Four horsemen, one seaman

Just FYI, there’s a profile of Dan Dennett by Jennifer Schuessler in yesterday’s New York Times “Book” section: “Philosophy that stirs the waters.” I knew Dan was a sailor, but didn’t realize that he once had a 42-foot “cruiser” (I guess that’s a sailboat). His books must be doing pretty well!


“Philosophers can seldom put their knowledge to practical use,” Daniel Dennett says, “but if you’re a sailor, you can.” Photo by Bryce Vickmark for The New York Times

The piece highlights Dan’s new book, Intutition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, which I’ve read (it’s full of Dan’s characteristically clear writing, although of course I disagree about the free will stuff). Schuessler sums it up well—it’s very like a “Greatest Hits of Dan Dennett” tome, especially useful for those who haven’t read many of his other books:

That blunderbuss style is amply on view in “Intuition Pumps,” which provides a dictionary of dozens of Mr. Dennett’s own jokily named thinking tools — the Sorta Operator, the Curse of the Cauliflower — along with demolitions of the rigged thought experiments and intellectual tics of rivals, who get called out for everything from willful ignorance of science to overuse of the word “surely.”

“Philosophers are infamous for being navel-gazers, but a lot of them are remarkably unreflective about their own methods.” He added, “If you do get a little self-conscious, it opens up so many weak spots and helps you think.”

The new book, largely adapted from previous writings, is also a lively primer on the radical answers Mr. Dennett has elaborated to the big questions in his nearly five decades in philosophy, delivered to a popular audience in books like “Consciousness Explained” (1991), “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (1995) and “Freedom Evolves.”

. . . his preference for the company of scientists lead some to question if he’s still a philosopher at all.

“I’m still proud to call myself a philosopher, but I’m not their kind of philosopher, that’s for sure,” he said. The new book reflects Mr. Dennett’s unflagging love of the fight, including some harsh whacks at longtime nemeses like the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould — accused of practicing a genus of dirty intellectual tricks Mr. Dennett calls “goulding” — that some early reviewers have already called out as unsporting. (Mr. Gould died in 2002.)

Mr. Dennett also devotes a long section to a rebuttal of the famous Chinese Room thought experiment, developed by 30 years ago by the philosopher John Searle, another old antagonist, as a riposte to Mr. Dennett’s claim that computers could fully mimic consciousness.

Clinging to the idea that the mind is more than just the brain, Mr. Dennett said, is “profoundly naïve and anti-scientific.”

Both free will and consciousness, he insists sunnily, are empirically solvable problems. But if he had to do it all over again, he said, he’d still rather tackle them as a philosopher than as a scientist. That way, he says, he can think about all the cool theories and lab experiments without ever having “to do the dishes.”

Well, I think that consciousness is an empirically solvable problem in the sense that we will someday understand how, both evolutionarily and neuronally, the sensation of consciousness arises.  But “free will” is already empirically solved: we do not have the kind of dualistic or contracausal free will that is how most people conceive of the term. End of story. Whether we have other types of free will is a semantic and not an empirical problem.  All compatibilist philosophers define it in such a way that we already have it. So what is to solve empirically?  The advances in both consciousness and how we make “decisions” will come not from philosophy, but from biology: those people who have to wash the dirty dishes.

Schuessler’s piece also has a nice capsule biography of Dan. Since he hasn’t written much about his career—though Richard Dawkins is about to publish an autobiography—it’s quite interesting.


  1. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I guess that makes him a seahorse.

    • Matt G
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink


  2. Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    So your only difference with Dennett on the subject of free will would be that you don’t think that what Dennett & you both believe should be called free will?

    • Posted April 30, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      There’s also a difference in emphasis: I think philosophers should spend a lot more time telling people that there’s no such thing as contracausal free will (which they seem loath to do) than in confecting brands of free will that are compatible with determinism.

      • Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        Very much agree, with the proviso that in debunking contra-causal free will we don’t give people the impression that we don’t make decisions. We just don’t make them contra-causally. As Dennett nicely puts it in his Erasmus Prize essay:

        “When the ‘control’ by the environment runs through your well-working perceptual systems and your undeluded brain, it is nothing to dread; in fact, nothing is more desirable than being caused by the things and events around us to generate true beliefs about them that we can then use in modulating our behavior to our advantage!” p.23

        • TJR
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:07 am | Permalink

          Indeed. Just saying “we don’t have free will” is wildly misleading as people will interpret this in umpteen different ways. We need to say “We don’t have dualist (or libertarian or contra-causal) free will” and then, in any non-technical forum, carefully explain what we do and do not mean by this as well.

    • Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      But, in “Freedom Evolves” Dennett *is* very concerned, for instance in his refutation of Kane, with not allowing dualism to enter by the back door of indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics. And his exploration of the implications of determinism in this book is the main difference with his earlier “Elbow Room”, which is more about degrees of freedom – our ability to avoid “sphexishness”.

      For me Dennett & Hofstadter were in the early 80s a major influence in establishing computational theory of mind and dispelling any notion that it needs special non physical properties to function.

  3. jay
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Daniel Dennett was co author of Hofstadter’s “Godel Escher Bach”, a book which I picked up from a table on a whim It opened my mind to new ideas and completely changed my intellectual life.

    I owe him some thanks for that.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      What? Dennett is not listed as co-author at Amazon or Wikipedia. Where did you get that notion?

      Dennett and Hofstadter did co-author The Mind’s I.

      • jimroberts
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        That was how I came to Dennett. After “Godel Escher Bach”, I looked for more by Hofstadter, read “The Mind’s I” and went on to more Dennett.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted May 10, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

          Ditto. I requested and received “The Mind’s I” for my 16th birthday…

      • Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        I understand that they *co-edited* The Mind’s I.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted April 30, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that is more accurate.

    • Gary W
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      GEB was written by Hofstadter alone. You seem to be thinking of The Mind’s I.

    • Occam
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      A very Borgesian thread.

      I think we should consider both GEB and Dennett slightly differently, had he actually co-authored GEB. If only for matters of style: the “blunderbuss style”, so aptly termed by Schuessler, would be conspicuosly missing in GEB.

  4. Sastra
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Whether we have other types of free will is a semantic and not an empirical problem. All compatibilist philosophers define it in such a way that we already have it. So what is to solve empirically?

    It solves the empirical problem of “well, if there is no contra-causal dualism going on, then how do you explain our internal experience that there is? Checkmate, atheists!”

    Semantics matter when the other side is using words to equivocate. It’s like the claim “if there is no God then our lives have no meaning or purpose!” Pointing out that this is not a definition of “meaning and purpose” as we use it in living our lives is not playing semantics. It’s stopping them from playing semantics.

  5. Posted April 30, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    a sailor single-hander aboard my s/y ‘Single Malt’ myself, with decades long experience as marine risks & maritime disaster management consultant, I can say that handling a sailboat is inducive to thinking that kneeling down in the cockpit and praying in stormy swells is a waste of time and often one’s life.
    Somehow, for Dan Dennett to have had boating experience, to me sounds downright natural.

  6. exsumper
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    His sailing experience most probably informs his atheism.

    Should a storm arise he strikes me as a man the pumps and pump like buggery sort of chap, rather than a cling to the mast and pray for deliverance type!

    probably why he’s still with us!

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      I understand he had a little problem with his pump a few years ago though…

  7. Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m now thinking of dishwashing soap with stochastic phosphates.

  8. Dale
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I love Dan Dennett. I think that his reasoning on many things, like “consciousness” and “free will” is so concrete, simply founded and so free of preconceived notions or framing that it’s over the heads of others. He thinks outside our box.

  9. DV
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    >>But “free will” is already empirically solved: we do not have the kind of dualistic or contracausal free will that is how most people conceive of the term. End of story. Whether we have other types of free will is a semantic and not an empirical problem.

    Aha! I detect compatibilism or a accomodation of compatibilism. Finally!

    As Dan Dennett has pointed out (and the point repeated here many times), the people who deny free will are kind of like people who deny magic. Real magic they say doesn’t exist, the kind of magic that actual magicians perform on stage – the kind of magic that actually exists – is not “real magic”. Then let’s give it a different name!

    The problem IS semantics! Because ultimately saying free will doesn’t exist at all, means you have to redefine or constantly put in quotation marks words like “responsibility” and “choice” and “intention”. Somebody said all philosophy is debate about language, or something like that. This is not to minimize the issue, since language reflects how we think.

    Furthermore it is not merely semantics, because getting a clearer understanding of how we use concepts is also important.

    I see Free Will defense as going along these 2 main threads:

    1. The first defense is to engage the incompatibilists in their own framing of the issue. This means mainly arguing along the framework of free will as a problem of causation. In this thread, you will see free will defended as a practical concept because of unpredictability of human choices. Stephen Hawking’s argument that free will is an effective theory belong here.

    2. The second defense is to point out that incompatibilists got the problem definition wrong in the first place. What does “free” refer to in the term “free will”? It means free from unwanted influence by other willing agents. The problem is a “competition of wills” problem, not a “freedom from causation” problem. I think this is the approach that is consistent with historical and common (outside of academia) usage of the term. Historically Free Will was a problem of God’s will versus Man’s will. In common usage the problem is one man’s will versus another man’s will. If somebody asks you “did you do something of your own free will”, the context is clear. It’s not a question of freedom from physical causation, but a question of whether the intention for the action that you performed was owned by you or someone else.

    Both approaches depend on the treatment of the concept as a higher-level abstraction, not applicable at the lowest physical reduction. In other words, it is valid as the same level where Consciousness is valid. At the lowest level of reduction of particle interactions, there’s no such thing as Consciousness, and there’s no such thing as Free Will. Interestingly I have not seen anyone try to deny the existence of Consciousness (except Sam Harris maybe).

    • Gary W
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      It’s not a question of freedom from physical causation, but a question of whether the intention for the action that you performed was owned by you or someone else.

      What does that mean, “own the intention?” What’s the difference between “owning” an intention and not owning it? I think you’re engaging in a bit of obscurantism here.

      • DV
        Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        An action or its outcome is either intentional or not. If it is intentional, then normally the doer of the action is the owner of the intention. Unless somebody put a gun to his head to make him do it. What’s obscurantist about that?

        • Gary W
          Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

          The fact that an act is made under duress (e.g. in response to someone putting a gun to your head) does not mean it is not intentional. The actor still acts intentionally rather than unintentionally (i.e., by accident). So, on your formulation, why doesn’t he therefore “own the intention?”

          • DV
            Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            I gave you how I defined ownership of intention to clarify my point. And you want to argue semantics? By all means, choose your own wording.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 1, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

              You said the actor would normally “own the intention” (by which you seem to mean simply that he intends to take the action) “unless somebody put a gun to his head to make him do it.” But the fact that someone acts under duress does not mean his act is not intentional. He “owns the intention” to act even if someone puts a gun to his head to “make” him do it. He could refuse to act, even though that might mean he would be shot.

    • DV
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      I have to correct myself. Sam Harris does not deny Consciousness. Rather he thinks it’s especially mysterious. I probably had in mind that he denies the naturalistic account of consciousness as an emergent property of complex brains – although “doubt” rather than “deny” would really be the more correct characterization I think.

  10. Diffa
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Conciousness is not the mystery everyone seems to think it is. It is what happens when several parallel information streams (sight, sound, memory, emotion) act in combination with each other in a human brain. It feels like conciousness must be “something more” but only because we don’t or can’t separate out the different information streams – like when you listen to a song on the radio, you are actually hearing several different pieces of audio at the same time, but it seems like a solid whole. Likewise, conciousness is merely the effect of lots of different brain events happening at the same time, and these events could each (in principle) be identified separately and their contribution to the concious effect demonstrated, with no ‘missing’ ingredient remaining.

    • Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:09 am | Permalink

      What’s puzzling is why those interactions lead to an awareness of ourselves. Presumably machines or sea slugs don’t have this awareness, so at what stage of the evolution of the nervous system does awareness arise? and where is it?

      It maybe that we will never have an intuitively satisfactory explanation of consciousness, even if we can find some kind of differentiating line between conscious systems and non conscious ones. There may be no satisfactory high level synthesis of the low level interactions that lead to consciousness.

      If we blew up the brain to the size of a galaxy and replaced each neuron with a little telegraph station on it’s own planet passing on the messages, would the resulting network still have consciousness? and where would that consciousness be located?

  11. Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    The problem with discussions of freewill & determinism is that most participants don’t sufficiently appreciate IGNORANCE (mainly theirs). See:

    JC:”we do not have the kind of dualistic or contracausal free will that is how most people conceive of the term.” Agreed. But “End of story.” NO! Not by a long shot. It’s the “hard problem of consciousness” and it’s a long, long way from being empirically solved!!!!

  12. Dominic
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    The old man & the sea – DD looks like a Hemingway character!

    • Dominic
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 1:32 am | Permalink

      That should be four hawsermen!

  13. PascalsGhost
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    The problem with appealing to “what ordinary folk mean by free will” is that ordinary people don’t understand the difference between determinism and fatalism. So when we say “free will does not exist” they hear “fatalism is true”.

    I know, Jerry, that in the Moving Naturalism Forward roundtable you said that you were unable to adjudicate between contradictory studies about the folk intuitions of free will, but I recommend reading the following paper where some of the authors who had concluded that ordinary folk are natural incompatibilists now have retracted their findings as they have realised all previous studies had failed to clarify the difference between determinism and fatalism:;jsessionid=6798BA5A56F655958F3A4C00195B089A.d02t01

    And here’s a (unpublished) paper using a more robust methodology which distinguishes folk intuitions between Scientific Determinism, Fatalistic, Determinism, Free Will, and Randomness:

  14. Matt G
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    Whenever I hear the phrase “god-given free will”, I just want to scream: what do you mean by free will, how do you know god gave it to us, and how do you know god even exists? I guess that if that mantra provides comfort, those questions don’t matter.

  15. Diane G.
    Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink


  16. Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree about consciousness. It seems to me that it is essentially unsolvable. We may be able to give a third-person account of precise physical events that correlate very strongly, or even perfectly, with reported conscious experience, but that will still fall short of explaining why those events result in consciousness.

    It’s an unsolvable mystery.

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