Do True Scotsmen Have Free Will?

Here’s a clarifying passage from Daniel Dennett on the idea that the findings of neuroscience prove that “free will” is a fiction:

Recall the myth of Cupid, who flutters about on his cherubic wings making people fall in love by shooting them with his little bow and arrow. This is such a lame cartoonists’ convention that it’s hard to believe that anybody ever took any version of it seriously. But we can pretend: Suppose that once upon a time there were people who believed that an invisible arrow from a flying god was a sort of inoculation that caused people to fall in love. And suppose some killjoy scientist came along and showed them that this was simply not true: No such flying gods exist. “He’s just shown that nobody ever falls in love, not really. The idea of falling in love is just a nice — maybe even a necessary — fiction. It never happens.” That is what some might say. Others, one hopes, would want to deny it: “No. Love is quite real, and so is falling in love. It just isn’t what people used to think it is. It’s just as good — maybe even better. True love doesn’t involve any flying gods.” The issue of free will is like this. If you are one of those who believe that free will is only really free will if it springs from an immaterial soul that hovers happily in your brain, shooting arrows of decision into your motor cortex, then, given what you mean by free will, my view is that there is no free will at all. If, on the other hand, you think free will might be morally important without being supernatural, then my view is that free will is indeed real, but just not quite what you probably thought it was.

Freedom Evolves, p. 222-223

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  1. OK, the last sentence is easily agreed with but what does it really mean? I wrote a three-paper series over two years on this issue, and came to the conclusion that physiologically we do have free-will and that whether the Universe was ultimately deterministic or not did not matter, but could not be demonstrated either way. I have a follow-up paper in the works, but it may be some time before it is out.

    Dennett and I have a fundamental disagreement on the way the brain works–I believe there is a Cartesian theater, though perhaps it is not as he thinks it is.

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, this is just Dennett’s way of making clear that he thinks that even a neurologically deterministic brain can give us “free will” in every sense that is really worth caring about.

    Both of his free-will books are close examinations and unpackings of the assumptions people generally make about free will, and an attempt to show that most of them are in fact somehow incoherent. And one of the things he does focus on is that whether or not the Universe is deterministic doesn’t matter in any detectable or meaningful way, as you say.

    I wrote a series of posts about all this a while ago myself…

    Posted July 19, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Permalink