Whither The Buck?

Sam Harris, the neuroscientist who made his bones as an anti-religious gadfly and member of the atheist “Four Horsemen” (now down, sadly, to three), has been writing and speaking lately about “free will”. The expression is rendered in scare-quotes because in Dr. Harris’s view “free will”, as generally imagined, is an illusion, and less: it is not even a coherent concept. I’m inclined to agree, as long as we leave in the part about “as generally imagined”.

Another of the “Four Horsemen” is the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who has written extensively on the subject of free will. His books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves are expositions of compatibilism — the view that determinism is, despite our intuitions, compatible with responsible moral agency.

Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett have walked a long way arm in arm, but have come to a fork in the road. For Dennett, the fact that it is only through us, as deliberators, that the causal network in which we are embedded can produce decisions and behavior means that our choices are still our responsibility. For Sam Harris, not so much.

The key idea, in Dennett’s words, is that “if you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything”. In order to preserve responsibility, then, we need to draw a boundary around ourselves, as nexuses of deliberation, that is big enough for us to live inside. Because we must choose what to do whether we like it or not, and because our choices are crucially affected by the contents of our brains — which includes, among everything else, our beliefs about such things as our own moral agency and responsibility — then to make this boundary expansive enough to regard ourselves as being responsible for what happens inside it is the key to a realistic view of freedom and moral agency. We can’t be “free” in the full-blown, radically libertarian way we imagine when we think naively about “free will”: that concept, when examined closely, isn’t even coherent. But once we shed our muddled, imaginary version of “freedom”, we can see that what we do have, though, is just fine for our purposes. Our deliberations matter, and they are ours — as long as we make “us” big enough.

Sam Harris disagrees.

Here is a video of a talk by Dr. Harris, as well as a short essay inviting Daniel Dennett to a public discussion of their disagreements. (Our friend Kevin Kim discusses the video here.)

And here is a transcript of a lecture given by Daniel Dennett in December of 2010 on how neuroscientists like Dr. Harris are getting it wrong.

I’m not going to say much more here (see our other linked posts on free will below), but I do want to point out a weakness in Professor Dennett’s talk. He uses a colorful analogy:

A favored image, not because it is good, but because it nicely captures the intuition people have is this: you go to Disneyland and go on the jungle boat ride, and the captain makes a dramatic show of almost steering into one catastrophe after another. Oh, you just missed that big hippopotamus, and then the crocodile, and — close call! — you narrowly avoided the waterfall! But of course the boat’s helm is completely non-functional, since the boat is running on an underwater track. There was never any chance it was going to go off the rails and collide with anything. There was a delicious illusion that there were these opportunities for disasters, all of which were deftly prevented from happening by the quick work of your skilled captain. A lot of folks think that this is the true face of determinism. “If determinism is true, my whole life is sort of on these hidden railroad tracks, and I don’t actually have any free will at all!” But, in fact, there is a fundamental difference: the activities, the desires, the reflections of the helmsman, the captain on the jungle boat are causally inert; they are not playing a role in determining the trajectory. But when you make a decision, the reflections going through your mind are in fact playing a role. Which is just what you should want.

The weakness is that this is not a strong enough analogy; it doesn’t capture the real problem. Better would be to imagine that the rails under the boat aren’t steering the boat directly; instead they control the brain of the captain. That gets us a little closer to the heart of the matter.

Anyway, Dennett and Harris are heading for a lively debate, I think. Have a look at the linked items.

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  1. the one eyed man says

    Do you know the difference between beer nuts and deer nuts?

    Beer nuts are fifty cents, and deer nuts are under a buck.

    Posted April 7, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Fifty cents is under a buck, so what’s the difference?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted April 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  3. the one eyed man says

    Deer nuts are under a buck. Oh, never mind.

    But hey: I got a million of them.

    What happens when you cross an elephant with a rhino?


    I kill myself. How’s everybody doing tonight? Anybody from out of town?

    Posted April 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Permalink