Harris And Dennett, Again, On Free Will

After posting the Sam Harris interview with Charles Murray last week, I browsed through some of Dr. Harris’s other podcasts. Among them I found a conversation with Daniel Dennett on a topic about which the two of them have had a public spat: free will.

Both of these men are, obviously, uncommonly intelligent and articulate, and while each has made arguments on important matters that I find unpersuasive — Harris on the existence of an objective foundation for morality, Dennett on the illusory nature of consciousness, and both of them on what they consider to be the fatuity and obsolescence of religion — I’ve admired both of them for their curiosity, diligence, and willingness to take unpopular positions.

Free will is, of course, a difficult topic that has vexed philosophers and laymen alike for a very long time. I’ve written about it myself at some length. (See the post category here, or the linked series of posts beginning here.) I find Dennett’s position — a carefully threaded form of “compatibilism”, as laid out in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves — persuasive. Sam Harris doesn’t, and wrote a short book of his own to say so. In a review, Dennett called the book a “museum of mistakes”, and there was some tense back-and-forth in print between the two of them. (See the links below.)

Last summer Harris and Dennett both attended a conference in Banff, and during a break in the action sat down in a bar to talk about it all. The result is this podcast, in which they examine their disagreements with refreshingly civilized collegiality. My impression is still that Dennett’s position comes much closer to getting at what is true and important about free will than Harris’s — so much so, in fact, that it rises to the level of what is sometimes called “pwnage”. But you should make up your own minds. It’s an interesting and penetrating discussion.

Have a listen here.

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  1. Jacob SIlver says

    Debates over free will have always struck me as odd. If one were to assume a world without it, then the debate carries no meaning. Conversely, if one were to assume a world with absolute free will, then no such thing as a predisposition would make sense.

    Without devolving into existential crisis, it stands to reason that observable reality suggests a greater measure of determinism in human behavior, varying to some degree across sub-groups. Therefor whatever we are to term “free will,” is a contextual artifact only observable within the confines of an established norm of behavior for an individual based on their sub-group affiliation.

    Posted May 1, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  2. Asher says

    Dennett’s view of varying levels of agency has a hole so wide you could drive a truck though it. Unfortunately, Harris truck was out of gas. Anything that exists is measurable, therefore, if agency exists then it is measurable. The implications of this are rather easy to follow. If agency were the sole measure I consider most people more akin to rocks, it’s in the podcast, than I consider them to myself. As Nietzsche noted, I am free and he is caused. There’s a reason Harris, but not Dennett, gets called a “racist”, and that reason is that it’s not intellectually difficult to grasp these implications.

    I simply cannot understand how you found that podcast interesting. To me it was a couple of grade schoolers doodling with crayons.

    Posted May 2, 2017 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says


    Your comment strikes me as unduly, and rather perplexingly, harsh.

    I find Dennett’s view of agency as a continuum persuasive (I think consciousness is like that too), so I’m curious to know just where you’d drive the truck.

    Anything that exists is measurable, therefore, if agency exists then it is measurable.

    Love exists. Is it measurable? By counting the ways, perhaps?

    Yes, there may in principle be some sort of measuring-stick for agency, though we don’t have one in hand. If one accepts that there are gradations of agency, from rocks to Rockefellers, then there must be some sort of scale, and therefore quantifiability. But what puzzles me about your comment is that it’s Dennett, not Harris, that puts forward this view. As for Harris being called a racist, it’s simply because he says unflattering things about Islam.

    I found the podcast interesting because I find the topic interesting, and because the conversation probed the corners of two naturalistic views of agency. Say what you like, neither of these two is an idiot — though I think Harris vs. Dennett on this question is pretty clearly an amateur getting into the ring with a professional.

    Posted May 2, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink