The Marionette’s Lament : A Response to Daniel Dennett : : Sam Harris

Dear Dan—

I’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to review Free Will at such length. Publicly engaging me on this topic is certainly preferable to grumbling in private. Your writing is admirably clear, as always, which worries me in this case, because we appear to disagree about a great many things, including the very nature of our disagreement.

via The Marionette’s Lament : A Response to Daniel Dennett : : Sam Harris.

Sam Harris has posted a reply to Dan Dennett’s review of his Free Will book.  Reading through it, it’s clear the the main bone of contention in this argument is the definition of the term “free will”.  As I wrote in my own free will post, definitional arguments are endless and, ultimately, pointless.

Jerry Coyne, who blogs extensively on free will, has also weighed in on this on Harris’s side.  Both of them, and many of the people in their camp, take determinism as a unquestioned given.  But as I’ve pointed out, determinism isn’t as, well, determined as many assume it to be.  Of course, even if it isn’t, that has no bearing on free will, since there’s nothing in random neuron firings for anyone to claim credit for.

So much verbiage over whether or not compatibilism is a useful position.  It seems like the debaters could just agree that libertarian free will is false, that compatiblist free will exists, and move on.  Yeah, I know, what would be the fun in that 🙂

46 thoughts on “The Marionette’s Lament : A Response to Daniel Dennett : : Sam Harris

  1. I believe, as I have stated in my most recent post, that compatibilism is a means for humans to try and feel special. Compatibilists define free will in a very humdrum way that is not worth the time of anyone truly seeking free will. What they call free will is not a free will worth holding on to. As of right now, I side firmly with Harris’ views. We will see if this debate continues! I personally am interested to see if it goes anywhere.


    1. Hmmm, well, a lot of compatibilists say that their type of free will is the only one worth having. Harris is careful to say that he doesn’t advocate fatalism, which makes me agree with Dennett that he actually is a compatibilist, but just doesn’t like the label. The disagreement seems largely semantic to me.


      1. I’m not completely sure how a compatibilist defines free will. How would you define free will?

        I don’t think that Sam Harris is a compatibilist at all. He seems to be a determinist. If Harris’ views are considered a compatibilist view, it just further proves that people just want to feel special because there is no free will worth anyone’s time in Harris’ description of our conscious experience, and hence, neither in the compatibilists.

        Again however, how would you define free will? Once we have a definition to follow then our conversation can move forward.


        1. Well, there are many definitions of free will. My compatibilist definition is, freedom from any unusual constraints that might make it unproductive to be held accountable for your actions.

          However, another definition is anti-fatalism, as in opposition to the idea that we should not strive because our fate is sealed. Harris cautions against fatalism, and rightly so. So, he accepts that human thought arises from purely natural processes, but doesn’t believe that fatalism is a useful outlook. What shall we call that position?


          1. A belief that thoughts arise purely from natural processes while maintaining that fatalism is not a useful outlook can be called determinism, I would say.

            When you define your compatibilist definition, you say it is freedom from any unusual constraints. Could you give an example of such a constraint? In order to be sure we are on the same page


          2. Okay, good. It appears to this point that we are on the same page. I assume you are a compatibilist. If this is correct, I would love to hear a scenario to which you believe that you exercise your free will. I think this would be great in furthering my understanding of what compatibilism advertises and be able to see if I hold my current position or have to change my position.


          3. I think the right way to think of compatibilism is not as a position about what reality is, but how to deal with that reality.

            Right now I am responding to this comment, because I decided to. Of course, the laws of physics determined that I would do so, but would it have been productive for me to think, “Ok, well, the laws of nature will decide whether or not I will respond, so let me just sit here and see what happens”? It would not have been productive, and if I had sone so, this comment wouldn’t exist.

            Suppose I decided to type this comment in an offensive manner. If I had, it would have again been determined by the laws of nature. But would it be productive of you to say, “Oh, he had no choice in being a jerk, so I won’t blame him for it”? Of course not. You would probably either leave or flame me back, justifiably.

            In my mind, my decision to type this comment, and to not be offensive, are me acting of my own free will. Not libertarian free will, but a will free of any constraints other than what a typical healthy person has.

            Hope that makes sense. I’m often aware of the limits of language when discussing these kinds of things.


          4. Yeah, your comment made sense. This gets to something I mentioned in my post on free will.

            Of course to “sit and see what happens” is confusing determinism with fatalism. I make this clear in my example about winning a Nobel prize. There is also a sign that there is a dualistic interpretation occurring here. Saying “the laws of nature will decide what I (emphasis on I) do” is to say that you, the conscious observer, are trapped, or confined, in a body simply following the laws of physics. The way I look at this is, everything that is you made the decision, but here the illusion of the self is presented. As you stated, the limits of language can make things kinds of topics difficult to discuss, the best way I can describe this however is to quote Sam Harris directly. He says: “You are not controlling the storm, but you are not lost in the storm either, you are the storm.”

            Sam Harris also points out in his blog that compatibilists appear to want to hold on to the justification of blame. I think this arises in your position when you suppose you decided to type your comment in an offensive manner. If you had, it is true in saying that you had no choice, in that moment, in being a jerk. Granted this is a little convoluted. You would have probably been aware of the option to either reply appropriately, however, you would have been driven to behave offensively, and had you acted on those urges, that would imply that in that moment, you truly had no choice. Now I could, from my position, have compassion towards your predicament, and my decision to maintain this conversation would be based on whether or not I want to hold a discussion with someone who is at times going to behave poorly. And in some respects I may still be justified in flaming back or pointing out your poor behavior, knowing that doing so would influence your future causal string of actions. As Harris points out in his blog, all beliefs in blame or punishment appear to be illogical once one believes in determinism (though I hold to that term loosely, I hope my point is clear), but feelings of love and compassion still make perfect sense.

            Lastly, you point out that you understand that whatever your decision, it is predetermined by the laws of physics. If this is true, how can you truly proclaim you had any real freedom in any decision you made? I believe that this freedom would be merely held on to as some form of comfort. A comfort used to avoid confronting that you may not be in the kind of control that you wish to be in. Regardless, I would claim that this freedom, when truly observed, isn’t really freedom at all. Thus, why call it as such?

            I think that the biggest thing to contemplate is the dualistic perspective that you appear to have while talking about this. Of course this speaks to the illusion of the self, but simply put, when we believe that we “are the storm” rather than fearing that we are “lost in the storm”, we need not hold on to poor fatalistic ideas. From here, I think it can become easy to see that if determinism (as I have been using it) is in fact true, we do not need to fear it or its implications.

            I hope everything I said made sense. You make a good point that this is definitely difficult to discuss with the constraints of our language.


          5. Everything you said made good sense and you articulate it very well. I do firmly understand that we are the storm. But I don’t see that as justifying throwing free will, the self, and other concepts overboard.

            Does free will exist? Does the self exist? Does anything exist except for fermions and bosons? It could be argued that everything else we think exists is an illusion, since those things are really just patterns of elementary particles. (And they themselves could end up being patterns of something else.) But is this a productive stance to take? Should I stop referring to a “table” because I know it’s just a collection of elementary particles? Or does the concept of a table remain useful?

            I think free will and the self remain useful as emergent concepts. If we dispensed with the terms, we’d have to come up with new terms to refer to those concepts.

            On Sat, Feb 15, 2014 at 6:46 PM, SelfAwarePatterns wrote:



          6. I don’t want to comment on the idea of the self being an illusion because I really do not have a strong enough comprehension of it to make any strong statements. However, free will acts in many ways as religion has. It can be argued that religion was a good concept in its earliest times as people were given immediate reasons to be good to one another, and these reasons were very easy to comprehend (The God(s) command it!).

            Free will is similar. It gives immediate and easy to understand reasons to be good (You are responsible for your actions to an extent that in many cases you can take full, or at least a lot of, ownership of). But its immediate usefulness doesn’t make it true, and like religion, I think it allows people to hold on to concepts that do not help us progress to better states of being. Believing in free will enables us to place blame, hold grudges, and even hate others, whereas not believing in free will makes these awful, and if free will truly is an illusion, unnecessary, ideas clearly illogical while the ideas of love, compassion, and care for one another are unscathed by scrutiny.

            The table reference is an incorrect way to think about this. Every implication of believing that your table is a table would be logical and beneficial. This is not the case with free will, as I pointed out above, and it is why the two cannot be compared.

            I don’t believe we would necessarily need new terms to refer to the concepts of being responsible for one’s actions or anything of the like. The fact is, we are responsible for our actions, just in a different way when we look at it from a more deterministic point of view. It’s like my example of winning a Nobel prize. Everything that is you is responsible for winning the Nobel prize, which is why only the winner can take credit. Similarly, from a darker scenario, a murderer is responsible for whoever he/she murdered, but we can begin to think about this differently here. This person could not have behaved otherwise. Thus, if you traded places with that person, atom for atom, you would be that person and would have done the exact same thing, so the idea that this person needs to be punished for a crime he/she couldn’t have avoided begins to look like a weak argument. We can however develop more compassion for this person rather than hate. And then following this belief would not mean that we let him roam free. We would have a responsibility to lock this person up and seek psychiatric treatment. Sam Harris explains this in more detail in his post that you have of course linked, and he goes in to great detail on this idea in his book Free Will. I feel that the best way to drive the point home is to use his words directly, so I will quote him here on this point. He says;

            “…ordinary people want to feel philosophically justified in hating evildoers and viewing them as the ultimate cause of their evil. This moral attitude is always vulnerable to our getting more information about causation—and in situations where the underlying causes of a person’s behavior become too clear, our feelings about their responsibility begin to shift. This is why I wrote that fully understanding the brain of a normal person would be analogous to finding an exculpatory tumor in it. I am not claiming that there is no difference between a normal person and one with impaired self-control. The former will be responsive to certain incentives and punishments, and the latter won’t. (And that is all the justification we need to resort to carrots and sticks or to lock incorrigibly dangerous people away forever.) But something in our moral attitude does change when we catch sight of these antecedent causes—and it should change. We should admit that a person is unlucky to be given the genes and life experience that doom him to psychopathy. Again, that doesn’t mean we can’t lock him up. But hating him is not rational, given a complete understanding of how he came to be who he is. Natural, yes; rational, no. Feeling compassion for him could be rational, however—in the same way that we could feel compassion for the six-year-old boy who was destined to become Jeffrey Dahmer. … Punishment is an extraordinarily blunt instrument. We need it because we understand so little about the brain, and our ability to influence it is limited. However, imagine that two hundred years in the future we really know what makes a person tick; Procrustean punishments won’t make practical sense, and they won’t make moral sense either. … In other words, your compatibilism seems an attempt to justify the conventional notion of blame, which my view denies. This is a difference worth focusing on.”


          7. On people rationalizing to their intuitions, I’ve never met a human being who doesn’t do that to one degree or another. (I’ve met several who won’t admit that they do it.) It’s easy to see when others do it, but much harder to see it in ourselves. In Harris, I see a militant atheist rationalizing a framework to find a way to deny any concept of free will to religious apologists. I’m an atheist myself, although not a militant one.

            Am I rationalizing an excuse to keep blame? There’s no way I can introspectively rule that out. I do think it’s unlikely though, because I agreed with everything Harris said in that quote. I just call that stance compatibilism. What I can say is that I’m not motivated to wipe out the term “free will” to stick it to theologians, as I perceive Harris and many of his followers to be.


          8. I must say that this reply of yours was the least satisfying of your earlier comments.

            Your statements appear vague. You make claims without presenting much, if any, reasoning behind them as you have earlier — perhaps you are in a hurry?

            When you say that you see Harris using a militant atheist framework, I would like at least one example, because I don’t see it. To me, he appears to be simply opposed to this need that many have to hold on to the term, and in the reasons he has presented, I would say he is justified, but never does he make comments about the implications of these claims on religion. I also know that he opposes the militant atheism stance. I have a talk posted on my page where he explicitly states the problems with this Idea. I will link it here —

            You also claim to agree with everything that I quoted from Sam Harris, but you call that compatibilism. I believe this claim begs for an explanation of why. I posted that quote because I believe it shows exactly why compatibilism is logically flawed. And if you do in fact want to say that you hold to the claim that what he said is the beliefs of a compatibilist, then you have, to me, shown what I have been thinking, which is the brand of free will that the compatibilist is advertising is truly uninteresting, and to an intellectual, should be easily recognized as irrelevant.
            Similarly, when you state that you are not motivated to wipe out the term “free will”, I need more, or else the statement comes off as closed-minded. This could have been done by pointing out points I have made that you consider flawed (and why they’re flawed) or present points that still leave you preferring the term free will. For instance, do you have reasons for liking the term free will that I did not argue or argued poorly? I think these would make for a better discussion for both of us.

            I am unsure if you have grown tired of this discussion, if I have struck a point that caused you to (in a very slight way, I don’t want to appear over emotional over this discussion) lash out by means of avoiding what I believe to be very strong points for my case, or whether I just have misread the tone of this response. Whatever the case, I must say that many of your statements made in this reply were empty. That is, without enough justification for me to progress from here.

            I do not mean to take away from how beneficial this discussion has been to this point. I was actually hoping to be given your permission to post this discussion on my page as a promotion of how people should discuss their differing ideas in a way that is most beneficial for all sides. This has, to this point been one of the best discussions I have had since joining WordPress. I just hope that this conversation can maintain this level throughout. Again, I can see that this discussion has perhaps run its course and we could leave it as is, as I believe we have both learned and grown from the discussion. I truly have enjoyed this, and if I could have your permission to post this conversation to my page, that would be much appreciated.


          9. In multiple comments above, you stated that you thought compatibilists had non-intellectual motivations for their position. I can’t help but notice that when I pointed out that Harris and company may also have non-intellectual motivations for their position, the tenor of our discussion seemed less beneficial to you. All I can say to that is to suggest that you might want to reread my last comment.

            I’m not going to spend time explaining why the label ‘militant atheist’ applies to Harris. I’m familiar with that talk, but I’m also pretty familiar with many of the other statements he’s made in the last decade. I think to any objective observer, he is preoccupied with attacking religion. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that this preoccupation colors his intellectual positions.

            On the main topic, I think I’ve already covered why I see ‘compatibilism’ as a useful label for the philosophy holding that determinism is compatible with non-fatalism. You disagree, which is certainly your right.

            The only thing I have to add at this point is that there are many evils in the world. And it’s always necessary to choose your battles. Given how pervasive the phrase is in law and our culture, I don’t find the fight against that phrase, a semantic argument, to be a particularly productive one.

            All the best.


          10. Thoroughly enjoyed this discussion. I certainly feel that this has helped me better understand the compatibilist position and the lens with which they view free will. I would say, at least on initial grounds that I agree with your last point that this is certainly not a topic that needs a solution any time in the immediate future, primarily due to the infancy of our scientific knowledge of the brain as well as the semantics that the debate on free will is typically rife with.

            All the best to you as well. I look forward to reading more of your posts.


  2. You’re right of course, but that’s why I blame Dennett for the dispute. Harris’s book was primarily about libertarian free will, and only mentioned compatibilism in passing as something he regarded as not particularly useful.

    Dennett’s scathing review was almost entirely a series of arguments disputing Harris’s views on libertarian free will by pointing out that those arguments didn’t apply to compatibilist free will, thereby missing the point.

    It would have been much better if Dennett had written a short comment defending the usefulness of compatibilism instead of the very lengthy essay pointlessly focusing on Harris’s arguments against libertarianism which he did.


    1. You misunderstood Dennett’s review of Harris’ book. He was not criticizing Harris’ arguments against libertarianism. He was criticizing Harris’ treatment of compatibilism. In fact, he explicitly praised Harris’ treatment of libertarianism.


      1. He did explicitly praise Harris’s work to demonstrate that libertarianism was untenable. But most of his objections to Harris were of the following form.

        Harris: Free will is untenable because X.

        Dennett: This betrays an ignorance of how compatibilist free will overcomes objection X.

        However, Harris’s original point was not about compatibilist free will but about libertarian free will, and if he didn’t specify this it’s only because he doesn’t really regard compatibilist free will as free will at all. For Harris, “Free Will” is synonymous with libertarianism. That’s what incompatibilism means.

        Therefore Dennett should have ignored all of the arguments of the above form and instead concentrated on making a case for why compatibilist free will is a useful concept.


        1. I really think you’re misunderstanding Dennett’s reply to Harris. He was quite clearly responding to Harris’ treatment of compatibilism. If you can find some evidence of Dennett responding to the wrong thing, please show me.


          1. OK, here goes.

            Harris: There is no combination of these truths that seem compatible with the popular notion of free will

            Dennett: He needs to go after the attempted improvements, and it cannot be part of his criticism that they are not the popular notion.

            Me: Not if what he is trying to illustrate is the problems with the popular notion of free will.


            Harris: To say that they were free not to rape and murder is to say that they could have resisted the impulse to do so (or could have avoided feeling such an impulse altogether)

            Dennett: If we are interested in whether somebody has free will, it is some kind of ability that we want to assess, and you can’t assess any ability by “replaying the tape.”

            Me: Dennett’s right, but Harris was discussing libertarian free will, which is incoherent for the reasons stated by both Harris and Dennett.


            Harris: I cannot take credit for the fact that I don’t have the soul of a psychopath.

            Dennett: True—and false. Harris can’t take credit for the luck of his birth, his having had a normal moral education—that’s just luck—but those born thus lucky are informed that they have a duty or obligation to preserve their competence, and grow it, and educate themselves, and Harris has responded admirably to those incentives. He can take credit, not Ultimate credit, whatever that might be, but partial credit, for husbanding the resources he was endowed with.

            Me: Harris is discussing libertarianism not compatibilism, so it is ultimate credit that he denies. Any work he does to improve his competence he can only do because he has been born in circumstances where this is inevitable, so any credit is pretty shallow.


            Where Harris does criticise compatibilism, he does so by pointing out how it differs profoundly from the traditional and popular concept of “free will” postulated by libertarianism. Dennett essentially ignores this by instead pointing out that it is compatible with the kind of limited pseudo-freedom endorsed by compatibilism, missing Harris’s point that if it is so different then it is unhelpful to describe it in the same terms.

            Harris: Where is the freedom when one of these opposing desires inexplicably triumphs over its rival?

            Dennett: But no compatibilist has claimed (so far as I know) that our free will is absolute and trouble-free.

            Me: Actually, Dennett doesn’t really answer this point. He just again argues that we can build our competence to make decisions, which runs aground against the same “ultimate credit” point as before.


            Harris: where is the freedom in wanting what one wants without any internal conflict whatsoever?

            Dennett: Any realistic, reasonable account of free will acknowledges that we are stuck with some of our desires

            Me: Sure, but this only goes to show the profound difference between compatibilism and the popular notion of free will that holds people to account for their desires (c.f. attitudes towards paedophilia), and if it is such a different concept that only underlines Harris’s point that it is unhelpful to give it the same name. The popular notion of free will is not realistic or reasonable, and this is Harris’s point and motivation for rejecting the concept of free will altogether.


          2. Thanks for the examples and comments. I think what’s going on is that you are under the mistaken impression that compatibilism amounts to a redefinition of “free will.” I’ll explain by going through your exapmles. I’m gonna number them, to make it easier to follow.

            1. I think Dennett is saying this: compatibilism is about clarifying and improving the way people talk about free will. Dennett believes he has captured something about people’s intuitions about free will, but in a clearer and more sensible fashion. And he is saying that it is not enough to just say, “but that’s not how people normally talk about free will.” Dennett says, of course people don’t normally talk about free will this way. They are normally very confused about it. To take his sun analogy: It would be like responding to heliocentrism by complaining that it is not geocentrism. Dennett is not off the mark here. He is directly challenging Harris’ approach to compatibilism.

            2. Dennett is actually disagreeing with Harris about how people normally think about free will. He is trying to show why compatibilism is actually consistent with some basic intuitions that people all share about free will. Just look at what he said by way of introducing this point: ““could have done otherwise” is perfectly compatible with determinism, because it never means, in real life, what philosophers have imagined it means: replay exactly the same “tape” and get a different result.” He is criticizing Harris for failing to properly understand how people normally talk about free will. So it is not enough to say, “oh, Harris was just talking about the libertarian kind of free will, and not compatibilism.” Dennett is directly questioning Harris’ approach to the concept of free will.

            3. Again, Dennett is trying to reveal a problem with Harris’ approach to free will. Dennett is trying to explain why Harris must still leave room for accountability. It doesn’t matter that Harris was not specifically talking about compatibilism. The point is entirely relevant to Dennett’s defense of compatibilism.

            4. I believe Dennett has answered this point: He is not redefining “free will.” He is clarifying the concept, revealing the confusions, in order to improve our understanding of it.

            5. I don’t think you’ve made this point clearly. I think you’re saying that, if we are not ultimately responsible for all our desires, then we cannot be responsible at all for any of them. Dennett pointedly argues against this. We can be held responsible for our desires to the extent that it is in our power to adjust them. And it is, to some extent, in our power to influence our own desires.


          3. Hi Jason,

            I don’t think either of us is any under any straightforward misapprehensions. We just have different points of view. I do think that compatibilism amounts to a redefinition of “free will”, but I disagree that this is a mistaken impression.

            1. Certainly, compatibilism is about clarifying the concept of free will. Incompatibilism on the other hand, regards this as wrong-headed because the concept of free-will is hopelessly confused and it’s better just to throw it out altogether. Any attempt to make a sensible version of the concept will necessarily alter it so dramatically that it cannot serve as a substitute. And I think this is borne out in the criticisms Harris makes of compatibilism as not representing the intuitive idea of freedom, reinforced by Dennett’s retorts that compatibilism does not work like that. While you make an analogy to heliocentrism and geocentrism, Harris would make a comparison to the attempt to rescue heliocentrism by inventing epicycles. Sure, epicycles work as a model of our perception of the motion of the solar system (just as compatibilism works as a model of our perception of determinist free will), but really it’s simpler just to throw out the whole concept of heliocentrism (free will) and start afresh.

            2. I challenge the assumption that compatibilism is consistent with basic intuitions about human free will. Most people don’t think deeply about it, and think it is right and proper to hate “evildoers” and even those with private impulses and desires they find objectionable. Pleasure is taken from retribution and self-righteousness. On both compatibilism and incompatibilism, these views are irrational. Incompatibilism makes the strong claim that these people are subject to an illusion, while compatibilism tells them they are essentially right about free will but they need to reconsider just about every attitude they have regarding what makes sense in light of that belief.

            3. Harris does leave room for accountability, which he justifies on consequentialist grounds.

            4. I simply disagree, for reasons outlined above.

            5. “We can be held responsible for our desires to the extent that it is in our power to adjust them.” I don’t really understand what this means in light of determinism. If you acted wrongly, you could not have acted differently, therefore it was not in your power to adjust your desires. Sure, you might have had the capacity to adjust those desires if some quantum fluctuations had panned out differently many years ago, but they didn’t, so I don’t know why that is relevant. If the commission of the crime was inevitable, so was your decision not to correct the course you were on many years before the crime.

            Responsibility can exist without free will, but it works differently. If it would do good overall to punish you for acting inappropriately, then punishment is justified. That’s all there is to it. There is nothing inherently good about punishing crimes, which a belief in free will tends to obscure. Responsibility is a useless concept when considered outside of a consequentialist framework. It doesn’t matter what the state of a person’s mind was when a crime was committed, or even if that person is guilty. It only matters what effect a punishment will have on society. Justice does not have to be done, it has to be seen to be done. That’s the difference that denying free will makes, and it’s a viscerally unattractive conclusion, even to me, which is why many people feel the need to resurrect the concept even though it doesn’t work.


          4. I’ll address each of your points, though I’ve gone over all of this on my blog (in a few recent posts), if you care to read it.

            1. You’re not dealing with the specific intuitions and ideas that Dennett is trying (and I am trying) to explain. You’re not looking carefully at how the word “free will” is defined and used. You’re just taking up one interpretation of it–the supernatural one–and claiming that interpretation is essential.

            2. You say belief in supernatural free will is responsible for the idea that “it is right and proper to hate “evildoers” and even those with private impulses and desires they find objectionable.” You suggest that it is irrational to derive pleasure “from retribution and self-righteousness.” I don’t agree with any of this. We can hate all sorts of things–country music, for example–without believing in the supernatural. We can hate a person’s beliefs and desires, and the way they act on them, without believing in the supernatural. We can find consequentialist grounds for justifying the search of pleasure in retribution self-righteousness without believing in the supernatural.

            3. Harris is inconsistent when it comes to accountability. Yes, he justifies punishment on consequentialist grounds, but he also claims that people with more self-control and experience are more responsible for their actions. He does not deny rational agency. He doesn’t realize that, if you’re going to acknowledge that people have some self-control and rational agency, you cannot simply refuse to blame them for their mistakes.

            5. Dennett explains this point in his review. You will agree that I can influence your desires, right? So why claim I cannot influence my own?

            You say, “Justice does not have to be done, it has to be seen to be done. That’s the difference that denying free will makes . . .” Not really. What you are actually saying is that justice is served when justice is seen to have been served. So, in fact, what you mean is that justice does have to be done. You’re just adhering to a consequentialist definition of “justice.” That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a rather tangential issue.

            Here’s something I recently posted on Jerry Coyne’s blog. Maybe it will help us sort out our disagreement:

            Here’s the situation, as it appears to me:

            1. People have a common experience of making decisions according to their beliefs and desires.

            2. People says things like “I could have acted differently” to mean that their actions were the result of their own beliefs and desires, and that, had they wanted to, they would have chosen differently.

            3. When confronted with the idea that they may not have had a choice at all, and that their beliefs and desires could not alter the course of history, they (WRONGLY) suppose that there is a conflict between their experience and the idea of determinism. In reality, the only conflict is between their experience and the idea of fatalism. They should be rejecting fatalism, but instead they are rejecting determinism.

            4. In one sense, we can use the term “free will” to refer to the underlying intuition–that one has control over their behaviour to the extent that they can act rationally on their beliefs and desires. This is the underlying intuition at the bottom of everything. In that case, you can (like Jerry Coyne) claim that there is no such thing as rational agency at all. (But this is absurd.)

            5. Or you can, like Sam Harris, insist that this underlying intuition is not really free will. He insists that “free will” actually refers to the confused state of affairs that leads people to confuse fatalism with determinism.

            6. Dennett says no to both Sam and Jerry. He says that the underlying intuition here makes sense. The only problem comes when we confuse fatalism and determinism. We do have rational agency (pace Coyne) and there’s no reason to say that we’re changing the subject (pace Harris.).

            7. Harris can complain about this all he likes, but it’s not a substantive complaint. It’s just political maneuvering.


          5. Hi Jason,

            A couple of key points of agreement there.

            “You’re not dealing with the specific intuitions and ideas that Dennett is trying (and I am trying) to explain ”

            Exactly right. I’m not, and neither is Harris, because we see the attempt to explain these intuitions as unnecessary and confusing.

            “Harris can complain about this all he likes, but it’s not a substantive complaint. It’s just political maneuvering.”

            Agreed, but the same is true of Dennett’s complaints with regard to Harris’s approach.

            It is a political or semantic dispute. The question is whether it is clearer to express the naturalist viewpoint by denying free will or by (re)defining it in accordance with naturalism.

            I think I can explain my position and Harris’s with a few analogies.

            Harris writes a book explaining why he thinks there is no God. Dennett reviews it negatively, because while it is to be recommended to those poor confused souls who persist in believing in the incoherent concept of a personal God, it refuses to acknowledge the modern, sophisticated school of thought known as pantheism that identifies the only God “worth wanting” with the universe itself, because a personal God would have to be evil to allow the suffering we see around us.

            Harris writes a book explaining why he thinks there is no afterlife. Dennet reviews it negatively, because while those who believe in a “heaven” where their immaterial “souls” will live in eternity forever would benefit from reading it, it completely dismisses the school of thought that we live on in the memories of those who knew us and that this is the only form of immortality “worth wanting” because eternity would get boring.

            Harris writes a book explaining to creationists that cavemen never lived alongside dinosaurs. Dennett reviews it negatively because while it is great for creationists who have the erroneous idea that humans ever met Velociraptors, it fails to acknowledge that according to modern taxonomy, birds are actually dinosaurs and so not only did cavemen live alongside dinosaurs but dinosaurs are still among us today! Furthermore, these are the only dinosaurs worth wanting because they don’t want to eat us.

            This is how I see Dennett’s review. Compatibiilism is a legitimate and consistent point of view that does manage to make some popular intuitions about human agency consistent with naturalism while discarding others. I’m not saying it is incorrect, and perhaps it does serve a purpose. What I am saying is that this purpose is not obvious to me, and I think it makes the discussion of certain topics unnecessarily convoluted in the way illustrated by my analogies.

            It is therefore useless to criticise Harris by showing that it is possible to construct a coherent picture of decision making and label it “free will”. The approach compatibilists should take is to explain why you think my analogies fail, that is to say why the compatibilist project is worthwhile, and why it is not simpler to express our mutual world-view by just denying free will altogether.


  3. In searching for Steven Pinker’s contribution to ‘Are We Free?’ I seem to have found the entire volume – just in case your reading list is getting short 🙂

    ‘Are We Free: Psychology and Free Will’, Baer/Kaufman/Baumeister (editors) 2008

    I haven’t read ‘Free Will’ so didn’t read Dennett’s lengthy critique or Harris’s equally verbose response in full. Hopefully in the next round both will be able to condense their views a bit.


  4. The analogies fail because Harris actually wants to preserve the underlying intuition that Dennett is trying to explain, and because Harris’ discussion is inconsistent, and because Harris is misrepresenting Dennett’s work.

    Dennett has explained exactly how his work connects with common intuitions about free will. Harris is completely confused about the way people think and talk about free will, and he is completely confused about Dennett’s work. He’s not helping remove confusion. He’s creating it.. (Just look at Jerry Coyne, who says he agrees with Harris, but obviously has no idea what he’s talking about. He says he doesn’t believe in rational agency, but Harris does. This is all the result of Harris’ confusion, not Dennett’s.) I recommend reading my posts on this. The first is succinct, but maybe not thorough enough for you. The second is a bit more elaborate. The third is a detailed dissection of Harris’ reply to Dennett.


    1. Hi Jason,

      Harris wants to preserve the underlying (by which I mean traditional) intuition because he believes, rightly or wrongly, that that is what people believe. He wants to keep this meaning because it allows him to emphatically deny it.

      Dennett’s work connects in some ways and not in others. I see no example of confusion on Harris’s part. Coyne may be confused, all right. I’m not sure.

      I will try to get to your posts some time soon.


      1. I obviously didn’t mean “keep the meaning.” I meant he wants to preserve the intuition, and not call it an intuition. And by that, I mean the experience of rational agency–of making decisions based on our beliefs and desires. And yet, Harris is inconsistent. He is both affirming it and denying it, but he doesn’t realize this. The intuition that people should keep is the one that says they are (somewhat) responsible for their own behaviour, because they have rational agency. The intuition that they should abandon is the one that says rational agency is incompatible with determinism. The reason people are not abandoning that intuition is, as Dennett points out, they fail to distinguish between fatalism and determinism. Harris is guilty of this, too, but he doesn’t realize it.

        I think you should do a lot more reading on this before you continue to dismiss Dennett. Consider there might be a good reason why the majority of professional philosophers are compatibilists. I think I’ve explained the reason clearly, but if I can’t convince you, maybe you’ll figure it out elsewhere–or on your own, after a sufficient amount of time.


      2. Also, just consider how this looks from my perspective:

        Me: “You’re not dealing with the specific intuitions and ideas that Dennett is trying (and I am trying) to explain ”

        You: Exactly right. I’m not, and neither is Harris, because we see the attempt to explain these intuitions as unnecessary and confusing.

        You’re admitting that you and Harris are not really trying to understand what people mean when they talk about free will. And you, you’re claiming that (whatever they mean!) it must be wrong, and it is unnecessary and confusing to try to figure it out. Now, you and Harris are free to just ignore all talk of free will, if you find it unnecessary and confusing. But if you don’t know what that talk is about, you really can’t go around telling people tha they’re using the phrase “free will” wrong.


        1. I may have misinterpreted your statement and you may have misinterpreted mine. This is how it looks from my perspective:

          You: “You’re not dealing with the specific account of theism (pantheism) which Dennett is trying to explain”

          Me: “Exactly right. I’m not and neither is Harris, because we see the attempt to explain the theistic intuition by equating God with the universe as unnecessary and confusing”


          1. You need to actually show that the intuition Dennett is talking about is anything like theism. You haven’t, and you refuse to even discuss the intuition itself. You’re dismissing it as theistic without reason. Here’s an analogy: Somebody attempts to sort out people’s confused intuitions about suffering and well-being. You respond, “Attempting to explain people’s intuitions about suffering and well-being is unnecessary and confusing. We should just abandon the notions of suffering and well-being in the same way we should abandon notions about God.” Would you accept such an argument? I hope not. And yet, you expect me to accept yours. I hope it’s obvious why I cannot.


          2. Hi Jason,

            What Dennett is talking about is nothing like the theism of a personal God. It is more like pantheism. Many people have the intuition that the universe is awesome and that there is a greater power worthy of worship. Pantheism is a way of taking that intuition and re-interpreting it in a naturalistic framework so as to make the object of worship the universe itself..

            I’m not dismissing the basic intuition of free will *as* theism, I’m comparing it *to* theism for the purposes of explaining my view of compatibilism by analogy,

            I reject your analogy to well-being because both naturalists and the religious interpret well-being in the same way – as a desirable subjective state of conscious beings. There is no need to deny well-being and suffering because there is no well-being/suffering controversy. This is not the case for free will. Even if all naturalists adopted compatibilism, we would be outnumbered by libertarians who call what they believe “free will”, and we would still need to explain why they should it “libertarianism” instead and that it is incoherent anyway.


          3. But pantheism is a form of theism. A better analogy would be this: Many people have the intuition that the universe is governed by laws. Historically, this belief has been associated with belief in a supreme God, or law-giver. Some even consider the laws of nature to be the very mind of God.

            I think you’re too quick to reject my analogy. The meaning and importance of suffering and well-being are not so simple, and intuitions about them can be very problematic. But in any case, here’s another analogy which is closer to yours:

            You: Most people have the intuition that the laws of nature reflect the mind of God. Naturalists who regard science as “studying the laws of nature” are just reinterpreting the common theistic intuition within a naturalistic framework. Shame on them!

            Me: But there’s plenty of sense in the intuition that there are laws of nature. Actually, we might be better of regarding nature as comprising regularities, patterns, which just happen to provide for a certain level of predictability. The laws of nature might, in fact, be constructions, and not “written” in the universe itself. But this is complicated, and for all practical purposes, we can talk about “laws of nature” without worry.

            You: But you’re going to just reinforce the idea that there is a law-giver, a God, which is responsible for everything!

            Me: No, I’m not, because you don’t have to believe in a law-giver in order to believe in laws of nature.


          4. Hi Jason.

            I’ve answered “pantheism is a form of theism” elsewhere, as you’ve seen.

            As for your analogy, I think it’s quite good. If there were a common view that “law of nature” necessarily implies a lawgiver, I might agree that it is not helpful to call them laws.


          5. The word “law” is generally used to refer to rules established by some sort of authority or governing force. Many people do believe that the laws of nature must have come from a divine source.

            Furthermore, according to the dictionary, “freewill” can just mean, “made or done freely of one’s own accord; voluntary.” There’s nothing unseemly about that.


          6. Hi Jason,

            Yes, but I don’t see much debate about whether there actually are laws of nature. There is no impulse to deny that there are, and most theists that I know don’t believe in God because the term “law” is used to describe the regularities of nature. I just don’t see the term “law” as being as problematic as “free will”. At this stage I believe it is generally understood that a scientific law is just a pattern we observe which never seems to be broken.

            But again, if you could convince me that this was a stumbling block for people, I might agree that we ought to find a different term.

            I agree that free will can just mean acting freely of one’s own accord. I have no objection to the term in ordinary conversation, just as I have no objection to Einstein saying “God does not play dice” because I understand that he is not literally implying that God exists. I might say “I acted of my own free will”, but I would not say “Free will exists”. The former sentence is communicating something about what motivated me to perform an action, whereas the intent of the latter is to make a metaphysical claim. This is not unlike how I might say both that “The dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago” and “Birds are dinosaurs”, because even though these claims are in contradiction, the context in which I say them will allow you to understand that by the former I meant non-avian dinosaurs.


          7. To refocus the discussion . . . I think you’re confused about Harris’ position. He is claiming that our experience of rational agency is mistaken–that we are not really “the conscious source of [our] own actions and thoughts,” that the feeling of authorship is an illusion. Dennett is claiming that this experience is not an illusion, that we are justified in investing in our experience of authorship and autonomy.

            Harris is confused, because he denies the experience (which he identifies as the experience of free will) and yet still wants to maintain that we can admonish people if it is beneficial to do so. He says such admonishment is justifiable on consequentialist grounds, and not because the people are actually autonomous agents with conscious control over their lives.

            Yet, if you accept consequentialism (as Harris does), then of course admonishment is only justifiable if it is beneficial. That has nothing to do with whether or not we accept free will. People can believe in free will and still be consequentialists, still believe that it is only justifiable to punish a person by appealing to the consequences. Harris is therefore profoundly confused. He is arguing that we need to abandon free will in order to embrace consequentialism, but there’s nothing about belief in free will that prevents people from being consequentialists. What he should be doing is arguing about consequentialism and how best to implement it. Instead, he’s trying to deny the very experience of rational agency–of conscious intention. That just seems stupid to me.


        2. There is plenty of disagreement about whether or not there could be laws of nature without a God.

          Anyway, I don’t think these analogies are helping us get at the substance of the disagreement. The only way forward, I think, is to focus on what, specifically, Dennett and Harris are saying. You haven’t shown me that any of my criticisms of Harris are off the mark.


          1. But that disagreement doesn’t hinge on whether we call them “laws” or “regularities”. The terminology is not the problem.

            For your specific criticisms on Harris, I may return to that on your own blog. You’ve said a lot about him though, and it’s going to take a lot of time to go through it all. Perhaps if you could outline one key area where Harris is very clearly mistaken.


          2. Actually, I think it does depend on whether we call them “laws.” If you say there are only regularities, and no underlying or ultimate order, it makes a big difference to the debate.

            As for Harris, what about my most recent post here?


  5. By the way, I’ve been on vacation this past week, so I’ve had an unusual amount of time for blogging and whatnot. School starts again tomorrow, so as of now I’m going to be more or less unavailable in the blogosphere. I’ll try to keep up my end of the discussion, but my response time may range anywhere from a week to a month or more. In any case, thanks for the engaging discussion thus far.


    1. Jason, just realized that we haven’t interacted directly yet. I’ve very much enjoyed the discussion you and Disagreeable Me have been having. Thanks for visiting. Your thoughts are welcome any time!


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