Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Daniel Dennett - Is Free Will an Illusion? What Can Cognitive Science Tell Us?

Daniel Dennett recently spoke on free and cognitive science at the Santa Fe Institute. He has argued against Sam Harris's rejection of free will, but he does not reject determinism, making him a compatibilist. 
Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe both without being logically inconsistent.[1] Compatibilists believe freedom can be present or absent in situations for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics.
Here is a summary of his position from his Wikipedia page:

Free will

While he is a confirmed compatibilist on free will, in "On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want"—Chapter 15 of his 1978 book Brainstorms,[17] Dennett articulated the case for a two-stage model of decision making in contrast to libertarian views.
The model of decision making I am proposing has the following feature: when we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent (consciously or unconsciously). Those considerations that are selected by the agent as having a more than negligible bearing on the decision then figure in a reasoning process, and if the agent is in the main reasonable, those considerations ultimately serve as predictors and explicators of the agent's final decision.[18]
While other philosophers have developed two-stage models, including William James, Henri Poincaré, Arthur Holly Compton, and Henry Margenau, Dennett defends this model for the following reasons:
  1. First ... The intelligent selection, rejection, and weighing of the considerations that do occur to the subject is a matter of intelligence making the difference.
  2. Second, I think it installs indeterminism in the right place for the libertarian, if there is a right place at all.
  3. Third ... from the point of view of biological engineering, it is just more efficient and in the end more rational that decision making should occur in this way.
  4. A fourth observation in favor of the model is that it permits moral education to make a difference, without making all of the difference.
  5. Fifth—and I think this is perhaps the most important thing to be said in favor of this model—it provides some account of our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions.
  6. Finally, the model I propose points to the multiplicity of decisions that encircle our moral decisions and suggests that in many cases our ultimate decision as to which way to act is less important phenomenologically as a contributor to our sense of free will than the prior decisions affecting our deliberation process itself: the decision, for instance, not to consider any further, to terminate deliberation; or the decision to ignore certain lines of inquiry.
These prior and subsidiary decisions contribute, I think, to our sense of ourselves as responsible free agents, roughly in the following way: I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation, I say to myself: "That's enough. I've considered this matter enough and now I'm going to act," in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.[19]
Leading libertarian philosophers such as Robert Kane have rejected Dennett's model, specifically that random chance is directly involved in a decision, on the basis that they believe this eliminates the agent's motives and reasons, character and values, and feelings and desires. They claim that, if chance is the primary cause of decisions, then agents cannot be liable for resultant actions. Kane says:
[As Dennett admits,] a causal indeterminist view of this deliberative kind does not give us everything libertarians have wanted from free will. For [the agent] does not have complete control over what chance images and other thoughts enter his mind or influence his deliberation. They simply come as they please. [The agent] does have some control after the chance considerations have occurred.
But then there is no more chance involved. What happens from then on, how he reacts, is determined by desires and beliefs he already has. So it appears that he does not have control in the libertarian sense of what happens after the chance considerations occur as well. Libertarians require more than this for full responsibility and free will.[20]
I do not buy the determinist argument and I tend to support conditional free will (perhaps limited is a better word).

Daniel C. Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (2013), Breaking the Spell (2006), Freedom Evolves (2003), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Consciousness Explained (1992), and many other books. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. His latest book, written with Linda LaScola, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013).

Is Free Will an Illusion? What Can Cognitive Science Tell Us?

Published on May 17, 2014

Daniel Dennett
May 14, 2014

Serious thinkers contend that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe -- one in which events are the singular outcomes of the conditions in which they occur. The alternative view, that free will is prerequisite for personal responsibility and morality, is the basis of our legal and religious institutions. Philosopher Daniel Dennett unravels this conundrum and asks whether we must jettison one of these notions, or whether they can co-exist. He then asks: if free will is an illusion, as many scientists say, should we conclude that we don't need real free will to be responsible for our actions?

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