Daniel Dennett reviews ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris

HarrisFreeWillCoverLast 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.

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9 Responses to “Daniel Dennett reviews ‘Free Will’ by Sam Harris”

  1. Sam Harris responds to Daniel Dennett’s review of ‘Free Will’ | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] recently blogged on New Atheist writer and philosopher Daniel Dennett’s lengthy review of fellow “Four […]

  2. Channing Allen Says:

    Dennett’s sport’s analogy is as obtuse as the rest of his response.

    The distinction between flagrant and normal fouls or red cards and yellow cards makes perfect sense in the absence of free will. Red cards serve as more powerful deterrents to “foul play” than yellow cards, and their issuance culls from the herd of players those who fail to play by the accepted rules. “Retribution” has nothing to do with it.

    As if willfully (see what I did there?), Dennett blurs the distinction between the many rationales for penalty, including deterrence, rehabilitation, quarantine, and retribution. Of those four, only retribution fails to make the cut after the disavowal of free will.

    Regarding the question of manners and etiquette, it misses the point to note — accurately — that offensive people “know” that they are being offensive. The point is that they don’t have the freedom to act *differently* on that knowledge. Remember: one’s knowledge of etiquette or of consequences is a single influence in a wilderness of concurrent influences — let’s call them, collectively, one’s “totality of inputs” — including blood pressure, neurophysiology, upbringing, empathic disposition, etc., and each action taken at each and every moment is wholly determined by one’s totality of inputs.

    In other words, even a rude person’s moment-by-moment “decision” of indecency over politeness is wholly determined by her totality of inputs, such that if she could rewind history to her most recent discourtesy, with every atom, every sound, every neurophysiologically-generated thought in tact, the discourtesy would play out identically — and could not do otherwise.


    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      Thank you for your excellent comment, Channing.

      I understand your position clearly; however, I still think it is rather facile for Harris to blame lack of sportsmanship and social etiquette on upbringing and the “wrong” genes.

      Lance Armstrong knew full well what he was doing and how it would have been viewed by the rest of the World, otherwise he would not tried to have covered it up and bullied everyone who so much breathed his name and “cheat” in the same sentence.

      Even Harris acknowledges that there may be a place for punishment and retribution in a World without “free will” with his example of a Holocaust survivor who turned down the opportunity to kill a Nazi perpetrator and instead did the “right” thing by turning them into the authorities only to see them walk free a year later and having to live with the anguish of his earlier decision.


      • Channing Allen Says:

        I agree with Harris’s sympathy for retribution, though it should be taken in context, and with an ear to science.

        Groundbreaking studies in modern psychology, biology, and anthropology (see, for example, the work of Jonathan Haidt, Robert Trivers, and Alan Fiske, among others) have shown us that we have innate moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity — Fiske calls this “Equality Matching” — and that the neural bases for such intuitions embrace the parts of the brain that register intentions, cheating, perspective-taking, and conflict, which include the insula, orbital cortex, cingulate cortex, dosolateral prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, and temporoparietal junction.

        In other words, our wiring inclines us toward retribution. Notably absent from the equation is any sense that retribution per se, apart from the fact that it *feels* good (or even essential), is “justified.” So yes, maybe we ought to consider simulating — though not actualizing — retribution in the minds of victims, the better for them to sleep.

        As for Lance Armstrong, sure he knew the consequences of cheating, and sure he “weighed the option” of playing fair. But the consequences of cheating weren’t the only things that he knew.

        Sharing equal time and space in his totality of inputs were the pit-of-the-stomach dread of falling from his throne, the knowledge of rival cheaters (and the everyone’s-doing-it moral rationalization that followed), the neurophysiological self-delusion that he would never be caught, and, again, the remainder of the vast deep wilderness of influences which he could not see but nevertheless staked a claim, like the pathological ethic of winning at any cost which might have been engendered into him during childhood. Who knows? But the one thing we *can* know is that, whatever the inputs, the output was — by definition — a foregone conclusion.

        The result is that we lose our intellectual right to say to him in retrospect, “You should have acted otherwise.” Even if it blows the fuses in our Equality Matching wiring. 😉

  3. Granite Slack Says:

    Do you think it was inevitable that Harris would come to the opinions he expressed, and Daniel Dennett to his? If true, then neither of their writings and commentaries, nor yours, are worth even a first glance by anyone who seeks the truth.


    • manicstreetpreacher Says:


      I think it is clear that you do not understand Harris’ position. You are confusing a deterministic view of “free will” with “fatalism”. This is a confusion that even Dennett does not commit.

      The latter has it that all events in the universe are pre-determined, the future is set and there is nothing that we can do to change our destiny.

      The former means that our thoughts and actions are dictated to us by prior causes over which we have no control.

      It is not Harris’ argument that his action of writing a book against the concept of “free will” was inevitable at, or prior, to his birth; just that both his intention and execution of that intention were dictated by prior causes that were beyond his control.

      Harris has written and spoken at length against the concept of “free will” and he fully intended to do so. Being against “free will” demonstrates the kind of person that Harris is.

      Dennett has written and spoken at length in favour of “free will” and he fully intended to do so. Being in favour of “free will” indicates the kind of person that Dennett is.

      I hope this clarifies matters for you.


      • Granite Slack Says:

        Thanks for replying. Turns out I was not confused, and my comment applies to determinism as you describe it. “Intention and execution beyond their control”.

      • manicstreetpreacher Says:

        I’ll have another go at answering your original question then, Grant.

        No, I do not think it was inevitable that Harris and Dennett reached the conclusions on “free will” that they did.

        However, regardless of whether or not their views were inevitable, this is still a truth claim and is therefore worth studying for that reason.


    • channingallenauthor Says:

      It isn’t relevant how or why Sam Harris produced his book on free will, or whether he could have done otherwise. (He could not have.)

      What is relevant is whether or not the information contained in the the book is of utility to me. The answer is yes, so my information processor of a brain has determined that it is indeed worth not only a first glance, but also a second and a third.

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