I admit that I haven’t yet read Dan’s whole piece, but Caruso gives an interesting excerpt, which suggests that Dennett may be rethinking the issue of free will. (As you probably know if you’re a regular here, Dan is a “compatibilist,” who feel that free will is absolutely compatible with physical determinism. He’s written two books taking this position, Freedom Evolves and Elbow Room.
Caruso quotes Dennett on the disparity between compatibilism and incompatibilism, a difference that seems semantic but in my view has repercussions for how we deal with punishment and reward in our society:
“The problem with answering this question is that the everyday concept of free will, to which we must somehow anchor whatever philosophizing we do, has two radically independent – indeed well nigh inconsistent – “criteria” that have coexisted for millennia without resolution. On the one hand free will is supposedly an important phenomenon because it is, in one way or another, morally important; as I have put it, free will is “worth wanting”. On the other hand, it has traditionally been supposed that if a choice is determined, this in itself shows it not to be a free choice. Which criterion should dominate, when we ask what we mean by “free will”? Both have venerable traditions and supporting examples. For many years, I operated on the assumption that free will worth considering must be free will worth wanting, and have thus supposed that if you are talking about a variety of free will that has no direct bearing on issues of responsibility or moral competence, you are not talking about free will.
But recently I have learned from discussions with a variety of scientists and other non-philosophers (e.g., the scientists participating with me in the Sean Carroll workshop on the future of naturalism) that they lean the other way: free will, in their view, is obviously incompatible with naturalism, with determinism, and very likely incoherent against any background, so they cheerfully insist that of course they don’t have free will, couldn’t have free will, but so what? It has nothing to do with morality or the meaning of life. Their advice to me at the symposium was simple: recast my pressing question as whether naturalism (materialism, determinism, science…) has any implications for what we may call moral competence. For instance, does neuroscience show that we cannot be responsible for our choices, cannot justifiably be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished? Abandon the term “free will” to the libertarians and other incompatibilists, who can pursue their fantasies untroubled. Note that this is not a dismissal of the important issues; it’s a proposal about which camp gets to use, and define, the term. I am beginning to appreciate the benefits of discarding the term “free will” altogether, but that course too involves a lot of heavy lifting, if one is to avoid being misunderstood.”
I was one of those scientists at Sean Carroll’s workshop, and Dan was pretty obdurate in defending compatibilism. At least he certainly didn’t show any sympathy for abandoning the term “free will.” Now, however, he seems to be relenting a little on that, and I’m wondering whether he’s rethinking the connection between compatibilism, incompatibilism, and moral responsibility. (I’ve expressed my view on this before: we must be held responsible for our acts, but not morally responsible.)
So I agree with Caruso when he says that that Dennett’s words reveal “an acknowledgement on his part that the concept of FW [free will] may be too loaded with anti-naturalist connotations that it may not be worth preserving for those naturalistically inclined philosophers and scientists. This is especially telling coming from Dennett, since no one has done more to try to naturalize the concept of FW than him!”
Recently I’ve had several emails from Dan saying that he’s going to write a big article pwning my views on free will, similar to what he did with Sam Harris (I didn’t think Sam got pwned), and telling me that I’m really a “closet compatibilist.” I’m not sure if this will ever happen, but before Dan claims that the proposal to jettison the term “free will” was his, I’m going to claim it as mine right now, by reproducing a slide I showed at that naturalism conference:
Actually, the words in red aren’t mine, but I can’t remember where they came from—perhaps from Anthony Cashmore or one of the numerous books and articles I’ve read on the topic. I do think that the term “free will” should either be abandoned or taken solely in its libertarian form, but it’s now so fraught with disagreement now that perhaps the former choice is wiser.
At any rate, I’m apparently in line for some Dennettian umbrage.
UPDATE: As commenter Desmarets says below, the words on my slide have been sleuthed out:
These words ‘my decision was caused by internal forces I do not understand’ are from Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind, p.306 Nr 30.6