Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Why Dennett is right and Harris is wrong about free will

I don't have the time, and don't see much of value, in posting at length about Dennett's recent review of Sam Harris' book, Free Will, or Sam Harris' reply.  I did, once upon a time, suggest that such a review from Dennett might be worth reading, though I quickly changed my mind, supposing that silence from Dennett would be better.  As it turns out, I'm not sure.  A lot of Harris' fans and supporters are still in need of argumentation to understand why Dennett (and others) think they are mistaken.  And Dennett is more capable than most when it comes to clearly and persuasively laying out arguments.  And yet, even after he has done so, he is accused of missing the point.  On top of that, his snarky tone--fully justified, in my opinion--is used against him.  So, in unsnarky terms, and without addressing particular moments in this debate, let me try to get to (and unravel) the bottom line.

Harris' main contention is that there is a certain lived experience that is properly referred to as "the experience of free will," and this experience is illusory.  It is illusory precisely because it is the feeling that one could have acted otherwise.  This feeling is clearly incompatible with determinism, Harris says.  Obviously, if determinism is true, nothing could have been otherwise.  Right?

Dennett's response to Harris is, on the one hand, quite simple.  On the other hand, it seems complicated, because not only does he want to point out why Harris' main contention is simply false; he also wants to point out all the ways Harris trips over his own feet and embarrasses himself.  (Hence the snarky tone.  Dennett doesn't want us to think he respects Harris' efforts at addressing the issue of compatibilism. He doesn't.)

Harris' interpretation of "the experience of free will" is self-serving and does not reflect an astute awareness of how people (at least since the Enlightement) have thought and felt about the subject.  So here is the simple truth which explains Harris' error, and which Dennett has explained at length in various places:  The feeling that "I could have done otherwise" can be explained as the justified and true belief that, if I had a different emotional state, or different beliefs or values, I might have acted differently.  This belief does not have any implications at all for determinism.  It does not mean that one might have gone against the laws of cause and effect (assuming there are such laws).  Furthermore, the value of such a feeling--the reason we should take it seriously, and not dismiss it as an illusion--is because it is necessary for a sense of agency and personal responsibility.

Harris believes that the experience of free will is different.  He thinks it's the feeling that one could have defied the laws of nature.  Honestly, I think that's nonsense.  I am sure that some people do believe they can defy the laws of nature.  They believe that beliefs and desires have a supernatural dimension, and so they believe that free will is supernatural, that the ability to act on one's beliefs and desires is not constrained or determined by natural law.  All this shows is that, for some people, the experience of free will is associated with belief in the supernatural.  Harris wrongly supposes this association is a defining feature of the experience of free will.

A straightforward application of Ockam's Razor can show why Harris is wrong.  Harris, like Dennett, must agree that the experience of free will necessarily involves the following thought:  "If I had a different emotional state, or different beliefs or values, I might have acted differently."  The question then is, do we need to add something more--an illusion of supernatural powers--in order to explain the way people think and talk about free will?  If not, then Ockam's Razor slices in Dennett's favor.

For many people since the Enlightenment, the supernatural association does not exist.  And yet, they still have the experience of free will.  So it seems plainly false that the association is an intrinsic aspect of the experience of free will.  Thus, Dennett is right.  Harris is wrong.  It's really that simple.