Saturday, February 15, 2014

Free Will - Sam Harris vs. Dan Dennett

Back in 2012, Sam Harris published a monograph on free will, a complete rejection of the notion of free will based on out-dated research that has been broadly misinterpreted. Free Will was popular among those who associate notions of free will with religious doctrine, but many other people - including some leading neuroscientists - reject the absolutist position Harris presents.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book from its Amazon page:
A BELIEF IN FREE WILL touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion.

In this enlightening book, Sam Harris argues that this truth about the human mind does not undermine morality or diminish the importance of social and political freedom, but it can and should change the way we think about some of the most important questions in life.
Among those who reject this position is Michael Gazziniga, author of Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (2011). Here is the synopsis of his book:
The father of cognitive neuroscience and author of Human offers a provocative argument against the common belief that our lives are wholly determined by physical processes and we are therefore not responsible for our actions.

A powerful orthodoxy in the study of the brain has taken hold in recent years: Since physical laws govern the physical world and our own brains are part of that world, physical laws therefore govern our behavior and even our conscious selves. Free will is meaningless, goes the mantra; we live in a “determined” world. 

Not so, argues the renowned neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga in this thoughtful, provocative book based on his Gifford Lectures——one of the foremost lecture series in the world dealing with religion, science, and philosophy. Who’s in Charge? proposes that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, “constrains” the brain just as cars are constrained by the traffic they create. Writing with what Steven Pinker has called “his trademark wit and lack of pretension,” Gazzaniga shows how determinism immeasurably weakens our views of human responsibility; it allows a murderer to argue, in effect, “It wasn’t me who did it——it was my brain.” Gazzaniga convincingly argues that even given the latest insights into the physical mechanisms of the mind, there is an undeniable human reality: We are responsible agents who should be held accountable for our actions, because responsibility is found in how people interact, not in brains.
An extraordinary book that ranges across neuroscience, psychology, ethics, and the law with a light touch but profound implications, Who’s in Charge? is a lasting contribution from one of the leading thinkers of our time. 
Two more recent arguments in favor of free will, however limited said free will might be, come from Thomas Metzinger ("The myth of cognitive agency: Subpersonal thinking as a cyclically recurring loss of mental autonomy," 2013; Frontiers in Psychology: Perception Science) and Gregory Bonn ("Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: Acting independently with a limited role for consciousness," 2013; Frontiers in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology). There was also a recent article at The Emotion Machine blog in support of free will.

Okay, so that is some of the background supporting an idea Harris rejects completely and which philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett rejects mostly.

In fact, one of the critics on Harris's books was his fellow atheist (and horseman), Dennett. Here is the beginning of Dennett's LONG reply to Harris's book, followed by the beginning of Harris's reply to Dennett. For the record, I also think Dennett is wrong (again, see the article by Metzinger).

Reflections on FREE WILL

A Review by Daniel C. Dennett

(Photo via Steven Kersting)

Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) is a remarkable little book, engagingly written and jargon-free, appealing to reason, not authority, and written with passion and moral seriousness. This is not an ivory tower technical inquiry; it is in effect a political tract, designed to persuade us all to abandon what he considers to be a morally pernicious idea: the idea of free will. If you are one of the many who have been brainwashed into believing that you have—or rather, are—an (immortal, immaterial) soul who makes all your decisions independently of the causes impinging on your material body and especially your brain, then this is the book for you. Or, if you have dismissed dualism but think that what you are is a conscious (but material) ego, a witness that inhabits a nook in your brain and chooses, independently of external causation, all your voluntary acts, again, this book is for you. It is a fine “antidote,” as Paul Bloom says, to this incoherent and socially malignant illusion. The incoherence of the illusion has been demonstrated time and again in rather technical work by philosophers (in spite of still finding supporters in the profession), but Harris does a fine job of making this apparently unpalatable fact accessible to lay people. Its malignance is due to its fostering the idea of Absolute Responsibility, with its attendant implications of what we might call Guilt-in-the-eyes-of-God for the unfortunate sinners amongst us and, for the fortunate, the arrogant and self-deluded idea of Ultimate Authorship of the good we do. We take too much blame, and too much credit, Harris argues. We, and the rest of the world, would be a lot better off if we took ourselves—our selves—less seriously. We don’t have the kind of free will that would ground such Absolute Responsibility for either the harm or the good we cause in our lives.

All this is laudable and right, and vividly presented, and Harris does a particularly good job getting readers to introspect on their own decision-making and notice that it just does not conform to the fantasies of this all too traditional understanding of how we think and act. But some of us have long recognized these points and gone on to adopt more reasonable, more empirically sound, models of decision and thought, and we think we can articulate and defend a more sophisticated model of free will that is not only consistent with neuroscience and introspection but also grounds a (modified, toned-down, non-Absolute) variety of responsibility that justifies both praise and blame, reward and punishment. We don’t think this variety of free will is an illusion at all, but rather a robust feature of our psychology and a reliable part of the foundations of morality, law and society. Harris, we think, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

He is not alone among scientists in coming to the conclusion that the ancient idea of free will is not just confused but also a major obstacle to social reform. His brief essay is, however, the most sustained attempt to develop this theme, which can also be found in remarks and essays by such heavyweight scientists as the neuroscientists Wolf Singer and Chris Frith, the psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and the evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and (when he’s not thinking carefully) Richard Dawkins.

The book is, thus, valuable as a compact and compelling expression of an opinion widely shared by eminent scientists these days. It is also valuable, as I will show, as a veritable museum of mistakes, none of them new and all of them seductive—alluring enough to lull the critical faculties of this host of brilliant thinkers who do not make a profession of thinking about free will. And, to be sure, these mistakes have also been made, sometimes for centuries, by philosophers themselves. But I think we have made some progress in philosophy of late, and Harris and others need to do their homework if they want to engage with the best thought on the topic.

I am not being disingenuous when I say this museum of mistakes is valuable; I am grateful to Harris for saying, so boldly and clearly, what less outgoing scientists are thinking but keeping to themselves. I have always suspected that many who hold this hard determinist view are making these mistakes, but we mustn’t put words in people’s mouths, and now Harris has done us a great service by articulating the points explicitly, and the chorus of approval he has received from scientists goes a long way to confirming that they have been making these mistakes all along. Wolfgang Pauli’s famous dismissal of another physicist’s work as “not even wrong” reminds us of the value of crystallizing an ambient cloud of hunches into something that can be shown to be wrong. Correcting widespread misunderstanding is usually the work of many hands, and Harris has made a significant contribution.

The first parting of opinion on free will is between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The latter say (with “common sense” and a tradition going back more than two millennia) that free will is incompatible with determinism, the scientific thesis that there are causes for everything that happens. Incompatibilists hold that unless there are “random swerves”[1] that disrupt the iron chains of physical causation, none of our decisions or choices can be truly free. Being caused means not being free—what could be more obvious? The compatibilists deny this; they have argued, for centuries if not millennia, that once you understand what free will really is (and must be, to sustain our sense of moral responsibility), you will see that free will can live comfortably with determinism—if determinism is what science eventually settles on.

Incompatibilists thus tend to pin their hopes on indeterminism, and hence were much cheered by the emergence of quantum indeterminism in 20th century physics. Perhaps the brain can avail itself of undetermined quantum swerves at the sub-atomic level, and thus escape the shackles of physical law! Or perhaps there is some other way our choices could be truly undetermined. Some have gone so far as to posit an otherwise unknown (and almost entirely unanalyzable) phenomenon called agent causation, in which free choices are caused somehow by an agent, but not by any event in the agent’s history. One exponent of this position, Roderick Chisholm, candidly acknowledged that on this view every free choice is “a little miracle”—which makes it clear enough why this is a school of thought endorsed primarily by deeply religious philosophers and shunned by almost everyone else. Incompatibilists who think we have free will, and therefore determinism must be false, are known as libertarians (which has nothing to do with the political view of the same name). Incompatibilists who think that all human choices are determined by prior events in their brains (which were themselves no doubt determined by chains of events arising out of the distant past) conclude from this that we can’t have free will, and, hence, are not responsible for our actions.

This concern for varieties of indeterminism is misplaced, argue the compatibilists: free will is a phenomenon that requires neither determinism nor indeterminism; the solution to the problem of free will lies in realizing this, not banking on the quantum physicists to come through with the right physics—or a miracle. Compatibilism may seem incredible on its face, or desperately contrived, some kind of a trick with words, but not to philosophers. Compatibilism is the reigning view among philosophers (just over 59%, according to the 2009 Philpapers survey) with libertarians coming second with 13% and hard determinists only 12%. It is striking, then, that all the scientists just cited have landed on the position rejected by almost nine out of ten philosophers, but not so surprising when one considers that these scientists hardly ever consider the compatibilist view or the reasons in its favor.

Harris has considered compatibilism, at least cursorily, and his opinion of it is breathtakingly dismissive: After acknowledging that it is the prevailing view among philosophers (including his friend Daniel Dennett), he asserts that “More than in any other area of academic philosophy, the result resembles theology.” This is a low blow, and worse follows: “From both a moral and a scientific perspective, this seems deliberately obtuse.” (18) I would hope that Harris would pause at this point to wonder—just wonder—whether maybe his philosophical colleagues had seen some points that had somehow escaped him in his canvassing of compatibilism. As I tell my undergraduate students, whenever they encounter in their required reading a claim or argument that seems just plain stupid, they should probably double check to make sure they are not misreading the “preposterous” passage in question. It is possible that they have uncovered a howling error that has somehow gone unnoticed by the profession for generations, but not very likely. In this instance, the chances that Harris has underestimated and misinterpreted compatibilism seem particularly good, since the points he defends later in the book agree right down the line with compatibilism; he himself is a compatibilist in everything but name!

Seriously, his main objection to compatibilism, issued several times, is that what compatibilists mean by “free will” is not what everyday folk mean by “free will.” Everyday folk mean something demonstrably preposterous, but Harris sees the effort by compatibilists to make the folks’ hopeless concept of free will presentable as somehow disingenuous, unmotivated spin-doctoring, not the project of sympathetic reconstruction the compatibilists take themselves to be engaged in. So it all comes down to who gets to decide how to use the term “free will.” Harris is a compatibilist about moral responsibility and the importance of the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, but he is not a compatibilist about free will since he thinks “free will” has to be given the incoherent sense that emerges from uncritical reflection by everyday folk. He sees quite well that compatibilism is “the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will” (p. 16) but adds:
However, the ‘free will’ that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have. (p. 16)
First of all, he doesn’t know this. This is a guess, and suitably expressed questionnaires might well prove him wrong. That is an empirical question, and a thoughtful pioneering attempt to answer it suggests that Harris’s guess is simply mistaken.[2] The newly emerging field of experimental philosophy (or “X-phi”) has a rather unprepossessing track record to date, but these are early days, and some of the work has yielded interesting results that certainly defy complacent assumptions common among philosophers. The study by Nahmias et al. 2005 found substantial majorities (between 60 and 80%) in agreement with propositions that are compatibilist in outlook, not incompatibilist.

Harris’s claim that the folk are mostly incompatibilists is thus dubious on its face, and even if it is true, maybe all this shows is that most people are suffering from a sort of illusion that could be replaced by wisdom. After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. They were wrong, and it took some heavy lifting to convince them of this. Maybe this factoid is a reflection on how much work science and philosophy still have to do to give everyday laypeople a sound concept of free will. We’ve not yet succeeded in getting them to see the difference between weight and mass, and Einsteinian relativity still eludes most people. When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

To see the context in which Harris’s criticism plays out, consider a parallel. The folk concept of mind is a shambles, for sure: dualistic, scientifically misinformed and replete with miraculous features—even before we get to ESP and psychokinesis and poltergeists. So when social scientists talk about beliefs or desires and cognitive neuroscientists talk about attention and memory they are deliberately using cleaned-up, demystified substitutes for the folk concepts. Is this theology, is this deliberately obtuse, countenancing the use of concepts with such disreputable ancestors? I think not, but the case can be made (there are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions—all there is is just neurons and glia and the like). The same could be said about color, for example. What everyday folk think colors are—if you pushed them beyond their everyday contexts in the paint store and picking out their clothes—is hugely deluded; that doesn’t mean that colors are an illusion. They are real in spite of the fact that, for instance, atoms aren’t colored.
Read more . . . .

And then here is the reply by Harris to Dennett's schooling of him on philosophy and free will (and it really does feel like a "master" painstaking trying to get through to a stubborn "student" who refuses to see beyond his own theory).

The Marionette’s Lament

A Response to Daniel Dennett

(Photo via Max Boschini)

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.

I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless. Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants. I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.

Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.
I am not being disingenuous when I say this museum of mistakes is valuable; I am grateful to Harris for saying, so boldly and clearly, what less outgoing scientists are thinking but keeping to themselves. I have always suspected that many who hold this hard determinist view are making these mistakes, but we mustn’t put words in people’s mouths, and now Harris has done us a great service by articulating the points explicitly, and the chorus of approval he has received from scientists goes a long way to confirming that they have been making these mistakes all along. Wolfgang Pauli’s famous dismissal of another physicist’s work as “not even wrong” reminds us of the value of crystallizing an ambient cloud of hunches into something that can be shown to be wrong. Correcting widespread misunderstanding is usually the work of many hands, and Harris has made a significant contribution.
I hope you will recognize that your beloved Rapoport’s rules have failed you here. If you have decided, according to the rule, to first mention something positive about the target of your criticism, it will not do to say that you admire him for the enormity of his errors and the folly with which he clings to them despite the sterling example you’ve set in your own work. Yes, you may assert, “I am not being disingenuous when I say this museum of mistakes is valuable,” but you are, in truth, being disingenuous. If that isn’t clear, permit me to spell it out just this once: You are asking the word “valuable” to pass as a token of praise, however faint. But according to you, my book is “valuable” for reasons that I should find embarrassing. If I valued it as you do, I should rue the day I wrote it (as you would, had you brought such “value” into the world). And it would be disingenuous of me not to notice how your prickliness and preening appears: You write as one protecting his academic turf. Behind and between almost every word of your essay—like some toxic background radiation—one detects an explosion of professorial vanity.

And yet many readers, along with several of our friends and colleagues, have praised us for airing our differences in so civil a fashion—the implication being that religious demagogues would have declared mutual fatwas and shed each other’s blood. Well, that is a pretty low bar, and I don’t think we should be congratulated for having cleared it. The truth is that you and I could have done a much better job—and produced something well worth reading—had we explored the topic of free will in a proper conversation. Whether we called it a “conversation” or a “debate” would have been immaterial. And, as you know, I urged you to engage me that way on multiple occasions and up to the eleventh hour. But you insisted upon writing your review. Perhaps you thought that I was hoping to spare myself a proper defenestration. Not so. I was hoping to spare our readers a feeling of boredom that surpasseth all understanding.

As I expected, our exchange will now be far less interesting or useful than a conversation/debate would have been. Trading 10,000-word essays is simply not the best way to get to the bottom of things. If I attempt to correct every faulty inference and misrepresentation in your review, the result will be deadly to read. Nor will you be able to correct my missteps, as you could have if we were exchanging 500-word volleys. I could heap misconception upon irrelevancy for pages—as you have done—and there would be no way to stop me. In the end, our readers will be left to reconcile a book-length catalogue of discrepancies.

Let me give you an example, just to illustrate how tedious it is to untie these knots. You quote me as saying:
If determinism is true, the future is set—and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior. And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism—quantum or otherwise—we can take no credit for what happens. There is no combination of these truths that seems compatible with the popular notion of free will.
You then announce that “the sentence about indeterminism is false”—a point you seek to prove by recourse to an old thought experiment involving a “space pirate” and a machine that amplifies quantum indeterminacy. After which, you lovingly inscribe the following epitaph onto my gravestone:
These are not new ideas. For instance I have defended them explicitly in 1978, 1984, and 2003. I wish Harris had noticed that he contradicts them here, and I’m curious to learn how he proposes to counter my arguments.
You see, dear reader, Harris hasn’t done his homework. What a pity…. But you have simply misread me, Dan—and that entire page in your review was a useless digression. I am not saying that the mere addition of indeterminism to the clockwork makes responsibility impossible. I am saying, as you have always conceded, that seeking to ground free will in indeterminism is hopeless, because truly random processes are precisely those for which we can take no responsibility. Yes, we might still express our beliefs and opinions while being gently buffeted by random events (as you show in your thought experiment), but if our beliefs and opinions were themselves randomly generated, this would offer no basis for human responsibility (much less free will). Bored yet?

You do this again and again in your review. And when you are not misreading me, you construct bad analogies—to sunsets, color vision, automobiles—none of which accomplish their intended purpose. Some are simply faulty (that is, they don’t run through); others make my point for me, demonstrating that you have missed my point (or, somehow, your own).
Read more . . . .
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