Is Dennett rethinking free will?

Reader Jiten called my attention to this post by Gregg Caruso on Flickers of Freedom about Dan Dennett’s comment on Free Will—a comment that appeared in a discussion in the journal Methode.

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:

Screen shot 2014-04-01 at 7.09.16 AM

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


  1. Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    The original interview isn’t much longer than the portion quoted above, and that bit is the meat of the interview.

    I’d say that Dan has finally come to his senses, and he’s just making sure he’s not about to step off a cliff into thin air.

    Considering Dan’s intellect, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if his Come-to-Jesus moment on this is also accompanied by some new actually-relevant insight or perspective on the subject; if so, that would certainly be worth the frustration we’ve experienced with his persistence in the “Little People” fallacy to date.



    • Matt
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Both you and Jerry seem to be missing the point. All Dan is saying is that the term Free Will is so confused as to be useless. The only thing that matters is whether naturalism/determinism impact moral competence. He still argues that it doesn’t, (while Jerry maintains that it does), he’s just saying arguing about the definition of “Free Will” is pointless.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Actually, I’m pretty sure “moral competence” and variations thereon is a very similar red herring as “free will.”

        We all agree that murdering, raping, pillaging, and the like are all bad things to do. And we all agree that something is necessary to prevent and stop those types of actions and to redress grievances that result from them. And most of those on the rationalist side of the debate agree that retribution is as reprehensible as the original foul deeds. Most of the rest of the “debate” is an argument over what justifications are and aren’t valid for this shared set of conclusions.

        …and let me therefore take this opportunity to once again observe that what we term, “morality,” is nothing more nor less than an optimal strategy (in the sense used by game theorists) for individuals living in a society. And if you know anything about game theory, it should come as no surprise that the knee-jerk objections (Why shouldn’t I murder and rape and pillage if that’s what I feel like doing? So-and-so did it and got away with it!”) are all very easily addressed, and that you really do improve your own odds of success at any goal you’re evolutionarily likely to have by being a constructive contributor to society.

        In other words, once we move the discussion away from philosophy and into science, the philosophical “arguments” devolve into incoherent irrelevance that’s “not even worng.”



        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          My level of competence on the entire topic can be summed up as being my difficulty deciding if your comment is a ka-pow or a bazinga, or even if there is a difference between the two.

          • NewEnglandBob
            Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            There is a difference. People get paid for a ka-pow, but all you get for a buzinga is an eye roll.

            • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

              Ah. So it IS a matter of established tradition vs. newer linguistic innovation – i.e. an argumentum ad antiquitatem. Bigots.

          • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            I was actually aiming for “shazam,” but I’ll take what I can get….


            • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

              Ah… going old school on me, eh? (I guess ka-pow is old school too though…)

              On a similar note, I’m probably dense as hell, but for all his great and excellent strides, I think Hume did the whole field a disservice by concocting the “is/ought” distinction that is supposedly a deep problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saddling Hume with this, but rather the philosophers that keep bringing it up as some kind of ace in the hole to keep obfuscating what should be obvious in most test situations (and justifying their own expertise in such matters).

              • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, the, “You can’t derive ‘ought’ from ‘is,” objection falls most flat. It’s a deepity-style oversimplification.

                In practice, what we care about is not, “ought from is,” but, rather, “ought from want.

                Once you understand morality in the framework of desires, the rest falls into place — especially if you’ve matured enough to have learned the lesson that, while you might want to just let your bladder go in the middle of the night, you’ll be even happier in the long run if you get up and walk down the hall to the toilet first.

                In that context, the “ought from is” objection is like saying that you can’t figure out from the fact that your bladder is full you ought not wet your bed. Perhaps not, but only because the question you’ve asked is as relevant as spot prices for Chinese tea futures.



              • Vaal
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink


                “Once you understand morality in the framework of desires, the rest falls into place”

                Hey, that’s what I argued for in these comment sections. Might we be on the same page on this one? 🙂

                Except that I’m having an issue with the way you are actually arguing for this. First, you seem dismissive of the is/ought distinction. But it’s a very useful, valid distinction to raise. We normally recognize this distinction in our everyday reasoning. The fact that it IS the case that
                some children are starving in africa is clearly different from saying that it OUGHT to be the case. If someone wanted to say that the “IS” entailed the “OUGHT” he has some explaining to do, as Hume pointed out. Hence it is a very relevant distinction to raise.

                This very real distinction is the one we atheists so often make to theistic claims of morality. Many theists have assumed that “if it IS the case God gave certain commands” then that is the same as saying “we OUGHT to obey God’s commands.” But we point out that’s a non-sequitur, just as the oboe starving children example is a non-sequitur. They actually haven’t given the explanation for why we ought to obey God’s commands even if it were a fact God commanded it.

                “In practice, what we care about is not, “ought from is,” but, rather, “ought from want.”

                But put that way it makes no sense, since where is “ought” going to come from except from a “want?” The example you give of not reliving one’s bladder in the middle of the night is not an example of “ought” and “want” but the conflict of two “wants.” That is the “want/desire” to relieve one’s bladder “now,” vs the “want” to be “happier in the long run.”

                So since both of those desires suggest different actions with the same logical structure, you have to come up with a reason to say we “ought” to fulfill one desire (happiness down the road) over the other (immediate relief of bladder). So it’s not obvious you have, as yet, produced the reason for one over another, or made any necessary distinction.

                The other main issue is that what you are talking about is not normally associated with “morality.” Your example is one of what is often called a “prudential” prescription – one that prescribes an action that is only relevant to your own desires (e.g. I want to hammer this nail in, therefore I ought to buy this hammer…not exactly a moral quandary there).

                But morality is normally understood to concern how we are to treat one another. Why ought you not steal my stuff and visa versa. So what happens when you desire one thing and I desire another?

                It’s not that I’m saying this can’t be worked out. I’m just saying that, your answer is not nearly sufficient to dismiss the is/ought issue.



              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

                The fact that it IS the case that some children are starving in africa is clearly different from saying that it OUGHT to be the case.

                That’s not how the “is v ought” distinction is typically formulated or understood, at least in my experience.

                Rather, it would be that the fact that it is true that children are starving in Africa does not mean that you ought to do anything in particular about it.

                And that’s true — in the same sense that all deepities are true.

                It’s not the fact that children are starving that is going to compel you to take action about it; it’s the fact that you desire to live in a universe different from the current one in some specific way that dictates your optimal course of action.

                There are all sorts of reasons why somebody might wish to live in a world in which children didn’t starve. Once you accept one or more of those reasons to be true, you’re then faced with the choice of what to do to change the universe in the way you desire. Some of your options for change will be more likely to be effective than others, and it may well be that no reasonably effective option is available to you. “Ought” can best be though of as the optimal course to navigate through the various possibilities — but it traces its roots back to your desire to change the universe, not to the fact that the children are starving.



            • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

              No no no.

              “Boom” is the term you’re all looking for.

              While I agree with what you wrote above, I also agree with Matt and Gregory downthread. I don’t see anything in that excerpt that indicates Dennett is changing his actual stance.

              • Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

                To be fair, I think 80% of the disagreement between Dan’s camp and Jerry’s has been over semantics and rhetoric, and the other 20% over the worth and significance of this type of philosophizing in the first place. Where the rubber meets the road, the hard empirical bits, there’s no disagreements of any real significance.

                With Dan hinting at a retreat on that 80%, the 20% really isn’t that big of a deal, all things considered.


        • Matt
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

          I don’t care at all about the language used, so long as we’re clear about we’re talking about. The key argument that I see being made is “There is no free will. Our justice system in some way assumes there is free will. Therefore we must change our justice system”.

          While our justice system may use the language of free will, I don’t believe it relies on what Jerry defines as “Free Will”. I believe it does rely on what Dennett refers to as a Moral Competence, which is to say that it distinguishes between people (or agents) that can make choices which take societies morality into account, and those who can’t. I don’t believe that Jerry’s “Free Will” being shown to not exist (if it was ever even coherent) impacts that at all.

          Your paragraph about morality is short, and I’m sure you could go into more detail, but my reading is that you’re arguing that what we currently consider “moral” would be a good strategy for all/most people in all/most societies. It would take a lot more to convince me of that.

          I’d buy that it’s a winning strategy in a world where you can expect that most people will be following the same rules, but it seems to me that requires having some sort of moral system that’s enforced.

          I think morality is both what is a winning strategy, but just as importantly it is a set of constraints on society that allow for individuals to have a higher maximum of success, or a higher likelihood of having success.

          • Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            Your paragraph about morality is short, and I’m sure you could go into more detail, but my reading is that you’re arguing that what we currently consider “moral” would be a good strategy for all/most people in all/most societies. It would take a lot more to convince me of that.

            Practically by definition, any goal you might have depends at least in part on your survival. Survival is much easier within society than without; today, survival without society is practically impossible. Goals beyond mere survival become much easier when you can rely upon society to help with the heavy lifting. You might want to get from one side of the continent than the other. On your own on foot, foraging for your own food and the like, your odds of success are low; if you can just hop on a plane, you’ll be there in no time with little more effort than taking a nap.

            If you want to take advantage of the fruits of society, you need to play by society’s rules.

            And certain rules for societies are going to be much more effective than others. If society has no rule against theft, then members of that society are going to have to expend lots of resources protecting themselves from theft; societies that agree to not steal from each other can instead devote those resources into something more productive, and therefore thrive more than societies thick with theft.

            The rest should be straightforward to work out from there.



        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          Ben Goren,

          I believe you are making it too easy for yourself with morality.

          In practice, what we care about is not, “ought from is,” but, rather, “ought from want.”

          Reading in context, that is not what Hume was arguing against. At least to my understanding, he was really concerned with people invoking the naturalist fallacy or divine command theory. And Sam Harris, for example, is essentially invoking the first of these.

          If he simply came out and said, we should build our rules on what we collectively want to achieve, I at least would immediately agree because my view of ethics is contractualist. But what he, as a consequentialist, appears to be saying is that he can treat the issue like something that calls for an expert opinion: he and other neuroscientists or suchlike study human nature and then tell the unwashed masses what system of rules they should adopt because science says so. After all, it is “how science can determine human values” and not “why we should all sit down and negotiate our values”. The is/ought problem would appear to apply to his claim because he treats it as an ought and not as a want.

          what we term, “morality,” is nothing more nor less than an optimal strategy (in the sense used by game theorists) for individuals living in a society. And if you know anything about game theory, it should come as no surprise that the knee-jerk objections (Why shouldn’t I murder and rape and pillage if that’s what I feel like doing? So-and-so did it and got away with it!”) are all very easily addressed

          Perhaps you can elaborate because I don’t see how getting away with it is easily addressed. If you can be sure that you will gain a lot and not be punished for it then genocide is a viable strategy, e.g. when the conquistadores with their vastly superior technology and no policing agent above them destroyed native American civilizations and worked untold millions to death in the silver mines. There was no downside whatsoever to the perpetrators as a class but strangely most of us would not consider these happenings moral.

          Practically by definition, any goal you might have depends at least in part on your survival.

          Humans are more complicated than that. What about sexual kinks, or about wanting to travel to a certain country before you die?

          • Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink


            As with so much of reality — even thermodynamics — morality is an exercise in statistics. That means that there are going to be deviations from the mean. And since morality is also an evolutionary phenomenon, it’s going to have imperfections not intelligently designed, such as the recurrent pharyngeal nerve.

            You can pick out all sorts of other exceptions, from psychotic societies to psychotic individuals (particularly certain well-known despots). That no more invalidates the subject than adult human cojoined twins invalidates Darwinian evolution.

            While it means that there are no absolutes, and especially no divine commander to enforce those absolutes, it still remains that your best bet to roll the dice lies not with being a murdering raping pillager but in being a civilized person.

            There was no downside whatsoever to the perpetrators as a class but strangely most of us would not consider these happenings moral.

            Stephen Pinker just devoted a book to that very subject. We can see the evolution of morality over the ages. The morality we have today is as superior to that of the bronze age as our other tools.

            That fact can only be seen as a problem if one believes that morality can only be some sort of unchanging Platonic ideal. Since that’s not at all what morality actually is, objections to the fact that it isn’t are irrelevant.

            Practically by definition, any goal you might have depends at least in part on your survival.

            Humans are more complicated than that. What about sexual kinks, or about wanting to travel to a certain country before you die?

            Kinda hard to do either when you’re dead. Satisfying sexual kinks is going to be much easier if you can find a willing partner, and the kinkier the kink the larger the pool of partners you’re going to need before you’ll have decent statistical odds of finding a match. That right there means you need a large, vibrant, diverse society — and one that doesn’t get upset about variations on sexuality…which brings us right back to it being in your best interests to build exactly that sort of society.

            And traveling to a different country is only going to work out truly well if the people in that country will consider you to be part of their society. That’s an argument for an healthy global society, as opposed to a fractured tribal one.



            • Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

              We don’t actually disagree about the conclusions or what ideally to do about ethics, but still I cannot quite agree with your argumentation.

              Have not read Pinker but his overall conclusion as far as I understand it does not convince me. It appears as if our current feeling that all humans should be treated the same and not be needlessly killed (which is not even shared by that many people on this planet anyway) is very young indeed. Much less than 200 years ago European powers saw no problem whatsoever in committing genocide against peoples that were sufficiently “other”. And between the rise of the first empires of antiquity and ca. 200 years ago I do not really see a lot of moral evolution taking place. It therefore remains to be seen how much of our present nicety will remain once we return to a less materially secure state, e.g. once fossil fuels are gone.

              I think you did not get my point about the last paragraph. Of course a nice society is in our interest, I was merely making the point that not all our goals have anything to do with survival.

              • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

                It therefore remains to be seen how much of our present nicety will remain once we return to a less materially secure state, e.g. once fossil fuels are gone.

                Do you think your own personal odds of survival in a post-apocalyptic world would be greater in a society that retains some semblance of modern law and order; or one in which murder, rape, and theft are considered acceptable?

                If (and, sadly, more likely than not, when) the shit hits the fan, we can be quite confident of two things.

                First, lots of people will die. For one, it’s not at all clear how we’ll even be able to make fertilizer at the industrial scales needed to feed several billion people without modern petrochemical sources. (And it’s not at all clear how we’ll be able to keep feeding them with topsoil loss and vanishing water tables and climate change and and and and and.) There simply won’t be enough food to eat, and lots of people will starve, and plenty more will kill for food.

                Second, those with the best odds of survival (but still pretty shitty odds, all things considered) will be those who stick together and keep moral societies functioning. Again, those aren’t good odds; they’re simply the least-worst odds.

                Remember, morality most emphatically is not about perfect ideals. There’s no moral solution to resource exhaustion that prevents starvation. All there is is an optimal strategy, a way of behaving that at least reduces risk as much as possible.

                I think you did not get my point about the last paragraph. Of course a nice society is in our interest, I was merely making the point that not all our goals have anything to do with survival.

                Then I think you, in turn missed my point. Few, if any, of what we think of as our day-to-day goals are involved with survival; of course. But, unless your kink is to have a necrophiliac have his way with your dead body, any sexual interest you might wish to actually fulfill is only going to come about if you’re alive to experience it.

                It’s not that all our goals are about survival. It’s that survival is a necessary prerequisite to all our goals, and morality is essential to survival.



          • tim
            Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

            “But what he, as a consequentialist, appears to be saying is that he can treat the issue like something that calls for an expert opinion:”

            No he’s not. He’s suggesting that we look to scientific like observations when deliberating our own personal positions, and that we then bring these well reasoned positions to the contractual table. Think consequentially whilst deliberating your position that you then bring to the contractual table. I think you are misreading Sam.

            • Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

              He may make it very easy to misread him.

              • tim
                Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

                Honestly, find me one quote or passage from him that one could construe as him intending to have people follow a scientific authority. He has never even hinted at such a thing.

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

                The subtitle of his book perhaps?

      • Dale
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        That’s how I read Dan’s comment.

  2. gbjames
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink


    • francis
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink


  3. normbear
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Good news! This would be a great tribute to Dennett’s rationality, since he has publicly invested so heavily in free will. Few people of his stature can say, “I was wrong.”

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      It’s precisely because Dan has the integrity to publicly change his position when he finds himself convinced of the error of his ways that his stature is so respectable.


    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Hmmmm…. I have read and reread the selected Dennett quote multiple times and cannot see how this statement shows any sign of a change of mind on Dennetts’ part, nor can it be interpreted as such by any stretch of the imagination. It only suggests a useful change of terminology so that the debate doesn’t continue to get bogged down in historic libertarian baggage which neither compatibilists or incompatibilists accept. Changing terminology to produce a clearer discussion is hardly a rare thing for any philosopher to do.

  4. Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    “I admit that I haven’t yet written what Dan wrote, but…”

    Should “written” not be “read”?

  5. markus koebler
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Let’s hope that he is also rethinking his scorching critic of Sam Harris’ book.

  6. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve always been of the opinion that the term “free will” was too loaded as a religious concept to be useful.

    In truth, the concept has nothing at all to do with decision-making. It’s the reason why humans are “allowed” to sin…because dog granted them “free will”. (Forgetting, of course, that this only came after the primary and unforgivable sin of eating from the tree that contained the knowledge of right and wrong. So, in a larger sense, A&E “stole” free will.)

    And like most religious terms, it’s so loaded with nonsensical notions, it’s impossible to put a secular spin on it — though Dennett’s books on the subject do a great job at trying (one of them is behind my left shoulder on the book case).

    Free will to religion is a suspension in a liquid — pretty much inseparable without utterly changing the character of the original. It’s chocolate milk.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      “In truth, the concept has nothing at all to do with decision-making.”

      That’s probably why I have a very hard time understanding this debate (even after reading Freedom evolves).

      Shouldn’t the term Free Will be left to the decision making and some other, more spiritual-sounding term, be used for whatever religious or moral consideration we want to tag it to?

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink


    • Kevin
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      There is a recent infusion of literature that struggles with free will on a physical level that has nothing to do with religion or, in general, morality. See topics addressed in these papers and websites and many more. (“Maxwell’s demon and Baron munchausen: Free will as a perpetuum mobile”) (“Is a system’s wave function in one-to-one correspondence with its elements of reality?”) (“A Turing test for free will”)

      Physicists have recently been interested in free will as a concept linked to randomness, complex systems, information theory, predictive capabilities of theory and/or practical experiments and even consciousness (though few reputable physicists ever talk about consciousness).

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Why do they have to be “internal forces I do not understand “? They are forces that one may not control, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be understood.

    • John K.
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Well, practically speaking we cannot completely grasp all the electro-chemical goings on in our brains of any particular thought or decision, even if we can understand basic mechanisms that make them up. That is the only sense they are not understood, they are too small and complex to grasp on the fly. I doubt the statement is meant to imply that understanding human decisions are totally unassailable to investigation.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      I think a better description would be “internal forces I do not fully know”. I think we do understand the forces, or at least, the path to a complete understanding. But we have neither the computational power nor access to the required information to predict the outcome of complex systems.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        And we are working on it.

    • Posted April 2, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Do not understand *now*.

  8. Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “In the beginning was the word…” So to a degree, all of these discussions are ‘semantic’. I hate to see a good argument dismissed on that grounds.

    Ditching ‘free will’ is probably the wiser choice, and although I had this opinion before I came here to comment, it has been reinforced by Kevin at comment 6. The reality is that the word has been poisoned since birth, much the same way “atheist” has been, and lord knows (d’oh! no lord) there haven’t been enough ‘semantic’ debates about re-branding atheism.

    I’ve occasionally gone on semi-serious tears about which words should be stricken from the English language because of these issues… and along with this addition of ‘free will’ I have railed against “documentary,” “common sense,” “intuition” (until I read Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow and revised my understanding/definition of the word) and others.

    My current candidate for useless word that muddles thinking rather than clarifying is “belief.” So, Jerry, after you’ve killed off free will, I offer you this candidate.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I tried to figure out for myself what “belief” meant, and tried to make an operational definition of “belief”, but because I am a physicist and not a philosopher I appear to have failed. Here’s my attempt in any case:

      • Posted April 2, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        I will attempt to contact you. 🙂 Good stuff in this blog post!! I have about 45 solid pages on the same lines, with some different angles you might enjoy.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      “Belief” is a very useful word. It’s simply an indication that you, for whatever reason, hold the proposition in question to be true.

      Science is devoted to aligning belief with reality, and devotes much of its effort in determining how much confidence is warranted in any particular belief.

      Religion starts with some set of beliefs as sacrosanct and unquestionable, and proceeds to sacrifice any and all other beliefs as necessary to maintain the illusion of the soundness of the core beliefs.

      So long as one is clear about why one believes a proposition, what justifies it, how one came to hold the belief, and so on, there’s absolutely nothing worng with expressing a belief.

      For example, because of the overwhelming mountains of supportive evidence, I believe it is true that all life (outside of Dr. Venter’s labs) on Earth is related and shares a common ancestor that lived a few billion years ago; and, further, the forceful elegance of Darwin’s explanation for how these species have evolved compels me to believe that Evolution is true. And do note that there is room in that statement for the possibility of even more convincing evidence or a better theoretical explanation to change my mind, but also the obvious caveat that any such evidence or explanation is going to have to be even more compelling than what already exists.

      Ditching the word, “belief,” would necessitate various awkward and unnatural circumlocutions to convey that the proposition is one you hold to be true. I could be convinced that that’s a worthy price to pay, but, since I don’t see the original need, it would take a fair amount of convincing.

      In particular, you’d have to explain why all sorts of other perfectly useful words that carry additional religious meanings shouldn’t also be abandoned to the faithful. What’s next? “Love”? “Grace”? “Vision”?



      • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        The problem I encounter is that there is “no there there.”

        You can express a proposition. You can hold an opinion. You can ACT on a memory of something that will get you where you want to be (unless, you abandon the “belief” that humans make conscious decisions to act.)

        I am also working on an “operational definition” or trying to grasp the jello that is “belief,” and the best I can come to so far is that “belief is a memory that drives an action.” That CLEARLY is not how most people use the term. Yet, it gets us into a discussion of actions on a time spectrum:

        Ranging from instinct/reflex, on up to religious beliefs. An instinct/reflex is a deeply coded memory of SOMETHING that had survival value. (i.e. an action or reaction that got your ancestors where they needed to be, to get to you.)

        When you move into intuitions, you have memories that you are somehow able to act on even if they don’t come to your conscious decision making process. Learned capacity, made second nature and arising into your actions effortlessly.

        Move up to Reactions, say to a tennis ball being served at you, and you operate on memories of what worked in previous times a tennis ball was served at you.

        A little farther down the time scale and you get into dieting, saving for retirement, etc. Taking actions based on a memory that this will lead you where you want to be. Personal memory? Not in these latter cases. You get closer and closer to “implanted” memories, or imprints, or education, or indoctrination… “memories” of what is right because you were told it was right.

        I visited Dr. Coyne in his lab and talked about this base concept, and he said (paraphrasing) “Evolution has endowed us with the capacity to form memories.” Until that time I had been pursuing the “belief”= Action formulation.

        I also have formulated a “Schneider’s Uncertainty of Belief” principle, in some ways similar to Heisenberg’s: You can’t tell what a person believes by watching their actions. You can’t guarantee that an action occured BECAUSE someone acted on a belief. And finally, the believer cannot be sure that his actions will have the desired effects that his memory tells him they will have.

        So… given all this, can you show me a “belief” that isn’t a memory, OR a belief that exists as something MORE than a proposition, or posturing, without actively “acting” on the belief?

        Interestingly, you object to getting rid of the term because of the awkward formulations or changes one might have to make to express an idea. Isn’t that what new theories cause us to do? Give up old structures and fit the evidence to the best explanatory frame?

        Why then would giving up “belief” be a good thing? Because it might draw us to focus on or remember that many memories are implanted and should be questioned, rather than accepted as “beliefs” to be acted upon indiscriminately.

        Sorry… tl;dr.

        • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

          At some level, whether fundamental or an abstraction, we construct mental models that depend on some form of logic, and that logic generally includes either assumptions or conclusions labeled as true.

          The propositions which we either assume or conclude to be true constitute our set of beliefs.

          Note that it is not necessary that the assumptions be defensible according to some external standard or that the logic be one a logician would recognize as sound. “Belief” only refers to those statements to which we, for whatever reason, affix the “true” label.

          With that out of the way, the rest of your objections apply equally to any other aspect of cognition. Many of the details are not particularly well understood, but enough of the outline is to know the sorts of answers we’ll find, even though we don’t know the specific right answer. Specifically, ultimately, cognition is Turing-Equivalent, and the only “real” question is the configuration of the register and table and the data on the tape.

          …though a higher-level abstraction would be much more practically useful, of course….



          • Posted April 3, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

            “The propositions which we either assume or conclude to be true constitute our set of beliefs…”

            That’s standard assumption/definition and framing that way locks us into a specific way of talking about the phenomona, in the same way I suppose Dennett and Coyne are locked in a “semantic” struggle about what “Free Will” means.

            I don’t state this as “absolute” but as a thought experiment… what new ideas can you arrive at if the definition of belief is altered? (i.e. take a new theoretical vantage point.) What existing understandings are NOT adequately accounted for, if any, in the following formulation:

            “Beliefs are actions taken because of an assumption that the action will lead us to a desired state.” (note, I didn’t say chosen or decided, since as mentioned previously, many actions arise pre-consciously, but represent what “I” believe… because I DO it.

            If we limit beliefs ONLY to actions taken, what are all those other things we used to call beliefs? Potentials? Contradictory possibilities?

            If beliefs are “actions” can you hold a belief? (no) Can you prepare to exemplify the belief? (yes)
            Can you be assured that your belief will result in the desire? (no)
            Can a belief be designated false/true, in advance, or only probablistically likely, given the number of times you’ve repeated a given action with the same results before? (all truths are contingent, and the truths are exemplified or disproven in the action.)
            Can you ever know another’s beliefs? (no. you can observe actions, and compare them to prior assertions, and maybe there’s a correlation… but because the result of an action may not align with the intent, certainty is out the window)…

            The big “so what?” becomes important, as it is in any question where an action is requested of you. “What’s in it for me, if I accept your assertion and “believe” as you wish?” Can I prevent myself from being taken by, driven by implanted/indoctrinated belief propositions that I never have to act upon, but which can nonetheless be later tugged on as “cultivated buttons” for a manipulative agent to gain action from me?

            This does come back to free will, of a sort: Can I control/affect my future through diligent attention to which beliefs I choose to adopt? (of the subset of actions in which I DO have time to prepare, CAN make scientific observation of what “works” and can apply some force of “will” to take said action and lead to the result?)

            • Posted April 3, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

              “Beliefs are actions taken because of an assumption that the action will lead us to a desired state.”

              There may well be good reason to discuss the phenomenon you describe, but the ancient and consistent understanding the word is of an association with thoughts, not actions. Beliefs are thoughts and, as such, exist entirely within the mind. (And, yes, of course; the mind is a purely physical phenomenon of the brain.) We can and often do (but not always) act on beliefs, but the result of acting is an action, not a belief. Attempting to equate the two is going to cause no end of confusion.

              Again, not to suggest that actions and their relation to beliefs isn’t a topic worthy of discussion, just that there’s long-standing and perfectly defensible reasons to separate the two — and conflating them isn’t going to move any discussion forward.


              • Posted April 3, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

                I’m carving a subset of beliefs (those actually acted on), and suggesting that a really close and critical look at what falls outside the new boundaries be re-assessed for the failures that the current, long-standing tradition holds. You assert quite convincedly that the existing definition is sufficient, but have not addressed the weaknesses you see in the model (other than claiming confusion might ensue). The definition and meaning is not as univocal as you would like to insist.

                (Without intending to aggrandize my own position) Your argument sounds similar to someone telling Einstein that Newtonian physics has surely served us well enough until now… or a Theologian telling Jerry that Free Will does SUCH good work that we can’t abandon the concept.

                And yes, confusion is a possibility and that is why I initiated with the comment that perhaps completely chucking the word might be useful, given the issues involved in trying to keep coherent the vast and equivocal use of the word.

                I would submit as proof of the problem I seek to address, the number of advertising campaigns simply exhorting us to be believers. Something wrong there. 🙂 They don’t seek “belief” except in the sense that they seek your action (handing over money.)

                But… this digression is for another time, anothe site perhaps. Thanks for engaging.

              • Posted April 3, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

                The problem is that anybody could observe Mercury’s orbit and see that the predictions of Newtonian mechanics don’t match the observations.

                At best, you’re arguing that the word, “belief,” is not sufficient unto itself to explain the entire causal chain involved in decision-making and action. I’d agree with you. But I wouldn’t agree that we therefore need to alter or expand the word to encompass that entire phenomenon, especially when there’s not any serious real confusion (outside of very confused people such as theologians and philosophers) about the phenomenon.


              • Posted April 3, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

                Sorry.. one last thought, I missed in replying:

                “We can and often do (but not always) act on beliefs, but the result of acting is an action, not a belief.

                See… therein lies the frame. Invert the frame: Action creates/exemplifies “beliefs” so unless we act on it, it’s not a belief. What is it then?

                Engrossing angle, IMO… This is an inversion as striking and difficult to press as questioning the existence of “free will.”

                Saying you don’t wish to participate in the thought experiment would be one thing. Saying it’s not worth it or can’t push the discussion forward… well.. that’s you acting on the belief that you know what will and won’t advance knowledge… 😉 (Actually, that violates my conclusions and principle. I don’t know what you believed that motivated you to write what you wrote. All I KNOW is that you wrote something with the effect of attempting to close an avenue of discussion. I presume, on my model, that you have (by writing) “believed” an action to end this discussion will get you to the better place you desire to be. 🙂

              • Posted April 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                See… therein lies the frame. Invert the frame: Action creates/exemplifies “beliefs” so unless we act on it, it’s not a belief. What is it then?

                You’ve got the cart before the horse. Beliefs (using the normal definition of the word, not your made-up inverted perversion of it) can arise from anywhere, especially from mere observation. I believe that Baihu is sitting in front of the back door right now, watching the birds. What action created that belief? Turning to the left with my eyes open?

                You may well be able to construct your own private language that’s internally consistent by continuing down the path you’re on, but, even if you succeed, you’ll never do anything but make people believe you’re barking mad.



              • Posted April 3, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

                No need to resort to ad hominems just because you don’t share my view, or wish to participate in the thought experiment as described. Your reticence to step away from your own starting frame, repeatedly, tells me that i believe the conversation should end, for now.

              • Posted April 4, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

                Sorry; I wasn’t going for a personal attack. I just don’t see the utility in redefining common and clear and useful terms to mean something fuzzy that’s contradictory to the accepted and ancient definition. Again, not that the subject isn’t worthy of contemplation — just that hijacking words isn’t the way to go about it.


              • Posted April 4, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

                That’s OK… I understand. The clash of ideas isn’t always pretty or clean, and in fact your push-back is forcing me to do better. (Elsewhere… I’ll try to get a link to you via PM, if you are interested in continuing the refinement elsewhere. I don’t want to hijack Jerry’s blo… er… website. :- )

                I hear what your saying about not “hijacking” words. But I am explicitly taking issue with your blithely saying the term belief is “common, clear and useful.”

                It’s kind of like insisting that Euclidian geometry is the only useful approach to geometry. We already HAVE a clear definition. Granted, it’s on me to prove why we “ought” to go beyond the existing formulations of belief.

                But do you hear what I’m saying about being trapped by their current definitions, in a way that may be harmful?

                I think the ideas and formulation I’m trying to refine serves as a means of either avoiding or allowing escape from religious dogma. But hey… if that’s not of interest. 🙂

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      That translation of logos was incorrect anyway – it can mean word but it can also mean order. I’m surprised religious folk have not used it wrt entropy, but maybe they have & I’ve just been lucky enough not to have been exposed to their ideas.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Ah, “not chaos” rather than “command”.


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          Yeah it is saying it is the same as Plato. Even some religions talk about this.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Belief is not a good one to kill off.

      A major part of why the public has a difficult time understanding science is that scientists use belief all the time in ways that not only completely erase the need for direct evidence but also make it possible to know a great deal more than observations could permit.

      • Posted April 2, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Yes, actually chucking a word isn’t going to happen… but becoming aware and careful about the incredibly equivocal use of the term is a good thing.

  9. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I don’t see anything there to indicate that Dennett is rethinking compatibilism. Rather, he’s just acknowledging that some people insist on understanding the words “free will” in a purely libertarian sense and will admit of no other meaning. So in order to continue talking to such people, Dennett has no choice but to find some other term for the sort of compatibilist moral competence he advocates.

    • DV
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      This is the point I’m getting too. To borrow another one of Dan’s analogy, this is like the term “magic”. Some people insist on the meaning of the term such that anything done on stage by magicians is not really magic. They insist that the kind of magic that exists in reality is not Real Magic(TM); that the only real magic is the kind that doesn’t exist. And so it is with free will. Some people are stubborn in their refusal to gain a new understanding of what free will means. They insist that the only Real Free Will(TM) is the one that doesn’t exist. And in the process they throw out things like choice, responsibility, and moral competence as well (of course they won’t take blame for doing this because they claim they had no choice). But I wonder if there will be a Nobel Prize awarded for the death of free will would any incompatibilist claim responsibility then.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        And in the process they throw out things like choice, responsibility, and moral competence as well (of course they won’t take blame for doing this because they claim they had no choice). But I wonder if there will be a Nobel Prize awarded for the death of free will would any incompatibilist claim responsibility then.

        How is choice and responsibility dependant of the existence of free will and how would you define moral competence?

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          A lot of people here explicitly reject the term “choice” at least; not so sure about responsibility. As for moral competence, I am not a native speaker but as far as I understand an example would be the difference between a three year old walking out of a shop with something they haven’t paid for and a mentally sound thirty year old doing the same.

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            Well, absolute morality is an oxymoron imo, but I have no problem with morality as a term as long as it’s followed by clarification.

            Choice is fine too in my book ( although we don’t really have a choice in the sense that if we play the same sequence again the outcome will always be the same ).

            I’ll even go with will without the free as long as we agree up front what the working definition is.

            But free will as a concept and as a descriptive term describing choice/decision-making is simply too woo-ladden for my taste. It’s unnecessary baggage that laways needs to get cleared out of the way before we get to the bone of the matter: Determinism.

            We can all, well most of us I think, agree that determinism is the real name of the game. Getting people to accept that notion is more than enough heavy lifting for me. Lazy as it may seem to some. 🙂

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted April 2, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

              Personally I’ll be happy if we can get people to accept that they don’t have a supernatural soul or the magical power to defy the laws of physics. But the name of that game is naturalism, not determinism. The idea that everything comes down to physics doesn’t entail that physics must be 100% deterministic or that there’s only one possible future.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

                I’m guessing we may be working on different fields, then. Naturalism is old school and widely accepted round here…

                There’s only one ( as far as we know ) actual future regardless of potential scenarios. We don’t split.

                I hope we can agree that if all variables, including random events and potential hidden variables, were played one more time, the outcome would be the same?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

                If they’re truly random, then no, the outcome wouldn’t be the same. That’s what random means.

                And I think you’ll find that most quantum physicists these days lean toward Many Worlds and the idea that there is more than one actual future.

                But my point is that while such questions remain open even among scientists, it’s presumptuous to go around telling people they had better get on board with determinism, when what we really care about is that they don’t make policy based on supernatural fantasies.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                Yeah, but then the rewind process would have to exempt random events ( I know in an oxymoronically twist of term they lose the status of being random the instance we stop the tape ). My simple point is regardless of Many Worlds theory there’s still just one actual outcome for us. If or when the universe splits we don’t. At least I have no working memory of multiple outcomes.

                The arrow of time is a relentless bitch in our version of a universe…….thus far.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

                I think you’re confused about what Many Worlds means. The whole point is that we do split; all possible outcomes are actualized, and there’s a distinct version of you for each one of them. If you accept that consciousness is a physical process, then each of those alternative Jespers is as real, conscious, and “actual” as any other, and each of them remembers only one outcome.

                So the fact that you don’t remember multiple outcomes is exactly what Many Worlds predicts. It does not mean you didn’t split or that there’s only one actual future.

                This FAQ may help clarify things for you.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

                I’m without a doubt very confused about what Many Worlds means, so bear with me. My point is, for all practical purposes I’m not a multi-person, if you catch my drift. I don’t have multiple outcomes available to choose from. I may have multiple potential outcomes, but I only experience one actual outcome that’s a part of one chain of events.

                Pardon my french and no disrespect, but the theoretical outcomes of the many worlds in other universes are irrelevant to me, so far.

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                It’s worth noting that, regardless of the soundness of the central points of that FAQ, there are some real howlers in there, too. For example, Q37 presupposed dualistic (in the religious sense) artificial intelligences as a method to detect other worlds, and misses the fact that the first integrated circuits had all the computing power necessary for that part of the experiment and that modern physics labs should have all the rest of the specified equipment.

                Thanks to CERN and the Higgs, BICEP2 and quantum gravity, and Fermi’s galactic gamma ray observations likely indicating dark matter is WIMPS with a mass of ~35 GeV, we should have assembled all the last missing empirical pieces necessary to unify QM and GR. I’m placing my bet on a GUT by the end of the decade — and that should settle questions about Many Worlds, multiverses, and the like pretty definitively. Until then, I’m remaining tentatively unconvinced by Many Worlds.


              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                And in other worlds there are Ben Gorens that vigorously defend it … 😀


              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

                That’s another objection I have with popular presentations of Many-Worlds, though not necessarily with the formal physics description.

                I’m not so sure that, even if Many-Worlds is true, that there therefore would be an alternate universe in which Germany won WWII. So much of what we consider to be the pivotal moments in history are classical, not quantum events. If Many-Worlds is true, I’d expect there to be much more gross similarities between worlds with only very rarely significant splits.

                I’d expect those splits to be more significant in the modern era, now that we have electronics capable of flipping bits based on indeterminate quantum events…but, even still, we tend to engineer around them, or use them in ways in which the specific form of randomness is irrelevant. You’re not going to change your dinner plans based on the value chosen as the exponent in an SSL session, even if you book your reservations over an encrypted Web page.

                So, if there is some unimaginable number of alternate Ben Gorens “out there,” I’d expect the most recognizable of them to be typing these exact words, and the others, perhaps, to not even have ever heard of Jerry Coyne at all. Maybe some set of those Ben Gorens accept Many-Worlds, but I’d be astounded if they’re arguing in favor of it in this thread on WEIT.



              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

                Oh, and I don’t go around telling people they had better get on board just like I don’t go around telling people they had better be atheists.

                But I don’t shy away from it when the subject comes up.

            • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

              free will as a concept and as a descriptive term describing choice/decision-making is simply too woo-ladden for my taste

              Not for my taste, because in German “freiwillig” is the only non-idiotic word for voluntary. And that is the crux of the issue: it depends not on any empirically demonstrable reality but on how we each subjectively understand certain terms.

              IMO, Gregory Kusnick is right: naturalism is the point regardless of how much randomness there is in nature, because randomness isn’t supernatural free will either.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted April 3, 2014 at 1:31 am | Permalink

                We have it in Danish too where “frivillig” means voluntarily. It isn’t the same as the concept of “Fri Vilje”.

  10. Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Maybe Dan should write more on his epiphany.

  11. tim
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Indeed, it would be nice to have the semantics portion of this debate end so that Dennett can join the conversation on the moral implications of us not having free will in the everyday sense.

    In my mind the acceptance and understanding of incompatibilism means the end of hate and revenge, or at the very least, the realization that these are irrational reactions to the behaviour of others.

  12. ratabago
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Could the quote come from Marvin Minsky?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s Minsky.

      • ratabago
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink


  13. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    On May 14, 2014, Dennett will be coming back to northern NM (Santa Fe) and giving a talk “Is Free Will an Illusion?” He gave a talk about two years ago on free will and it was great. Well worth attending if you are in the low-population density area of NM.

  14. John K.
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    One of the most frustrating things about free will debates is that libertarian free will and compatabilist free will are rarely differentiated and mean almost exactly opposite things. Couple that with various comatabilist defenders trying to flout determinism with talk of quantum indeterminacy while maintaining that they do not deny determinism. It all smacks of definition deception and rationalization, much like “sophisticated arguments” for god. I think the idea that compatabilist free will proponents are using deceptively wrong nomenclature has been the main contention of practically every incompatabilist.

    • Vaal
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm…I don’t remember any compatibilists
      appealing to quantum indeterminacy in arguing for compatibiism. Every compatibilist I’ve ever read is on the side of pointing out that quantum indeterminacy
      doesn’t save, or support free will at all.
      And that free will (of the moral type we want) arises much more comfortably from determinism.


      • Posted April 2, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        The most famous quantum-foo-saves-free will guy now is Robert Kane, who is a libertarian! (My former teacher, Storrs McCall, has also defended this position.)

  15. Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I suppose the term “exorbitant discretion” will never make it off the runway.

    Oh well.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      I think there’s a medicine for exorbitant discretion.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but potential side effects include constipation, heart palpitations, epistemological incoherence, heartburn, and erectile disfunction. Ask your doctor if Shyagra is right for you.


        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          A friend of mine suggested offering gift cards for free will. Of course, the purchaser has no contra-causal ability to renegotiate the denominations.

          • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

            A lawyer could offer a coupon for a free will with every divorce….


  16. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Forgot to sub!

  17. Nilou Ataie
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I am bothered by how so much of religion is based on the notion that there is this ability to choose and that we have free will and are being tested. The idea of free will can keep people down too. But I do see how the idea of no free will can be dangerous too. How about just will.

  18. Vaal
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Whether we should keep using the term “Free Will” is a tough one. As Dan points out, there is baggage to be dealt with no matter which option you take. Keep the term and some confuse it with mystical power. Throw out the term, and perhaps just as many will be confused, thinking we are denying they have some of the features they actually DO have (e.g. ability to choose, responsibility, etc).

    Maybe we could just say we have “freedom” instead of “free will.”

    The thing is I see no easy way out of this. No matter what route you take, it’s going to take, in Dan’s words “heavy lifting” to disabuse the misconceptions.


    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      I think “choice” is pretty much sufficient according to our debates, but I agree it’s heavy lifting explaining determinism and the perceived loss of free will to some is pretty much like losing your religion.

      It would appear that most people don’t like to think of themselves as animalistic meatpuppets dancing along to causal chains of actions and consequences. Free will ( and our consciousness ) is a part of what seprerates us as humans compared to other animals and if this does not exist then what’s there to stop us from plunging into anarchy and chaos? No free will means no moral compass, no right from wrong, no good from bad… etc. etc.

      So yeah, screw free will, it’s all about determinism anyway. 🙂

  19. Jeffery
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Mr. Dennet is finally becoming so tangled up in his own words that even HE can’t figure out where he stands- we are talking, after all, about a man who, in his book, “Breaking the Spell”, uses the first 76 pages to discuss why religion should be examined at ALL, before the “examination” ever begins!

    I do like much of what he writes, but his statement above confuses me as it seems to be such a sophomoric question:
    “does neuroscience show that we cannot be responsible for our choices, cannot justifiably be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished?”

    It’s obvious that those who deny the existence of “free” feel very much so that “they” (the convenient illusion of self) are responsible for “their” actions (which the body performs once the decision to do so is made, on whatever level); they regularly praise and blame others; appreciate rewards, and gnash their teeth when punished. Dennet seems to be wondering how this could be possible if one doesn’t believe in “free” will, in much the same way that a born-again Christian wonders how anyone who doesn’t believe in his God can live a moral life.

    “Praise” is a judgement on physical phenomena: one can praise an event, the actions OF someone, or the results OF such actions without having to address said praise to a non-existent “little man in the control room” in the other’s head.
    “Blame” is merely the assignation of the causes of an event, although it does get complicated when it is done to harm another: one can objectively blame, or blame with the intent of making someone else feel bad, just as praise can be a simple noting of the benefit (for our bodies) of an action or event, or an attempt to make someone else feel pleasure- no one said that human thinking is simple!.

    “Rewards and punishment”? Of course, a person who persists in harming others has to, in some manner, be separated from society, whether his “free” will in was the cause, or not. So far as rewards go, we all live our lives in a quest for rewards- since the mind recognizes that the avoidance of a “loss” is a “gain”, we’re actually operating on an “all-carrot” system, once again, whether there’s any little “controller” in us capable of independent decision, or not.

  20. Paul Eckstein
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    “My decision was caused by internal forces I do not understand.” Presumably, you don’t understand your decision to use this phrase as a substitute for ‘free will’, either. Unless, of course, your decision to do this wasn’t ‘free’, but ’caused’, and you’ve identified the cause. I don’t see why we should take this irrational view of human behavior seriously at all. In fact, all this talk seems to me to be the product of a ‘category mistake’, a Rylean (as in Gilbert) notion that I know that Dan Dennett understands all-to-well.

  21. eric
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    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.

    This does seem to me to capture the heart of the issue. I think a lot of compatibilists see determinism as leading to nihilism, and they do not want to be nihilists, so they reject determinism. The trick is to realize that there is room to be a determinist non-nihilist. Yes, my brain chemistry may be making all the decisions for me. But you know what? My forebrain is part of that system. My conscious thoughts are part of that system. They impact what happens, even if they are simply a deterministic middle stage between causes and effects. Just because my conscious reasoning may not be the “overseer” I want it to be, does not mean I should abandon conscious reasoning altogether. That would be silly. Equating determinism with nihilism is kind of like going from “I’m drunk, uh oh my judgement is impaired” to “well if my judgement is impaired, I might as well shoot myself.”

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I feel this is correct, but I worry a bit about the definition of consciousness. I suppose it reflects some neat circuitry that one must suppose is connected to other stuff of which we are not conscious…

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      I think a lot of compatibilists see determinism as leading to nihilism, and they do not want to be nihilists, so they reject determinism.

      No, not at all: compatibilism is a whole-hearted embrace of determinism. That’s what compatibilism *means*.

      The only difference is that compatibilists don’t want to bother with a wholesale revision of the language, considering that it can be readily interpreted in keeping with determinism, whereas the incompatibilists claim to want a wholesale revision of the language.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        I admire you for your patience.

      • eric
        Posted April 2, 2014 at 5:45 am | Permalink

        You are right in that I confused compatibilism with the more squishy and dualistic position of libertarian free will. However, I think my point still applies: rejection of determinism is often rooted in a rejection of the nihilism which opponents see as a necessary conclusion of determinism. Break the connection to nihilism and give a good argument for why determinists can do things like “have a position on social justice” etc. and in many cases you will overcome the opposition.

  22. Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    For a second there I thought this post was an April Fool’s Day prank. 🙂

  23. Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I could never see that the fact that there might be a free will that we ‘want’ should have any bearing on our assessment of what free will we actually have. It doesn’t matter what we want. It’s a very religious attitude, allowing what we want dictate what we think is the case.It’s no wonder philosophy and theology are seen by many to be coser together than philosophy and science.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      But suppose we carefully unpack the popular notion of free will and find that the thing people care most about — the kind of free will we want — turns out to be isomorphic to the kind of free will we can actually have in a deterministic universe. Surely that would be good news, because it tells us we have nothing to fear from determinism.

      Of course we should be clear about what we actually have. But we should be equally clear about what people want before telling them they don’t have it. That’s Dennett’s point in talking about “the kinds of free will worth wanting”.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        I disagree. Religious history, and much of history generally, consists of the powerful telling everyone else what what they should want.

        Believing stuff because you want it to be true?

        So, any isomorphism might be news; and it might be convenient news, for philosophers and theologians.

        But I don’t see it as good news. We’ve been negotiating life without free wil, kidding ourselves we have it. And not all the consequences of that mistake have been beneficial. We adapt.

        • Vaal
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink


          What Dan, and Gregory, are talking about has nothing to do with “believing BECAUSE you want it to be true.”

          Religious people also worry that “Without God there would be no basis for morality – for right or wrong actions.”

          But we secularists simply point out that fear is unfounded, because it turns out that simply isn’t the case. Without God we can still have reasons to call an action right or wrong, good or bad. It’s not “because we want it to be true” it’s because (from various secular moral theories) an analysis of value shows that it never did, nor ever could, depend on a God in the first place and we had the characteristics necessary for morality all along.

          It’s a case of pointing out how people are mistaken to think we need a God for the thing they are afraid they won’t have.

          Same with free will.

          A lot of religious people think if we don’t have a soul, weren’t made by a Rational God, and “all we are is matter in motion” then reason and rationality would not be possible.

          Surely you agree that doesn’t follow. But you don’t think so on the basis that “you wish it were true,” right? You think it’s just a mistake on the part of someone who thinks that way.


        • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:40 am | Permalink


          Dennett talks about a free will worth having, and then argues from that perspective that it would be dangerous to tell people they don’t have free will. He’s looking to use a semantic twist to the meaning of free will in order to avoid what he sees as the consequences of telling people they don’t have free will.

          He might well believe in his version of free will anyway, and it may be that he’s not arguing for compatibilism BECAUSE he wants us to have free will and because he doesn’t like the consequences of the incompatilist notion that free will is an illusion.

          But then why make such a big deal of it? It colours his arguments to a degree that this is how it appears. And take away that argument from consequences and he doesn’t have much else, as it appeared from both the content and tone of his response to Harris.

  24. Bob Carlson
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Dennett’s case is analogous to that of Einstein. It took a long time for others to persuade Einstein of the correctness of their view that the universe is expanding. There were many other physicists who were similarly stubborn in abandoning viewpoints on cosmology that weren’t supported by the evidence, and there is a great book about that: The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity

    • Vaal
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I think Dennett the type of possible concession Dennett is talking about is not analogous to the Einstein situation you reference. Nothing would change about Dennett’s explanation of how we work, or the powers we do and do not have. It’s just a strategic question of keeping a phrase or not.


    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      The issue of whether the universe is expanding is a factual matter, to be decide on evidence.

      The compatibilists and incompatibilists actually agree on the facts of “free will” and determinism. They disagree only on the semantics of what words to use, and on whether certain phrases are or are not too loaded with dualist baggage to be useful and retained.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        The fact that the debate over whether or not to keep the terms keeps getting so heated is itself powerful evidence in favor of dropping the terms.

        Add on top of that the fact that the phrase, “free will,” is its own self-contained oxymoron in the plain meaning of the component words, and it’s utterly beyond me why anybody should feel any attachment to the phrase or profitability in “rescuing” it from its theological and philosophical origins.


        • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

          Well let’s leave the phrase “free will” aside for a second. How about “choice”? Do you want to eradicate that from the language, in favour of “appearance of choice” or something else? Or are you going to accept that re-writing the whole language is impractical and that it’s better to simply interpret words in compatibilist/deterministic ways?

          [Also, the term “free will” as used in “Did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced?” is entirely sensible and not at all oxymoronic. What phrase do you wish to use for the concept of someone’s internal desire being over-ridden by external pressure?]

          • Darkwhite
            Posted April 2, 2014 at 5:10 am | Permalink

            The concept of internal desire being over-ridden by external pressure falls apart literally the moment you start thinking carefully about it. That’s why people can’t stomach the compatabilism Dennett’s selling.

            It falls apart, because every moment of our lives is a compromise between what we want and what is possible, constrained by laws of physics, our physical capabilities and mental aptitudes, and the people we interact with.

            Short of literal mind control, you are never truly coerced. When someone points a gun at your head, they dictate the consequences of some actions, such as refusing to sign a document. This is no different from how gravity determines what happens when you step off a cliff, how a beautiful smile tempts you to buy a girl a drink, or how being intoxicated can make rash decisions look good.

            There isn’t, even in principle, anywhere to draw the lines between coercion and freedom of choice. When you are talking about external pressure, you are stepping into the same dimension of contrafactual nonsense that is needed to make sense of could-have-done-otherwise, if-things-were-different.

            • Posted April 2, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

              This is why INcompatibilism falls apart when examined. OF COURSE there is a difference between signing a contract because you like it, and signing it because someone is coercing you. Social-interaction issues such as these are real and important to us.

              • Darkwhite
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

                Yes, there is a difference, but the difference is -not- that of external pressure vs internal desires. Circumstances can be pressuring, precisely and exclusively because they play to our desires (the internal is tautological).

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

                You’re conflating the legal and theological / philosophical definitions of the term.

                Nobody has a problem with the legal definition and use of the term. The debate is entirely about the other, much more common, definition.


              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

                I submit that the compatibilist (=”legal”) use of such terms as actually as common as the “theological/philosophical” one. Afterall, very few people concern themselves with theology/philosophy in their everyday life.

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

                Regardless of frequency of use, when everyday people use the term in theological or philosophical contexts, they’re using the “deterministic randomness” definition, not the “gun to the head” definition.


              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

                Doesn’t the data actually show that “everyday people” have a confused and inconsistent usage of the terms?

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

                If the common use of the term is itself confused and inconsistent, that’s even more reason to abandon it let any attempts to salvage it get bogged down in confused inconsistency.

                …which is exactly what we see every single flippin’ time the subject comes up….


              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

                Lots of words are confused in popular usage, but we still use them. Anyhow, the real reason that the subject gets bogged down is that the incompatibilists can never accept that the compatibilists are 100% ok with determinism.

          • Posted April 2, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

            I’ve already written a response in this thread defending the word, “choice.”


            • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

              Excellent, then you’re pretty much a compatibilist!

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

                No. I reject the term, “free will,” as an incoherent self-contained contradiction. The theological / philosophical term is incompatible with reality.

                That there exists other real phenomena with loose associations to the term no more makes me a compatabilist than the cup of tea I’ll be drinking in a minute makes me a calorific vitalist.


              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

                So that’s it: The entire dispute comes down to this:

                Incompatibilists consider that the only proper usage of the phrase “free will” is the dualist one. Compatibilists consider that both meanings of the phrase have a long history and are legitimate.

              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink


                I consider the two definitions to be entirely separate. An “actor,” for example, can be a thespian or a participant in a process. The thespian is almost guaranteed to be presenting something that is fiction. When, for example, an employer is a key actor in industrial relations, honesty is likely to be crucial to success.

                Your continued conflation of the two very distinct definitions for the term, “free will,” is akin to insisting that, because labor negotiations only succeed in the long term if both sides are honest, therefore everything that happens on the stage or the silver screen is literally true.

                If compatibilists consider the term, when used in theological or philosophical contexts, to be legitimate, then they are as utterly confused on the matter as the theologians and the philosophers. Perhaps even more so, for they’re adding on yet another irrelevant varnish on top of the married bachelor.


              • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                But the compatibilist interpretation of “free will” has been used for the *philosophical* meaning of “free will” as far back as the Greeks.

                Second, the compatibilists consider that compatibilist free will is relevant to morality, which is the same relevance of free will to the dualist. Thus the two meanings are not as distinct as you suppose.

                As has been pointing out of these threads, the notion originally comes from the human experience of will and of acting on will. The compatibility and dualist notions are then interpretations of that experience.

  25. Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    As before, I see at least two conceptual problems with throwing away words like free will, choice etc. The first is that it is useful to have an elegant term to describe the real, empirically demonstrable differences that are currently being described with those terms that we are supposed to declare taboo, and I have not yet seen an incompatibilist come up with a reasonable alternative.

    And the alternatives that actually are suggested bring us to the second problem: in my eyes, they are misleading and wrong. For example, “my decision was caused by internal forces I do not understand”, sounds superficially okay, but those internal forces are what constitutes me, so the decision was made by me. Rephrasing that simple fact in the unnecessarily convoluted way suggested is just as weird as saying “the result was produced by complex internal electronic processes” because one somehow feels pressed to avoid saying the equivalent “the pocket calculator has computed the result”.

    (In addition, there are other, non-conceptual problems, such as whether it is even realistic or desirable to pick this fight. Again, the comparison with “life” seems a good one. Go back to the time when science discovered that there was no supernatural spark of life but instead life was merely a biochemical process. If scientists had then insisted that we discard the terms “alive” and “living” because they carry supernatural ballast, would that have worked? Would it actually be helpful if every time somebody wants to express “I am sorry, your father has died” they were forced to use “I am sorry, but biochemical processes inside your father have irrevocably changed from homeostasis to decomposition”?)

    • Posted April 3, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      The way I see it is what the “me” is, and whether you are responsible for it. Fischer and Ravizza’s compatibilist account founders because the formation of the self it requires is also not in your control.

      This is where Dennett misses some of the debate: he says if you “make” (rather, assert that you are) yourself small enough you can evade (moral) responsibility. Nut that misses the point; the point is that that self is not self-forming, at least completely. I still wonder if we can get a useful notion of *selective* bootstrapping. (We need selective for cases like autism, tourrettes, etc. where there is partial develoment of “normal” systems.)

  26. Frank Bartell
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    If you don’t believe in free will what’s the point of trying change people’s opinions? Or do you hold that they are predestined to be swayed by your arguments?

    • Heath
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      They have no choice in trying to change people’s opinions; the fact that they would do so was determined at the Big Bang, just as whether or not their interlocutors would be convinced by them doing so was determined at the Big Bang. Not to mention your comment asking what the point is was determined at the Big Bang. And my comment on your comment. And your thoughts about my comment on your comment.

      That’s just one reason why I find the debate over free will to be the philosophical equivalent of arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        This notion that everything that will ever happen was “determined at the Big Bang” is almost certainly wrong. Modern cosmology tells us that the early universe was dominated by quantum indeterminacy; we can see the relics of it in the microwave background (most recently in the widely publicized BICEP2 results).

        If you click here you will see a block of text that was determined not by the Big Bang, but by a quantum random number generator running in real time.

        Human decisions are determined by physical causes. But it does not follow that there is a single unique future laid down at the Big Bang.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. I have seen no evidence that shows that all events follow from the Big Bang.

          Imagine simulating the universe, twice over with exactly the same conditions. It is possible, though extremely unlikely, the outcome would be the same for both universes, but physically, and much more likely, it is also possible the outcomes could be very different.

        • Heath
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

          If you want to bring quantum physics into it: a set of possible universes that are differentiated only by quantum physical variation was determined at the Big Bang. Personally I don’t think it’s a hair worth splitting.

          Either way, it makes no difference in terms of the question Frank posed (“If you don’t believe in free will what’s the point of trying change people’s opinions?”).

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

            You’re the one who brought physics into it by appealing to the Big Bang. I’m just saying that if you’re going to do that, you ought to use correct physics (as best we understand it) rather than 19th-century physics we know to be wrong.

            As for Frank’s question, it seems to me that a better answer is that we use argumentation to change people’s opinions because it works, even if the mechanism by which it works rests ultimately on physical forces operating in our brains.

            • Heath
              Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

              It “works” in the same sense that free will “works” (by the anti-free will logic): i.e., it’s superficially convincing to a layman but nonetheless just an illusion.

              My point (in response to Frank’s question) is that Coyne has no choice about making the argument — just as people hearing it have no choice as to whether or not to believe him, Frank had no choice about commenting on it, I had no choice about responding to him, you had no choice about saying I brought physics into it even though the entire point of Coyne et al’s argument is physics, I have no choice about making this response, etc etc ad nauseum. In the anti-free will world the question “why?” is misguided (or at best, redundant): it’s all just particle reactions.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

                I’m familiar with the “no choice” argument; I don’t find it convincing.

                And good luck getting any science done without asking “why”.

              • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                If it’s reasonable to say that an airplane autopilot chooses how to manipulate the control surfaces, or that an automatic stock trading program chooses which stocks to buy and sell when and for how much, or even that a thermostat chooses the moment in time to flip the switch on the heat pump — and I’d argue that those are all perfectly reasonable uses of the word — then the only sensible conclusion is that humans also make choices.

                Confusion over the word, “choice,” can only arise in a very confused theoretical framework in which decisions are simultaneously intentional and unconstrained even by intention — “free will,” in other words. On the one hand, a decision is considered forced upon the individual unless all outcomes are equally likely…but equality of probability is a perfect description of “randomness.” And on the other hand, decisions are only considered meaningful if it fits within a set framework of reason and consideration — but any such system will always come to the same logical conclusion, the very definition of determinism. Free will is thus the ultimate married bachelor, and the perfect rhetorical stick to beat over the heads of the confused masses. Quite literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t — and you’re even more damned if you complain about it.

                Thanks, but no thanks. That’s one game I choose not to play.



              • Heath
                Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

                I don’t find the “no choice” argument convincing either, but it’s at the heart of Prof Coyne’s argument: “So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice.”

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      Rejecting the notion of free will as incoherent does not entail defeatism. One might as well ask, since it’s impossible to run faster than the speed of light, why bother going for a walk in the park?


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        I think that is the fallacy called the Nirvana fallacy. Which perhaps could be argumentum ad Teen Spiritum. 😀

        • Kevin
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

          Nirvana fallacy. Very interesting. I learn something new every day.

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          Hadn’t heard it called that before, though, of course, I’m constantly struggling with (in so many venues) Voltaire’s formulation.


  27. Jimbo
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Even if Dennett reverses himself and goes with the Sean Carroll camp on free will (which would be a profound and gentlemanly admission), I can’t help but think that it would constitute a vicarious redemption given the vitriol and condescension he has subjected non-Sophisticated Philosophers(TM) to over the years.

    When he writes:
    “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…that they lean the other way: free will, in their view, is obviously incompatible with naturalism, with determinism, and very likely incoherent”

    …I read: ‘Oh, you meant the OTHER free will!’
    Really? Isn’t the philosopher’s job to be able to consider all the arguments and evaluate the claims and logical consistency of alternative views? Hopefully he tones down the ad hominems he leveled at Sam Harris when addressing Jerry.

    • Dale
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      Sean Carroll is a compatibilist.

  28. Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    The common expression ‘freedom of the will’ is bogus if taken at more than face value, not because of freedom but because of “the will”. In chapter 3 of The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle argued against the idea of the WILL as a special volitional faculty of the mind that is allegedly free or not; but the lesson has not been learned. Rather we should speak of free actions, decisions, choices and drop talk of the will. It would appear that in Plato and Aristotle there is no talk of the will but a lot about acting, choosing, deciding. When did talk of the WILL come about in our thinking? Read Michael Frede’s marvelous book A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought. Frede locates those philosophers who developed this idea and how it was taken over by Christian thinkers. And ever since it has become part of our thought about our psychology and action. But it has deeply mislead us. Dennett would be quite right to drop talk of “free will”. And others should follow.

  29. Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    One thing for sure…… the keenness to find the tiniest crack in Dennett’s commitment to compatibilism (whether real or perceived) is a high compliment to his stature in forwarding the arguments on compatibilist free will. Dennett has advanced this position on multiple fronts – his arguments both philosophically based and based on findings in the cognitive sciences. And of course EVOLUTION. Aside from his philosophical advancement of many of Kanes ideas on the mechanisms that establish a compatibilist form of free will I find his conception of free will as an “adaptive evolutionary by-product” totally compelling. “Freedom Evolves”.
    The “problem” faced by evolutionary adaption is that it is genetic and not Lamarckian. If conditions in the environment change to any significant degree, a simple organism has exceedingly limited ability to adapt to this change within a single generation. Only by the process of variation, competition and selection does the genetic population “solve the problem” presented by this environmental change –a slow and cumbersome process, but it works. In engineering terms the “time constant” of solution (adaption) is long – the time of multiple generation spans. Quicker change capability would be such an adaptive advantage. And Dennett points out that this “Lamarckian” capacity has indeed evolved – first in his primitive “avoiders” or simplistic biological agents that do very simple adaptive things – such as avoiding excessive heat – a most primitive form of “freedom” indeed. But the selection pressure in favour of “freedom of agency” is tremendous – it provides such an evolutionary advantage. In our species it is most fully developed – not just in the neural capabilities to analyse the environmental challenges faced and to “model potential solutions”, but in the capacity to learn. Beyond this humans have evolved culture and language where the time constant of adaptation is within one generation- and IN ONE INDIVIDUAL. The level of agency freedom is tremendously high. More than this, much of this agency is self influenced, a natural progression of the pressure for adaptive capability. Dennett merely points out that somewhere along the evolutionary path a line is crossed – a point where the self is a very major factor in many adaptive (decisional) processes (Kane mechanisms again). Compatibilist free will is the end result – we can argue endlessly over the words we use to describe it, but we cannot really deny its existence.

    • Posted April 2, 2014 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      I think the keenness, if any, is related to a general respect for Dennett, and not for his compatibilists free will. It’s quite common to respect many of the opinions of an individual and yet to disagree with them strongly on other matters. So, it’s not a case of recognising his stature in forwarding the arguments on compatibilist free will, but rather acknowledging his contributions elsewhere, in spite of what is seen as a big blunder in supporting compatibilism.

  30. TJR
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    In the spirit of trying to confirm exactly where we agree/disagree, does anyone disagree with the following?

    There are two common usages of the term “free will”:

    Free Will_1 : Dualist/Libertarian/Contra-causal free will, the “ghost in the machine” usage.

    Free Will_2 : Compatibilist free will, the “No-one was holding a gun to my head” usage.

    Incompatibilists and compatibilists do not necessarily differ in their views on how the universe works, their main difference is:

    Compatibilists think that both of the above usages are valid, but may prefer to use Free Will_2.

    Incompatibilists think that only Free Will_1 is a valid usage, and that it is misleading to use the term “free will” to mean Free Will_2.

    • Posted April 2, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      That’s not how I read it.

      Terms only make sense in a certain context.

      The context here is not law. I’m pretty sure that everybody would agree that the legal term of art is well defined, but also that it’s irrelevant to the context of this discussion.

      Outside of law, especially in religion and philosophy as well as in most instances in everyday usage (the exceptions being the legal definition), it’s intended to convey an incoherent mishmash of decisions that simultaneously are perfectly unconstrained and also follow inevitably from an ordered set of propositions. On the one hand, you are only free if all choices are equally probable (a perfect definition of randomness); on the other, your actions are only willful if they are in perfect accord with your desires (pure determinism)

      Further confusing matters, when somebody points to what they say is an exercise of free will, they’re actually pointing to the internal decision-making process, whereby, in the imagination, we build simulated realities of the predicted outcomes of various choices before us, and then pick which option to implement in the real world based on the analysis of those virtual realities. This has the subjective feeling of what Jerry has described as “rewinding the tape,” but, of course, it only happens in carefully-constructed fantasies contained entirely within the skull.

      That phenomenon is very real and very important, and it’s what people point to when they say they’re exercising free will…but it has exactly as much to do with free will as a cup of coffee has to do with vitalism.

      Most of the argument amongst rationalists stems from a misunderstanding of the decision-making process; failure to recognize that it’s said decision-making process people are pointing to when they utter the words, “free will”; or an insistence that we retain “free will” as the label to attach to this process despite the inevitable confusion that results.



      • TJR
        Posted April 3, 2014 at 1:28 am | Permalink

        I’m not quite sure what you are disagreeing with here (and similarly for your exchanges with Coel above).

        We all agree that you take the incompatibilist view, that Free Will_2 is an invalid usage of the term. Fair enough.

        Are you also saying that in fact there is a disagreement about the nature of the universe, and it isn’t just definitional? Or something else?

        • Posted April 3, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

          Honestly, I’m not sure — because I’ve not been able to make sense of Coel’s position. On the one hand, it would appear that we agree on the facts on the ground. On the other, Coel seems to be insisting that, though the common understanding of the term is confused and inconsistent incoherent, it’s still what we should be using. And, on top of it, he himself keeps switching back and forth between different definitions of the term in ways that are hard to follow, in ways that often come across as support for the very woo he elsewhere decries.

          Even if it’s only a linguistic argument over rhetorics, the compatibilist position is so rife with this type of confusion that I really can’t see the advantage in pursuing it. At best, compatibilists are doomed to spend all their time cleaning up the mess of confusion they leave in their wakes — of trying to tell everybody that, even though they’re using religious term in a philosophical discussion, they reject the religion and philosophy and embrace rationalism, even though they reject rationalist terminology and embrace religious and philosophical frameworks for the discussion.

          Sorry, but I don’t have patience to play those kinds of mind games. “Free will” is a self-contained contradiction; its origins and continued understanding are inextricably intertwined with soulful dualism; and the real-world phenomenon most closely associated with the woo version are as completely unrelated to each other as Aristotle’s Prime Mover is from Newtonian inertia — let alone relativistic gravity. You wouldn’t tell people that inertia is the type of Prime Mover they should really want, would you? No? Then why tell people that hypothetical analysis is the type of Free Will they should really want?


    • Darkwhite
      Posted April 4, 2014 at 12:28 am | Permalink

      The problem with FW2 is that no one – not even the compatabilists themselves – agree on what it’s supposed to mean, when you start generalizing beyond what’s supposed to be obvious.

      Let’s say free will is that thing you lose when someone points a gun to your head. What then about the guy who refuses to sign and gets shot – did he magically retain his free will? Or do you sort of have to choose to have your free will taken away by giving in to threats? What if the threat isn’t on your life, but just a moderately painful punch to the face? Is that enough to snuff out free will?

      Let’s say there’s no gun involved at all, but two different contracts. By sleight of hand, someone tricks me into signing a different contract than I wanted to. Did I do it of my own free will, when I did want to move my wrist, but weren’t aware of the actual consequences?

      Maybe there’s just a single contract, but it’s written in legalese and I fail to understand what it really entails. Did I give away my house willingly?

      Perhaps the gun never comes out, but there’s a perceived threat to my life, because there’s a thuggish-looking guy with a bad reputation sitting across the table. If I sign, fearing the consequences, did I exercise my free will?

      If it turns out my fear was entirely unfounded – no one else would have felt threatened in the same situation – were I coerced? Were I coerced by my own private delusions? Did I have my free will taken away by…myself?

      And, sure, it is possible to answer all of these cases one by one, as if one were alpine skiing – that’s not the problem. The problem is that literally nothing in the compatabilist position explains -how- to answer these questions, except applying some sort of common sense, and people’s different intuitions give widely different answers. Just look at how much trouble our courts of law have with deciding what conditions must be in place for people to be legally responsible for their actions.

      • DV
        Posted April 6, 2014 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Really? There’s confusion about the everyday meaning of “free will”? You can’t tell if you did something on your own free will? You’re overthinking it. Usually that’s the easiest thing to know. As for the unintended consequences of your freely willed (uncoereced actions), those don’t change the fact your were not coerced. You don’t have to have perfect knowledge and intention of all future consequences to say that you did something freely. Free Will is not like Love, it doesn’t mean never having to say sorry.

      • Posted April 7, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        I think of it purely in terms of being able to make a choice. Even with the gun to your head you presumably are either able to choose one or the other option presented, OR… you are bound by the laws of physics and all prior occurrences, etc.

        The former seems practical, but contradicts the reality of the latter. The latter seems true, but does not immediately suggest a practical use: i.e. if I adopt the truth that nothing I do is a choice, what should I be doing differently?

        Sigh… I read somewhere that there are two rocks upon which philosophers have crashed for millennia, and “free will” is one of them.

        • Tim
          Posted April 7, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          “what should I be doing differently?”

          It’s not so much what you should do differently but how you should feel differently about your own actions and those of others. It should make hate and revenge seem irrational to you. And I can not imagine how seeing hate and revenge as irrational could not improve your life, or at least your mental health. It’s done wonders for me.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted April 7, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see why one needs to abandon the notion of choice to conclude that hate and revenge are irrational.

            If someone is making bad choices that harm society, society can take corrective steps to induce such people to make better choices in the future. Hate and revenge are irrational to the extent that they distract us from our legitimate purpose of identifying and fairly applying the most effective means of correction. Whether the choices are “real” in some metaphysical sense is irrelevant to that purpose.

            • Tim
              Posted April 7, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

              Yes irrelevant to the purpose and application of law, but not to the emotions of people. If you think of someone as having libertarian free will, you will have every reason to hate them for killing your sister. You will have every reason to want them to die, and you may even want them to suffer during that dying.

              If you have a fully informed view of determinism, you can be alleviated of those feelings entirely, and make rational choices on how to deal with such a situation instead of irrational choices blinded by irrational emotional emotions. No?

              • Tim
                Posted April 7, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Oops, didn’t mean to double up on the word “emotion” there at the end.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 7, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

                I agree with this much: if you think with your brain rather than with your emotions, you’ll make better, more rational choices.

                Also this: if you reason from facts rather than fantasies, you’ll reach more reliable conclusions.

                Where we seem to disagree is on whether the claim that “nothing I do is a choice” counts as a fact for this purpose, and also on whether this alleged fact is the crucial one for rejecting hatred and revenge.

                My position is that there’s a reasonable meaning of “choice” that renders “nothing I do is a choice” false, and that the rejection of hatred and revenge doesn’t really depend on that claim in any case. I see no reason to believe that determinists are more capable than libertarians or compatibilists at recognizing and resisting their irrational emotional impulses.

              • Tim
                Posted April 7, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

                “My position is that there’s a reasonable meaning of “choice” that renders “nothing I do is a choice” false”

                A reasonable meaning that does not conflict with determinism? Do tell. I think one has to do some pretty fancy semantical arguing to make that happen. But why? What’s wrong with just accepting that all outcomes are deterministic and not really choices?

                “and that the rejection of hatred and revenge doesn’t really depend on that claim in any case”

                I don’t think I said it “depends” on acceptance of determinism, but I think it goes a long way in helping one get there. I really don’t see how one avoids feelings of hate and revenge with a view that free will exists. Hate and revenge are perfectly rational if free will exists.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 7, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

                I’m talking about the compatibilist meaning of “choice”, which I presume you’re familiar with from previous threads on this topic, so I won’t recap it here.

                In fact you yourself used “choice” in just this sense a few comments upthread, so I infer that you think it has a reasonable meaning that doesn’t conflict with determinism; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to argue that accepting determinism helps us “make rational choices”.

              • Tim
                Posted April 8, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

                There is no compatibilist meaning of “choice” there are several compatibilist meanings of “choice” and they are all fuzzy and semantical and somewhat in conflict with each other and I really don’t understand any of them. When I use the term “choice” I am using it in the classic libertarian sense even though I know that I don’t really have libertarian free will. Because I also know that knowledge of determinism does not change my feelings of having choice and so I have to roll with the ride and continue on as though I am making all of these choices even though deep down I know that I’m really not.

                I understand this is a strange circumstance to find oneself in, but it seems inescapable having gained the knowledge of determinism. I don’t see any other way to deal with it. The compatibilist definitions of “choice” don’t help me at all, in fact they feel almost like sophisticated theology to me. Like I’m trying to use semantics to fool myself or delude myself into the belief that I have free will.

                One thing is for sure, all of this stuff makes my head spin.

  31. Posted April 2, 2014 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Dan Dennett has a real policy on human free will. Without free will humans, as outlined in his 2nd book, are these:

    1. nothing really matters.
    2. no room for strivings and yearnings.
    3. can feel no caring, worrying, striving, hoping.
    4. leads directly to unhappiness and “moral nihilism.”
    5. is “ominous” for society.
    6. Lack of belief in free will “would lead society into a downward spiral into the motivational equivalent of the Heat Death of the universe: Nothing moves, nothing matters, nothing.”

    Human free will cannot be defined. It does not depend upon physical determinism, and does depend upon biological determinism, which is totally opposition to any free will in humans.

    I have debated Dan Dennett twice on free will. He is a great fellow to debate, but he never moved an inch toward a view immune from human free will. If he changes, all the numbered above he must change.

  32. tim
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Can we please put to bed this notion that discovering and accepting the reality of incompatibilism could lead one to become a nihilist and an immoral actor? Deciding to become a nihilist requires free will. Deciding to go on a killing spree requires free will. If you were not a nihilist before you found out about, and accepted the reality of incompatibilist determinism, then you will not become one afterwords, because it is not in your nature. If you were not a cold blooded killer before you found out about, and accepted the reality of incompatibilist determinism, then you will not become one afterwords, because such a decision would require free will, and you don’t have any such thing. Just try and go on a killing spree. Unless it is in your nature, you will not be able to do it.

    Millions have accepted incompatibilist determinism. None of us have been turned into nihilists by this revelation.

    • Posted April 7, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      What HAVE you done differently in the wake of “accepting” this revelation?

      • Tim
        Posted April 7, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        I have done nothing differently which is the point I was making. But I feel different about my actions and the actions of others. Namely I have lost the useless feelings hatred and revenge.

        • Posted April 7, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          I get that this element is good for your psyche, but what about thinking in terms of cause and effect? Others are no longer agents with intent? You are no longer a person who can make plans an effect change in your life or the world?

          This is the sticking point for me, and someday I’ll be able to put my finger on just WHY… but for now I feel like the determinists want to have their cake and eat it too: everything is determined, but you can still affect other people’s lives by the actions you choose, or advocate (like, even though you don’t hate or want revenge, you could still advocate for imprisoning murderers as a deterrent… I believe I’ve seen Jerry argue this particular point a couple of times.)

          It’s a blithe, unfalsifiable copout to say “Well… that’s the way the determinism made you and you had no choice but to seek to deter murderers through prisons.”

          Like I said. big sticking point. If you have the lever to get me off it, great!

          • Tim
            Posted April 7, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

            Well I understand your issue so that’s a good start. I kind of have the same issue, but it doesn’t make me want to find another way to look at determinism (compatibilism) because just facing determinism head on is working for me.

            I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the comedian, Bill Hicks, do his famous “it’s just a ride” routine (if you haven’t you should YouTube it) but it seems to me to be a good way to look at determinism. It’s a ride. Enjoy the ride.

            You absolutely can have your cake and eat it too is what I am getting at. I can know that everything I do is determined, even preordained by physics, and yet I have no choice but to continue on as though I am operating with free will and enjoy that inescapable illusion like a ride. Meanwhile I will look at the actions of both myself and others as the deterministic events that they are. As you pointed out, I can still rationally make laws to deter and lock away dangerous people, but are not punitive or designed to make someone pay for what they did and make families of victims feel better or avenged.

            I think even incompatibilist determinist atheists can wrap their head around the benefits of the awareness raising reminder “There but for the grace of God go I.”

            We just make it more rational by changing it to “There but for the randomness of this determined universe go I.” This is where you can get to with a clear view of determinism. I don’t see compatibilism getting us anywhere that improves things.

            • Posted April 8, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

              That’s a great reply. Thanks. It still seems odd to say something like, “I’m completely aware of the fact that everything is determined, but continuing to pretend it is NOT could have effects on the world… I had better not stop feeling like my actions can have effects”

              To which the determinist, perhaps rightfully, will reply, “You have no choice but to continue or stop thinking your acts have effects, as your molecules are “destined” to do… you’ll only know after you’ve done it, and it was going to happen anyway… so…”

              Gahhhh. 🙂

              In other words…discussions about Free Will are a completely useless waste of energy, but I’m “supposed” to have them. 🙂 I think circular thoughts, unfalsifiable, like this one are a sorting mechanism that weeds out the minds that get caught in such circular thoughts…You can either deal with the paradox, or it takes you over and poof, you’re out of the breeding pool. The same could be said of “faith”… complete, blind faith seems to be the “flip-side” of the same mental habit/flaw/reality.

              And just to blow our gracious host’s mind: That means that Faith and Determinism are 100 percent compatible, because they’re essentially the same commitment to unfalsifiable positions about the nature and function of the world.

              • Tim
                Posted April 8, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

                You are mistaken if you think I am committed to determinism. It’s nothing like faith. I would drop my belief in determinism in a heartbeat with just the slightest bit of evidence that it is not true. I have zero commitment to it. It is a temporary theory. That does not resemble faith in any way to me.

                It is a paradox of some sort that we can not escape the feeling of choice even when our intellect has exposed it as an illusion. People deal with this weirdness in different ways. Some use compatibilist semantics to work around it. I personally don’t find that compatibilist semantics work for me. It feels like sophisticated theology or like I am fooling myself with semantics. I prefer to simply say “well I guess I’m not really making these choices even though it feels like I am. That’s weird. Oh well. On with life.”

                It does however make me see hate and revenge as irrational. And I think that is a good thing. But me thinking that was preordained so it just gets weirder and weirder.

          • Posted April 8, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

            Determinism is not fatalism.

            When people point to what they’re doing when they say they’re exercising their free will, what they’re pointing at is their own internal decision-making process. This process consists of imagining the outcomes of various decisions before them — of creating multiple virtual realities for each possibility. They then analyze the results of those simulations and their likelihood, and base their actual real-world decisions on the results of that analysis.

            That process is wholly deterministic, but it’s also very real, and it carries with it the perceptual illusion of freely navigating across multiverses.

            In the words of the sage, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Never mind that there’s ultimately as much freedom in your decision-making process as there is in a thermostat turning the airconditioner on and off; you’re still going to make choices, whether or not you like the fact that you’re going to make choices, whether or not you like the process by which you make them.

            And you’re going to live with the consequences of those choices, again, like it or not.

            So the prudent choice is to choose wisely. Because, ultimately, the only meaning your life can even theoretically have is the meaning you give to it yourself. That said meaning is entirely at the whim of physics doesn’t make it any less your own meaning. It’s not just the best you’ve got; it’s all you’ve got.

            So why not make the most of it?



            • Posted April 8, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

              You mean, “So why not enjoy pretending you’re making the most of it?”

              That is SOOoooo “Life of Pi.”
              “True Schmoo… pick a story you like, and pretend that is what happened.”

              • Posted April 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                I’m not familiar with Life of Pi, so I’m afraid I don’t get the reference.

                But my point is that, just because perceptions aren’t a perfect reflection of reality, doesn’t mean that perceptions are meaningless or irrelevant — and that the pain you would suffer from fatalistic inaction is going to still be quite real. So what if it’s the weighting of your neural circuitry that inevitably causes you to avoid self-destructive nihilistic actions? What matters to you is that you don’t want to starve to death just because life has no transcendent meaning.


  33. Jeffery
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the “core-issue” at the heart of the “free” will debate is that of the existence or non-existence of a “soul”: an supposed entity which, motivated by our individual likes, dislikes, and past experiences (reflexes and genetically-programmed drives are in there, too) makes a constant series of choices as to our actions and reactions (all actions could be called, in a sense, “re”-actions, as they are based on prior experiences, attitudes, and programming) in and to the series of material events which with life presents us.

    It can seem a little disconcerting, even to a staunch atheist, to go a little further and realize that there is really no “me”, no “self” that exists independent of the mental processes that make our sense of self appear to be real. Buddhists liken the concept of “self” to that of the concept of say, a cart: Take away the wheels, the tongue, the axle, and the box, and where did “cart” go? In the same sense, once the aforementioned likes, dislikes, etc. are removed, where am “I”?

    For an individual to have “free” will, there must be a “something” there to have it, but that automatically leads to a problem: even if an individual HAS “free” will, what is he basing his decisions on? If his decisions are based on a limited amount of information, as they always are, isn’t his “free” will constrained by the limits of his knowledge, experience, likes and dislikes, etc.? Is this “free”? One person with his foot caught in a trap may choose to ignore the pain and cut his foot off to escape; another may not be able to bear the thought of doing so, all because of differences in their prior attitudes, genetic makeup, and experiences- shouldn’t the “freedom” of their “free” will be identical? One would think that, in a crisis, that everyone’s supposedly “identically-free” will would result in them making pretty much the same decisions, yet in real life we see a range of different behaviors being exhibited that run the gamut from perfectly reasonable to totally counterproductive.

    Another funny thing about “free” will is that even though we live in a world where most people would defend the belief that it exists, and all religions are, to one extent or another, dependent upon its existence, we cannot depend on it to reliably produce “gains” for us in our lives. Their are just too many variables, too much information for our brains to able to foresee, for certain, the outcome of any given action: I can start jogging to improve my health, only to get run over by a drunk driver, etc. The Babblical story of the “fall” of man is based on Eve’s “free-willed” decision to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (by the way, being not aware of what’s “good”, and what’s “evil” until AFTER she ate it, how would she know that it was “bad” to disobey God?); one would think that Christians would consider “free” will a “bad” thing, and would be earnestly praying that it be removed from them!

  34. Posted April 4, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    This proposal is not a denial of free will. I think Dennett would be right to call you a closet compatibilist. You seem to be agnostic about free will, or so the restatement suggests.

    Not understanding how the internal forces work suggest that the forces could be the work of free will of some variety or other.

  35. Posted April 4, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on A Philosopher's Take and commented:
    Coyne seems to be adopting agnosticism with regards to free will. This is far from FW skepticism. Maybe Dennett is right to call him a “closet compatibilist”. I look forward to reading Dennett’s critique.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Reader Jiten called my attention to this post by Gregg Caruso on Flickers of Freedom about Dan Dennett’s comment on Free Will—a comment that appeared in a discussion in the journal Methode. 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. [Read more] […]

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