Dennett on Free Will


 … so that we can cope with the world around us effectively—if we are normal. There are unfortunate human beings who for one reason or another cannot, and they must live among us in a reduced status, rather like pets, at best, cared for and respected, restrained if necessary, loved and loving in their own limited ways, but not full participants in the human social world, and, of course, lacking morally significant free will. [1]

I have not had the opportunity to get into Daniel Dennett’s work until I got into free will.  Dennett’s view on free will is mechanical, and so I naturally gravitated towards it.  Although I like Dennett’s ideas and approach, I was taken aback by his insensitivity towards those deemed as inadequate and undesirable.  Despite the description being accurate, it could have been stated in a way that maintains the “unfortunates'” dignity.  Dennett does say, however, that the unfortunates aren’t ultimately responsible for their actions.

In Dennett’s writings, he often uses the term psychopath as a caricature of the abnormal person that can’t live within the bounds of society. Can I have compassion for the psychopath?  Probably not but I could have empathy, which would allow me to separate my disdain from their problem.  I don’t claim to have a solution to the problem of moral living, but I don’t think I like the implications of Dennett’s.  I don’t see much compassion towards “designs” in nature that are not competent enough to meet society’s standards.

This doesn’t affect the merit of Dennett’s analysis.  Dennett says that free will exists, but it’s not what we think it is.  Since free will doesn’t explain much of anything and has too much baggage to be used, then why keep it?  The only reason to not scrap the concept is so that we can be blamable for our actions.  But we can make a case for accountability without positing the existence of free will.  We don’t need to be ultimately responsible for an action because there is no shortage of good reasons to be accountable.


Dennett’s Free Will

There is not much to find wrong with Dennett’s work if you like science.  He equates free will to be nothing more than self-control and deliberation.  If freedom is to be found anywhere, then it must be found within these two concepts.  To Dennett, free will is compatible with determinism.  Determinism is the idea that given the past and laws of nature, that only one possible future exists. Dennett accomplishes this by telling us that the stipulation for free will to exist, which is could have done otherwise, doesn’t matter.

Dennett says that events are not inevitable but evitable; that is, we are designed by natural selection to avoid situations that could interfere with our survival.  Dennett claims that the problems of free will go away if we view it through a biological framework as agents.  Although he shows through thought experiments and computer simulations how complexity arises at a higher-level, which gives the appearance of indeterminism, he never labels it as an indeterministic system like many other philosophers seem to do.

We know at the quantum level that nature is indeterministic, but at the macro level it is deterministic.  Even though we may not be able to observe the causes at a high-level, we assume that there are causes.  For example, a coin toss is random because we can’t identify and predict its complex motion, yet it is deterministic.  Philosophers aren’t clear on whether or not indeterminism is meant in the stochastic sense or in the uncaused causes sense.  Dennett does agree though that high-level randomness is deterministic.

If all of our actions are predetermined by our biology and the inputs of our environment, which they are, then how can we be free?  It has to do with the framework or level of description we are using.  There is no ghost in the machine or mysterious force controlling us but rather an agent.  Relative to the agent, there are possibilities presented that we control the outcome of because we can deliberate with reasons to act or not to act.  But this is nothing more than self-control and deliberation.  Why force a fit with free will?


References:

[1] Dennett, Daniel C.. Elbow Room

[2] Dennett, Daniel C.. Freedom Evolves

Comments

  1. KG says

    I prefer to drop the term “free will” for the reasons you state, and use “agency” instead.

    We know at the quantum level that nature is indeterministic, but at the macro level it is deterministic.

    How can this be so? It is possible to set up a system so that some macro-level result (like killing Schroedinger’s cat) will depend on whether there was a quantum-level event, such as the decay of a radioactive atom, within a certain period. Moreover, there is no reason to think such micro-to-macro causal chains do not occur without human intervention – for example, by causing a mutation within a DNA strand, leading to cancer or (if the DNA is in the germ line) the birth of a phenotypically different organism. I don’t think this makes any obvious difference to the “free will” issue – why are you any more (or less) free if your actions depend on indeterministic events rather than on deterministic ones?

    Incidentally, as I understand it, the question of whether quantum-level events are deterministic or indeterministic is not a simple one: the evolution of the wave equation for a given quantum system is deterministic. It is when one considers the system’s interaction with something else that one can only give probabilities for where a particle will be found, whether an atom will decay, etc. – but at least in principle, the wave equation for the larger system including the original and whatever it is interacting with would again evolve deterministically, so the commonsesne dichotomy between “deterministic” and “indeterministic” may be inadequate to deal with quantum reality. But I may have misunderstood something here.

    • musing says

      I have always suspected that the concepts of determinism and indeterminism are probably inadequate to explain nature and force us to a dichotomy. For brevity, I was oversimplifying a problem that is much more complex, as you point out, than I wanted to get into. I should have put that at the macro level science operates as if nature was deterministic though. I follow what you are saying in the second paragraph, but the first isn’t clear to me what you mean. To be honest, it’s been years since I’ve had interest in quantum physics, but you may have rekindled something in me which may cause me to pick up some old text books. I agree that it probably doesn’t make a difference what nature turns out to be, but people are stuck on the idea that if biology (high-level abstraction of physics) determines our actions, then how can we be free? The solution is to think at the appropriate level. With a physical framework, we are not free from physics, but viewed as agents options do appear to us and we are to some degree free. But I would argue that this freedom is best characterized as an experience of the will because free will is a metaphorical concept. I would then say that we don’t even need it because we end up using it against each other as a shorthand explanation for our actions, which denies the person to tell their unique experience. We end up forgoing empathy and want to punish because it was but a “simple choice”. Life is more complicated than that.

    • Rob Grigjanis says

      the question of whether quantum-level events are deterministic or indeterministic is not a simple one: the evolution of the wave equation for a given quantum system is deterministic. It is when one considers the system’s interaction with something else that one can only give probabilities for where a particle will be found, whether an atom will decay, etc. – but at least in principle, the wave equation , the wave equation for the larger system including the original and whatever it is interacting with would again evolve deterministically

      Yes, the wave function evolves deterministically, but that evolution includes branching between different outcomes, and branch selection is indeterminate.

      Proponents of the Bohmian interpretation trumpet its inherent determinism. They are correct, in a limited technical sense. If you know the original position of a particle, its future is determined completely. The catch is that you can’t know the original position, so even this case is effectively indeterminate.

  2. says

    When I read Dennett, it appeared to me that he was defining “Free will” as the sense of making a decision. I.e.: I feel that I can choose pizza or a hot dog for lunch, therefore I have a form of free will in that situation. But I am unconvinced that merely feeling that I have a choice is the same thing as having a choice. I’m not even going to try to say what “having a choice” might mean because I don’t think we actually do and I don’t know what it would look like if we did. But it’s easy enough to hypothesize a robot that is programmed to print “I have chosen pizza” whenever it obeys its programming and grabs a slice of pizza. Can that robot be said to have a choice? I could get more elaborate with the robot and even give it an AI-based text interactor that will argue all day that, no, it really did choose the pizza – but, did it?

    I felt that Dennett was wasting his time and mine with that book. It seemed to depend, to me, on narrowly defining “Free Will” so he could point at a place where we have it and then shuffle back to his armchair. In my reading, it seemed to me that he actually did not think “Free Will” was a concept that could be defended, as it’s commonly imagined, and he could have stopped there with a few paragraphs.

    • musing says

      I couldn’t agree more with you because at certain points in the book, I thought the reading was a waste of my time. The robot analogy can help, but in some senses, it is not a good representation of how the mind works. But I like when you say “programmed to print” a choice. I will edit this comment further later this evening when I have time.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    We know at the quantum level that nature is indeterministic, but at the macro level it is deterministic.

    KG mentioned Schroedinger’s cat. Here’s another example of quantum indeterminism having macro effects; an electron is prepared in a state in which its spin is positive along some axis. Two experimenters make a bet as to the outcome of a measurement of the spin along an axis 90 degrees to the original axis. That is a genuinely random 50/50 situation. If A loses, they can’t make their mortgage payment that month. Quantum bite in macroscopic arse!

  4. consciousness razor says

    To Dennett, free will is compatible with determinism.

    I would say it’s not merely that they’re compatible. If your actions were not determined, that implies they were not willed.

    At that point, whether you should regard that as “free” in some sense is kind of beside the point. (But I don’t think this could even offer the kind of moral/political freedom that people are interested in anyway. So, you’d have neither.)

    Rob Grigjanis:

    Proponents of the Bohmian interpretation trumpet its inherent determinism.

    I don’t know how much Many-Worlds types may “trumpet” it, but things are deterministic according to them too. (Problem is, they have trouble making sense of any of the probabilities. If all those troubles went away, maybe they would do some more trumpeting.)

    The only kinds of interpretations with genuine indeterminism that are maybe worth taking seriously are objective collapse theories like GRW…. Needless to say, it’s not exactly a mainstream proposal, so I definitely wouldn’t say “that’s how things are according to quantum mechanics.”

    If instead they’re offering something along the lines of Copenhagen (actually a variety of loosely connected views and attitudes), they’re just bullshitting you and don’t have (or don’t want to give) a coherent answer to the question. So, even if some of those people do say there’s some kind of indeterminism, according to them, it’s not what I’d consider useful or relevant factual information.

    They are correct, in a limited technical sense. If you know the original position of a particle, its future is determined completely. The catch is that you can’t know the original position, so even this case is effectively indeterminate.

    The word “effectively” is doing some incredible work there.

    If it were the case that “I don’t know” the location of my car keys, that clearly doesn’t mean the keys have no determinate location. They are in fact somewhere, and it’s not “effectively” true (or “practically” so, etc.) that they are not anywhere in particular.

    It would simply be the case that somebody (me) doesn’t happen to know something (where the keys are). That’s quite an ordinary and unremarkable occurrence, nothing to base your whole worldview on, and it says more about what somebody is capable of doing than it says about the structure of the entire physical world itself … that latter being the actual thing which needs to be correctly described here.

    So, it’s just a silly mistake to take that kind of epistemological distinction (regarding what you may know, believe, observe, measure, etc.) and confuse it for an ontological one (regarding what’s actually the case in reality).

    • musing says

      As interesting as the quantum level is, I don’t think it’s relevant to free will. I wish I could engage more at that level, but it’s been years since I’ve had an interest in it. But please explain to me why you think we don’t have moral and political freedom. And how does “freedom” become irrelevant after we say that our will is caused by something?

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @4:

    Problem is, they [Many Worlders] have trouble making sense of any of the probabilities.

    Depends who you read. I’m sure your conclusion is based on a careful, unbiased reading of the literature, founded on a deep understanding of decoherence, entanglement, etc. Yes, that’s sarcasm.

    Every interpretation has problems. If one of them didn’t, it wouldn’t be an interpretation.

    If it were the case that “I don’t know” the location of my car keys…

    So you’re pretending to not understand the difference between “don’t know” and “can’t know”. I’m not in the least surprised.

    Feel free to have the last word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.