Harris and Dennett on Free Will

A disclosure: my own thinking about free will was strongly influenced decades ago by Dan Dennett’s defense of compatibilism, Elbow Room. Like almost 60% of professional philosophers, I find myself inclined towards some such view. For those unfamiliar with this expression, the basic idea is to dissolve the conflict between free will and determinism by reconceiving free will as not really in conflict with determinism. Once this view is on the table, we seem to have three menu items instead of two: those who believe that free will is incompatible with determinism and thus end up committed to the existence of free will on some non-natural basis; those who believe that free will is incompatible with determinism and, rejecting any possibility of a non-natural basis for free will, end up determinists who reject or want to radically reform our moral practices; and those who don’t think they are incompatible on closer examination. This lay of the land is well-known to philosophy people and has been for a very long time.

The only reason why I’m writing at all, is because of qualifications I would want to make to Dennett’s otherwise essentially correct, if exceedingly civil response to Harris here, and make some meta-comments about the discussion itself. First as to Harris: Harris is notable for dichotomizing the world into things that are pro-religion and anti-religion, in order to give the pathos of his opposition the widest possible scope. Despite the predominantly secular character of contemporary analytic philosophy, Harris has made an antecedent judgment that professional philosophers are basically indistinguishable from theologians because they don’t simplify, heighten contrasts, cut to the chase, demonize opponents, etc. as he does. This is to mistake self-possession and intellectual curiosity, which he largely lacks, for treason. Thus it seems obvious to him that a view which is not that far from his own must in fact be its opposite. He wants to get those who refuse to be pinned down by him because they think they are being confronted with a false alternative to shut up and embrace the false alternative, and take sides as his ally or enemy–either will do, as either are the source of some satisfaction. Thus were culture warriors always, regardless of their cause. By contrast, Dennett is a professional philosopher, but also something of a popularizer, and from the beginning, his work on free will was driven by a desire to understand and clarify.

The crux of their debate, really, is over an empirical question: what do ordinary people think? Dennett claims that ordinary people are implicit compatibilists (and, unlike Harris, marshals some actual empirical evidence to support this). Harris thinks that it’s obvious that ordinary people are incompatibilist indeterminists, his primary evidence for this being that people seem to say they are. Harris could avail himself of further evidence: that people make moral judgments, which one could argue implies a commitment to incompatibilist indeterminism, but  for the fact that he too wishes to make moral judgments (boy does he!) and hopes to save that practice from criticism (just like a compatibilist–this appears to be Dennett’s main evidence for thinking that Harris is a compatibilist despite himself).

Two related things seem to have gone off the rails in this debate. First is the assumption that anyone has a view clear enough and explicit enough to be pinned down and criticized, whether we are talking about Harris himself, or the ordinary folk he hopes to Enlighten. The second is that what we need here is The Truth in anything like the sense that natural science furnishes truths. I think that Dennett largely gets this latter point, but unfortunately his pragmatist clarity is obscured by his residual desire to figure out what people really think, and what is correct to think. At the risk of being pegged a nihilist for being a more thorough-going  pragmatist, I don’t think there is a fact of the matter as to what people really think in this area, and that there is no need to get people to think “correctly” about it. What philosophy can do here, at most, is provide clarity, or, if you prefer, alleviate an intellectual cramp induced by a certain illusion. But what it cannot and need not do is furnish “truth.”

Here’s what we know: we are animals, and presumably as animals we have no non-natural parts. This far, Dennett, Harris and I agree. We are not unusual in being social animals who seek to influence each other by various forms of encouraging and discouraging behavior. What is unusual about us is the degree of intelligence and foresight we display, and the fact that our sociality is pervasively shot through with linguistic activity. Consider the following episode.

“Which of you took the cookies? They’re almost all gone!” asked Mom of two children assembled. A long silence ensues, until one of them, with a hang-dog expression, replies “I did. I’m sorry. I know you told us not to.” “Go to your room,” Mom replies, “no cookies for you for the rest of the day.”

The whole discussion between Dennett and Harris begins from the assumption that everything in that tableaux is a physical system and thus deterministic. So far so good. So what’s the problem? Really, from a pragmatic perspective, there isn’t one yet, not at all. Mom’s doing her job, and let’s assume she’s doing it well. Mom only directs her attention towards what Skinner called “operant behavior,” what a physician would call “voluntary movement” and what the folks call “choices.” Classifying one set of bodily movements as falling under one of these labels, and distinguishing it from reflex movements, epileptic seizures, the effects of external jostling and the like, seems to carve nature at the joints. I have no doubt that operant behavior has a distinctive neurological signature that shows up on an MRI (though it may be the case that finer-grainedly described kinds of operant behavior such as “ordering a milkshake” may not have their own distinctive neurological signatures).

The crucial point is, everything is in order as it is. Mom’s task is not impaired by a fundamentally wrong or confused way of classifying bodily movements. She’s not raising her voice at epileptic seizures or reflexes. She seems to be doing just fine, and in the fullness of time, so will her kids, who will not only learn to be able to avoid cookies, but engage in some “herding” behavior of their own, not only of their own children, but of their peers as well.

Now Dennett and Harris have views about what, metaphysically, Mom believes. Dennett especially should appreciate this point, but I think Mom doesn’t believe a damn thing. She believes in the same way that a person, when pressed, “desires” what they ordered on the menu at a restaurant (this is Dennett’s own example, I don’t recall from where). In this case the pressing comes from a philosopher to pick from a menu of philosophers’ characterizations of what she thinks. Philosophers have been doing this since Socrates, and it always struck me as unfair to foist an interpretation on someone, get them to endorse it, and then attack them for holding it. Undoubtedly the second book of Plato’s Republic would read differently if Thrasymachus had written it.

Dennett wants to tell Harris that it is far from clear that Mom is committed to the Cartesianism Harris wants to foist on her the better to lump her in with the sermonizers he reviles; at most she is committed to the concepts necessary for certain action-ascription behaviors. I sympathize. Harris, by contrast, finds it unlikely that Mom has as complicated and sophisticated a view as Dennett attributes to her. But I also sympathize. Mom acts like a compatibilist not because she’s committed to it but because it describes her behavior. But Mom could probably be induced to assent to Cartesianism if pressed in the right way, which would tell us exactly nothing about what she really thinks and what, if anything, about that needs to change.

The better question is not what’s going on with Mom’s linguistic behavior, but rather, what’s going on with Harris’ and Dennett’s. Harris wants to flog Cartesians. Fine. They exist, and he’s probably right to think that they exist in certain religious communities especially, because religion, like philosophy, provides interpretations of what we do, including things we’re perfectly capable of doing without any interpretation at all. But to suppose that Mom is an implicit Cartesian, and to take as evidence of this that she would agree to a menu item at a metaphysical club, that you could induce her to say “then I guess I’m a Cartesian” tells us little about what she thinks, and tells us nothing about the value of her behavior in the cookie scenario, because her behavior there is not itself a truth claim in metaphysics. Unless Harris wants Mom to radically reform how she raises her children (and I don’t think he does, assuming that she is effective and humane) then it seems what he wants to do here is teach her how to say “I am not a Cartesian” before anyone else can get to her and teach her how to say “I am a Cartesian.” Seen from afar and with a pragmatist lens, this all seems rather silly.

So I’m with Dennett still? Not quite. Because I still think Dennett wants to tell us the truth about the will, and I don’t think there is a truth about the will to be told. I think there is a more helpful way to think about this, and that it is very close to what Dennett is doing in Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. What is the free will-determinism problem at bottom? Is it a metaphysical question? I would submit that it is, instead, a funny kind of practical problem. The problem has the following contours. Among the things we do is reinforce behavior in accordance with rules, “punishing” “bad choices” as we call one form of it. But sometimes, following a kind of exception clause, we do not. The “bad choice” is “excused.” The Martian zoologist would say that it is pointless to lecture people for bodily movements caused by neurological disease, for example. The problem is that the language we use in these contexts sounds like “he couldn’t have helped it” and the like. And it is precisely this language that the incompatibilist determinist misuses, to act as if he is trying to induce the no-reinforcement response to behaviors which do not fall under the rule governing excused behavior. Sometimes he is quick to add that he isn’t trying to actually change our behavior, other times he insists that he is. The problem is that the blaming and excusing practices work just fine as they are if you view them not as the expression of theories but patterns of activities, and simply refuse to give them any interpretation of interest to a philosopher at all.

What Dennett and other compatibilists want to do, ultimately, is to restore the status quo ante of smooth social action before it was disrupted by the confusing effects of Cartesian and anti-Cartesian interpretations. But they think the best way to do this is through a theory of their own. If the goal is to participate in social conversation among philosophers, that’s fine, but that is not what lends interest to the topic. The better goal is to nullify the disruptive effects of the other philosophical interpretations, by whatever means available. For example, every time someone started to engage in philosophical interpretation, you could wrap their knuckles with a stick, like some Zen master trying to provoke inner silence. That might work. Or you could carefully retrace the confused footsteps of analogy and emotion that led to the interpretations, until the other sees the under-motivated and unhelpful character of that path, in something like the spirit of the later Wittgenstein, who insisted that he held no views at all.

Free will/determinism is what I call a “puzzle,” but it is unusual as a puzzle because it links to our moral practices and in particular confuses us about our excusing practices. Harris’ response to it is to enlist it into his culture war on behalf of secularism, by uncharitably attributing a certain interpretation to most people, the better to attack them. Dennett’s response is to charitably attribute a more plausible interpretation to most people, the better to justify leaving them alone. I propose instead that we leave them alone by not attributing interpretations to  them at all, for the most charitable thing one can do in the face of the panoply of human conduct is to say nothing.

Day of Remembrance






challenger“This ascent will be betrayed by gravity. But the rocket engine, the deep cry of combustion that jars the soul, promises escape. The victims, in bondage to falling, rise on a promise, a prophecy, of escape.” ⎯ Gravity’s Rainbow [modified].

Great Moments in Cinema, XIV

THE CAPTAIN: Listen to me, Montag. Once to each fireman, at least once in his career, he just itches to know what these books are all about. He just aches to know, isn’t that so? Well take my word for it, Montag, there’s nothing there. The books have nothing to say! Look, these are all novels. All about people that never existed. The people that read them, it makes them unhappy with their own lives, makes them want to live in other ways they can never really be [....] Go on, Montag. All this philosophy, let’s get rid of it. It’s even worse than the novels. Thinkers, philosophers, all of them saying exactly the same thing: “Only I am right, the others are all idiots.” One century, they’ll tell you man’s destiny is predetermined. The next, they’ll say that he has freedom of choice. No, it’s just a matter of fashion, that’s all,  philosophy, just like short dresses this year, long dresses next year. Look. All stories of the dead. Biography, that’s called. And autobiography. My life, my diary, my memoirs, my intimate memoirs. Of course, when they started out, well, it was just the urge to write. Then after the second or third book, all they wanted was to satisfy their own vanity. To stand out from the crowd, to be different. To be able to look down on all the others. Ah, critic’s prize. Ah, this is a good one. Of course, he had the critics on his side, lucky fellow. Just tell me this, Montag, at a guess: How many literary awards would you say were made in this country, on an average each year? Five, ten, forty? Hmm? No less than one thousand two hundred! Why anybody that put pen to paper was bound to win some prize someday. Ah, Robinson Crusoe. The negroes didn’t like that because of his man, Friday. And Nietzsche. Ah, Nietzsche. The Jews didn’t like Nietzsche. Now, here’s a book about lung cancer. You see, all the cigarette smokers got into a panic, so for everybody’s peace of mind, we burn it. Ah, now this one must be very profound. The Ethics of Aristotle. Now anybody that read that must believe he’s a cut above anybody that hadn’t. You see, it’s no good, Montag. We’ve all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal. So, we must burn the books, Montag. — [holds up a copy of Mein Kampf] All the books. — Fahrenheit 451

Intellectual Aeronauts

We intellectual aeronauts!  —  All these hardy birds that fly the farthest —  surely when they can no longer go on, they perch somewhere or other on a mast or on the narrow ledge of a cliff— and are even grateful for this wretched accommodation! But who would conclude from this that a vast open space no longer lay before them, that they had flown as far as possible? In the end, all our great teachers and predecessors have come to rest, and it is not always with the noblest and most graceful gestures that exhaustion sets in: and so shall it be with us! But what difference does that make? Other birds will fly farther! This faith and insight of ours races upwards past them, rising above our own intellectual shortcomings, and from this height catches sight of flocks of far stronger birds in the distance flying on ahead of us, striving to reach what we too have striven to reach, where everything is still sea and nothing but sea!  —  And where do we want to go? Do we want to cross the sea? To where is this powerful longing drawing us, which we deem more worthy than any pleasure? Why are we drawn in just this direction, to where all of humanity’s suns have so far set? Will the tale someday be told of how once we too steered westward in hopes of reaching some India  —  but that it was our lot to founder on infinity? Or, my brothers? Or?  —

Nietzsche, Dawn §575 (trans. The Poseidonian)


Sexual Harassment in Academia


Yes, we are still talking about this, largely thanks to Colin McGinn. What I would like to do here is merely propose a hypothesis, born of reflection on all the incidents of harassment that have ever come to my attention within departments I’ve studied or served in. In every instance I can think of, if I try to recall as many details as I can about the object of the complaint, that person seemed to fit the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The gender ratio of NPD is apparently 75% male, and the incidence in the population about 1%. The percentage of heterosexuals is a contested issue, with some estimates as low as 90% and some as high as 98%: let’s call it 95%. If you are male in an academic environment with a narcissist colleague, you will soon enough conclude that the person is annoying and insufferable, but not much beyond that. If you are female, your experience is likely to be dramatically but often invisibly different. That suggests that there are two root causes of the persistence of sexual harassment in academia, and it may be that neither can be ameliorated to any significant degree. The first is the sheer ratio of men to women (duh): if a large majority respond to the problem person with “well, he’s annoying and insufferable, but so what?” instead of merely half of the group responding that way, action will obviously be lackadaisical. Second, if the person is already tenured, what can one do ultimately? Nothing will be effective short of firing the person, since the behavior pattern is likely to be incorrigible. Consider this one more argument for the abolition of tenure.

Flight From Byzantium

Civilizations move along meridians; nomads (including our modern warriors, since war is an echo of the nomadic instinct) along latitudes. This seems to be yet another version of the cross Constantine saw. Both movements possess a natural (vegetable or animal) logic, considering which one easily finds oneself in the position of not being able to reproach anyone for anything. In the state known as melancholy—or more exactly, fatalism. It can be blamed on age, or on the influence of the East, or, with an effort of the imagination, on Christian humility. The advantages of this condition are obvious, since they are selfish ones. For it is, like all forms of humility, always achieved at the expense of the mute helplessness of the victims of history, past, present and future; it is an echo of the helplessness of millions. And if you are not at an age when you can draw a sword from a scabbard or clamber up to a platform to roar to a sea of heads about your detestation of the past, the present, and what is to come; if there is no such platform or the sea has dried up, there still remain the face and the lips, which can accommodate your slight—provoked by the vista opening to both your inner and your naked eye—smile of contempt. — Joseph Brodsky

Why I Care About Space Exploration

PIA17041I feel a bit odd writing this. For one thing, many of my friends are already quite heavily invested emotionally in space activism, and for them, caring goes without saying. For those who don’t care, a number of assumptions I suspect they make will lead them to think that caring is quirky or worse. But I have come to think over time not only that space exploration is one of the most important things we can be doing with our intelligence, energy and resources, but that the difference between the extent to which that is the case, and the extent to which people care about it is so great, that talking about it is important.

But first, the assumptions. I admit that I was once enamored with the adventures portrayed in the science fiction novels I read as a young boy, and I know that people who are left cold by space exploration often think that it is a special interest driven by psychologically immature men who want to live the fantasy by proxy. Second, I am well aware of the fact that manned space exploration has always involved funding to corporations which were also defense contractors, that defense spending is high and that war is bad. I am well aware of the fact that the heyday of manned space exploration in this country was intertwined with assertion of national prestige during the Cold War. For many people, that, and the fact that every penny spent on manned space exploration could just as easily be spent on, say, medical research that might save lives, or income redistribution that might improve their quality, settles it. When you put all these considerations together, it is quite natural for some people to think that manned space exploration is simply indefensible. This is compounded by the fact that people interested in space science sometimes themselves argue that knowledge about our universe is best pursued with telescopes and robots, and for people for whom this knowledge is not very interesting anyway, that clinches it. Manned space exploration is a peculiarly pointless and expensive kind of male ego massage. For those suspicious of technology itself who yearn for a simpler, more bucolic way of life, spending money on technology is bad enough, but spending money on useless male ego massaging technology is about the worst thing imaginable. We have to get these thoughts up front and out in the open, because without addressing them head-on, I am preaching to the choir.

Before we turn to costs, which are surprisingly negligible, let us focus on reasons and values. For me, there are three things that bring me back again and again to space.

From time to time, I travel to the Oregon Coast to get away from it all, to have some solitude, to still all the inner chatter for a time and just be. There’s this one spot in particular I like to go to, which is a state park by the shore. To get there, I use my car and the roads, and when I get there, I take advantage of the state park facilities, especially maintained trails, observation platforms, etc. Because we tend to think of such spaces in terms of preventing them from being lost to other uses, protecting them from destruction, we tend to forget that part of the reason for that is so that we may experience the “spiritual” value of direct contact with the natural world, the sublimity of that, the inexpressible truths we learn from these sorts of experiences. Now suppose that I were to say that we should prevent people from going to state parks at all, in fact, we should not have any facilities that make these experiences possible, because you can just as easily learn about nature from wikipedia, or, in a pinch, a well-positioned webcam? Suppose I were to argue that you could provide one free hot meal a day for ten poor people for every park ranger you fired? Would you “go” for that? Maybe you should. Maybe maintaining state parks is just a silly way of symbolically massaging female egos…

Yes, that’s a reductio, and a strange one. But for me, one of the top three reasons for manned space exploration is that the sublimity of making other worlds experienceable directly to at least some human beings is “an end in itself.” It need not be justified in terms of scientific knowledge or job creation any more than state parks do. If you do not know about this sublimity, like some city kid who never had a field trip to a farm, I want to urge you to get out more. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy to experience what mountain climbing on Mars might be like. Watch the film For All Mankind and listen to the words of the people who walked on the moon, and the ineffable, transcendent  character of the experience they had there. Notice that but for Apollo photography of Earth, there would very likely have never been an Earth Day at all. Now I know what you’re thinking. These are very small numbers of people having these experiences, far fewer than the numbers who utilize our state and national parks, and the costs we’re talking about are of an entirely different order. But the more human space exploration there is, the cheaper it becomes, and the more people there are who have access to these experiences. Before you judge them to be valueless, be sure you have some notion of what these experiences are, for they are not, at their heart, “male ego massage” but experiences of transcendence, awareness of how much vaster and stranger and more beautiful the universe is than we in our daily lives can easily imagine.

That leads me to the second reason. When I listen to music, read poetry or look at paintings, I never forget that in order for these things to be produced, and in order for them to subsist for any length of time, communities must exist to preserve them and to preserve the capacity for understanding and appreciating them. And yet these communities are tenuous, imperiled things for reasons that might not occur to you: because humanity itself is a tenuous, imperiled thing. I grew up during the Cold War, and apart from however that made me experience the “space race” it also taught me one thing that we now find inconceivable (or turn into entertainment because we find it inconceivable): humanity itself can die. This thought was the source of considerable moral pathos back in the day, and people at one time marched to ban nuclear weapons testing, to create nuclear-free zones, etc. Many people are especially moved by the thought that aggression, ego, nationalism, and a kind of short-sightedness about the consequences of our priorities and actions could some day inadvertently lead to our destruction; some of the most haunting writing I recall as a teenager was prophetic science fiction about nuclear war. The thought that our own short-sightedness might destroy us and everything we’ve created and value is a powerful one.

However, it is possible to be even more blind than short-sighted human beings. The dinosaurs were. Like us, they took for granted that the ground under their feet was solid and the sky above them was safe. But the universe is a very big place, and it is full of objects that are, you might say, nature’s own nukes. If you want to see what they can do, look at a photograph of the moon: all those craters were caused. We have the protection of the atmosphere, which burns up and disperses the small stuff that collides with us. The bigger stuff can be much more destructive, and on very rare occasions, can cause planetwide extinction events. Now we tend to think of extinction in terms of the human impact on other species, but actually extinction is the norm: 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct, and our contribution to that total is negligible. Read the following sentence from Wikipedia, and think about it: “Most simply, any species that cannot survive and reproduce in its environment and cannot move to a new environment where it can do so, dies out and becomes extinct.” Flip that: in order to avoid dying out and becoming extinct, one thing a species must do is diversify the habitats in which lives, in the event that some habitats become impossible to live in. Of course we tend to think of this idea in terms of nonhuman species (no one likes to imagine their own death, let alone that of their whole species) and we think of the sum of all habitats as existing on earth. But in a very real sense, Earth is our “habitat”. Rare circumstances can make it impossible to survive and reproduce here. Diversifying our habitats means increasing the number of planets we sustainably live on, becoming a multiplanetary species. Colonizing other worlds not only opens up new possibilities of human experience, some of them beyond our imagining, it also means that it is less likely that a day will come when, owing to the blind stupidity of lifeless nature and our own tragic short-sightedness, everyone capable of experiencing Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and all their children, and children’s children, are dead.

Which brings me to children. Remember the old Morgenbesserism about how B.F. Skinner insists that we should not anthropomorphize human beings? We are too quick to say that viewing the world as a place filled with opportunity for adventure and wonderment is childish. (And it would be dreadfully sexist to say that it is merely boyish, that girls have no interest in adventure or wonderment.) But you know who should view the world childishly? Children should. We do them no service if we arrange our affairs so that the best we can tell them is that the world used to be filled with opportunities for adventure and wonderment, but now it is only filled with opportunities for sober maturity, labor and service. When things go well, children grow into mature adults whose useful contribution to the world is also one which they themselves find meaningful, and one of the central ways we come to find our adult activities meaningful is by connecting them with our childhood fantasies of what adult activities seemed thrilling to us. You can learn a lot about humanity, and about children, by noticing what kinds of careers children fantasize about. A firefighter has the power to save lives, a doctor has the power to heal and ease suffering. An astronaut has the power to transcend the everyday,  to reveal new worlds. We can always tell children, yes, your dream is a possibility. For some of them, they will become their dream. For others they will do something less grand but meaningfully related to it. For some reason, one of the perennial favorites is “astronaut.” Do you want to turn the possibility of becoming an astronaut into another Santa story, another lie we indulge in until the child is old enough and strong enough to accept the truth that, no, there is no Santa, and there are no such things as astronauts? But a child is hope incarnate, and one of the greatest sins is to unnecessarily sadden a child.

Those are some of the reasons why, whenever I hear someone say that we can better spend the money on ourselves, on Earth, I think: this is to spend money on ourselves, on Earth. Also, if I may let the little boy that still lives in me have the last word: rockets are really cool.


Photo Credit: Orbits of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), NASA/JPL-Caltech.