Jan 092015

Daniel Dennett

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:

First thing Dennett does is give us a “thought experiment”. He gives a scenario where someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is treated by inserting a microchip in his brain which controls the OCD. The neurosurgeon, after the surgery, tells the man that it is helping with the OCD. The neurosurgeon also tells him that the team will be monitoring him 24/7 and they will be controlling everything he does. In other words, the man is told he has no free will from now on, that anything he does is what they are controlling.

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”.  

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  11 Responses to “Daniel Dennett, Stop Telling People They Have Free Will!”

Comments (11)
  1. Hey Trick, how ya been? To be brief and to the point, I am asking if you might give me permission to use the dialogue we had throughout your blog, in writings of my own? I also would not intend on using any of your personal identity or information related to the text, in my text, unless the conditions of your letting me use it, insisted I do such a thing. Hope all is well.

    • Hi Daniel, I normally wouldn’t mind, but the discussions we had were sort of lengthy and google has a problem when it comes to large amounts of duplicate content. If you’d like to use it I may remove it from my own page so the page doesn’t “take a hit” in ranking. That would be fine, just let me know. And of course do email me a link to your blog. 😉

      • Oh, I am sorry but I believe if whatever I am working on will be consumed by a public it will be via physical copy book. If that were to be put online, I suppose that is where your repetition would come. I am not entirely sure what you mean about google and taking hits, nor do I have a blog. I can change every other word (using a thesaurus I suppose) if that would be better?

        • What I mean is, google creates a hit in search engine ranking when it detects duplicate content (it prioritizes one over the other – which one a factor I can’t control, and knocks the other down dramatically in ranking), so the post gets seen by less people. It’s just bad SEO to have duplicate content. 😉

          If you can change enough of the words, or reword each, that would be best. Or if you want the original text on yours, I’m saying I’ll give it to you and remove from my own. Up to you. 😉

  2. Actually free will is the original and natural state, but we forget it since we learn to do what we’re forced to by society and what our parents etc. expects of us. In other words we learn to choose based on outer alternatives, not based on our free will, and that creates an illusion of free choice.

    By the way, this is not an intellectual problem that you can solve by thinking, you have to find the free will to know it. Look up something called Alkuajatus – The Original Thought, in it, you’ll get clear knowledge about how to find it again.

    • Hi Tony, thanks for the visit to my blog. When I say we don’t have “free will” I mean so in light of this definition: Free Will

      There are various reasons why I think this definition the one of importance. I’d be curious if your definition of the term is similar or entirely different.

      Take care. :-)

  3. By this logic, Dennett should also stop promoting atheism and unbelief in an afterlife, since there are plenty of people who think morals depend on religion.

    I can sympathize a bit with his desire not to be mistaken for a fatalist, but why not just be clear about what he really believes instead of playing word games?

    • Well put Ed. I find his position on free will a redefinition that goes against what the majority of people intuitively feel they possess. It’s similar to redefining god as just “the universe”…in which case such a semantic of god “exists”…it’s just not the definition commonly associated with the word. And thanks for the visit!

  4. Interesting, I often mess with people’s heads. Like Intelligent design verses evolution debates. To prove your designed I show you are really just an artificial intelligent machine. You are just a machine stupid that thinks its living. Show me your soul and I’ll believe you’re at best a living machine. Oh, and by the way you don’t have free will to the extent to what you think to have. It’s only preprogramming – of a very high complexity. Yes you can choose, but only with the limited choices in your mind.

  5. Hello,
    What I’ve learned from Harris’ blow on compatibilists understanding of free will is that Harris seem to have devalued the moral motivation as an antecedent which may be a deciding factor for any moral consequences. Instead he gives it a psychological colour, that every events is decided by a preceeding events (most possibly psychological). His example of Komisarjevsky and Heyes seem to have precisely implicated that it was psychological which they didn’t have control over.

    • Hi Steve. To keep things conversational I only allow in one 500 char comment at a time. Sorry about that but it’s done to avoid bloat and obfuscation on both ends. See comment rules. I will address this first one for my response:

      Re Harris, have you read “The Moral Landscape”? Harris is a moral realist and a consequentialist (as am I btw). There is an important distinction between A) moral evaluations and actions based on them, and B) being morally responsible after-the-fact in the sense of “just deserts”. It is (B) that the free will skeptic such as Harris and I (and others) reject. We don’t have the “strong sense” I denote here, but the weak sense we do:
      Moral Responsibility (and the Lack of Free Will) – INFOGRAPHIC

      The problem with compatibilism is that it most often bypasses the topic of practical importance for the debate denoted HERE.

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Comments in this section should be brief, coherent, and to the point, preferably 1 OR 2 sentences long. Due to this, I've limited comments to 500 characters. Using multiple comments at a single turn will not be approved. I'd like for this comment section to be conversational and not intimidating for people to read or respond to. Essay sized posts, though perhaps interesting, should go elsewhere.  Misinformation or fallacies may not be approved. Click here for more comment rules. I appreciate your understanding. Thanks! 'Trick.


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