Daniel Dennett, everyone’s favorite compatibilist, is at his wrong-headed antics once again. He just seems to love using an argument from adverse consequences fallacy to tell people they shouldn’t be giving others the truth about free will. Namely, that they don’t have it. And once again, he assumes such consequences based on studies that conflate deterministic mindsets with fatalistic mindsets. Once again, he assumes such based on people who aren’t really educated on the topic of free will. Rather, on people who think they have free will becoming confused. Watch the “Big Think” video here, and let’s have some fun:
This man is sent out the door, and he believes the neurosurgeon. Of course in this fictional story this sends the man off-the-rails. He gets self indulgent, aggressive, negligent, and gets himself in trouble with the law. He tells the judge he doesn’t have free will and is being controlled by the neurosurgeons team. Of course it turns out the neurosurgeon lied to him. This is where Dennett does is finger wagging at the neurosurgeon and claims that, by telling him he no longer had free will, she (the neurosurgeon) turned off his “free will” and turned him into a morally incompetent person.
Let me give you a different thought experiment. Imagine if you will people who thinks invisible brown square circles exist that surround us constantly. These square circles are constantly watching our actions, and when we do good things, the square circles make our life better. But when we act in immoral ways, these square circles have a tendency to make our lives worse. These people think that it is these square circles that make them so “responsible”, that there is no other reason but the square circles to act good. Unfortunately these people also believe that the square circles think that people with an eye color other than brown are lesser than those with brown eyes and shouldn’t have the same rights … leading to an inequality about how such are treated.
Someone then gives one of them a case against the existence of square circles…and something happens. The person believes them.
At this point the person reverts to their default psychology, that being if there are no square circles, they have no reason to act good. They then go out and commit a number of atrocities.
What are we missing here? For one, the recognition that it isn’t the disbelief in square circles that is the main cause of the atrocities (as the people who never believed in them don’t commit them), but rather the misunderstanding of what it means that square circles don’t exist. They are missing all of the other rational reasons to be good that don’t require square circles. In other words, it’s this poor psychology that the belief in invisible brown square circles has imposed that is causing all of the problems once the belief has been abandoned.
But those who don’t believe in these square circles are sick of the oppression of people who don’t have brown eyes by those who believe in them. They also, however, don’t want the square circle believers to commit atrocities based on their square circle psychologies. So what does that mean? It means, rather than saying “stop telling people that invisible brown square circles don’t exist” and keeping the oppression, the square circle non-believers should be telling people they don’t exist, but at the same time educating them on what it means that they don’t exist. They should be educating them on the actual reasons to act ethically. They should, at the same time, be explaining the problems the square circle belief causes, in particular with the oppression of people who don’t have brown eyes.
So what does this have to do with the belief in free will? For one, the belief in free will is causing way too many problems in the world. It allows extreme inequalities to be justified based off of illogical blame and deserve. It allows for the justification of hatred, anger, retribution, and a whole lot of really nasty things in the world. And telling people who believe in free will that it doesn’t exist, if it happens to automatically change that belief, doesn’t immediately change the psychology that the belief in free will has caused to begin with. It doesn’t change the fact that they are uneducated about what the lack of belief in free will truly means and what it doesn’t. It doesn’t change their poor fatalistic ideas about not having free will. So it’s not shocking that their initial reaction is less than rational, or even harmful.
But that does not mean we shouldn’t change their belief in free will. We simply must in order to fix all of these other problems. And we simply must if we want a world where truth reigns over fictions. But how we do so is just as important. We do need to explain to them that the belief in free will has embedded some really poor psychological responses that they wouldn’t normally have if they never believed in it and were educated on it since day one.
The other part of Dennett’s thought experiment is that it entirely bypasses the person understanding that their thoughts are an important part of the causal process that leads to their decisions. It doesn’t align with the lack of free will we actually have, but once again with the more fatalistic ideas about not having free will (again, to see some distinctions see here). In other words, if the neurosurgeon was really controlling everything, what the person thinks would have no causal bearing to what they do. But of course we know this isn’t the case in a normal causal universe. We know that thinking we want to be cured is a causal relation that can lead us to visiting the doctor. So even Dennett can’t seem to create a thought experiment that is actually analogous to the “no free will” understanding that most free will skeptics want to explain to people.
Dennett then goes on to address a study by Vohs and Schooler, in which people who are given a reading suggesting they don’t have free will tended to cheat more. I address this study here: A Temporary Imposed Lack of Belief in Free Will? Seriously? where I explain that it doesn’t really remove the belief in free will to have someone read an article, rather, it creates a temporary confusion on the topic, and various other problems with it.
It’s also a study that uses the really poor version of the Free Will and Determinism (FAD) scale. It’s an earlier study in which FAD-Plus scale wasn’t around for, which is a bit better but also very problematic. You can see why here: Problems With The Free Will and Determinism Plus Scale (FAD-Plus).
But even if we accepted such studies to their fullest (which we shouldn’t). Even if we accepted that the initial confusions caused by telling people they don’t have free will caused a number of problems and unethical acts, and that those confusions were unavoidable (there was no way to initially educate people before they had the confusions), it still doesn’t follow that they will hold to these less than ethical behaviors in the long run. Rather, people who have been given such a drastic dose of reality about something they had believed in all of their life, will most likely look to find more answers (if they truly now disbelieved in free will). And when they do, all of their harmful responses that they initially had will dissipate once they realize their responses were just as irrational as the free will belief is.
And along with such education comes a person with more compassion and understanding. Someone unable to justify inequality. Someone with an interest at looking for root causes to problems. Someone that doesn’t hold on to unreasonable ideas. And the more people who come to the rational realization that there is no free will and understand what such implies, the better off the world will be in the long run. So Dennett, please – stop telling people they have free will! Because in the long run, such is a far worse lie than what the neurosurgeon in your thought experiment does.
Sidenote: My title “Daniel Dennett, Stop Telling People They Have Free Will” is a jab on the title of the Big Think video entitled “Daniel Dennett: Stop Telling People They Don’t Have Free Will”.