Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dennett's response to stubborn scientists

It is perhaps well known that there is more than one way of interpreting the phrase "free will" and that many scientists are very stubborn about how they are willing to interpret it.  Dan Dennett has recently (in the last several months) acknowledged that there are benefits to giving up the term, though also that there are serious costs and risks.  This has led to some speculation by Gregg Caruso at Flickers of Freedom about whether or not Dennett has shifted his position wrt compatibilism.  One commenter, Randall Harp, draws attention to this lecture from November 2013, in which Dennett makes and expands upon the same point (Dennett starts speaking around to 21-minute mark):

This is entirely in line with Dennett's well-known views.  In fact, it's worth watching as a concise introduction to Dennett's thoughts on free will and moral responsibility.  He has not shifted his position and he still uses the phrase "free will" as he always has.  As I posted at Flickers of Freedom,

Dennett is clearly not endorsing abandoning the term "free will." He is acknowleding that it is not necessarily a good idea to insist on using it (because many scientists are very stubborn about how they are willing to interpret the term), but he is not giving it up. He's rather saying that the people who insist on not using it are missing the point. He has not switched sides or made any substantive concessions.

As I also posted in a Facebook thread started by Rick Repetti, Dennett is
just being a bit wily. If anything, he thinks that merely dropping the word "free will" from our vocabulary would be very misleading and dangerous. He's just saying that people who are fussing over the term "free will" are missing what is really at issue here. He thinks they're just as wrong as ever about the substantive issues--about whether or not determinism is compatible with moral responsibility and a robust sense of rational agency. He suggests that maybe, when talking to scientists, it is better to address these issues in other terms, and not insist on using the term "free will." But he is also saying that even if we stop using the term free will, as people like Sam Harris suggest, we still can't say the sorts of things Sam Harris wants to say about rational agency and moral responsibility. And he still seems to think that the phrase "free will" is very useful.