A while back Dan Dennett published a long critique of Sam Harris’s book Free Will, a book that I liked a lot. Like me, Sam is a determinist and an incompatibilist; that is, we see our determinism as incompatible with the kind of free will that many people espouse: a “ghost in the machine” libertarian free will.
In contrast, Dan is a determinist and a compatibilist; that is, he sees determinism as compatible with free will: the special kind of free will that he limned in two books, Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. I’ve discussed the latter book on this website, and saw Dan’s solution as largely a semantic one: the redefinition of “free will” as the evolved ability of the human brain to give outputs (“decisions”) involving integrating inputs far more complex than those processed by any other animal. I also saw his compatibilism, as I see many philosophical brands of compatibilism, as a stopgap measure designed protect our feeling of agency. Dan, at least, has explicitly said that if people don’t think they have free will, society would be endangered. Here are two quotes from Dan’s essay, “Sometimes a spin doctor is right,” delivered when he got the Erasmus Prize (my emphases):
In other words, I still see compatibilism as a wasted effort by philosophers to save our felt notion that we have agency; that we could have chosen otherwise. As I’ve said repeatedly, I think it’s far, far more important for philosophers to ponder, discuss, and teach the public about the consequences of determinism than to waste their time confecting various (and incompatible) versions of compatibilist free will. Yet they downplay the determinism, maybe because it would frighten the public.
Dan’s critique of Sam’s book, “Reflections on free will” was published on the Naturalism.Org site as a pdf , and also republished as text on Sam’s site. I read it and disagreed with it, covering it with red notes. I thought that Dan was rather harsh and, in fact, a bit nasty toward Sam (they are supposed to be friends), and I found the essay discursive, wordy, full of philosophical panache that didn’t deal with Sam’s arguments (Dan, for instance, said that incompatibilists don’t believe in punishment, which is blatantly wrong), and too long.
Sam has now responded on his site with a shorter essay, “The marionette’s lament.” It’s clear that Sam was both blindsided and hurt by Dan’s tone, and it shows in the essay. But Harris gives back as good as he gets, and I think his response is on the mark. The fact is that, despite what Nahmias et al. says (and I’ll be writing about their paper soon), my own experience tells me that many, many people are explicit dualists: believers in libertarian free will. In fact, I had a discussion with someone yesterday: a smart person who hadn’t ever considered the consequences of determinism for agency, but was immediately resistant to the idea that she could not have chosen otherwise. Even Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg, a determinist if there ever was one, was resistant to the idea that he could not have chosen otherwise at a given moment (he told me this at the “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference sixteen months ago). And of course dualists are ubiquitous among religious people, for many faiths stipulate that you can choose freely to accept or reject a god or a savior.
Therefore I see it much more important for philosophers to explore the consequences of determinism—which are pervasive when we consider our system of rewards and punishment—than to sit at their desks and make up new ways to harmonize determinism and free will. A bottom-up reform of the legal system is one important consequence of incompatibilism, as well as a jettisoning of the idea of “moral responsibility” instead of “responsibility” (what Bruce Waller would call “take-charge responsibility”). And yes, of course we incompatibilists believe in punishment—but for rehabilitation, sequestering malefactors from the public, and as a deterrent, but not for retribution.
At any rate, I won’t give my criticisms of Dan’s paper here, and haven’t, because I knew that Sam was on the case and, in fact, his response is what I would have said, but of course far more incisive and eloquent. Here’s just a snippet of Harris’s response. The first part shows Sam’s facility for using analogies to make points:
Average Joe feels that he has free will (first-person) and doesn’t like to be told that it is an illusion. I say it is: Consider all the roots of your behavior that you cannot see or feel (first-person), cannot control (first-person), and did not summon into existence (first-person). You say: Nonsense! Average Joe contains all these causes. He is his genes and neurons too (third-person). This is where you put the rabbit in the hat.
Imagine that we live in a world where more or less everyone believes in the lost kingdom of Atlantis. You and your fellow compatibilists come along and offer comfort: Atlantis is real, you say. It is, in fact, the island of Sicily. You then go on to argue that Sicily answers to most of the claims people through the ages have made about Atlantis. Of course, not every popular notion survives this translation, because some beliefs about Atlantis are quite crazy, but those that really matter—or should matter, on your account—are easily mapped onto what is, in fact, the largest island in the Mediterranean. Your work is done, and now you insist that we spend the rest of our time and energy investigating the wonders of Sicily.
The truth, however, is that much of what causes people to be so enamored of Atlantis—in particular, the idea that an advanced civilization disappeared underwater—can’t be squared with our understanding of Sicily or any other spot on earth. So people are confused, and I believe that their confusion has very real consequences. But you rarely acknowledge the ways in which Sicily isn’t like Atlantis, and you don’t appear interested when those differences become morally salient. This is what strikes me as wrongheaded about your approach to free will.
He then outlines his points of agreement and disagreement with Dennett:
. . . Let’s begin by noticing a few things we actually agree about: We agree that human thought and behavior are determined by prior states of the universe and its laws—and that any contributions of indeterminism are completely irrelevant to the question of free will. We also agree that our thoughts and actions in the present influence how we think and act in the future. We both acknowledge that people can change, acquire skills, and become better equipped to get what they want out of life. We know that there is a difference between a morally healthy person and a psychopath, as well as between one who is motivated and disciplined, and thus able to accomplish his aims, and one who suffers a terminal case of apathy or weakness of will. We both understand that planning and reasoning guide human behavior in innumerable ways and that an ability to follow plans and to be responsive to reasons is part of what makes us human. We agree about so many things, in fact, that at one point you brand me “a compatibilist in everything but name.” Of course, you can’t really mean this, because you go on to write as though I were oblivious to most of what human beings manage to accomplish. At some points you say that I’ve thrown the baby out with the bath; at others you merely complain that I won’t call this baby by the right name (“free will”). Which is it?
However, it seems to me that we do diverge at two points:
1. You think that compatibilists like yourself have purified the concept of free will by “deliberately using cleaned-up, demystified substitutes for the folk concepts.” I believe that you have changed the subject and are now ignoring the very phenomenon we should be talking about—the common, felt sense that I/he/she/you could have done otherwise (generally known as “libertarian” or “contra-causal” free will), with all its moral implications. The legitimacy of your attempting to make free will “presentable” by performing conceptual surgery on it is our main point of contention. Whether or not I can convince you of the speciousness of the compatibilist project, I hope we can agree in the abstract that there is a difference between thinking more clearly about a phenomenon and (wittingly or unwittingly) thinking about something else. I intend to show that you are doing the latter.
2. You believe that determinism at the microscopic level (as in the case of Austin’s missing his putt) is irrelevant to the question of human freedom and responsibility. I agree that it is irrelevant for many things we care about (it doesn’t obviate the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior, for instance), but it isn’t irrelevant in the way you suggest. And accepting incompatibilism has important intellectual and moral consequences that you ignore—the most important being, in my view, that it renders hatred patently irrational (while leaving love unscathed). If one is concerned about the consequences of maintaining a philosophical position, as I know you are, helping to close the door on human hatred seems far more beneficial than merely tinkering with a popular illusion.
If you want to comment below on the Harris/Dennet exchange, I’ll expect you to have read both papers. Don’t just wade in and start fulminating one way or the other!
I am saddened by the many rifts in the atheist community, but this one saddens me the most. Dan’s tone in his original paper was peremptory and snide, and that was unnecessary. This section from Dennett’s review, for instance, is gratuitously nasty (not to me, but to Dawkins):
[Harris] is not alone among scientists in coming to the conclusion that the ancient idea of free will is not just confused but also a major obstacle to social reform. His brief essay is, however, the most sustained attempt to develop this theme, which can also be found in remarks and essays by such heavyweight scientists as the neuroscientists Wolf Singer and Chris Frith, the psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and the evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and (when he’s not thinking carefully) Richard Dawkins.
“When he’s not thinking carefully”? Really, Dan? Richard is a longtime friend of yours, and why would you insult him in a way that’s completely unnecessary?
As Sam noted, the whole thing could have been hashed out in a give-and-take using repeated back and forth mini-essays—and without the rancor. And it would have been far more enlightening than this pair of dueling essays. Of course we won’t all agree on things, even the three remaining “Horsemen,” but there was no need for snideness and authority-pulling.