Friday, April 20, 2012

Harris on Dennett on Free Will

I want to quickly point out some major problems I have with Sam Harris' recent comment on his disagreement with Dennett on the issue of free will.

His main idea is that, while he and Dennett agree on everything about how people actually function, and while they agree on what sorts of free will are worth having, they disagree on what ordinary people mean by the phrase "free will."  He thinks Dennett is just redefining the term and thus changing the subject, rather than engaging with how people actually think about free will.  He suggests this strategy is dangerous, because people are living under an illusion which needs to be dispelled.

Maybe he makes a stronger case for this in his book, but in the post there's a severe lack of support for this claim.  Dennett's arguments seem very well in tune with how people talk about free will, and Dennett seems more eager than most to identify how cognitive illusions influence our understanding of consciousness and related topics.  So I'm not convinced that Dennett makes the sort of mistake Harris is talking about.  I'd like to see where he tries to support this accusation with argument and evidence.

Another problem here is that Harris has said nothing specific about how he thinks people usually think of free will, or what the illusion is that he finds so threatening.  What he does say, in fact, is very confusing.

He says that ordinary people confusedly rely on "a view of human agency that is both conceptually incoherent and empirically false."  That's right, it is both incoherent and empirically false.  How exactly are we supposed to empirically test an incoherent hypothesis?  Unfortunately, Harris does not explain this.  I can't help but think he might be more confused than those he is criticizing for their confusion.

He also writes: "We can acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action . . . without indulging the illusion of free will."  I wonder what  conception of "voluntary" Harris has in mind here, since the common one seems to be just the sort of thing people talk about when they say they have free will.  If Harris wants to claim that our ordinary understanding of freedom of will is an illusion, but that our concept of voluntarily acting in accordance with our will is not an illusion, then I think he's having too much fun with words.

One more point I'll note:  He says it would be irrational to hate somebody for their actions, since nobody is ultimately responsible for what they do (despite the fact that they may have acted voluntarily, apparently).  Yet it would be rational to feel compassion for them.  This reeks of buddhism, Harris' religion of choice.

Why is it irrational to hate somebody who does things you hate?  Why does it matter if they are ultimately responsible for the way they are?  Would Harris suppose it is more rational to love a mass-murderer?  Since when are emotional reactions either rational or irrational?

I'm once again very unimpressed by Harris' forays into philosophy, and I find it quite arrogant that he claims this essay presents his "final thoughts" on the topic.  His repeated desire to speak publicly with Dennett about free will is even more arrogant.  I hope Dennett does not accept the invitation.  I rather think Dennett capable of a public discussion on free will with people who have already established themselves as authorities on the topic.  Though I might like to see how Dennett responds to Harris' musings on free will, perhaps in a book review. [Update:  On second thought, maybe just silence from Dennett would be best.]