Not-So-Big Thinking from Daniel Dennett

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new video on the Big Think YouTube channel that reflects the smallest thinking I’ve heard in a while from this usually quite engaging scholar.  In it, he takes issue with the recent rejection by many neuroscientists of the concept of “free will,” defined as having some discretion, given a particular set of conditions and state of your nervous system at a given moment, to make a choice other than what you make.  The basic argument of these scientists is that your brain is a meat computer that consists entirely of ordinary physical things (cells, molecules, electrical charges) and at any particular moment there is only one thing it can do next.  There is no non-physical mind or soul sitting on top of the brain overriding these processes; our feelings to the contrary are illusory.

A philosophical implication of the rejection of free will is that we deserve no credit or blame for our actions.  They’re just the consequence of our genetic inheritance, the total of all experiences that have programmed us up to a given moment, and the conditions with which we are presented.  Dennett devotes this talk not to whether free will exists, but to a thought experiment – for which he has famously but unnecessarily coined the term “intuition pump” – about how someone would behave if told he has no free will.  His point, expressed in the final 10 seconds of the video (the rest is really just padding), is that a person who believes that he has no choice in how he behaves has no incentive to take responsibility for his actions, and can argue that society also should not hold him responsible.

Dennett has been engaged in debates over this topic with other philosophers and with neuroscientists for several years, so it is irritating to see him address none of the arguments that have been made to his face and treat the subject as if he just thought of it.   One of these debaters has been Sam Harris, who has addressed much more sophisticated forms of these objections.  When you consider that the reward of good conduct and punishment of bad conduct affects the experience and programming of both the person who did the conduct and everyone else who knows about it, and therefore can potentially modify the future behavior of that person (rehabilitation) and everyone else (deterrence), the reasons for society to reward good behaviors and punish bad ones are largely untouched by the rejection of free will.  As Harris points out, the only reasons for punishment that become irrational are hatred-based (vengeance), and that’s not a bad thing.  And the person electing a course of conduct will be programmed by those expected societal reactions.  Thus it is not surprising to see real-world people who consider themselves to have no free will (e.g., neuroscientists) nevertheless going around behaving responsibly.  If Dennett has any point at all, it is that the recognition that there is no free will may eliminate self-hatred as a potential tool for regulating one’s own behavior.  And he says that as if it is a bad thing.