19 February 2014

Dennett and Harris wrestle on 'Free Will'

My take on the recent essays by Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris on the short Harris book 'Free Will' (2012, my original thoughts here).  Dennett wrote a 22 page review of the book in late January, and Harris put out his reply about a week later.  These are my brief notes on the exchange.

Dennett's main claims:

1. Harris is fighting a strawman - everyone basically agrees that the folk free will (i.e. libertarian free will) is wrong.  Dennett makes case for compatabilist notions (without claiming determinism is settled matter - says it is up to science to decide).

2. Harris is not taking the compatibilist position seriously and/or not in informed way.  Dennett does certainly appeal to the 'vast library' in a condescending way.

3. Harris seems fixed on one point in time, not dealing with dynamics over time.  Dennett rejects the Exact Replay scenario (rewind the clock, put literally everything back in place - see also #4 below in Harris section).  I liked this passage:
Harris ignores the reflexive, repetitive nature of thinking. My choice at time t can influence my choice at time t’ which can influence my choice at time t”.  How?  My choice at t can have among its effects the biasing of settings in my brain (which I cannot directly inspect) that determine (I use the term deliberately) my choice at t’. I can influence my choice at t’. I influenced it at time t (without “inspecting” it).  Like many before him, Harris shrinks the me to a dimensionless point, “the witness” who is stuck in the Cartesian Theater awaiting the decisions made elsewhere. That is simply a bad theory of consciousness.
4. Claims Harris is inconsistent about whether we can 'grab hold of our puppet strings' - perhaps also about how influence can work.

5. Dennett acknowledges we can't be 'ultimate cause' - infinite regress issue.  But over time we can "influence ourselves" (and others) in meaningful ways.

6. Takes issue with what Dennett claims is an evasion of responsibility.  I think this is the main area where probably the two men are actually probably not far apart practically, but are accusing each other of allowing for bad results.  Key lines:
Harris should take more seriously the various tensions he sets up in this passage.  It is wise to hold people responsible, he says, even though they are not responsible, not really. But we don’t hold everybody responsible; as he notes, we excuse those who are unresponsive to demands, or in whom change is impossible. That’s an important difference, and it is based on the different abilities or competences that people have.  Some people (are determined to) have the abilities that justify our holding them responsible, and some people (are determined to) lack those abilities. But determinism doesn’t do any work here; in particular it doesn’t disqualify those we hold responsible from occupying that role.  In other words, real responsibility, the kind the everyday folk think they have (if Harris is right), is strictly impossible; but when those same folk wisely and justifiably hold somebody responsible, that isn’t real responsibility!
Overall:  I actually found Dennett fairly straightforward, somewhat condescending, and probably drawing some unwarranted conclusions about the Harris position.  I found his points to be pretty interesting and worthy of consideration.

Harris main claims:

1. Says Dennett misunderstands his arguments.  Claims that libertarian free will is quite widely held still.

2. Harris is fully focused on taking down libertarian free will. He feels that removing that illusion will remove any rational reason for hatred - but leaves in place reasons for removing dangerous folks from society. Key lines:
And accepting incompatibilism has important intellectual and moral consequences that you ignore—the most important being, in my view, that it renders hatred patently irrational (while leaving love unscathed). If one is concerned about the consequences of maintaining a philosophical position, as I know you are, helping to close the door on human hatred seems far more beneficial than merely tinkering with a popular illusion.
3. Harris says he's not fully convinced of determinism, but thinks it must be nearly true.

4. There's a weird line about indeterminism re: the putt replay.  Harris writes:
That is, whatever his ability as a golfer, Austin would miss that same putt a trillion times in a row—provided that every atom and charge in the universe was exactly as it had been the first time he missed it. You think this fact (we can call it determinism, as you do, but it includes the contributions of indeterminism as well, provided they remain the same[3]) says nothing about free will.  
This seems to me to indicate the 'pseudo-random case' here, not a truly random indeterminism.  Not a big deal, but I found it odd to have the "provided they remain the same" qualifier.

5. As Dennett argues, I think Harris does not really grapple with the compatibilist argument. Does not engage the ideas of the dynamic system changing (influencing its future direction) over time.
Key lines: "In other words, your compatibilism seems an attempt to justify the conventional notion of blame, which my view denies. This is a difference worth focusing on."

Overall: Actually seems a bit more whiney than Dennett. Says he wanted debate or conversation, not to trade essays.  I think that Dennett mostly understands exactly where Harris stands.  Harris has his reasons for not wanting to grapple with compatibilism, but personally I think he hasn't shown that he really has a grip on Dennett's points.