Yes, that happened. During the TED Summit in Banff, Canada, Sam Harris managed to waylay Dan Dennett into a recorded discussion of their differences about free will. As you might recall, Sam published a short book on free will, with the eponymous title, and Dan went after Sam in a rather ascerbic way. (Dan is a “compatibilist,” who believes that although all human acts are determined by the laws of physics, we can still concoct some version of “free will” that is useful and, indeed, necessary. Sam, like me, sees little merit in that endeavor.) Sam was both blindsided and hurt, but he did write a response (see my post on the kerfuffle, which has all relevant links).
I was saddened that there was bad blood between two of my friends, but, characteristically, Sam tried to resolve the issue and restore civil discourse by interviewing Dan on free will—in a Banff bar, and for an hour and forty minutes. Though they didn’t resolve their differences, at least they managed to restore their friendship, which is great.
The interview podcast was put on Sam’s site, and I’ve placed the link below in a screenshot (just click on it). The real discussion starts at 9:10.
If you’ve read Sam’s book, Dan’s two books on the subject, and their exchange, you might not learn much, but what I enjoyed about this discussion was the chance to hear two really smart and articulate guys go at it, brains humming furiously. Neither changes the other’s mind—nor did Dan change my mind and make me favor compatibilism—but it’s fun to watch the exchange of artillery on this intellectual Western Front.
In the end, they were really talking past each other, I think. Sam’s point is that people really feel that they’re the agents of their own actions, and that compatibilism somehow avoids this, eliding the problems that people encounter when they realize that science deep-sixes that cherished idea. (Believe me, I’ve encountered many times the confusion and even anger people experience when they hear that their actions are determined by the laws of physics.) Sam notes that realizing the absence of dualism does “undermine people’s sense of their own personhood”, for people feel that they could have made choices other than the ones they did. It’s important that they know that they couldn’t.
Dan freely admits that determinism reigns; he even says, for the first time, I think, that yes, for most people free will is dualistic, a “ghost in the machine.” And the data show that. But Dan doesn’t seem to grasp that determinism has profound implications for how we run society—and our system of punishment and reward. (Yes, I know some readers will disagree.) Rather, Dan thinks that accepting the kind of compatibilist free will that, he says, “is worth wanting” (I don’t want it!) is important in keeping the social contract in force, and in preserving the crucial notion of moral responsibility.
The crux of the discussion is just that notion: that people must be held morally responsible for what they do; and there’s where Sam and Dan really did go hammer and tongs at each other. I agree with Sam, for I feel that people should surely be held responsible for their actions, for they are the entities that perform those acts and should be rewarded or punished depending on whether society wants to quash or promote future acts. So there’s no argument there. But Dan somehow wants to add more: the notion of morality. And I see no need for that.
For when you tack the word “moral” onto the word “responsibility,” you’re adding the notion that the agent had a choice in what he or she did. And most people agree with that idea. The one study I know of addressing the issue showed that, in four countries, people thought that in a deterministic world—a world, by the way, that most people thought we don’t live in—people would not be morally responsible for their actions. Dan explicitly states that he wants to push people toward accepting that moral responsibility.
As Dan has said before, abjuring specifically moral overtones to acts might erode society, making people act immorally. I don’t think that’s the case. As determinists we can maintain and justify the idea of personal responsibility on consequential grounds, but there’s nothing to be gained—and a lot to lose—by saying that the responsibility is a moral one. You can hear this discussion at about 47 minutes into the podcast.
As you’ll see, at the end of the discussion neither guy seems to have budged a millimeter in his views, but at least they’ve agreed on areas where they feel the same way. As for me, I continue to claim that philosophers should be spending their time working out the legal, behavioral, and psychological consequences of the determinism they accept, and not waste their time promoting compatibilist versions of free will that largely ignore determinism. Determinism has enormous practical implications; compatibilism has very few.
We can all accept determinism, at least those of us who accept science. Once we do that, do we really need to busy ourselves like mother birds, trying to regurgitate a palatable version of free will?
After Sam’s introduction and background, the two guys begin talking at 9:10. I think you’ll enjoy the intellectual combat, perfect for hearing on a lazy Sunday.