Last year, I reviewed and summarised the writing and public speaking of Sam Harris in relation to “free will”. Fellow “Four Horseman” and New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett has written a lengthy review of Harris’ work. In his short book, Free Will, as well as this article, Harris replied directly to Dennett’s account of “free will” in the latter’s book, Freedom Evolves. Harris has also promised to respond in detail to Dennett’s latest review.
I have not read Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, (it is on my rather-large-and-ever-growing “to read” pile) and to be perfectly honest, I find his review of Harris’ Free Will to be rather dense and far less compelling than its subject matter, which I cannot praise highly enough. My overall opinion (which I am happy to change once I have obtained a better grasp of Dennett’s work on the matter) is that Dennett has an almost presuppositional commitment to the notion of “free will” and will interpret the evidence any which way he can in order for it confirm to his notion of “free will”. I also side very much with Harris’ charges in this article that Dennett has redefined what most people think is “free will” and declared it by fiat to be “the only one worth having”.
Daniel Miessler provides a useful executive summary of Dennett’s article at the beginning of his article that is just as long:
It serves as the most elaborate, learned, and desperate hand-waving I’ve ever witnessed. It was such a weak argument that it looked more like an example that a brilliant philosophy professor, like Daniel Dennett, might use to highlight poor arguments to his students. Sadly it wasn’t a strawman used for instruction—it was his real position.
Here’s what he basically said:
1. It seems like we make choices, so we do.
2. It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so moral responsibility is real.
I just saved you ~30 minutes of exasperation.
Nevertheless, the closing paragraph of Dennett’s review dispenses with all the philo-neuro-psycho-babble that has gone before and is all the more persuasive for it:
If you think that the fact that incompatibilist free will is an illusion demonstrates that no punishment can ever be truly deserved, think again. It may help to consider all these issues in the context of a simpler phenomenon: sports. In basketball there is the distinction between ordinary fouls and flagrant fouls, and in soccer there is the distinction between yellow cards and red cards, to list just two examples. Are these distinctions fair? Justified? Should Harris be encouraged to argue that there is no real difference between the dirty player and the rest (and besides, the dirty player isn’t responsible for being a dirty player; just look at his upbringing!)? Everybody who plays games must recognize that games without strictly enforced rules are not worth playing, and the rules that work best do not make allowances for differences in heritage, training, or innate skill. So it is in society generally: we are all considered equal under the law, presumed to be responsible until and unless we prove to have some definite defect or infirmity that robs us of our free will, as ordinarily understood.
While I accept the bulk of Harris’ account/demolition of “free will”, Dennett has encapsulated the one glimmer of an objection that I have to it. While the range of human thought and action – from sexuality to psychopathy – may be determined by prior causes over which humans have no control, I still cannot abandon the notion that degrees of human behaviour can be freely controlled.
Dennett uses the example of fair play in sports. I draw on my own experiences of manners and etiquette (or lack thereof) in a professional (allegedly) office environment. I have had to deal with rudeness and bullying – both face-to-face and via that accursed medium known as “email” – by men and women who are well-educated, otherwise well-mannered and who clearly know the difference between treating someone well and treating them badly.
Leaving aside the findings of Channel 4’s Psychopath Night that bankers and lawyers are among the top professions populated by psychopaths (!), I cannot escape my impression that they know full well what they are doing, they are acting in a deliberate, calculating and manipulative fashion, that they are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and that they ought to be held fully accountable for what they are doing.
“They” may well have chosen “A” de facto, but “They” sure as hell ought to have chosen “B” de jure and deep down “They” themselves (whoever “They” are) know this full well.
In this sense, the illusion of “free will” is so powerful that it is virtually indistinguishable from reality.