I used to spill a lot of ink here about the question of free will. In the most recent of a series of thirteen related posts on the topic, I mentioned a disagreement on this topic between two writers whose names are often linked: the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Both are, probably, best known to the public as members, along with Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, of the prominent quartet of atheist authors often lumped together as the “Four Horsemen”.
Before all this atheism, though, Daniel Dennett had already made a name for himself for his controversial work on the philosophy of mind, and for several books and papers on free will. When it comes to free will, Dennett is what’s known as a “compatibilist”: he believes that our traditional concept of volitional freedom, when examined closely, is incoherent, but that even an ordinary materialistic understanding of our nature — in which our minds, and our choices, are entirely supervenient upon the workings of our biological brains — can give us, nevertheless, all the free will that’s “worth wanting”. I have found his two books, Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves, to be persuasive, and I would say that I am a “compatibilist” myself. (If you are interested in this ancient question, you should read them both.)
Sam Harris, on the other hand, is what you might call a “hard determinist”. He agrees with Professor Dennett both that our ordinary idea of free will is incoherent, and that our minds and choices are simply the output of our material brains — but unlike Dennett, he argues that free will is simply an illusion, and that this has important moral consequences. He has written a book of his own about this.
Daniel Dennett has now written a serious critique of Sam Harris’s book, which Dr. Harris has posted at his own website. You can read it here. If this topic interests you at all, it’s well worth your time.
- Who’s In Charge?
- What You Mean “We”, Kemosabe?
- Wagging The Dog
- The Weakest Link
- Causes and Reasons
- The Choice Is Yours
- Causes and Cans
- Stopping The Buck
- Do True Scotsmen Have Free Will?
- The Buck Stops Nowhere
- More From Sam Harris On Free Will
- Facts Of The Matter
- Whither The Buck?
- Daniel Dennett on Sam Harris on Free Will