Apr 082015


A contagious brain disease has been infecting various people. The disease spreads quickly, often within as little as a 5 minute period of being exposed to it, and sometimes it draws one into long exposures. Though the disease has had many incarnations, we found a primary host of a very strong version and have rightly named the disease Dennettrhea after this host. The main symptom of the disease is wrongheaded compatibilistic thinking about the topic of free will that overrides any concern over the type of free will that most people feel they possess.

But don’t worry, you can build up immunity to the disease with a good dose of rationality (Rx). The more you learn about the disease, the more you can be aware of the symptoms and through rational thinking prevent yourself from becoming infected.

The disease itself spreads through a mis-information sharing and distortion process. This article is going to expose you to one 5 minute version of the infection process (though there are many), but as long as you rationally observe the problems with the thinking that spreads the disease, you will build up an immunity to it rather than let it take hold of you. Unfortunately the only way to build an immunity is to expose you to the disease first, so watch here:
Five Minutes On Free Will with Daniel Dennett

Watched the video? You have now been exposed, and your brain may start to reconfigure to the ways of thinking in the video. Hopefully, however, you’ve already built up some immunities to it, but if not, the next steps will help you do so. The best way to do this is to address each point that was said in the video so you understand how the infection spreads though a poor reasoning mechanism. If you were already previously infected, you might initially fight the cure, but keep on a rational track and eventually the infection will die off.

On to the points of the video, Dennett says:

“Well, in my own work, I find that in spite of all my labors for many years, there’s a lot of scientists that still are just tone-deaf and obtuse about free will.”

If you don’t have immunities built up, then you may miss the irony of Dennett asserting “tone deafness” and “obtuseness” about free will in others. To the  free will skeptic, such irony is obvious. To the unsuspecting victim of the disease, this “my labors for many years” sets the host of the disease up as an “authority”. This strengthens the stronghold of the disease.

“They take the most simple minded definition of free will that’s out there, and discover that that kind of free will is an illusion – well yeah we’ve known that for over 100 years.”

Who is this “we” that he is referring to that has known that for over 100 years? Part of the infection process is to get you to think that such is already known by most, to avoid the actual reality. But if he’s talking about “we” as referring to the general population, or even just the general population of scientists and philosophers, such couldn’t be further to the truth. If he’s saying this in the sense that some philosophers understood that this sort of free will didn’t exist over 100 years, of course they did. But such was never a mainstream understanding, and more importantly, it’s obviously not mainstream today. Don’t be fooled by this disease trickery.

It may also be important to note  here that for Dennett’s own redefinition of free will, we actually can say that “well yeah, we’ve known that  for much longer than 100 years”. And when talking about being “simplistic”, read here for Dennett’s version of “free will”: Dennett’s “Free Will” vs a Free Will Not Worth Wanting and you will see what I’m referring to.

“But that’s not what the issue, if they think that’s the issue, then they should go back to school, and find out what the interesting issues are.”

Here the disease causes Dennett to suggest that such isn’t the issue. Along with this claim comes a pretentious and insulting claim  that people who think it is are uneducated about the topic (go back to school), a tactic that makes people go “oh no, I don’t want to seem uneducated” -prepping them just right for infection.

But of course the whole problem with compatibilism is that it bypasses the issues of most importance. His very compatibilist definition of free will actually bypass almost all of the issues of concern throughout the history of philosophy. Perhaps he’s learned the wrong things from his “school” (maybe his school already had the disease going around), who knows.

Also, the very fact that Dennett uses the word “interesting” here and in many other venues  means that the disease removes the drive to be a good philosopher for this topic. After all, I know people who find knitting “interesting”. Rather, we need to look at what is and is not important, regardless of who finds what “interesting”.  It’s not important to redefine free will to something most people already realize, which is what a compatibilist definition is. It is important to explain the free will ability that many people actually believe they and others have, when in fact they really do not have it. It’s probably one of the most important (rather than “interesting”) understandings there are. But once already infected with Dennettrhea, it’s easy to look past the facts about what most people actually believe.

“There are some neuroscientists and some psychologists that understand that very well, and they are a bit embarrassed to watch their colleagues, sometimes very senior, very distinguished colleagues sort of making fools of themselves talking about this – and simply not coming to grips with the real topic.”

Here the disease has Dennett claiming that “some” neuroscientists and “some” psychologists who take compatibilists positions are in the right about such being the “real topic”, even though what they deem as the “real topic” is, as the free will skeptic would explain, the topic of avoiding many “important topics” of consideration. They simply bypass what it actually means that we could not have, of our own accord, done otherwise. And it means a whole lot, in fact it has a say in ethics, criminology, economics, politics, religion, how we treat ourselves, how we treat others, and on and on.. This goes to show that even some scientists can also become infected with Dennettrhea.

“We can define a variety of free will that we can’t have, no questions, so what – is that the kind of free will anybody should worry about, that anybody should want.”

Here Dennett conflated two different things, whether we should “worry” about this free will, with whether we should “want” this free will. These are not the same thing, nor are they similar. The disease, however, tries to make you think they are. The entire point of the free will skeptic is that the belief in this “sort” of free will is extremely worrisome , troubling, and more importantly, it’s what a large majority of people do feel they possess – incorrectly. The free will skeptic often agrees with Dennett that it’s the free will that we shouldn’t “want” (I certainly agree it’s something not worth wanting). In fact, that’s the very reason to explain to people why such free will doesn’t exist rather than confuse them with a new definition and simply avoid the problems that happen due to people thinking it does.

But the disease wants you to think that if we shouldn’t “want” that type of free will, that it’s nothing to “worry” about. This disease is a slippery one indeed!

“The subtitle of my first book on free will was “the varieties of free will worth wanting”, and I’m so glad I had that in the subtitle because I think ever since then, people, both philosophers and scientists, and others – the work on free will I have labored over varieties of free will, that they never really asked themself well, would it matter if we don’t have free will in this sense?”

Really poor assumption such as “they never asked themself whether it matters” seems to be a part of the infection. Many, of course, do ask themself. And the conclusion they come to is one that opposes Dennett’s view that such a free will “doesn’t matter” or is unimportant or even “uninteresting”. But part of the infection is to get you to believe that this version of free will doesn’t matter.

“And typically the answers “no”…so the whole libertarian idea that free will is incompatible with determinism, and that we should hope indeterminism is true, we should hope that our decisions are undetermined, that is a colossal confusion.”

Of course this is plain wrong, but if you’ve been prepped good enough, this is where the disease will truly take hold. But just because the infection causes one to incorrectly concluded a “no” here, doesn’t mean that others are infected. People with Dennettrhea don’t see how other people understand that the incompatibilist definition of free will not existing is important. In reality, it’s extremely important.

Another symptom of Dennettrhea is to suggest that if we tell people that they have free will it will be dangerous. But this too is mistaken. See here for more information: Daniel Dennett, Stop Telling People They Have Free Will!

“The real issues of free will are simply orthogonal to the question of determinism and indeterminism. It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, if physics is deteministic or indeterministic, – whether we have free will is really much less a matter of physics then it is biology.”

Biology is dependent on physics. Dennett is correct here, it doesn’t matter if physics is deterministic or indeterministic, as free will is incompatible either way. Biology isn’t something that reaches beyond the two possible ways that events can happen, causally or acausally. But of course biology is important to Dennett’s free will, because his very definition is “the power to be active agents, biological devices that respond to our environment with rational, desirable courses of action”. That, for most, is biologically obvious. What isn’t obvious for most people is if they couldn’t have done, of their own accord, otherwise.

But part of being infected with Dennettrhea is to totally ignore the “otherwise” part. Read here for more info on why most people think they could have done otherwise in a deterministic universe:

Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)

“There was no free will on this planet at the dawn of life, bacteria don’t have free will, sponges don’t have free will, fish don’t have free will in any interesting sense, we’re the only ones that have free will as something that evolved. It’s morally important, that’s why free will is important, because we want to be, and should want to be, morally competent agents – agent who can take responsibility for actions. That’s the heart of free will.”

It is morally important! Dennett is right about this. The disease, however, infects people with the wrong reasons for why it’s morally important.  It’s morally important that we understand we don’t have the incompatibilist notion of free will, as any moral system needs to contain this as a base understanding. Morality isn’t the “heart of free will”, it’s actually a topic in which the understanding that we don’t have free will is crucially important to. My next book will be on morality without free will, and our entire moral system needs this understanding as an important base.

“And moral competence has nothing to do with indeterminism or determinism. You can have a morally competent agent in a deterministic world, you can have a morally competent agent in an indeterministic world, that’s the kind of free will that really matters.”

Yup, you can have a morally competent person in a deterministic or an indeterministic world, just as you can have a morally incompetent person. But lets be clear that competence  about such things relies heavily on causality. If indeterminism had much say on our decisions, the chances are that such would be a factor that would lead to incompetence. Regardless, it isn’t “free will” that leads to moral competence or incompetence.

“Once you start looking at what are the conditions for moral competence, then the science begins to be important because some people indeed, due to problems in their brains to just put it simply for the moment, are not morally competent, and we should treat them differently. But it’s not because  their determined and the rest of us are not, it’s because they are determined in the wrong ways. They are determined in simple ways. They are unable to do things that we are able to do.”

Dennettrhea causes other symptoms as well. The keen ability to point out more obvious causes such as a “problem with the brain” as if someone without a problem has more “free will”. If someone does something immoral who doesn’t have a “problem with their brain” in the sense of a medical issue, they were equally unable to have done, of their own accord, otherwise. So when he suggests that someone with a brain problem is “unable to do things we are able to do”, he’s suggesting (without saying it) that someone who doesn’t have these brain problems yet still acts unethically, could have done otherwise (that they were “able to”).

It’s these ways to suggest things without actually saying them, and then deny such implications when asked directly, that makes this disease so sneaky and sometimes hard to cure. Sometimes extra doses of rationality are required to parse out the nonsense the disease causes.

“I think some areas of philosophy are dying, and probably should die. But there is plenty of work for philosophers to do. My own view is that philosophers can be if they have the knowledge and the training, wonderful question clarifiers – we are better at questions than answers.”

Bam, a power-punch of the infection is to drop in that philosophers are better at questions than answers (hint: to help knock down the fact that we can answer the free will question). Much of philosophy has to do with actually answering questions. A five-year old can respond with “why” after every sentence.

“In fact one way of looking at the history of philosophy, the history of thought and knowledge, is it all starts out as philosophy, and as you clarify the questions, you shelf off of science, mathematics, astronomy, physics. After all the American philosophical society is a physics organization, and Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding members of that.”

This I’d agree with, science and the like need to be incorporated into philosophical understandings. I think anyone in the analytic tradition of philosophy understands this. It seems there is a winding down of the infection to bring the ideas away from free will into some more obvious and perhaps agreeable realms. This easy to agree to stuff gets associated with the “other stuff” coming from the same voice and helps solidify the infection.

“So philosophy has a very (can’t make out) tradition of getting topics clear enough to kick out of the nest, and then they become sciences. But wherever there is a topic that people don’t know exactly what the right questions are, where ever there is controversy over what the questions ought to be, there’s work for philosophers to do there, and that’s the kind of work I take myself to be doing.”

It’s fine that Dennett thinks he’s doing this kind of work, but as the primary host of Dennettrhea, such appears to be inhibiting his work, at least on the topic of free will. In fact, he is getting all of the important questions wrong (muddying them up rather than making them clear). It’s not too late, he can be cured of his own disease if he’d causally stop looking at what questions he personally finds “interesting” and start focusing on what questions actually do “matter” in a rational light.

And if he thinks his redefinition of free will matters more that the ability people intuitively feel they have, and if he still feels the urge to call free will skeptics “tone-deaf”, “obtuse”,  or  to tell them to go “back to school” as he partition out the facts from his imagined “interesting questions”, then here is my medical advice to him:

I’m sorry sir, but it appears you still have a nasty case of Dennettrhea. You need to start taking some stronger doses of rationality when assessing the free will topic.

* If you still aren't sure why Dennettrhea is so dangerous, take this prescription to build an immunity: 
Rx: Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind


** Disclaimer: I know Dennett couldn’t have, of his own accord, thought or done otherwise. I’m just poking a little fun with the “Dennettrhea” word to spruce up an otherwise boring post, it’s not meant to be a personal attack or anything. In fact feel free to make fun of my own last name in comments. Someone on facebook said “Suffering Dennetrhea? Take a large dose of Slattric acid!” Too funny! :-) Just know I harbor no ill-will toward Dennett, or toward anyone for that matter (and neither should you). In fact, I agree with Dennett on many things that are not free will related, and even, believe it or not, some that are. In hindsight, I think the word may come off as being too harsh. 😉

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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.

  7 Responses to “Dennettrhea – A “Free Will” Compatibilist Infection in 5 minutes”

  1. Keep in mind that Dennett can’t help but be wrong, so we should have a little more compassion for him. I also dislike mocking anyone’s name; it comes across as an ad hominem attack even if you explain it. So instead of “Dennettrhea” how about “Dennett’s Delusion”? It appropriately echoes “The God Delusion”.

    • Yeah, I was trying to suggest that he can’t help but be wrong (or others that agree with his position for that matter) by displaying such with sort of a “mind disease” analogy and giving it a sort of “clinical” name for the meme spreading of such ideas, …but I suppose Dennettrhea could come off as a bit harsh (Though not so sure Dennett’s Delusion is less harsh). 😉

      I added a disclaimer for what it’s worth. :-)

      • “Dennett’s Delusion” (as a possessive) is less of an ad hominem and more a critique of a bad idea. It tells you who is having that bad idea, rather than that the person is himself bad. Of course, in popular terms, people equate the validity of an idea with the worth of a person as a human being. That’s one of the benefits of realizing the illusion of free will – we don’t do that.

        • To be honest, I wouldn’t equate either to an ad-hom fallacy. After all, it says the main symptom of the “disease” is wrongheaded compatibilistic thinking about the topic of free will that overrides any concern over the type of free will that most people feel they possess….and that is covered thoroughly in the article. I also don’t think anyone will think such word as being serious, or what the argument is about. That being said, I can see how such could potentially be perceived by some as an insult, but it’s actually the displaying of why Dennett is wrong that really leads to such. If I had said the disease of Dennetrhea leads to brilliant, logically sound reasoning on the topic of free will…I don’t think the word “Dennetrhea” itself would be equated negatively. But the negative aspect is actually in the fact of the poor reasoning itself that “Dennetrhea” leads to – which is displayed in the article. 😉

  2. ” It’s morally important, that’s why free will is important, because we want to be, and should want to be, morally competent agents – agent who can take responsibility for actions.”

    If I read Dennett’s books, I will see what his idea of morality is and if it is the kind of morality “worth wanting”.

  3. […] genuine free will) is clearly incompatible with determinism. Here again, even a compatibilist like Dan Dennett agrees: "that that kind of free will is an illusion — well yeah, we've known that for over 100 […]

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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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