Mar 122015

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:

2) The idea that people will become dangerous is based on a fleeting misappropriation of knowledge about the topic:

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.

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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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  12 Responses to “Dennett’s “Free Will” vs a Free Will Not Worth Wanting”

Comments (12)
  1. Your moonburn analogy gets the point across very clearly. Words need to have an agreed upon meaning if we are to make sense of anything at all. My other issue with Dennett is the word “desirable”. Anything is desirable if someone has the desire for it!

    • Exactly, and some changing of definitions can be quite dangerous (as with “free will”).

      For example, if you look at the image at the top, if a person was to define the word “Jump” as “to be careful”, they may think it’s a good thing to tell a child to jump around the cliff they are near (as they are telling them to be careful around it), but if the child only knows the common semantic, the person telling them to “jump” around a cliff is inadvertently causing more harms than they realize with their uncommon definitional shift (as the kid hops around near it). 😉

  2. You give four reasons as to why Dennett and others define free will the way they do I would like to add a fifth reason. Many of these Compatibalists are Calvinists. They don’t believe in free will, but at the same time, they have to justify eternal torment.

    • Hi Steve, thanks for stopping by.

      For some that very well could be the case, though I thought most Calvinists would actually assert their no free will position(not be a compatibilist)? I could be wrong here. Dennett, however, is an atheist – so such does not apply to him and many compatibilists that take his side. 😉

      There is also some important distinctions to be had between causal determinism and religious predestination.

  3. I have a lot less of a problem with philosophical or liberal theological definitions of “God” than I have with Dennett`s wordplay about free will.

    The concept of God has sometimes been defined in a fairly abstract terms even in conventional theology and there there has often been a tension between the image of the man in the sky primarily concerned with local events and the great unmoved mover or ultimate cosmic power.

    Furthermore, deism, pantheism and other unorthodox God-concepts are part of the culture and easy to understand in theory (note: I’m a skeptic regarding ALL such beliefs) whereas “you couldn’t have done otherwise, but still had free will” is just confusing for the sake of muddling the issue.

    • Hi Ed, thanks for the visit. To be honest I also take more issue with Dennett’s wordplay about free will than I do about the “god” word. That being said, such does offer much confusion, and is often seen when people of religion quote Einstein or the like, as if his idea of “god” supports their own anthropomorphic deity. 😉

  4. As I find your “…could have been different….” definition of free will incoherent, I propose a clear and precise one specifying WHAT is free from WHAT by WHAT for WHAT to WHAT.
    The human organism taken as a whole is (relatively) free from genetically programmed automatic responses to environmental impacts by applying wide ranges of experience and creative imagination (futures simulation) for selecting a “best guess” path for optimum chance to survive and prosper.
    What form of “free will”, to invoke Dennett, of whom I am an avid fan, could be more worth wanting?

    • Hi Paul, thanks for the visit.

      It is indeed “incoherent” but that doesn’t mean that a large majority of people don’t believe in such incoherent ability:

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

      And as soon as we start redefining words outside of common understandings we simply create confusions and various other (unnecessary) problems:

      Redefining “Free Will” is Like Redefining “Geocentric” – Except Worse

      “The human organism taken as a whole is (relatively) free from genetically programmed automatic responses to environmental impacts

      Genetics and environment program every choice we make. Survival and prosperity is irrelevant, if a microchip controlled your brain to do the optimized thing for survival I doubt anyone would call that “free”:

      Brain Tumors, Microchips, and Free Will… Oh My

      Later. :-)

      • If WHAT is free is the organism as a whole, then microchip intervention abrogates its freedom. Nevertheless, if that clearly led to “better” choices (more pleasant results) than the natural system, many (most?) of us would prefer it over “freedom”, though some might cling to the illusion of an independent, omnipotent “self”.
        Survival and prosperity are ALL that matter. (Well, in the present human environment where existential challenges are minimal, “hacking” the system to promote pleasant feelings (and suppress unpleasant ones) becomes important too.)
        I don’t agree that careful definition merely creates confusion. The confusion is already there. Better, say I, to expound a form of freedom that can (and does) exist than to merely deny the existence of a common fantasy.

        • If WHAT is free is the organism as a whole, then microchip intervention abrogates its freedom.

          The “organism” is no more free than the “microchip” is the point.

          Nevertheless, if that clearly led to “better” choices (more pleasant results) than the natural system, many (most?) of us would prefer it over “freedom”, though some might cling to the illusion of an independent, omnipotent “self”.

          I agree.

          Survival and prosperity are ALL that matter.

          The only thing I’m saying is they don’t matter for “free will” (being able to survive or prosper does not make the microchipped person more “free”).

          I don’t agree that careful definition merely creates confusion. The confusion is already there. Better, say I, to expound a form of freedom that can (and does) exist than to merely deny the existence of a common fantasy.

          This is our main disagreement. If people intuitively feel they have the “incoherent” sort of free will, as demonstrated, then (I’d suggest) we are better off disproving that ability (showing to them why such is incoherent) rather than bypassing such with a semantic that says nothing about not having that ability (my biggest criticism of compatibilism is that it bypasses such). It’s rather important people get this right. We can do this and at the same time educate them on what it means and the types of abilities we actually do possess (which should be labeled something other than “free will”).

          As far as the difference between a hard incompatibilist such as myself and a compatibilist such as yourself is semantic focus and the reasons for such focus. If the majority of people believed in fairies, I think it’s problematic to simply redefine fairies as “little white floating dandelion florets and seeds that the wind carries away” simply because such actually exists. It makes more sense to disprove fairies and have a historical marker that at one time a majority of people believed in fairies.

  5. This is fantastic, ‘Trick Slattery. Thank you for sharing this. There are elements in Dennett’s definition that are so subjective that they render it useless. ‘Biological devices that respond…. with rational, desirable courses of action’? None of us are responsible for our biological devices… so we’re not responsible for those desires. And what does it even mean to be rational in both an epistemic and biological sense? Rational according to our biological device’s previous experiences which were completely out of our control?

    Your article here does a great job of demonstrating these problems with Dennett’s definition. Thanks!

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