaics. But, first of all, this is exceedingly unlikely as there aren’t any candidate structures in the brain that we would expect to benefit from such a thing…and, second, even if present, all it means is that the brain doesn’t use as much energy as it otherwise would need to.

                The holy grail of quantum weirdness that you’re likely reaching for would be quantum computation. And, while it’s true that we haven’t eliminated all possibility of some part of the brain doing quantum computation, we can be 99.999%+ certain that that’s not the case. It’s basically inconceivable that it could be there and we wouldn’t already have spotted it. But, even if it is there…it still wouldn’t get you what you’re looking for, because there’s nothing a quantum computer could do that a classical one couldn’t; the quantum computer just doesn’t need as many physical resources to answer certain questions. (And quantum computers are actually even theoretically much less efficient than classical computers at most tasks; it’s just the efficiency of quantum computers at certain tasks that are resource-intensive for classical computers that makes them so potentially useful.)

                So, if you work through all the possibilities, what it all comes down to is that there’s no room for any sort of ghost in the machine, not even a quantum one.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted November 15, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

                Thank you, Mr. Goren, for such a lengthy reply. I apologise for getting the spelling of your name wrong.

                The conclusion you come to (“…what it all comes down to is that there’s no room for any sort of ghost in the machine, not even a quantum one.”) is a little odd given the language you have used throughout. You say, for example, “we haven’t absolutely ruled out the possibility”, and, “while it’s true that we haven’t eliminated all possibility”, and so forth. According to your own words it seems like there must be some room, at least!

                All this analysis is, of necessity, based on our current understanding of physics and of the brain, both of which are areas where there is still much to discover, to say the least. What arguments would have been put forward, and what conclusions reached, had we been having this debate at the start of the 20th century? Is it not likely the arguments and conclusions may be just as different again at the start of the 22nd?

                I’m afraid I really cannot let you get away with a statement such as “the brain is a classical device.” How do you know that?

                Try building a computer with the equivalent power of a human brain. How small would each chip have to be to fit the whole thing inside a skull? So small, indeed, that quantum mechanics would have to be an integral part of the design process. Evolution, although a wonderful “designer”, has no exemption from the laws of physics.

                The brain does not work by magic but neither is it a piece of clockwork. No-one can explain how cognition and self-awareness arise. Until they can I will reserve judgement on whether we have free will. And until a computer has an original idea I will tend to err on the side of believing I have it.

                Nevertheless, I thank you for the trouble you have taken in trying to convince me otherwise.

              • Posted November 15, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

                Im afraid I really cannot let you get away with a statement such as the brain is a classical device. How do you know that?

                Because we know what structures are at work in the brain, and they’re primarily neurons. And neurons are much too big for quantum effects to be significant.

                Try building a computer with the equivalent power of a human brain. How small would each chip have to be to fit the whole thing inside a skull?

                The Intel E7-8870 has about 2.6 billion transistors in a package roughly 3 cc in volume, at a density of just under a billion transistors per cubic centimeter. A human brain has roughly 85 billion neurons in a volume of about 1200 cc, which is under a hundred million neurons per cubic centimeter — an order of magnitude less dense.

                That right there should be all you need to know: we’re only now bumping into quantum effects in silicon, and we’re at ten times the density of wetware.

                Until they can I will reserve judgement on whether we have free will.

                If you’re hoping to find free will in quantum computation, you can stop holding your breath. Quantum computers are Turing-equivalent; they’re just more efficient at certain small subsets of tasks (such as factoring numbers) and horribly more inefficient at almost everything else. And quantum randomness is no more significant to computation than throwing the dice; if quantum randomness gives you free will, then tossing a coin to decide whether to go with the chocolate or the vanilla ice cream is the ultimate embodiment of free will. The only other quantum option left is energy efficiency, such as what happens in chloroplasts; if that’s free will, then your new compact fluorescent bulb has more free will than your old tungsten one did.

                And until a computer has an original idea I will tend to err on the side of believing I have it.

                Not only do computers constantly have new ideas, they’re the driving force in much of mathematical research these days. They’re coming up with and proving things that no human is capable of independently.

                Cheers,

                b&

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      For any given true statement, there are an infinite number of equivalent true statements. Some are more redundant than others.

      For example, all three of the following true statements are logically equivalent, but only one is particularly redundant:

      x + y = 0
      x = y * -1
      x + 1 – 1 + (42 * 0) = y * (3 – 4)

      Cheers,

      b&

  2. Posted November 4, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    “I’m also worried that the “free lunch” is an illusion, and that “free” doesn’t mean “you don’t have to pay” but has been redefined by the sponsors to mean something else.”

    Well done.

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Obviously the only sensible meaning of a “free lunch” is one that violates the known laws of physics. I hope that Jerry takes along a video recorder to study this phenomenon and then proceeds to collect his Nobel Prize.

    • John K.
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Even if you did have to pay, they will still call it a “free lunch” because people might become unable to justify going to any lunch at all if they thought there was no such thing as a free lunch.

  3. Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Dennett is of course completely on board with the idea we don’t have *contra-causal* free will (CCFW), but he’s worried that if we claim free will simpliciter doesn’t exist, then folks will think praise and punishment aren’t justifiable.

    I’m happy to say he’s come around to a purely consequentialist and naturalistically tamed notion of desert, such that (like Jerry, Joshua Greene, Bruce Waller, Derk Pereboom and others) he’s not a retributivist when it comes to punishment. He’s in favor of criminal justice reform even though he sees punishment as necessary for deterrence and reinforcing moral norms.

    The problem though is that he tends not to focus on the fact we don’t have CCFW (unlike those mentioned above), which means the progressive implications of not having it don’t get much airplay in his books or talks. Plus, by continuing to talk of free will simpliciter (that is, without qualifying it as compatibilist every time he talks about it) he confuses people who think it refers to CCFW, plus it gives the impression that nothing much needs to change, which is not the case. The naturalistic revolution in our conception of agency and its implications should be put front and center, but unfortunately Dennett keeps it hidden in the background.

  4. Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    As long as the wife is ok with it I’m there. I’ll gladly throw some (polite) fastballs at Dr. Dan – any suggestions are welcome.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Just tell her you’re the man, and the man gets to make the decisions, because that’s the way God wants it.

      • Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        : )

        This issue is who looks after the 18 month old during the talk. We could bring her in, and then blame her outbursts on the fact that she could not possibly have done anything else.

        Maybe Dan could then explain how an toddler actually has free will.

        • Kevin
          Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          Babies do not know what free will is. It is the same thing as saying that a cat does not know what free will is. The baby and cat may have free will, but it does not matter to them…they do not know what it means. That might be Dennett’s response.

  5. Kevin
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Dennett is possibly one of the greatest humans on the planet alive today…gentle, kind, passionate, empowering. He is like wizard mixed with time lord…exactly what an empire would want as sage for emperors. I await his utterances.

  6. Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I’m predicting the homuncular functionalism buffet will be presented by unfree catering services.

  7. Curt Cameron
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    “Free Hat!” *

    * South Park reference

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    interestingly, philosopher Bertrand Russell gave an argument for why one should remain utterly undecided/agnostic on this issue, but then he lived before the era of MRI brain scans. It would have been interesting to know what his response would have been. (Reference: Russell “Science and Religion” chapter entitled “Determinism and Free Will”)

    • Greg Esres
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      But not before the era of Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics. which are enough to rule out free will.

  9. JimV
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I think the last thread on this issue gave me a rough idea of what compatibilists mean by free will (that some entity has a will, e.g. I want to lose some weight, and that it is not being constrained by external forces, so when my mother puts a potato pancake on my plate I can put it back on the platter), but I don’t know what non-compatibilists mean by it – but I get the feeling (perhaps wrong) that by their definition, in order for there to be free will, then if we could replay the entity’s history from the same initial conditions it could come out differently (whereas if it would always turn out the same, then there is no free will).

    Assuming that is the standard, I offer this as possible empirical evidence: grandmaster chess players often start with standard openings and their defenses, which can last for 20 or so moves; yet never, to my knowledge, have two grandmasters ever repeated the same entire game. (Maybe there are such cases which I don’t know about, but they are very rare if so.)

    I don’t claim there is anything magic about this. Some randomness is a good characteristic of a complex decision-making process (such as evolution itself), and there are good sources of randomness to tap, in this universe. (Otherwise, in my opinion, it would not be an interesting universe.)

    I am sure some people will argue that there are some hidden variables which have changed from one chess game to another. However, it is consistent with the known physics of this universe that there need not be.

  10. Robin
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    It is strange. I hear that you don’t see any value in philosophy and yet you spend so much time writing and promoting philosophy.

    Some disconnect there?

    • Greg Esres
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      “you don’t see any value in philosophy”

      I don’t believe that is Jerry’s position.

      • Robin
        Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        My bad then. Apologies for misrepresentation.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 4, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      You have been misled. Jerry often criticizes philosophy, but has never expressed that he thinks it is valueless.

      • Robin
        Posted November 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        See above, was thinking of someone else.

  11. Marella
    Posted November 4, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    I heard Dan Dennet on free will in Melbourne last year, at the University of Melbourne. I love Dan and I have read a lot of his stuff and found it illuminating, but he lost me on free will. There was a blurry bit about 3/4 of the way through the talk where I simply couldn’t follow his reasoning, and thereafter I felt uneasy about accepting his arguments. This was the point at which he redefined free will to be whatever it is we do have, rather than what we used to think we had. The simple fact is that we don’t have free will as it is traditionally defined, so in order to argue that we have it, it must be redefined. Dennet has been quite up front about this in other talks I’ve heard on the web but it seems a bit dubious to me. If you want to say we don’t have free will but we have something even better, then say so and find a name for it, but calling it free will is just confusing, and leaves him open to being used to support positions he doesn’t actually support.

    I’d certainly go and hear him though, free lunch or not! Note: “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” is world changing. I heartily recommend it regardless of how au fait you are with evolutionary theory. Dan takes natural selection way further than you ever dreamt of.

    • Posted November 4, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

      I think what disturbs me most about Dan’s position on this is that the masses can’t handle the truth, and so we have to reassure them that they really do have free will, even though what they have that Dan is calling “free will” is the exact opposite of what everybody else means by the term.

      Dan, of all people, really should know better. “Protecting” the unwashed masses from the truth they can’t handle never ends well. Just look at what’s happening right now to the not-quite-so-nascent surveillance state.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:19 am | Permalink

      Well, the first thing you have to remember about Dennett is that he is a naturalistic philosopher, meaning that he’s more interested in what words really mean and not in what people thought they meant. So if we were using the term “free will” to roughly denote a set of cognitive processes related to choice and responsibility, but thought that that meant we needed something non-physical, and then discovered that it didn’t have to be non-physical at all and in fact was just brain processes, Dennett would find it odd to say that you have to toss the whole term away instead of saying “Well, this is what it really is”. It’d be like tossing out the term “gold” because we discovered that gold was really the element AU which then results on us not calling “fool’s gold” gold.

      The second thing follows from this: since the importance, at least, of the concept of “free will” is the role it plays in our actions and decisions, and since Dennett thinks that the new term can capture, at least, everything IMPORTANT about that role, it would just be confusing to invent a completely new term and then say “But it does everything that free will used to do for us” instead of simply saying “This is what free will really is”.

    • Robin
      Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      The question is, what did people traditionally mean by free will? If I say I have free will I don’t mean some event was uncaused. I mean that I caused it.

      And I doubt that anyone claims that we or our minds are uncaused.

  12. Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    My own lecture on this topic would consist of but one sentence: “Cognitive science tells us that we don’t have it, but philosophy says we do.”

    Since philosophy is a participating discipline in Cognitive Science, and none of the other participating fields actually consider “free will” in and of itself to be an issue, this would seem to result in a lecture that’s completely false.

    Also, where it does care Cognitive Science seems to be more compatiblist that incompatiblist determinist: all of the disciplines that care about choice and responsibility and the like are working to study, understand, and build internal mechanisms to make choices, and care quite a bit about the conscious decision-making processes as well as the unconscious and those that impact on them. If under compatiblist and incompatiblist views all of the same work can be done, then it seems there’s little difference between the views wrt Cognitive Science and so we should prefer the compatiblist view which is less complicated philosophically.

    • Robin
      Posted November 5, 2013 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      Yes, it is certainly wrong to say that philosophy says that we do have free will.

      C D Broad rejected it, for example, in his essay “Libertarianism” in the early 20th century.

      I don’t think the Positivists such as Neurath, Schlick or Carnap even mentioned it – they would probably have called it a pseudo problem.

      Kant was in two minds about it. He recognised that if we were to have free will then our understanding of time and cause and effect would have to be somehow mistaken.

      Hume rejected free will on the basis that what was not deterministic would have to be random and randomness was neither free, nor will.

      • PascalsSpaceGhost
        Posted November 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        You do know that 60% of contemporary philosophers are compatibilists?

        http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

        • Posted November 6, 2013 at 2:40 am | Permalink

          Which doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot in philosophy, actually. That the majority of philosophers prefer one current strategy doesn’t say anything about what the field says about it. The field considers free will to be one of the big questions that hasn’t been solved yet, and so isn’t saying that we do have free will in any way. And most of those compatiblists, I’m sure, are very well aware of the problems raised by those other philosophers and are still treating them as problems for their position.

  13. Vaal
    Posted November 5, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Loved this post, Prof. Coyne!

    Vaal.

  14. Posted January 2, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Ben says, “Um…hello? I’m right here. No need to write of me in the third person.

    And there’s no “a” in my name.”

    It was all determined that “you” as an “I” don’t exist, but are an “illusion.” ;-)

    Also, the brain cells that put an “a” in the it named Ben couldn’t help itself because it was determined.;-)

    Just a little kidding, because it seems no determinist ever can live out determinism in daily life.


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