Daniel Dennett on Sam Harris on Free Will

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.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    As you know, since I’m sure you follow Harris’s Twitter feed, Harris is planning a response to Dennett, but in the meantime, he retweeted a critique of Dennett’s critique: here.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 12:04 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    I saw the linked item, and didn’t think much of it; it rather misses the point of the things it jeers at, I think.

    To be fair, after saying something like that, I should explain myself, I suppose. Perhaps in a new post…

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 12:32 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    I had trouble untangling exactly what Dennett was trying to say. Like some of the commenters to Daniel Miessler’s post, I felt Dennett could have been clearer and more concise.

    I’ll be curious to see your take on (defense of?) Dennett. My impression was that Dennett was describing something like a “path function” in math: sort of a combination of determinacy and indeterminacy.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 2:21 am | Permalink
  4. I was going to follow the links you offered, Malcolm, but then I changed my mind, but, just before I clicked over to the next blog I suddenly changed my mind because I thought I ought to learn something about Mr. Dennett (having just bought one of his books) but then I thought, the hell with it, I’ll look it up later so I clicked on to the next blog but then suddenly thought I ought to leave you a comment and so here I am back again and, well, here it is. I tell you, I’m a slave to my free will!

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    I’ll be traveling all day, and back to long hours at work again tomorrow, so I might not have much time in the next few days to put together a new post on this. But I’ve added, at the end of this post, links to the previous series, in which I explained my own understanding of, and sympathy for, the compatibilist view.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    I tell you, I’m a slave to my free will!

    Well struck, sir.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  7. Does free will come at a cost?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says


    So I’ve heard.

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  9. Damn those two!

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted February 3, 2014 at 11:27 pm | Permalink