Daniel Dennett, author of Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting and Freedom Evolves, is a philosopher that is considered a free will “compatibilist”. What this means is that Dennett accepts that the universe is deterministic or that even if there was indeterminism, this wouldn’t help free will such as what libertarians think (different than political libertarians) – but at the same time he thinks free will is compatible with determinism.
On the other hand, hard determinists and hard incompatibilists such as myself think that free will is not compatible with determinism (nor indeterminism).
So obviously one of us must be wrong…right? Well yes and no. The first thing that needs to be addressed is if we are both on the same page in regards to the term “free will”. As it turns out, Dennett’s “Free Will” is not the free will of concern for the hard determinist or hard incompatibilist.
The reason people like myself think Dennett is “wrong” is not that if we were to define free will like he does, that we are saying this doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s because we are saying the way he defines free will inappropriately side-steps some very important issues of concern and creates confusion. It’s not the ability a large majority of people feel they possess when they hear the term, it’s not the free will definition that is of philosophical importance to so many other topics, and using the term with a compatibilist definition causes more confusion than not.
In a nutshell, this is Dennett’s free will semantic that he suggests is the “free will worth wanting”:
the power to be active agents, biological devices that respond to our environment with rational, desirable courses of action.
Do note he’s often vague and not upfront when it comes to definitions and it takes wading through a lot of his material to get to a point in which he actually gives a solid definition of what he means.
Of course most (if not all) hard determinist or hard incompatibilist think we are and have this ability. In no way does a free will skeptic propose that we are not active agents that respond to our environment with (sometimes) rational, desirable courses of action. The only people who might think this are fatalists, but most serious free will skeptics who understand determinism do not hold to the position of fatalism – which is different from determinism.
Another thing that Dennett does is he talks about how people still have “moral responsibility”. In fact, lately, Dennett has changed the way he uses free will to mean more “that which gives moral responsibility”.
Now I’ve addressed the ambiguity of the word “responsibility” in a past article, and it turns out that Dennett’s version is the same version that most incompatibilists hold. In other words, he holds to an argument from utility, meaning that people are responsible in the sense that we need to deter and prevent them from harmful acts. I don’t know of any free will skeptic that suggests actions shouldn’t be taken in these regards.
What we do say, however, is that those people who do those morally irresponsible acts aren’t truly blameworthy for being who they couldn’t avoid being and doing what they couldn’t avoid doing. This takes us to the more common notion of free will that people like me are concerned over:
The ability to have, of one’s own accord, chosen otherwise than they did.
I even go so far as to put this in a more present tense form in my book on this topic:
The ability to choose between more than one viable option or action, in which that choice was up to the chooser.
And here’s the deal: most compatibilists such as Dennett do not think people have this ability either! So why do they define free will the way they do? Here are four possibilities out of many I can think of:
- They are concerned that people will revert to fatalism if they are taught they don’t have free will.
- They think people will become dangerous criminals if told they don’t have free will.
- They want to be able to place blame on others.
- They have the ego that wants to take the credit for their actions.
So what’s the problem, you might ask? The problem is that these concerns and feelings are not only unnecessary, but they stump progress. They inhibit the rational direction humanity needs to take. And though some may mean well, in actuality they cause more harm than not.
1) People can be taught the distinctions between fatalism and determinism:
- Determinism vs. Fatalism – InfoGraphic (a comparison)
- Pointlessness Doesn’t Follow from Determinism (combating non-sequiturs)
2) The idea that people will become dangerous is based on a fleeting misappropriation of knowledge about the topic:
- Daniel Dennett, Stop Telling People They Have Free Will!
- A Temporary Imposed Lack of Belief in Free Will? Seriously?
3) Blaming others causes a number of great harms in the world. We can prevent people from harmful action and at the same time not blame them for what they are. The removal of blame leads to compassion and understanding for the causal variables that have led a person to where they currently are.
4) The loss of ego is a rational step we must take that will lead to higher levels of fairness and equality:
The other problem has more to do with the confusions that defining free will with an uncommon definition has. Dennett is an authority figure, and if he says that free will exists, that’s often enough to support someone’s idea about free will that Dennett himself wouldn’t make. For example, some might conclude that compatibilism means that one could have done otherwise in a deterministic universe. But of course Dennett doesn’t side with that, yet his support for free will existing fertilizes the confusion between his way of defining it and the common intuitive ability people (wrongfully) think they possess:
When words are purposely changed to reflect uncommon ideas about these words, this causes more problems than not. It also allows people to sidestep what it means that we could not have, of our own accord, done otherwise.
It’s similar to defining “god” as “the universe” or “nature”. Sure, if we are to accept this definition of god there would be no such thing as a disbeliever in god (for the most part). But most disbelievers are addressing the more common notions of some conscious entity or being that created or has power over the universe. And most theists are of this sort, they don’t simply think god is another word for “universe”. So if I define god as “the universe” and tell people it’s obvious that god exists, it doesn’t support the notion that “the universe exists” but rather the notion that some sort of conscious creator deity exists.
Imagine if I one day decided to change the definition of the word “moon”. I now call the hot ball of ‘fire’ (or plasma actually) in the sky “moon”. Imagine the confusion when I tell people that I have moonburn, or that they need to keep their plants in moonlight if they want them to grow, or that I have moon-power generating electricity. This example is obvious on purpose. You won’t get people placing moon-block on at night, or putting their plants in moonlight, or thinking there are panels that can harness electricity from the moon. Rather, they’ll just write you off as nuts, but that’s because they know already that the moon doesn’t have these abilities (with their definition of “moon”). If they didn’t, such a semantic shift would just confuse people.
With free will, people don’t know that the more common notion doesn’t exist, so when a drastic change in definition happens by an authority figure, the confusions surrounding this becomes vast. Their own ideas on free will become re-enforced. But even when people actually do understand the position of Dennett and hold to a compatibilist definition of free will, this just allows them to disregard the other usage as if people didn’t believe them, even though the implications are gigantic that we don’t have this ability.
So when someone like me criticizes Dennett on his free will position, it isn’t a criticism that his position is necessarily incorrect, but rather that his usage of the term is misplaced, causes confusion, and does a disservice to a very important topic by side-stepping some very crucial understandings about the human condition that the large majority of people do not yet understand. Sorry Dennett, but your definition of free will that you think is “worth wanting” is just a way to “change the topic”, and no, we won’t let the topic be changed so easily when it’s such an important topic. It’s more important that we discuss the free will that isn’t worth wanting, yet people incorrectly think they possess, rather than make up one that’s compatible with determinism while avoiding the other.
But as we should know, Dennett couldn’t have, of his own accord, done otherwise. An article like this that he will probably never read isn’t used to causally convince him, but hopefully it will move others away from his way of thinking about the topic.