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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

An Argument For Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the idea that there is no conflict between determinism and free will.  Incompatibilism is the idea that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe.  There's been a lot of discussion over which view is correct.  What's remarkable about the debate isn't so much the stubbornness or passion which has been exhibited by this or that party, but the fact that the very terms of the debate are controversial.  There is a great deal of confusion about what the key issues in the debate are and how we should be talking about them.  As a result, there is a meta-debate within the debate itself.  You cannot engage in the debate without also engaging in a debate about the debate--about what issues are at stake and about how the issues should be framed.  So here's what I want to do:  I want to explain why I think incompatibilists are doing a very bad job of framing the debate, and also why compatibilism is the most reasonable option on the table.  It's an ambitious project, and I don't expect to win over many audiences with my arguments.  But I do hope to stimulate a bit of critical reflection and perhaps help guide others towards a more fruitful way of thinking about the issues.

First, we need a working definition of "free will."  One philosophically respectable way of defining it is as the ability of a rational agent to choose from among a variety of options in such a way as to satisfy the requirements for moral responsibility.  In other words, the extent that a person has free will is the extent to which they are morally responsible for their actions, where moral responsibility is predicated on their ability to make choices.  This is not the only possible definition, but it seems flexible enough to fit with everyday intuitions about free will.  For that reason, I will adopt it for now.  If it needs to be altered, so be it.

The compatibilist position, therefore, is this:  A deterministic universe can contain rational agents which are capable of making choices among a variety of options and therefore carry a burden of moral responsibility.  The incompatibilist position is that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe.

Some self-identifying incompatibilists say that the very notion of free will is incoherent.  If that is the case, we should not say, "Free will is compatible with determinism," because the phrase "free will" does not have any denotation. Yet, we should also not say, "free will is incompatible with determinism," and for the same reason.  Thus, this formulation of incompatibilism is problematic.  If there is no coherent notion of "free will," then we simply cannot say anything about what is compatible or incompatible with it.  We either have to find an acceptable definition of the term or stop using it.  Therefore, incompatibilists who think "free will" is incoherent are in a bind.  They should not say that free will is incompatible with determinism.  They should rather say that they have no idea what "free will" means, or is supposed to mean.  They might rather call themselves noncognitivists about free will, instead of incompatibilists.  I will come back to this view later.

Other incompatibilists are cognitivists.  They think that there is a coherent notion of free will, and they think it is incompatible with determinism because determinism means you never really have a choice.  If your behaviour is determined by forces which are beyond your control--by states of the universe that existed before you were even born--then there was never any real choice.  There was only the illusion of a choice.  So we have, on the one hand, the idea that your choice is only real if it is not the inevitable result of forces which are outside your control.  A compatibilist, in contrast, will say that the inevitability of our behaviour does not mean we lack a choice.  What makes an action a choice is the involvement of rational deliberation.  This requires a sort of information processing which represents different patterns as choices.  We only have a choice in so far as we represent an option to ourselves as a choice.  Whether or not our behaviour is inevitable is not the issue.  The issue is whether or not our behaviour entails the rational deliberation of patterns which are represented as choices.

Now, incompatibilists (who believe "free will" is coherent enough to talk about) will say that this is not enough.  For a choice to really be a choice, it cannot be inevitable.  Here's why they are wrong.

If a choice is evitable, it means that it was not the result of deterministic forces.  It was, in essence, random or uncaused.  That means it was not caused by our beliefs or desires, or mental states of any kind.  At least, not necessarily.  It was the accidental or random outcome of some processes.  Yet, if the action were a random or accidental outcome, we would not be able to claim responsibility for it unless we were already responsible for the decision to act on that random outcome.  To deserve responsibility for an action (according to indeterminists), there must be some causal relationship between our action and our beliefs and desires.  It cannot all be random.

Dennett has discussed this in great detail in, for example, his paper, "On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want."  He develops a two-stage model of free will (see here for a clear and concise analysis of Dennett's arguments.)  What he concludes is that we can imagine a scientifically respectable scenario in which human beings have the ability to make rational choices which are not inevitable, which do in fact involve a degree (however large or small) of random processes.  The idea is that the construction of our beliefs and desires can entail a large degree of randomization, while the choosing of our actions and judgments can be deterministic.

The point of this is not that incompatibilists are correct.  It is rather the opposite:  Even though we can imagine a scenario in which rational agents make choices from among a variety of randomly-generated options, the making of the choices is still deterministic.  It is still a result of forces outside the agent's control, whether or not we introduce non-deterministic elements into the system.  So there is no reason to say that it is not "really" a choice in the deterministic universe.  Either it is a choice in both scenarios, or it is not a choice at all.  Dennett has shown that, even if we give incompatibilists (of a certain stripe) what they say they want, they still have no basis for denying compatibilism.  Free will is just as compatible with determinism as it is with indeterminism.

The issue, then, is not whether we make choices, but whether we do so in a way which gives us moral responsibility.  The question comes down to whether or not our choices are sufficient to make us morally responsible for our actions.  That, I believe, is where the problem of free will needs to be resolved.  For now, let's take "morally responsible" to mean "deserving of punishment or reward."

Let's imagine a God's eye view, but without the supernatural baggage. Let the term "God" refer to any being powerful enough to create human beings, know whether or not they are morally responsible for their actions, and punish or reward them for their behaviour.  Let the term "soul" refer to that aspect of a person which is capable of being morally responsible and which God rewards or punishes.  God rewards or punishes according to rules, the source of which is irrelevant for our purposes.  Also, God rewards or punishes by measuring ultimate causal determination.  (Notice that I am intentionally avoiding any supernatural or theological language here, for the sake of coherence.)

Imagine God creates two people, Person A and Person B.  Person A follows God's rules, but Person B does not.  The question I want to consider is, what could justify God's decision to reward Person A and punish Person B?  That is, what could justify God's decision about ultimate causal determination?

If Person A chose God's path because of some inherent qualities that made them do good--i.e., if they had a good soul--then God would be the ultimate cause of their good behaviour.  As a result, Person A is not deserving of any reward.  Similarly, if God gave Person B a soul inclined towards evil, Person B is not the ultimate cause of their choice.  Therefore, if God is to be justified in punishing or rewarding anybody by appealing to ultimate causes, they must be created with a neutral soul.  The question then is, what could lead anybody to choose bad over good, or good over bad?

Two possibilities spring to mind.  The first is external circumstances.  However, these are out of the people's control, so they should not be punished (or rewarded) for how the environment has affected their souls.  The second is random choice:  People can flip coins and act accordingly.  In that case, it is chance (which is just another external factor) that is responsible.  In neither case is the person's soul the ultimate cause of their good or bad behaviour.

This seems to exhaust all of the options, which means that there is no case in which God is ever justified in punishing or rewarding anybody's soul, if we take ultimate causes to be the determining factor.  In other words, if we take a God's eye view and rely on appeals to ultimate causality, there is no such thing as moral responsibility.  And notice that I have not stipulated whether this is a deterministic or indeterministic universe.  Either way, the result is the same: Ultimate causality is not an adequate ground for moral responsibility.

When we want to determine if a person has moral responsibility--remember, this just means whether or not a person can be deserving of reward or punishment--it is a mistake to frame it in terms of whether or not they are the ultimate cause of their choices. If there is moral responsibility, it must be understood in different terms.

Whether or not a person is deserving of punishment or reward could be a psycho-social matter, a matter to be decided by human roles and relationships.  In that case, people can hold themselves morally responsible, but they are doing so as self-aware agents capable of taking up a moral attitude towards themselves.  It is a complex psychological phenomenon, and it is not resolved by appeal to questions of fundamental causality.  (Notice that I am remaining neutral at this point about what psycho-social justifications might be acceptable.  The important point to note is that, whatever justifications we find acceptable, we will not be able to entirely reduce them to statements about ultimate causality.)

If you accept that point of view, then the implications for free will are straightforward.  People do have an ability to rationally choose among options (to the extent that they can represent options to themselves and choose between them according to processes of rational deliberation) and this process can ground people's sense of moral responsibility in so far as it supports psycho-social justifications for holding them responsible for their actions. This is free will (by the definition given at the outset), and it does not depend on whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic.  Therefore, it is a coherent (and I think compelling) version of compatibilism.

As for the noncognitivists who maintain that there is no coherent definition of "free will," I submit that I have just presented one.  They might respond that what I am talking about is not the free will that people are normally talking about.  People normally want free will that can be judged by a God's-eye view by appeals to ultimate causality, and this is impossible.  They say I'm therefore just changing the subject.  I'm replacing an incoherent notion with a coherent one.

I do agree that many people want free will from a God's-eye view and by appeal to ultimate causality, and they will not be easily satisfied by the psycho-social foundations of free will I have described.  However, that does not mean I am changing the subject.  I have not altered the definition of "free will" or the definition of "moral responsibility."  All I have done is shown that the foundation for moral responsibility people think they want is an impossibility.  People are mistaken about what could make them deserving of punishment or reward. It cannot be ultimate causality.  People might therefore conclude that there is no such thing as moral responsibility.  They might say that, if God doesn't exist, nobody is morally responsible for anything.  And, indeed, it would seem that there cannot be free will if there is no moral responsibility.  However, the way forward is not to simply claim that there is no free will.  The way forward is to explain why morality does make sense from a psycho-social point of view--why people should invest in their sense of moral responsibility.  Of course, you cannot argue that people should embrace moral responsibility without begging the question.  But what you can argue for is a coherent picture of the way moral responsibility actually works.  If a person can be convinced that moral responsibility does make sense in psycho-social terms, then they will have made room for belief in free will, and no definitions will have been altered.

My conclusion is this:  If we insist that there is no coherent definition of "free will", then compatibilism and incompatibilism are both a waste of time.  There is no sense in claiming that free will is or is not compatible with determinism.  If, on the other hand, we find sense in the meaning of "free will," then incompatibilism seems unjustified.  If there is such thing as rational choice and moral responsibility, the these things are compatible with determinism.  Therefore, if free will is a coherent concept, it is compatible with determinism.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Respecting the profession: Harris' reply to Dennett

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Sam Harris' first book, the award-winning best seller, The End Of Faith. Over the past decade, he has earned a good deal of public acclaim and devotion, and for respectable reasons. Sam Harris is a gifted writer and speaker. His eloquence and clarity of expression are enviable. In addition, he has been an outspoken advocate of reason, critical thought and secular values when this has been sorely needed. For these reasons, I would like to see Harris as an ally and potential friend who, like me, wants to make the world more hospitable to atheism and reason. However, his attitude towards the decorum of professional philosophy is hurting the cause, and his own arguments are suffering, too.

In his review of Harris' most recent book, Free Will, Daniel C. Dennett admonishes Harris for not doing his homework and not engaging with "the best thought on the topic." This sort of reaction to Harris is not uncommon from professional philosophers. However, Harris thinks Dennett's tone is uncalled for. Presumably, Dennett disagrees. If he was condescending (and he was), it was for a reason. One obvious reason would be that he wanted to make it clear that Harris was not engaging with the best thought on free will, and that Harris, unlike Dennett, was not qualified to speak authoritatively about what is the best thought on the topic.

Why was it important for Dennett to do that? Because Dennett has a responsibility to the profession. There is such a thing as disciplined philosophy. Professional philosophers place great value on charity, humility, patience, caution, rigor and the ability to carefully perform detailed textual analyses. I'm not saying Dennett is always perfect on all counts, but he has proven himself in the professional sphere and has an excellent reputation among professionals. This is not because they all think he is right, but because they respect his ability to adhere to the decorum and produce compelling results.

Harris seems to think Dennett's criticism was unfriendly, but there's no reason to take it personally. Direct criticism from someone of Dennett's stature should be worn with pride, even if it is harsh. Dennett was clearly annoyed with Harris' book--specifically, the part that deals with Dennett's own work--because, in his professional opinion, Harris was not fairly representing him or the issues. Despite his annoyance, Dennett still bothered to write a lengthy exegetical response. This is presumably because they are friends, but also perhaps because Harris is a leading figure in the atheist/secularist/rationalist movement and Dennett thinks Harris has influence. The short of it is that, yes, Dennett was protecting his "turf," but Harris is wrong to call it vanity. This was not vanity. It was professional responsibility.

In addition to insulting Dennett directly, Harris indirectly insults him (and the entire profession) by refusing to even respect the fact that Dennett bothered to write a lengthy review in the first place.  Harris complains about it all being so boring and tedious, emphasizing his disappointment that Dennett had refused his invitation to a public debate.  Not only are lengthy written analyses boring, he says; they're more likely to lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Apparently, Dennett should know better than to engage in detailed philosophical analysis!

It's hard to take Harris seriously. Sure, public debates can serve a purpose, but they are rarely more focused or productive than the written word. They are not known for their ability to resolve misunderstandings or avoid confusion. If your goal is to carefully present, examine and critically assess arguments, then extended writing is far, far better than a public debate. That's why philosophers earn their professional reputation through publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and not with public debates.  Lengthy philosophical exegesis is Dennett's bread and butter. Harris does not want to engage in it, but his refusal to respect it is absurd. He wants his own philosophical ideas to be taken seriously by professionals, he reads and cites professionals, but he does not respect their discipline. It might seem to some like he just doesn't want to earn his keep.  I think the reason is obvious:  Harris is a dazzling writer and speaker, but he falls terribly short when it comes to critical thinking.  (More on that below.)

True, many members of Harris' readership do not have the patience for, or interest in, detailed philosophical arguments. Some have even admitted that they can't understand or follow Dennett's arguments at all. Harris apparently wants to let that segment of the population set the bar for the rest of us.

This has harmful consequences. By not respecting the discipline, Harris reinforces the belief (common among his fan base) that anybody with half a brain can be an expert philosopher. All you have to do is read a book or two on free will or moral responsibility (written by anyone, really) and you can form an authoritative opinion on the topic. This hurts the debate, because it makes people less inclined to take serious philosophical investigation seriously. As a result, ignorance and arrogance are promoted at the expense of integrity and rigor.


It's important to realize why Dennett refused Harris' invitation.  I doubt it is because Dennett is a much better writer than public speaker (though he is, which is to say nothing against his ability to speak publicly.  He's just a phenomenal writer.)  The reason is that, when you engage in a public debate, there is a presumption of equal competence.  Dennett has spent decades engaging professional philosophers on the issue of free will. He has a great deal of professional stature, and with that comes professional responsibilities. If Dennett shared the stage with Harris on the issue of free will, he would be transferring some of his professional credibility to Harris.  I think it's obvious that he does not want to do that. It would go against his responsibility to the profession. This is not because Harris does not have the formal qualifications of a professional philosopher, but because Harris has demonstrated a severe lack of respect for the decorum of professional philosophy and an inability to engage professionals responsibly.  Even a formal written exchange (like Jerry Coyne suggests) would be too damaging.  A book review was Dennett's best option.

In sum, I doubt Dennett will reply to Harris.  I hope he does not.  To do so would be to give Harris a degree of respect he has not earned.  Maybe if Harris had put some compelling arguments on the table, then Dennett would humbly consider a reply. Alas, Harris has done nothing of the sort. His arguments, in fact, betray his own failure to think carefully and responsibly about the issues.

 I'll now turn to a discussion of Harris' errors. Most of them are severely painful.

First up, a stirring combination of hypocrisy and false accusation. Harris criticizes Dennett for drawing our attention to the possible social and political consequences of regarding free will as an illusion. Yes, Dennett has emphasized the importance of recognizing the social and political consequences of one's view of free will, but Harris is wrong to claim that Dennett has made this his primary argument. Dennett's primary argument is that there is real sense to be made from the way ordinary people experience and talk about free will. Dennett is trying to preserve and explain those intuitions about free will which make sense.

 Harris, in contrast, is doing exactly what he says Dennett should not be doing.  Harris is the one whose primary argument is an appeal to the political consequences of his point of view.  Harris' argument against Dennett (and compatibilism in general) is not philosophical or scientific. He just thinks compatibilists are changing the subject instead of confronting the way people think and talk about free will. (Ironically, when it comes to philosophy, Harris is the one more likely to change the subject without realizing it.) Harris is worried because he thinks untenable notions of free will have bad consequences for our criminal justice systems, among other things. That is a political argument about the consequences of Dennett's arguments, and it is the entirety of Harris' argument against Dennett. Harris doesn't think Dennett's philosophical or scientific arguments are flawed. He just thinks what Dennett is talking about shouldn't be called "free will." Harris is presenting a political argument, and yet, he criticizes Dennett for presenting a political argument!

How about the time Harris wrongly accused Dennett of misinterpreting him and then attempted to clarify by repeating the same error?  Harris originally wrote, "And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism—quantum or otherwise—we can take no credit for what happens." Dennett's reading is a natural reading of the line: that personal responsibility diminishes as indeterminacy increases. In response, Dennett points to counter-examples from his own previous publications. However, Harris says that Dennett has misread him. And this is how Harris attempts to clarify his point:

I am not saying that the mere addition of indeterminism to the clockwork makes responsibility impossible. I am saying, as you have always conceded, that seeking to ground free will in indeterminism is hopeless, because truly random processes are precisely those for which we can take no responsibility.

This clarification is still false, and for the same reason. Dennett and Harris do agree that we cannot ground free will in indeterminism, but it is not for the reason Harris states. It is because indeterminism does not generate free will. It's not because "truly random processes are precisely those for which we can take no responsibility." In fact, we can take responsibility for "truly random processes." Dennett even explained why when he corrected Harris' initial mistake. He described people who design and utilize random computer processes, and who can be held responsible for them. We can take responsibility for the creation and utilization of truly random processes (assuming such processes are possible), and to that extent, we can also be responsible for the outcomes.

Perhaps Harris is still not expressing himself clearly. If so, there is no reason to blame Dennett, who is just trying to make sure the subject is approached responsibly. After all, it does look like Harris said that personal responsibility is diminished to the extent that there are non-deterministic processes in the world, even though he says that is not what he meant. And it does look like he's now saying that people cannot take responsibility for truly random processes, which is still false, and for the same reason. But okay, let's say Dennett (and I) have just misread him. How should Harris respond? With sarcasm and condescension?

Dennett is one of Harris' most capable audiences. If Harris think Dennett has misread him, then he should be concerned about other critical audiences misreading him, too. He has every reason to humbly and carefully resolve the confusion. Instead, he blames it on Dennett and regards the whole thing as a bore. A more professional attitude would earn Harris a lot more respect, and could help improve the public's general perception of philosophy, as well.

Harris complains about decorum, too. He says Dennett is not following Rapaport's rules, because Dennett did not preface his criticism with a positive comment. That's embarrassingly sloppy. Harris could not possibly have missed the elaborate praise which begins Dennett's review. Dennett acknowledges that Harris has accomplished a good deal, as far as challenging the supernatural view of free will goes. If anything, his praise is excessive.

Harris also accuses Dennett of being disingenuous for calling Harris' mistakes "valuable," and even accuses Dennett of lying about his sincerity. If a person says they are being sincere, you should take them at their word, unless you have a compelling reason not to. And you should be extra careful about your reasons before you put your accusation into print. To do otherwise is in very poor form. This all falls under the principle of charity. In this case, Harris' reading is extremely uncharitable. It is most plausible that Dennett did see value in publicly exposing Harris' errors.

Then there's Harris' careless treatment of Dennett's sun analogy. In the analogy, free will is likened to the sun. Dennett's point is that there is a freedom which is rightly called "free will" and which has been misunderstood throughout much of history, much as the geocentric model was a misunderstanding of the earth's relationship to the sun. The geocentric model is likened to the supernatural view of free will. The heliocentric model is likened to compatibilism. Harris gets it all wrong, claiming that free will is likened to the geocentric model. He not only misconstrues the analogy, but he simultaneously accuses Dennett of begging the question and misunderstanding the debate. None of this is justified, and all of it is uncharitable.

Harris is also uncharitable when he defends his own puppet analogy against Dennett's criticism, which Harris seem to have misconstrued. Dennett does not accuse Harris of taking the puppet metaphor too literally. He accuses Harris of using the puppet metaphor to misconstrue compatibilism. Dennett is pointing out that, according to compatibilism, we are nothing like puppets. Embracing compatibilism is nothing like a puppet loving its strings. The puppet metaphor is simply misleading, and in a way which hurts the debate, since it leads to a poor conception of Harris' opposition. Harris can disagree, but that would involve a more elaborate justification of the puppet metaphor. The point is that Dennett, an expert in the field, is extremely dissatisfied with the way Harris has represented compatibilism. If Harris wants to respond, he should be a lot more careful.

Harris also wrongly accuses Dennett of contradicting himself. This isn't embarrassing for Harris, actually, since the issue is subtle. However, it does reflect the depth of Harris' confusion about the issue of free will. Harris writes: "At some points you say that I’ve thrown the baby out with the bath; at others you merely complain that I won’t call this baby by the right name (“free will”). Which is it?"

Dennett is not being inconsistent. The baby, in this case, is the idea of free will. Dennett thinks that he and others over the centuries have developed a finer, more robust understanding of free will--of the experience of freedom itself. Harris presents a view which is consistent with compatibilism, but not always consistently. (I will explain the inconsistency in a moment.) Furthermore, Harris denies that there is any actual experience of free will worth talking about. Thus, even though Harris could pass for a compatibilist (albeit an inconsistent one), he is denying something essential about human experience--about the psychological reality of rational agency.

So here's Harris' inconsistency. He says, "But can we blame Austin for missing his putt? No. Can we blame him for not trying hard enough? Again, the answer is no—unless blaming him were just a way of admonishing him to try harder in the future."

I disagree, Dennett disagrees . . . and Harris seems to disagree, too, since he contradicts his own point later on, when he talks about Tiger Woods. Woods (because he is an expert and therefore in a position to know) is more culpable, says Harris: "People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave." If you are in a position to know and to act accordingly, you have more responsibility. That is practical sense. It's why we hold scientists to higher standards, for example. (And it's also why we should respect the authority of professional philosophers, too.) But this contradicts Harris' claim that we cannot blame people unless we are trying to motivate them. Harris says that one's abilities, including self-control, give them a greater amount of responsibility and, at the same time, we can only hold people responsible if doing so has good consequences. That's a contradiction.

Since we're talking about punishment and responsibility, I should mention that I don't think Harris has offered a compelling argument about retribution. He says that his view allows us to dispense with a certain kind of hatred once and for all--the kind of hatred which comes from holding somebody ultimately responsible for their actions. However, if I hate a person who commits a heinous crime without remorse, I don't think they are ultimately responsible. I am aware that they are the product of other causes. Yet, I hate their act and their attitude towards it. This is because they are in a position to know and are able to act accordingly. This kind of hatred helps shape our expectations about society.  I have an emotional problem with treating some people as equal members of society. They have betrayed a certain level of trust and I cannot comfortably allow them to circulate in society unless some steps have been taken to punish them.  The desire for retribution--even death--plays a vital role in the construction of social responsibility.  If we do not respect that desire, society may suffer.  So, yes, personal responsibility opens the door to a particular kind of hatred, but I don't see anything wrong with leaving that door open. I would say the same thing about personal responsibility opening up the door to a special kind of love, too.

Harris makes a lot of mistakes, some subtle, but most are glaring. There's nothing remarkable about that. Even professional philosophers can make errors like these (though usually not so many in such a small space). The reason this is so embarrasing for Harris is because he is making all of these errors at the same time he is being so condescending and disrespectful to the discipline. If he were more willing to adhere to the decorum--more patient, humble, cautious, charitable, rigorous, and so on--he probably would not have made all of these mistakes. And even if he had, he would not have looked as bad doing it. Harris' disrespectful and irresponsible approach to professional philosophy may be winning him points with others who similarly refuse to recognize any value in the profession, but I see no good coming out of it.

A couple years ago I attended a three-day philosophy "meisterkurs" in Berlin led by Jason Stanley, a prominent philosopher currently at Yale. Unlike me, most of the attendees were philosophy professors and doctoral students, but there was one attendee who was not a philosopher by training at all. He was a scientist who wanted to see how professional philosophers go about their business. Over lunch on the last day, he told me he was surprised. Even though he did not understand a lot of the details, he was very impressed with how open philosophers are to criticism, how interested we are in promoting and exploring challenging points of view, and how patient and friendly we are with our disagreements. (I include myself here because, even though I lack the formal qualifications, I participated heavily in the event.) In short, he witnessed the charity, humility and patience that professional philosophers spend years cultivating. I only wish more people had the patience and willingness to make such observations. Perhaps then the profession would regain more of the public's trust.

Annoyed with Coyne (on free will)

I still haven't explained why I think Harris' response to Dennett is embarrassingly bad.  It's not because Harris is wrong about free will.  It's about the arguments he gives and the tone with which he gives them.  But I'm not going to get into that in this post.  Instead, I want to discuss why Harris is wrong about free will.  I've recently laid out a brief argument on the topic, but I suspect that unsympathetic audiences are not likely to be satisfied by it.  They say they have a better grasp of how people think about free will.  I don't know what makes them think they're experts on the subject, but what I do know is that they seem very confused about the issues.

Look at Jerry Coyne, one of Harris' sympathetic readers: "I still see compatibilism as a wasted effort by philosophers to save our felt notion that we have agency; that we could have chosen otherwise. . . . Even Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg, a determinist if there ever was one, was resistant to the idea that he could not have chosen otherwise at a given moment (he told me this at the “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference sixteen months ago)."  I wonder if Coyne asked Weinberg the following question:  "Do you mean that you think you could have chosen otherwise had you wanted to?"  Because if that is what Weinberg meant, there is no conflict with determinism.  I doubt Weinberg meant that he felt he could have acted differently even if he had the exact same beliefs, desires and emotions--that is, if he had the exact same will in the exact same conditions.

Here's the thing:  We do not experience causality as such.  We can only infer causal relationships.  So there is no such thing as "the experience that x determined y to happen."  The implication is obvious:  There is no such thing as the experience of being determined to do something.  We can, however, experience the feeling of compulsion:  the feeling that we are acting against our will.  So what's going on here?

We have an experience of rational agency, of choosing to act based on an evaluation of our beliefs and desires.  This is a complex phenomenon.  On the one hand, we have the experience of evaluating our beliefs and desires.  On the other hand, we have the experience of making a decision.  This is the experience of acting according to our beliefs and desires.  We might be misled about our beliefs and desires.  However, the experience as such is a psychological reality, and it is the experience of free will.  If this experience is an illusion, that means we do not actually make decisions according to our beliefs and desires.  We think we're acting according to beliefs and desires, but we're really acting according to something else.  Or maybe we're not really acting at all.

I wonder if Coyne thinks that we act, just not rationally, according to our beliefs and desires.  That's probably not what he thinks, since he puts a lot of stock in rational argument.  Maybe he believes that there are no beliefs and desires at all.  That would be absurd, of course, because he could not say "I believe there are no beliefs" without looking like a fool.  Actually, I don't think Coyne knows what he thinks, since he says he agrees with Harris, and Harris believes that people are capable of acting rationally.

What Coyne and Harris want to say is that the experience of free will is misleading.  It makes people think that their agency is somehow their own, and not the result of other causes.  But this is a false dilemma.  Agency is our own, but it is also the result of other causes.  There's nothing about being a rational agent that precludes being caused.

It's true that a lot of people, maybe most, have a hard time understanding this.  They believe they have to choose between free will and determinism, and they choose free will, because the experience is so compelling.  They have very little, if anything, invested in determinism.  But abandoning determinism does not make room for free will.  So why frame it as a conflict between free will and determinism in the first place?

People are confused because they don't understand rational agency and all that comes with it (including the relationship between mind and body, the foundations of moral responsibility, and so on).  These are topics that professional philosophers have been struggling with for a long, long time.  And yet, when a leading philosopher (that's Dennett, if you're new to the scene) who has specialized in this area tries to bring some sophistication to the table, every lay person out there thinks they know better.  It's a bit maddening, really.

Sure, there are professional philosophers who give the discipline a bad name.  There are scientists who give science a bad name, too.  But for some reason, people like Harris and Coyne are not willing to respect the authority of a professional who has spent decades engaging other professionals on these topics.  It's not that Dennett has the authority to tell us whether or not we have free will, but he has the authority to tell people like Sam Harris that they have not done their homework.  And yet, Coyne actually criticizes Dennett for pulling authority.  That's not just an insult to Dennett, but to the entire profession of philosophy.

Here's the deal.  People have many intuitions about free will.  The central intuition is that some of their actions are based on a rational consideration of their beliefs and desires.  While there are philosophers who deny the reality of beliefs, desires and agency, such a position is simply untenable in the practical world.  One would have to regard all of their own thoughts and experiences as fundamentally wrong.  They would have no intellectual barometer of any sort to rely on.  They would have to stop talking about beliefs, thoughts, actions, intentions, ideas, desires, and so on.  And why?  What is the reason for denying the reality of these things?  It seems much easier to deny the reality of physical causality than the reality of thought and action.  We don't even experience causality!  Fortunately, we don't have to choose.  There isn't even any sense in framing it as a choice.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Moral Landscape Challenge

[This post was significantly modified many times on February 19, 2014.]

My responsibilities as a school teacher have led me to ignore most corners of the blogosphere since late last August, so I missed the fact that Sam Harris issued a Moral Landscape Challenge.  I just learned of it this morning, a little over a week after the deadline for submissions.  I'm very disappointed, since I very much want to participate.  I've therefore written a 760-word essay, and I hope Sam Harris will consider it.  I don't expect any rules to be broken on my account, but I think the consideration of my arguments is more important than whether or not I qualify for a monetary reward.  (Not that I couldn't use the money!  School teachers tend to be overworked and underpaid, and Poland is anything but an exception.)  Obviously the best of the essays submitted during the official entry period deserves to win the $2,000 prize.  But if that essay doesn't change Harris' mind, and my essay does . . . well, it's up to him whether or not he thinks I deserve a prize.  So, without further adieu, here is the essay:

Like Sam Harris, I believe that many moral questions can be addressed with science, and those that cannot should be treated with caution.  This leads to a grey area where tolerance is concerned, but that does not mean we should ignore the important role science plays in resolving our moral dilemmas.  Yet, Harris claims to have provided an antidote to moral relativism and a compelling challenge to the fact/value distinction.  He has not.  His error is in supposing that moral "ought"-statements reduce to claims about the well-being of conscious creatures.  Correction of this error will require a rethinking of his entire approach to morality.

To motivate his position, Harris claims that the "worst possible misery for everyone" is categorically bad, or else the word "bad" has no meaning.  This is not an argument so much as an intuition pump, and it does not work for everyone.  Some people would prefer a world in which everybody suffered equally rather than, for example, a world in which a small percentage of the population experienced great joy by causing the extreme suffering of all others.  Sure, the worst possible suffering for everyone is categorically bad (it is unpleasant by definition), but not necessarily bad in a moral sense--not necessarily something we ought to avoid.  Some view duty, dignity or perhaps fairness, and not well-being, as the foundation of moral judgment.

Harris also tries to motivate his view by arguing that consciousness is the source of all moral value.  We cannot imagine moral values being grounded in something unconscious, he says.  However, as his friend Richard Dawkins will remind him, human behavior (including moral judgment) may well be serving the interests of our genes (or even uninvited parasites), not our conscious experiences.  Our moral judgments need not be based on personal interests at all.

Let's leave this gap in Harris' argument aside.  Even if morality were somehow related to an interest in conscious experiences of one sort or another, we still do not get to Harris' central thesis.  We still do not have to accept that "ought"-statements just are statements about maximizing the well-being of all conscious creatures.  Harris is still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The best Harris can offer to fill the gap seems to be an evolutionary argument about the biological function of morality, like this:  Even though people don't realize it, their judgments about morality are designed (by natural selection) to approximate the maximization of well-being for all conscious creatures.  If we do not approach this goal, he says, it is due to factual error or biological malformation.  However, it is highly unlikely that we are biologically determined to maximize the well-being of all conscious creatures, considering what we know about human nature and natural selection.

In short, Harris does not have a plausible argument for interpreting "ought"-statements the way he suggests.  That does not mean his position is wrong, of course.  To show that he is wrong, I offer the following argument.

Let's say Community A does x as a means of pursuing well-being.  Community B does y, which precludes x.  Furthermore, the outcomes with respect to well-being are equivalent:  Both communities are maximizing well-being, just in different ways--a possibility Harris acknowledges.  It is therefore conceivable, on Harris' view, that the following sentence is true:

(1) If people do x, they will maximize well-being, and if they do y instead of x, they will maximize well-being.

If "ought"-statements are conditionals about maximizing well-being, as Harris claims, then (1) means:

(2)  People ought to do x and they ought to do y instead of x.

Yet, (2) looks like nonsense.  This is clearly not how people use the word "ought."  If a person accepts (1), they might (though they might not) accept something more like this:

(3)  People ought to do either x or y.

To deduce (3) from (1), we need another premise which states that one ought to do something that maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures.  That is the point of the fact/value distinction, as Hume presented it:  If you're getting "ought" from "is," there must be an implicit "ought" in your premises.  Moral "ought"s are not reducible to statements about what is the case.

While Harris defines "ought"-statements as conditionals about the well-being of conscious creatures, this is highly idiosyncratic.  Whatever Harris is talking about, it is not morality.  He has simply changed the subject.  As a result, Harris has not presented a coherent challenge to moral relativism.  If he does want to address questions about morality, he must reconsider his approach.

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.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Wolf Of Wall Street, with spoilers

At the end of Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," the hero Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is leading a seminar on persuasion, and he asks members of the audience to sell him his own pen.  We see their faces as they look up at him, to him, as a hero, a guide.  There are two possible attitudes to take:  The audience in the film can represent us, the theater audience, looking to Belfort as a hero who can teach us how to be winners; or we can detach ourselves from the audience in the film and see them as gullible dupes who would be better off walking away from Belfort.  It's not entirely clear which attitude the film wants us to take, but I'm pretty set on one interpretation.  I want to read "The Wolf Of Wall Street" as a send up of Hollywood itself.

Scorsese's Belfort isn't just a good salesman.  He's a natural.  Sure, we can say that he is so successful because he gleefully breaks the rules and cons people, but he never would have become so successful had he not also had the power to turn ordinary folks--people without the looks, charm or skill--into artists like himself.  His greatest achievement--his greatest skill--is in arming and motivating a randomly assorted team of followers.

Belfort and his followers end up in jail, of course, but that does not seem to change anything.  Belfort's still rich, apparently didn't suffer and never shows remorse.  Nobody seems to have benefited, either.  The FBI agent who caught him still goes home on the subway, where the poor still look poor.  Sure, Belfort loses his wife and kids and struggles with drug addiction.  But these facts don't seem to change anything for Belfort.  The only difference is that he says life is boring when sober.  Is he going to stay sober?  Do we care?  At the end of the film, Belfort is still doing the same thing he's always done:  taking money from people by convincing them to trust him.  That's all that matters.

And what is Scorsese's Belfort doing now?  Conning us through extreme Hollywood spectacle.  Consider the masterfully shot scene where Belfort shows his first string of followers how to reel in a big fish.  Scorsese has DiCaprio play to the camera, so that the movie theater audience feels like he's talking to them.  We are the Big Fish and Bedfort is reeling us in.  We know it's a con, but we root for the con artist anyway--even when gives us the finger.  It's a perfect contrast to the last scene of the film, where we see the desperately naive faces of Bedfort's seminar audience looking for guidance.  I'd like to think that Scorsese is trying to show us ourselves in that last scene--to see that we, only a couple hours earlier, were looking up to Belfort/DiCaprio with the same awed appreciation and anticipation.

Like a con artist, Scorsese uses the simplest draws--sex, nudity, crude humor, tear-jerking, even a little intrigue and violence--to sell us situations and characters which are utterly absurd.  Consider Belfort's relationship with his wife, Naomi.  After they've had one or two children together, she confronts him about saying another woman's name in his sleep.  Flashback to the night before, when a prostitute was dripping hot wax all over him.  Return to the morning after, when Bedfort (humorously?) has to deal with his disgruntled wife.  Bedfort acts like a stubborn infant, there's screaming and almost physical violence (which, incidentally, makes it not so shocking when Bedfort actually is physically violent towards her later on), and then . . . she taunts him by exposing herself to him and masturbating.  He falls to the floor like a teenager who's never seen a naked woman before.  This is his wife, to whom he's been married for years and who has given birth to his children.  Absurd.

An even better example:  When Naomi finds out her aunt's dead, he tells her they have to go to Monaco and Switzerland before they can go to London--without explanation, and despite the fact that the captain of the ship warns him of a serious storm--leaving her understandably upset and even a little shocked by his callousness and disregard for safety.  Then, on the way to Monaco, her yacht sinks.  So, of course, she responds by . . . dancing with the Italians who rescued them.  Are we not supposed to think that was absurd?

Naomi is never developed into a person.  Neither is Bedfort, or his best friend Donnie, or anybody else.  Instead, we get caricatures and absurdities:  ploys used by a con artist to gain our trust.

Then there's Belfort's supposedly transformative moment, when he decides to stay with his firm and turn down the FBI offer.  He tears up, a woman cries.  It's so obviously manipulative and unbelievable, it's hard to think we're supposed to take it seriously.  Maybe we are, in which case my estimation of the movie is rather low.  Maybe we aren't, in which case this is a pretty interesting satire of Hollywood itself.

We should also remember that Belfort is not a reliable narrator.  We should not expect him to tell us the truth.  He even narrates like a con man, reminding us several times that the details don't matter, that we just need to focus on the bottom line.  We should expect him to con us, just like he cons everyone else.  Looking at it that way, it's hard to imagine Scorsese isn't in on the joke.