Specter of Reason

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cratylus and Kripke

I've just turned my attention to Plato's Cratylus for the first time.  Nothing of significance brought it to my attention, but when I learned it is considered his only sustained treatment of language, and that it deals with the question of whether meaning is natural or conventional, I thought I should become familiar with it.  I have only looked at the very beginning, but already I wish I had more time to explore it and its relation to 20th-century philosophy of language.

At the beginning of the dialogue, Hermogenes affirms a view of names which is relativistic:  the designation of a name is entirely dependent on conventional usage.  The rightness or wrongness of word meaning is relative to a linguistic community.  If I use the word "horse" to refer to humans, and "human" to refer to horses, then I am right as far as my own usage goes, though I am not in line with the majority.

Socrates leads Hermogenes to find a problem with this view with a curious argument.  He gets Hermogenes to admit three points:

(1) Propositions are either true or false.
(2) The most basic element of a proposition is a name.
(3)  If a proposition is true or false, then its parts are true or false.

From this it follows that names are either true or false.  So there must be something wrong with Hermogenes' conventionalism.

It would seem that (3) is a point of weakness in Socrates' argument, but I want to suggest otherwise.  We might be tempted to say that only propositions as a whole can be true or false.  In one sense, this is correct.  Propositions predicate properties, and in this way they can be true or false in ways which names cannot.  That is, unless we take names to also predicate properties to their designators--however, if we did that, then we would arrive at an infinite regress, because every name would express a proposition which would be composed of yet more names, ad infinitum.  So there must be a sense in which propositions do more than individual names; and there is a sense in which they alone, only as a whole, can be true or false by virtue of that function.

I'm afraid it is too easy to use this point to reject Socrates' argument.  I have not read further into the dialogue than this, so I am not sure what Plato makes of it.  But just taking the argument as it stands, I think we can find something much more interesting to consider about it.  For there is another sense in which a proposition can be true or false:  namely, a proposition can be true or false in so far as it is used correctly.  This is what Kripke calls truth in a metalinguistic sense (see Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language).  If we abandon the notion of metalinguistic truth, Kripke suggests, we undermine our very conception of meaning.  (Actually, this is not necessarily Kripke's argument; it is an argument Kripke formulates as inspired by Wittgenstein, and so it may be better to call it "Kripkenstein's argument.")

In short, Socrates' argument may be this:  If we adopt conventionalism with respect to names, we are claiming that metalinguistic truth is relative, and so the objective truth of all of our utterances is undermined.

I don't know when I'll have time to read the rest of Plato's dialogue or to investigate the literature on it.  I haven't even read as much Kripke as I should.  For now I can only appreciate the intriguing connection between Plato's thought and 20th-century philosophy of language.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dennett's response to stubborn scientists

It is perhaps well known that there is more than one way of interpreting the phrase "free will" and that many scientists are very stubborn about how they are willing to interpret it.  Dan Dennett has recently (in the last several months) acknowledged that there are benefits to giving up the term, though also that there are serious costs and risks.  This has led to some speculation by Gregg Caruso at Flickers of Freedom about whether or not Dennett has shifted his position wrt compatibilism.  One commenter, Randall Harp, draws attention to this lecture from November 2013, in which Dennett makes and expands upon the same point (Dennett starts speaking around to 21-minute mark):



This is entirely in line with Dennett's well-known views.  In fact, it's worth watching as a concise introduction to Dennett's thoughts on free will and moral responsibility.  He has not shifted his position and he still uses the phrase "free will" as he always has.  As I posted at Flickers of Freedom,

Dennett is clearly not endorsing abandoning the term "free will." He is acknowleding that it is not necessarily a good idea to insist on using it (because many scientists are very stubborn about how they are willing to interpret the term), but he is not giving it up. He's rather saying that the people who insist on not using it are missing the point. He has not switched sides or made any substantive concessions.

As I also posted in a Facebook thread started by Rick Repetti, Dennett is
just being a bit wily. If anything, he thinks that merely dropping the word "free will" from our vocabulary would be very misleading and dangerous. He's just saying that people who are fussing over the term "free will" are missing what is really at issue here. He thinks they're just as wrong as ever about the substantive issues--about whether or not determinism is compatible with moral responsibility and a robust sense of rational agency. He suggests that maybe, when talking to scientists, it is better to address these issues in other terms, and not insist on using the term "free will." But he is also saying that even if we stop using the term free will, as people like Sam Harris suggest, we still can't say the sorts of things Sam Harris wants to say about rational agency and moral responsibility. And he still seems to think that the phrase "free will" is very useful.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ahab, Dennett and Rational Agency

"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous." 
"Hark ye yet again- the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike though the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.
                                                                                      --Moby Dick, Chapter 36, by Herman Melville

Ahab does not distinguish between whale, sun and man.  All are pasteboard masks, all giving the appearance of order or truth, but hiding some as yet unknown power or force.  Does it make sense to punish a whale or strike the sun if we feel it has done us wrong?  What about punishing a person?  At what point can we say that an entity--whale, sun, or human being--deserves to feel the force of our wrath?

Ahab hates Moby Dick because he sees malice in the whale.  Is the whale the source, the ultimate cause of this malice?  In other words, is Moby Dick the "principal"?   Or is the white whale merely an agent of another's will?  It does not matter, says Ahab.  The whale is all he has to fight against.  If there is some other power beyond the whale, then he will strike at it by striking the whale itself.

I don't want to get into whether or not Ahab is right to hate Moby Dick, or whether his fight against Moby Dick is rational.  What interests me is the distinction between principal and agent, and whether or not we should follow Ahab's lead in rejecting it.

Let's approach this in philosophical terms.  When we are talking about sources of intentional action--minds capable of acting on reasons--we are taking what Daniel C. Dennett calls the intentional stance.  Taking the intentional stance is treating an entity as if it had beliefs and desires, and the capacity to act rationally on them.  So, if Ahab were to regard Moby Dick as the principal--the reasoner behind the malice--then he would be treating Moby Dick as a rational agent with beliefs and desires.  Starbuck says this is blasphemous.  We should not treat whales as if they were rational agents.  Ahab says that he would treat the sun the same way.  In other words, he would treat the sun as an intentional agent, too.

But wait.  Ahab does not exactly say that he is treating Moby Dick as a rational agent.  He says it doesn't matter.  Ahab is equally fine regarding the whale as an agent of another's will.  In other words, he is fine treating the whale as if it were designed in order to serve some purpose.  So the whale might be understood as the intentional creation of another's will.  To treat the whale this way, we would be taking what Dennett calls the design stance.  This is just the intentional stance applied to artifacts.  To take the design stance, you imagine an object as the product of some intentional design. You imagine how the designer intended the object to function--you imagine what beliefs the designer had and what desires the object was meant to satisfy.  In doing so, you can predict how the object will behave.  So, Ahab can treat the whale as a "blind brute," an unthinking robot which is merely carrying out a program designed by some other intelligent being.

Ahab says it doesn't matter.  Either way, we are imagining the actions of the whale as the result of intention--as the result of beliefs and desires.  But it does seem to matter, doesn't it?  Don't we want to know if the whale is an intelligent creature?

Let's look at another example:  a thermostat.  Dennett says that we can treat thermostats with the intentional stance.  We can imagine them as having a rudimentary set of beliefs and desires, and this allows us to predict how they will respond to changes in room temperature.  But, of course, we know that thermostats are designed.  So we can (and should, I would say) take the design stance towards them.  They do not have beliefs and desires of their own, but are artifacts which carry out the intentions of their designers.

Dennett says that there is no real difference here.  He rejects the distinction between "original intentionality" and "derived intentionality."  In other words, there is no difference between treating an object as having beliefs and desires of its own and treating it as if it is carrying out the intentions of some other agent.  It would seem Dennett agrees with Ahab, then.  It does not matter if Moby Dick is principal or merely agent.

Should we be satisfied with this approach?  Well, what of a mercury thermometer?  Like a thermostat, it tells the temperature.  And like the thermostat, it was designed.  When I take up the design stance towards the mercury thermometer, I am taking up the intentional stance towards its designer.  So, following Ahab and Dennett, I should not think there is a significant difference here.  I may as well treat the mercury thermometer as a rational agent in its own right.  Ahab and Dennett lead us to conclude that any designed object can be regarded as a rational agent with beliefs and desires of its own.

Ahab goes one step further.  He says the sun, too, can be regarded in the same way.  And indeed, why not?  Well, we might object that the sun was not designed.  We certainly have no evidence that it was designed. But that is not the deciding factor.  According to Dennett, the intentional stance is justified just in case it is useful as a predictive strategy.  If we can make successful predictions about the sun by taking up the intentional stance towards it, then we are justified in doing so.

It's natural to use the language of intentionality to talk about natural processes.  We usually refer to this as personification and metaphor.  However, Dennett's view is that, when it comes to using the intentional stance, then it is not a metaphor.  If we are making successful predictions about the sun's behavior, we are dealing with a real intentional system--as real as any can be.

It goes without saying that people have, throughout history, regarded the sun, the moon and countless other natural objects as intentional agents.  They made predictions on this basis--some more successful than others--but they did the best they could.  Aristotle (and others) regarded all entities in teleological terms, and made reasonably successful predictions accordingly.  We therefore can say that it is justifiable to regard even the sun as a rational agent, or as exhibiting the intentions of some other agency.  Remember, Ahab and Dennett say there is no significant difference.

I, for one, am not satisfied by this approach.  There are obvious advantages to distinguishing between rational agents and mere artifacts.  We should not regard a clock as a rational agent merely because it carries out the intentions of its designer.  We should not regard any complex computer as a rational agent merely because it carries out the intentions of its designer.  It is not enough to say that the intentional stance is useful and successful.  To say that an object is a rational agent, we should have some means of determining whether or not the intentional stance is justifiable as opposed to the design stance. That is, we should think we are dealing with rational agency if and only if we are dealing with apparently rational behaviour which cannot be explained as the result of another agent's intentions.

We can explain the behaviour of the sun without appealing to rational agency of any sort.  Therefore, we should not regard the sun as an intentional system.  We can thoroughly explain the behaviour of a thermostat by appeal to the designer's intentions, and so we should not regard a thermostat as a rational agent.  The same goes for more advanced systems, like chess-playing computers.  Human beings, however, appear to be rational agents and we have no explanation for our behaviour as the result of any other agent's intentions.  Therefore, we are justified in regarding ourselves as rational agents.

In short, Ahab is wrong.  And so is Dennett.

P.S. I realize I have not given necessary or sufficient conditions for rational behaviour here.  Perhaps a sufficient condition is something like what Dennett suggests:  That we are justified in regarding an entity as a rational agent if doing so leads to successful predictions.  I am just adding the caveat that we must not be able to explain the behaviour as the result of another agent's design.  I would also add that whether or not an entity really is a rational agent is not merely a matter of whether the intentional stance can be used to make predictions about the system, but a matter of whether or not the intentional stance is necessary to make the best possible predictions about the system in question.  So, people may be justified in using the intentional stance to talk about the sun, but there is a real sense in which they are wrong.  We do not need the intentional stance to make the best possible predictions about the sun.  I believe we do need the intentional stance to make the best predictions possible about human beings.  This conclusion is based on the fact that we do, in fact, apply the intentional stance.  Perhaps we do so by design--but even then, we are still taking up a predictive strategy, which means we still have beliefs and desires. So even if we are designed, we are rational agents.  (There's no reason to assume that rational agents cannot be designed.)  The fact that we do take up the intentional stance proves that we are rational agents.  As such, we must be regarded as rational agents or we will not be fully understood.  We might suppose that some alien creatures could make predictions about our bodily movements without regarding us as rational agents. However, all this shows is that we--our identity as rational agents--is not defined by our bodily movements.  We may supervene on our bodily movements, but we are not identifiable with them.  So those aliens will not be describing human action.  They will only be describing bodily movements.  And since human action is real, their descriptions will be incomplete.  At least, that's the position I'm leaning towards now.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Intentional Stance

One of Dennett's most well-known contributions to philosophy is the idea of the intentional stance.  This is supposed to be a template for understanding minds and rational agency.  However, Dennett's view of the intentional stance has shifted since he first began its formulation in the mid-1970s.  His earliest work on the topic indicates the following thesis:  An object is an intentional system just in case it is advantageous to regard it as such.  Here he is, in 1976:

An Intentional system is a system whose behavior can be (at least sometimes) explained and predicted by relying on ascriptions to the system of beliefs and desires (and other Intentionally characterized features--what I will call Intentions here, meaning to include hopes, fears, intentions, perceptions, expectations, etc.). There may in every case be other ways of predicting and explaining the behavior of an Intentional system--for instance, mechanistic or physical ways--but the Intentional stance may be the handiest or most effective or in any case a successful stance to adopt, which suffices for the object to be an Intentional system. So defined, Intentional systems are obviously not all persons.
Dennett goes on to explain that even plants can be talked about as if they were intentional systems, which means that they are, lo and behold, "very low-grade Intentional systems."

How does Dennett differentiate the grades here?  Presumably it has to do with how many orders of belief attribution the object in question can muster.  However, once we treat an object as an intentional system, there's no reason to stop at any particular level.  As FC Young (1979) points out, we always have the option of multiplying orders of intentionality.  We can always reframe our explanations in terms of highly complicated teleological terms.  The fact that we can do it does not mean we should.  So why shouldn't we?

Dennett's response to this problem has earned him a fair bit of criticism.  His response is to try to have it both ways.  On the one hand, he does not clearly give up his original position.  To be an intentional system just is the ability to be regarded as one through a successful application of the intentional stance.  On the other hand, he acknowledges objective constraints which determine whether or not we are justified in applying the intentional stance to an object.  The problem is, he cannot have it both ways.

Dennett (1981) presents a situation where he thinks the intentional stance is obviously unjustified:  his lecturn.  Clearly such an inanimate object cannot be usefully regarded with the intentional stance.  His argument is that the addition of teleological elements does not add to the predictive power we already have.  This presupposes that we are not the sort of people to regard all objects as having teleological functions.  It also means that there are constraints on what can or cannot justify the application of the intentional stance.  Sometimes it gives us added value, sometimes it does not.  If it does not, then it should be cut (via Ockam's Razor, basically).  But in that case, being an intentional system is not merely being thought of as one (in the context of making successful predictions).  It is being thought of as one when doing so is necessary to sustain our ability to make predictions.

The problem for Dennett is profound.  If there are conditions on what should or should not be considered an intentional system, then our theory of intentionality should help us understand why.  We want a theory of intentionality that gives us the criteria, or at least points us in the right direction.  The direction Dennett gives us is not so useful.  His position amounts to this:  The objective criteria for determining whether or not an object is an intentional system can be found by determining whether or not our ability to make predictions about that object requires that we regard it as an intentional system.  What we want to know, of course, is how to determine if it is necessary to regard a system as an intentional system.  Dennett's approach seems to have us chasing our tail.

It is often argued that Dennett's position is a useful way of observing the similarities between human beings and other animals, and even computers.  Part of Dennett's position is that there is no "magic moment" when systems become so complex that they become real rational agents, as opposed to the sort that are defined merely by taking up the intentional stance towards them.  So, for example, it is said that even chess-playing computers are rational agents, because the intentional stance is highly useful (even necessary, it is argued) for predicting their outputs.

Indeed, if you are playing chess against a computer, you can imagine that the computer has belief and desires about the game.  Dennett says your best strategy is to imagine that you are playing against a rational agent, a system which has true beliefs about the game and which wants to win.  I am not sure.  It may, in fact, be more productive to think of the computer as having been designed to simulate a chess-player without reproducing the beliefs and desires that a person would have while playing chess.  There is no demonstrable need to imagine that the computer is a rational agent at all.  We should therefore recognize that the computer simulates the behavioral outputs of a rational chess-player without having any beliefs and desires of its own.

How do I know the computer does not have any beliefs and desires of its own?  Dennett provides us with the answer here:  Because I do not gain any predictive value by supposing it has beliefs and desires of its own.  I know it is a programmed simulation.  I do not need to suppose it actually wants to beat me.

Dennett challenges us to find a situation in which we simply must regard a system as having beliefs and desires of its own.  But that is not a hard challenge to meet at all.  In your next conversation with a person--any person--talk to them as if they do not have beliefs and desires of their own.  In a real-life situation with other walking, talking human beings, actually deny that they have beliefs and desires of their own.  How far will that get you in explaining and understanding their behaviour?

But okay, that sort of challenge might be complicated, and it might be difficult to interpret the results.  So here's a much simpler example:  Yourself.

Dennett makes this very simple for us.  He acknowledges that we all treat various objects as if they have beliefs and desires.  We all take up the intentional stance.  This is a given.  It is also given that only rational agents can employ the intentional stance.  It follows that we all must be rational agents.  We could not employ the intentional stance if we were not.

You might say, "Sure, I know I am a rational agent, but how do I know you are?"

It is a reasonable deduction, given that we are of the same species and function in more or less similar ways.  I certainly appear to be employing the intentional stance, and I certainly seem to function just like you.  Evolutionary theory gives us a basis for understanding these commonalities.  So it is reasonable for you to assume that other human beings are just as much rational agents as you are.

The question is, why should we think that other objects have the same rational agency we do?  Dennett's argument appears to be that it is useful to act as if they do.  While that is true, this usefulness has limits and can often lead us astray.  Dennett should recognize that there is a difference between making good use of a metaphor and mistaking that metaphor for a literal truth.  We need some way of distinguishing between the metaphorical use of the intentional stance and the literal one.  Dennett does not offer one, and so his project is unsuccessful.

Dennett acknowledges that there is no doubting we are rational agents.  Yet, he says that we might, in theory, be able to predict all of our behaviour without taking the intentional stance at all.  We might do it with only the physical stance.  This is one of his most controversial ideas:  If we learned enough about our physical bodies, we would not need to regard ourselves as rational agents at all!  Yet, we would still be rational agents.  So, our physical account would be leaving out true facts about us.  Recall that, to avoid regarding his lecturn as a rational agent, Dennett must acknowledge physical facts which determine whether or not he is a rational agent.  So his complete physical account would seem to leave out the physical facts which determine that he is a rational agent.  This is impossible.

Perhaps Dennett could say the physical description only leaves out those facts under the description that they determine he is a rational agent.  However, this is highly problematic.  It is not clear what other sort of description would be available, since being a rational agent should be intelligible under the physical stance--if it were not, the fact that Dennett's lecturn is not intentional could not be decided by appeal to physical facts.  I might be missing some subtleties here, so I cannot discount this option altogether, but it does seem problematic.

Another option is to just claim that rational agency is intelligible as such via the physical stance.  However, in that case, the difference between the physical and intentional stances collapses.  This could be taken to mean that all physical systems exhibit intentionality, or it could mean that intentionality is an irreducible aspect of physical systems.

Here are Dennett's options, as I see them:  (1) Appeal to the physical stance in order to ground rational agency (in which case the intentional stance collapses into the physical stance).  In this case, intentionality is an irreducible property of physical systems, which means either all physical systems are intentional or there is a property dualism between mind and body.  (2) Regard rational agency as both real and irreducible to the level of physical cause and effect.  This option looks more like substance dualism.  (3) Claim that intentional states can be intelligible via the physical stance, just under a different description.  This might be Dennett's best bet, but I think it is very problematic, if Dennett wants to claim that there are physical facts which we can appeal to in order to determine whether or not an object is a rational agent.  (I don't think he wants to claim this, but I'm not sure he has a better choice.)

Of course, Dennett might choose a fourth option, to abandon realism altogether, saying that, by regarding ourselves only with the physical or design stances, we would stop being rational agents.  This would make rational agency completely subjective, so that being regarded as a rational agent is a necessary condition for rational agency. Thus, we would be making predictions about our behavior, wanting to predict outcomes and having beliefs about how to do that--we would exhibit all the qualities of rational agency without being rational agents. I suppose we would say things like, "I am not a rational agent; I only believed I was so I could make better predictions about my behavior.  Now I know better!"  That's rather like saying, "I used to think, but now I know better!"  No, that would be absurd.  I'm not even sure I should count this as an option.

I should note that it will not do to try to reduce the intentional stance to the design stance.  The design and intentional stances are not really distinct stances at all.  To say that object x was designed is to say that it serves some function.  In other words, it has a purpose or intention behind it.  Designed objects are intentional objects; when we make predictions according to design, we are making predictions about how they were intended to behave.  We aren't supposing that the objects are the source of their intentionality, but we are still interpreting them as (extended) parts of an intentional system.  The design stance is the intentional stance applied to artifacts of intentional agents.  This can be useful even if there was no intention behind the design (as, for example, in the case of evolved traits), of course; but we should recognize a difference between merely being a useful metaphor and being literally true.  We should be cautious about putting too much stock in the design stance for the same reason we want stronger criteria before we start believing that chess-playing computers are rational agents.

P.S. I don't have free access to it, but judging by the abstract, Paul Yu and Gary Fuller (1986) seem to make an argument which is in some ways parallel to my own.

[Editorial Note:  On March 4, 2014, I significantly altered a portion towards the end of this post, correcting my presentation of Dennett's position and significantly improving my argument.]

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

An Argument For Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the idea that there is no conflict between determinism and free will.  Incompatibilism is the idea that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe.  There's been a lot of discussion over which view is correct.  What's remarkable about the debate isn't so much the stubbornness or passion which has been exhibited by this or that party, but the fact that the very terms of the debate are controversial.  There is a great deal of confusion about what the key issues in the debate are and how we should be talking about them.  As a result, there is a meta-debate within the debate itself.  You cannot engage in the debate without also engaging in a debate about the debate--about what issues are at stake and about how the issues should be framed.  So here's what I want to do:  I want to explain why I think incompatibilists are doing a very bad job of framing the debate, and also why compatibilism is the most reasonable option on the table.  It's an ambitious project, and I don't expect to win over many audiences with my arguments.  But I do hope to stimulate a bit of critical reflection and perhaps help guide others towards a more fruitful way of thinking about the issues.

First, we need a working definition of "free will."  One philosophically respectable way of defining it is as the ability of a rational agent to choose from among a variety of options in such a way as to satisfy the requirements for moral responsibility.  In other words, the extent that a person has free will is the extent to which they are morally responsible for their actions, where moral responsibility is predicated on their ability to make choices.  This is not the only possible definition, but it seems flexible enough to fit with everyday intuitions about free will.  For that reason, I will adopt it for now.  If it needs to be altered, so be it.

The compatibilist position, therefore, is this:  A deterministic universe can contain rational agents which are capable of making choices among a variety of options and therefore carry a burden of moral responsibility.  The incompatibilist position is that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe.

Some self-identifying incompatibilists say that the very notion of free will is incoherent.  If that is the case, we should not say, "Free will is compatible with determinism," because the phrase "free will" does not have any denotation. Yet, we should also not say, "free will is incompatible with determinism," and for the same reason.  Thus, this formulation of incompatibilism is problematic.  If there is no coherent notion of "free will," then we simply cannot say anything about what is compatible or incompatible with it.  We either have to find an acceptable definition of the term or stop using it.  Therefore, incompatibilists who think "free will" is incoherent are in a bind.  They should not say that free will is incompatible with determinism.  They should rather say that they have no idea what "free will" means, or is supposed to mean.  They might rather call themselves noncognitivists about free will, instead of incompatibilists.  I will come back to this view later.

Other incompatibilists are cognitivists.  They think that there is a coherent notion of free will, and they think it is incompatible with determinism because determinism means you never really have a choice.  If your behaviour is determined by forces which are beyond your control--by states of the universe that existed before you were even born--then there was never any real choice.  There was only the illusion of a choice.  So we have, on the one hand, the idea that your choice is only real if it is not the inevitable result of forces which are outside your control.  A compatibilist, in contrast, will say that the inevitability of our behaviour does not mean we lack a choice.  What makes an action a choice is the involvement of rational deliberation.  This requires a sort of information processing which represents different patterns as choices.  We only have a choice in so far as we represent an option to ourselves as a choice.  Whether or not our behaviour is inevitable is not the issue.  The issue is whether or not our behaviour entails the rational deliberation of patterns which are represented as choices.

Now, incompatibilists (who believe "free will" is coherent enough to talk about) will say that this is not enough.  For a choice to really be a choice, it cannot be inevitable.  Here's why they are wrong.

If a choice is evitable, it means that it was not the result of deterministic forces.  It was, in essence, random or uncaused.  That means it was not caused by our beliefs or desires, or mental states of any kind.  At least, not necessarily.  It was the accidental or random outcome of some processes.  Yet, if the action were a random or accidental outcome, we would not be able to claim responsibility for it unless we were already responsible for the decision to act on that random outcome.  To deserve responsibility for an action (according to indeterminists), there must be some causal relationship between our action and our beliefs and desires.  It cannot all be random.

Dennett has discussed this in great detail in, for example, his paper, "On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want."  He develops a two-stage model of free will (see here for a clear and concise analysis of Dennett's arguments.)  What he concludes is that we can imagine a scientifically respectable scenario in which human beings have the ability to make rational choices which are not inevitable, which do in fact involve a degree (however large or small) of random processes.  The idea is that the construction of our beliefs and desires can entail a large degree of randomization, while the choosing of our actions and judgments can be deterministic.

The point of this is not that incompatibilists are correct.  It is rather the opposite:  Even though we can imagine a scenario in which rational agents make choices from among a variety of randomly-generated options, the making of the choices is still deterministic.  It is still a result of forces outside the agent's control, whether or not we introduce non-deterministic elements into the system.  So there is no reason to say that it is not "really" a choice in the deterministic universe.  Either it is a choice in both scenarios, or it is not a choice at all.  Dennett has shown that, even if we give incompatibilists (of a certain stripe) what they say they want, they still have no basis for denying compatibilism.  Free will is just as compatible with determinism as it is with indeterminism.

The issue, then, is not whether we make choices, but whether we do so in a way which gives us moral responsibility.  The question comes down to whether or not our choices are sufficient to make us morally responsible for our actions.  That, I believe, is where the problem of free will needs to be resolved.  For now, let's take "morally responsible" to mean "deserving of punishment or reward."

Let's imagine a God's eye view, but without the supernatural baggage. Let the term "God" refer to any being powerful enough to create human beings, know whether or not they are morally responsible for their actions, and punish or reward them for their behaviour.  Let the term "soul" refer to that aspect of a person which is capable of being morally responsible and which God rewards or punishes.  God rewards or punishes according to rules, the source of which is irrelevant for our purposes.  Also, God rewards or punishes by measuring ultimate causal determination.  (Notice that I am intentionally avoiding any supernatural or theological language here, for the sake of coherence.)

Imagine God creates two people, Person A and Person B.  Person A follows God's rules, but Person B does not.  The question I want to consider is, what could justify God's decision to reward Person A and punish Person B?  That is, what could justify God's decision about ultimate causal determination?

If Person A chose God's path because of some inherent qualities that made them do good--i.e., if they had a good soul--then God would be the ultimate cause of their good behaviour.  As a result, Person A is not deserving of any reward.  Similarly, if God gave Person B a soul inclined towards evil, Person B is not the ultimate cause of their choice.  Therefore, if God is to be justified in punishing or rewarding anybody by appealing to ultimate causes, they must be created with a neutral soul.  The question then is, what could lead anybody to choose bad over good, or good over bad?

Two possibilities spring to mind.  The first is external circumstances.  However, these are out of the people's control, so they should not be punished (or rewarded) for how the environment has affected their souls.  The second is random choice:  People can flip coins and act accordingly.  In that case, it is chance (which is just another external factor) that is responsible.  In neither case is the person's soul the ultimate cause of their good or bad behaviour.

This seems to exhaust all of the options, which means that there is no case in which God is ever justified in punishing or rewarding anybody's soul, if we take ultimate causes to be the determining factor.  In other words, if we take a God's eye view and rely on appeals to ultimate causality, there is no such thing as moral responsibility.  And notice that I have not stipulated whether this is a deterministic or indeterministic universe.  Either way, the result is the same: Ultimate causality is not an adequate ground for moral responsibility.

When we want to determine if a person has moral responsibility--remember, this just means whether or not a person can be deserving of reward or punishment--it is a mistake to frame it in terms of whether or not they are the ultimate cause of their choices. If there is moral responsibility, it must be understood in different terms.

Whether or not a person is deserving of punishment or reward could be a psycho-social matter, a matter to be decided by human roles and relationships.  In that case, people can hold themselves morally responsible, but they are doing so as self-aware agents capable of taking up a moral attitude towards themselves.  It is a complex psychological phenomenon, and it is not resolved by appeal to questions of fundamental causality.  (Notice that I am remaining neutral at this point about what psycho-social justifications might be acceptable.  The important point to note is that, whatever justifications we find acceptable, we will not be able to entirely reduce them to statements about ultimate causality.)

If you accept that point of view, then the implications for free will are straightforward.  People do have an ability to rationally choose among options (to the extent that they can represent options to themselves and choose between them according to processes of rational deliberation) and this process can ground people's sense of moral responsibility in so far as it supports psycho-social justifications for holding them responsible for their actions. This is free will (by the definition given at the outset), and it does not depend on whether the universe is deterministic or indeterministic.  Therefore, it is a coherent (and I think compelling) version of compatibilism.

As for the noncognitivists who maintain that there is no coherent definition of "free will," I submit that I have just presented one.  They might respond that what I am talking about is not the free will that people are normally talking about.  People normally want free will that can be judged by a God's-eye view by appeals to ultimate causality, and this is impossible.  They say I'm therefore just changing the subject.  I'm replacing an incoherent notion with a coherent one.

I do agree that many people want free will from a God's-eye view and by appeal to ultimate causality, and they will not be easily satisfied by the psycho-social foundations of free will I have described.  However, that does not mean I am changing the subject.  I have not altered the definition of "free will" or the definition of "moral responsibility."  All I have done is shown that the foundation for moral responsibility people think they want is an impossibility.  People are mistaken about what could make them deserving of punishment or reward. It cannot be ultimate causality.  People might therefore conclude that there is no such thing as moral responsibility.  They might say that, if God doesn't exist, nobody is morally responsible for anything.  And, indeed, it would seem that there cannot be free will if there is no moral responsibility.  However, the way forward is not to simply claim that there is no free will.  The way forward is to explain why morality does make sense from a psycho-social point of view--why people should invest in their sense of moral responsibility.  Of course, you cannot argue that people should embrace moral responsibility without begging the question.  But what you can argue for is a coherent picture of the way moral responsibility actually works.  If a person can be convinced that moral responsibility does make sense in psycho-social terms, then they will have made room for belief in free will, and no definitions will have been altered.

My conclusion is this:  If we insist that there is no coherent definition of "free will", then compatibilism and incompatibilism are both a waste of time.  There is no sense in claiming that free will is or is not compatible with determinism.  If, on the other hand, we find sense in the meaning of "free will," then incompatibilism seems unjustified.  If there is such thing as rational choice and moral responsibility, the these things are compatible with determinism.  Therefore, if free will is a coherent concept, it is compatible with determinism.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Respecting the profession: Harris' reply to Dennett

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Sam Harris' first book, the award-winning best seller, The End Of Faith. Over the past decade, he has earned a good deal of public acclaim and devotion, and for respectable reasons. Sam Harris is a gifted writer and speaker. His eloquence and clarity of expression are enviable. In addition, he has been an outspoken advocate of reason, critical thought and secular values when this has been sorely needed. For these reasons, I would like to see Harris as an ally and potential friend who, like me, wants to make the world more hospitable to atheism and reason. However, his attitude towards the decorum of professional philosophy is hurting the cause, and his own arguments are suffering, too.

In his review of Harris' most recent book, Free Will, Daniel C. Dennett admonishes Harris for not doing his homework and not engaging with "the best thought on the topic." This sort of reaction to Harris is not uncommon from professional philosophers. However, Harris thinks Dennett's tone is uncalled for. Presumably, Dennett disagrees. If he was condescending (and he was), it was for a reason. One obvious reason would be that he wanted to make it clear that Harris was not engaging with the best thought on free will, and that Harris, unlike Dennett, was not qualified to speak authoritatively about what is the best thought on the topic.

Why was it important for Dennett to do that? Because Dennett has a responsibility to the profession. There is such a thing as disciplined philosophy. Professional philosophers place great value on charity, humility, patience, caution, rigor and the ability to carefully perform detailed textual analyses. I'm not saying Dennett is always perfect on all counts, but he has proven himself in the professional sphere and has an excellent reputation among professionals. This is not because they all think he is right, but because they respect his ability to adhere to the decorum and produce compelling results.

Harris seems to think Dennett's criticism was unfriendly, but there's no reason to take it personally. Direct criticism from someone of Dennett's stature should be worn with pride, even if it is harsh. Dennett was clearly annoyed with Harris' book--specifically, the part that deals with Dennett's own work--because, in his professional opinion, Harris was not fairly representing him or the issues. Despite his annoyance, Dennett still bothered to write a lengthy exegetical response. This is presumably because they are friends, but also perhaps because Harris is a leading figure in the atheist/secularist/rationalist movement and Dennett thinks Harris has influence. The short of it is that, yes, Dennett was protecting his "turf," but Harris is wrong to call it vanity. This was not vanity. It was professional responsibility.

In addition to insulting Dennett directly, Harris indirectly insults him (and the entire profession) by refusing to even respect the fact that Dennett bothered to write a lengthy review in the first place.  Harris complains about it all being so boring and tedious, emphasizing his disappointment that Dennett had refused his invitation to a public debate.  Not only are lengthy written analyses boring, he says; they're more likely to lead to confusion and misunderstandings. Apparently, Dennett should know better than to engage in detailed philosophical analysis!

It's hard to take Harris seriously. Sure, public debates can serve a purpose, but they are rarely more focused or productive than the written word. They are not known for their ability to resolve misunderstandings or avoid confusion. If your goal is to carefully present, examine and critically assess arguments, then extended writing is far, far better than a public debate. That's why philosophers earn their professional reputation through publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and not with public debates.  Lengthy philosophical exegesis is Dennett's bread and butter. Harris does not want to engage in it, but his refusal to respect it is absurd. He wants his own philosophical ideas to be taken seriously by professionals, he reads and cites professionals, but he does not respect their discipline. It might seem to some like he just doesn't want to earn his keep.  I think the reason is obvious:  Harris is a dazzling writer and speaker, but he falls terribly short when it comes to critical thinking.  (More on that below.)

True, many members of Harris' readership do not have the patience for, or interest in, detailed philosophical arguments. Some have even admitted that they can't understand or follow Dennett's arguments at all. Harris apparently wants to let that segment of the population set the bar for the rest of us.

This has harmful consequences. By not respecting the discipline, Harris reinforces the belief (common among his fan base) that anybody with half a brain can be an expert philosopher. All you have to do is read a book or two on free will or moral responsibility (written by anyone, really) and you can form an authoritative opinion on the topic. This hurts the debate, because it makes people less inclined to take serious philosophical investigation seriously. As a result, ignorance and arrogance are promoted at the expense of integrity and rigor.


It's important to realize why Dennett refused Harris' invitation.  I doubt it is because Dennett is a much better writer than public speaker (though he is, which is to say nothing against his ability to speak publicly.  He's just a phenomenal writer.)  The reason is that, when you engage in a public debate, there is a presumption of equal competence.  Dennett has spent decades engaging professional philosophers on the issue of free will. He has a great deal of professional stature, and with that comes professional responsibilities. If Dennett shared the stage with Harris on the issue of free will, he would be transferring some of his professional credibility to Harris.  I think it's obvious that he does not want to do that. It would go against his responsibility to the profession. This is not because Harris does not have the formal qualifications of a professional philosopher, but because Harris has demonstrated a severe lack of respect for the decorum of professional philosophy and an inability to engage professionals responsibly.  Even a formal written exchange (like Jerry Coyne suggests) would be too damaging.  A book review was Dennett's best option.

In sum, I doubt Dennett will reply to Harris.  I hope he does not.  To do so would be to give Harris a degree of respect he has not earned.  Maybe if Harris had put some compelling arguments on the table, then Dennett would humbly consider a reply. Alas, Harris has done nothing of the sort. His arguments, in fact, betray his own failure to think carefully and responsibly about the issues.

 I'll now turn to a discussion of Harris' errors. Most of them are severely painful.

First up, a stirring combination of hypocrisy and false accusation. Harris criticizes Dennett for drawing our attention to the possible social and political consequences of regarding free will as an illusion. Yes, Dennett has emphasized the importance of recognizing the social and political consequences of one's view of free will, but Harris is wrong to claim that Dennett has made this his primary argument. Dennett's primary argument is that there is real sense to be made from the way ordinary people experience and talk about free will. Dennett is trying to preserve and explain those intuitions about free will which make sense.

 Harris, in contrast, is doing exactly what he says Dennett should not be doing.  Harris is the one whose primary argument is an appeal to the political consequences of his point of view.  Harris' argument against Dennett (and compatibilism in general) is not philosophical or scientific. He just thinks compatibilists are changing the subject instead of confronting the way people think and talk about free will. (Ironically, when it comes to philosophy, Harris is the one more likely to change the subject without realizing it.) Harris is worried because he thinks untenable notions of free will have bad consequences for our criminal justice systems, among other things. That is a political argument about the consequences of Dennett's arguments, and it is the entirety of Harris' argument against Dennett. Harris doesn't think Dennett's philosophical or scientific arguments are flawed. He just thinks what Dennett is talking about shouldn't be called "free will." Harris is presenting a political argument, and yet, he criticizes Dennett for presenting a political argument!

How about the time Harris wrongly accused Dennett of misinterpreting him and then attempted to clarify by repeating the same error?  Harris originally wrote, "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." Dennett's reading is a natural reading of the line: that personal responsibility diminishes as indeterminacy increases. In response, Dennett points to counter-examples from his own previous publications. However, Harris says that Dennett has misread him. And this is how Harris attempts to clarify his point:

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.

This clarification is still false, and for the same reason. Dennett and Harris do agree that we cannot ground free will in indeterminism, but it is not for the reason Harris states. It is because indeterminism does not generate free will. It's not because "truly random processes are precisely those for which we can take no responsibility." In fact, we can take responsibility for "truly random processes." Dennett even explained why when he corrected Harris' initial mistake. He described people who design and utilize random computer processes, and who can be held responsible for them. We can take responsibility for the creation and utilization of truly random processes (assuming such processes are possible), and to that extent, we can also be responsible for the outcomes.

Perhaps Harris is still not expressing himself clearly. If so, there is no reason to blame Dennett, who is just trying to make sure the subject is approached responsibly. After all, it does look like Harris said that personal responsibility is diminished to the extent that there are non-deterministic processes in the world, even though he says that is not what he meant. And it does look like he's now saying that people cannot take responsibility for truly random processes, which is still false, and for the same reason. But okay, let's say Dennett (and I) have just misread him. How should Harris respond? With sarcasm and condescension?

Dennett is one of Harris' most capable audiences. If Harris think Dennett has misread him, then he should be concerned about other critical audiences misreading him, too. He has every reason to humbly and carefully resolve the confusion. Instead, he blames it on Dennett and regards the whole thing as a bore. A more professional attitude would earn Harris a lot more respect, and could help improve the public's general perception of philosophy, as well.

Harris complains about decorum, too. He says Dennett is not following Rapaport's rules, because Dennett did not preface his criticism with a positive comment. That's embarrassingly sloppy. Harris could not possibly have missed the elaborate praise which begins Dennett's review. Dennett acknowledges that Harris has accomplished a good deal, as far as challenging the supernatural view of free will goes. If anything, his praise is excessive.

Harris also accuses Dennett of being disingenuous for calling Harris' mistakes "valuable," and even accuses Dennett of lying about his sincerity. If a person says they are being sincere, you should take them at their word, unless you have a compelling reason not to. And you should be extra careful about your reasons before you put your accusation into print. To do otherwise is in very poor form. This all falls under the principle of charity. In this case, Harris' reading is extremely uncharitable. It is most plausible that Dennett did see value in publicly exposing Harris' errors.

Then there's Harris' careless treatment of Dennett's sun analogy. In the analogy, free will is likened to the sun. Dennett's point is that there is a freedom which is rightly called "free will" and which has been misunderstood throughout much of history, much as the geocentric model was a misunderstanding of the earth's relationship to the sun. The geocentric model is likened to the supernatural view of free will. The heliocentric model is likened to compatibilism. Harris gets it all wrong, claiming that free will is likened to the geocentric model. He not only misconstrues the analogy, but he simultaneously accuses Dennett of begging the question and misunderstanding the debate. None of this is justified, and all of it is uncharitable.

Harris is also uncharitable when he defends his own puppet analogy against Dennett's criticism, which Harris seem to have misconstrued. Dennett does not accuse Harris of taking the puppet metaphor too literally. He accuses Harris of using the puppet metaphor to misconstrue compatibilism. Dennett is pointing out that, according to compatibilism, we are nothing like puppets. Embracing compatibilism is nothing like a puppet loving its strings. The puppet metaphor is simply misleading, and in a way which hurts the debate, since it leads to a poor conception of Harris' opposition. Harris can disagree, but that would involve a more elaborate justification of the puppet metaphor. The point is that Dennett, an expert in the field, is extremely dissatisfied with the way Harris has represented compatibilism. If Harris wants to respond, he should be a lot more careful.

Harris also wrongly accuses Dennett of contradicting himself. This isn't embarrassing for Harris, actually, since the issue is subtle. However, it does reflect the depth of Harris' confusion about the issue of free will. Harris writes: "At some points you say that I’ve thrown the baby out with the bath; at others you merely complain that I won’t call this baby by the right name (“free will”). Which is it?"

Dennett is not being inconsistent. The baby, in this case, is the idea of free will. Dennett thinks that he and others over the centuries have developed a finer, more robust understanding of free will--of the experience of freedom itself. Harris presents a view which is consistent with compatibilism, but not always consistently. (I will explain the inconsistency in a moment.) Furthermore, Harris denies that there is any actual experience of free will worth talking about. Thus, even though Harris could pass for a compatibilist (albeit an inconsistent one), he is denying something essential about human experience--about the psychological reality of rational agency.

So here's Harris' inconsistency. He says, "But can we blame Austin for missing his putt? No. Can we blame him for not trying hard enough? Again, the answer is no—unless blaming him were just a way of admonishing him to try harder in the future."

I disagree, Dennett disagrees . . . and Harris seems to disagree, too, since he contradicts his own point later on, when he talks about Tiger Woods. Woods (because he is an expert and therefore in a position to know) is more culpable, says Harris: "People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave." If you are in a position to know and to act accordingly, you have more responsibility. That is practical sense. It's why we hold scientists to higher standards, for example. (And it's also why we should respect the authority of professional philosophers, too.) But this contradicts Harris' claim that we cannot blame people unless we are trying to motivate them. Harris says that one's abilities, including self-control, give them a greater amount of responsibility and, at the same time, we can only hold people responsible if doing so has good consequences. That's a contradiction.

Since we're talking about punishment and responsibility, I should mention that I don't think Harris has offered a compelling argument about retribution. He says that his view allows us to dispense with a certain kind of hatred once and for all--the kind of hatred which comes from holding somebody ultimately responsible for their actions. However, if I hate a person who commits a heinous crime without remorse, I don't think they are ultimately responsible. I am aware that they are the product of other causes. Yet, I hate their act and their attitude towards it. This is because they are in a position to know and are able to act accordingly. This kind of hatred helps shape our expectations about society.  I have an emotional problem with treating some people as equal members of society. They have betrayed a certain level of trust and I cannot comfortably allow them to circulate in society unless some steps have been taken to punish them.  The desire for retribution--even death--plays a vital role in the construction of social responsibility.  If we do not respect that desire, society may suffer.  So, yes, personal responsibility opens the door to a particular kind of hatred, but I don't see anything wrong with leaving that door open. I would say the same thing about personal responsibility opening up the door to a special kind of love, too.

Harris makes a lot of mistakes, some subtle, but most are glaring. There's nothing remarkable about that. Even professional philosophers can make errors like these (though usually not so many in such a small space). The reason this is so embarrasing for Harris is because he is making all of these errors at the same time he is being so condescending and disrespectful to the discipline. If he were more willing to adhere to the decorum--more patient, humble, cautious, charitable, rigorous, and so on--he probably would not have made all of these mistakes. And even if he had, he would not have looked as bad doing it. Harris' disrespectful and irresponsible approach to professional philosophy may be winning him points with others who similarly refuse to recognize any value in the profession, but I see no good coming out of it.

A couple years ago I attended a three-day philosophy "meisterkurs" in Berlin led by Jason Stanley, a prominent philosopher currently at Yale. Unlike me, most of the attendees were philosophy professors and doctoral students, but there was one attendee who was not a philosopher by training at all. He was a scientist who wanted to see how professional philosophers go about their business. Over lunch on the last day, he told me he was surprised. Even though he did not understand a lot of the details, he was very impressed with how open philosophers are to criticism, how interested we are in promoting and exploring challenging points of view, and how patient and friendly we are with our disagreements. (I include myself here because, even though I lack the formal qualifications, I participated heavily in the event.) In short, he witnessed the charity, humility and patience that professional philosophers spend years cultivating. I only wish more people had the patience and willingness to make such observations. Perhaps then the profession would regain more of the public's trust.

Annoyed with Coyne (on free will)

I still haven't explained why I think Harris' response to Dennett is embarrassingly bad.  It's not because Harris is wrong about free will.  It's about the arguments he gives and the tone with which he gives them.  But I'm not going to get into that in this post.  Instead, I want to discuss why Harris is wrong about free will.  I've recently laid out a brief argument on the topic, but I suspect that unsympathetic audiences are not likely to be satisfied by it.  They say they have a better grasp of how people think about free will.  I don't know what makes them think they're experts on the subject, but what I do know is that they seem very confused about the issues.

Look at Jerry Coyne, one of Harris' sympathetic readers: "I still see compatibilism as a wasted effort by philosophers to save our felt notion that we have agency; that we could have chosen otherwise. . . . Even Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg, a determinist if there ever was one, was resistant to the idea that he could not have chosen otherwise at a given moment (he told me this at the “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference sixteen months ago)."  I wonder if Coyne asked Weinberg the following question:  "Do you mean that you think you could have chosen otherwise had you wanted to?"  Because if that is what Weinberg meant, there is no conflict with determinism.  I doubt Weinberg meant that he felt he could have acted differently even if he had the exact same beliefs, desires and emotions--that is, if he had the exact same will in the exact same conditions.

Here's the thing:  We do not experience causality as such.  We can only infer causal relationships.  So there is no such thing as "the experience that x determined y to happen."  The implication is obvious:  There is no such thing as the experience of being determined to do something.  We can, however, experience the feeling of compulsion:  the feeling that we are acting against our will.  So what's going on here?

We have an experience of rational agency, of choosing to act based on an evaluation of our beliefs and desires.  This is a complex phenomenon.  On the one hand, we have the experience of evaluating our beliefs and desires.  On the other hand, we have the experience of making a decision.  This is the experience of acting according to our beliefs and desires.  We might be misled about our beliefs and desires.  However, the experience as such is a psychological reality, and it is the experience of free will.  If this experience is an illusion, that means we do not actually make decisions according to our beliefs and desires.  We think we're acting according to beliefs and desires, but we're really acting according to something else.  Or maybe we're not really acting at all.

I wonder if Coyne thinks that we act, just not rationally, according to our beliefs and desires.  That's probably not what he thinks, since he puts a lot of stock in rational argument.  Maybe he believes that there are no beliefs and desires at all.  That would be absurd, of course, because he could not say "I believe there are no beliefs" without looking like a fool.  Actually, I don't think Coyne knows what he thinks, since he says he agrees with Harris, and Harris believes that people are capable of acting rationally.

What Coyne and Harris want to say is that the experience of free will is misleading.  It makes people think that their agency is somehow their own, and not the result of other causes.  But this is a false dilemma.  Agency is our own, but it is also the result of other causes.  There's nothing about being a rational agent that precludes being caused.

It's true that a lot of people, maybe most, have a hard time understanding this.  They believe they have to choose between free will and determinism, and they choose free will, because the experience is so compelling.  They have very little, if anything, invested in determinism.  But abandoning determinism does not make room for free will.  So why frame it as a conflict between free will and determinism in the first place?

People are confused because they don't understand rational agency and all that comes with it (including the relationship between mind and body, the foundations of moral responsibility, and so on).  These are topics that professional philosophers have been struggling with for a long, long time.  And yet, when a leading philosopher (that's Dennett, if you're new to the scene) who has specialized in this area tries to bring some sophistication to the table, every lay person out there thinks they know better.  It's a bit maddening, really.

Sure, there are professional philosophers who give the discipline a bad name.  There are scientists who give science a bad name, too.  But for some reason, people like Harris and Coyne are not willing to respect the authority of a professional who has spent decades engaging other professionals on these topics.  It's not that Dennett has the authority to tell us whether or not we have free will, but he has the authority to tell people like Sam Harris that they have not done their homework.  And yet, Coyne actually criticizes Dennett for pulling authority.  That's not just an insult to Dennett, but to the entire profession of philosophy.

Here's the deal.  People have many intuitions about free will.  The central intuition is that some of their actions are based on a rational consideration of their beliefs and desires.  While there are philosophers who deny the reality of beliefs, desires and agency, such a position is simply untenable in the practical world.  One would have to regard all of their own thoughts and experiences as fundamentally wrong.  They would have no intellectual barometer of any sort to rely on.  They would have to stop talking about beliefs, thoughts, actions, intentions, ideas, desires, and so on.  And why?  What is the reason for denying the reality of these things?  It seems much easier to deny the reality of physical causality than the reality of thought and action.  We don't even experience causality!  Fortunately, we don't have to choose.  There isn't even any sense in framing it as a choice.