Friday, July 08, 2016

Harris and Dennett on free will: could they have done otherwise?

Sam Harris podcasted a conversation with Dan Dennett about free will in which they try to sort out their differences. Here I offer what I hope is some even-handed commentary that might contribute to an amicable reconciliation, well underway apparently. Your reactions welcome over at the FB naturalism group
Could have done otherwise. As a good determinist, Dan knows that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations, but he denies this has relevance for human agency. What matters (is worth wanting), he says, is being able to pick out competent agents that can be held responsible. We do this by considering counterfactual situations: does the agent have enough degrees of freedom of action that, had the situation been somewhat different, he might or would have done otherwise? Fine, but pointing out that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations – what Sam often adverts to in “rewinding the tape” – is also important since it gets at a fundamental truth about ourselves that many (most?) folks, being libertarians, don’t recognize. Getting the word out about this can help to soften retributive and punitive attitudes based in the idea that we are miniature first causes and ultimate self-shapers. This isn’t Dan’s concern, but as Sam rightly says libertarianism is the central issue when it comes to naturalizing agency (so to that extent Dan is “failing to interact with some core features” of folk free will). The truths of neuroscience are compatible with much but not all of most folks’ understanding of responsibility and desert and the ways in which we currently treat each other.
Explanation and excuses. Sam argues there’s something exculpatory about determinism and not being ultimately self-caused. But as Dan points out, cosmic bad luck and being the end result of an explanatory causal chain don’t count as excuses when standing in the dock. But it’s still important to see that the person standing there is cosmically and perhaps locally unlucky to have been determined to become a responsible agent that made a bad choice. There’s no way in the actual world that he could have turned out or acted otherwise in a way that would have been up to him. This is so even though his actions are up to (controlled by) him as a reasons-responsive, deterrable agent. So our status as responsible agents doesn’t obviate the fact that some of us are simply cosmically unlucky to end up like Madoff, a point Dan never concedes despite Sam’s constant adverting to determinism.
Self-shaping. Dan argues that we are proximate, do-it-yourself, self-shapers even though we’re not ultimately self-originated. True, but pointing this out can be used to deflect attention from the fact that the course of self-authorship is completely set by factors outside one’s control. Some of us are lucky to have been bequeathed the biological and environmental conditions that produce good choices in setting our priorities and habits, and then in controlling our actions to good ends. And as Dan says, some people fail miserably at this – they are the unlucky ones. To deny that luck swallows everything, that it goes all the way down, including the process and outcomes of self-formation, is to assert that we stand outside natural law. Drawing attention to proximate self-formation and proclaiming the duty to become a good citizen are fine but shouldn’t be used to hide or downplay the big deterministic picture.
Control and consciousness. Dan claims rightly that we are pretty decent controllers even if we aren’t ultimately in control or in control of everything. We’re not in control of our brains since we are our brains, but such is the necessary fate of any autonomous cognitive system. The system controls its behavior and some downstream effects, not its own control processes except as they become targets of meta-control over time (Dan:  at the “temporally macro level”). That consciousness might lag or not be privy to its neural antecedents is no threat to agency, although it does help overthrow the intuition that we exist as immaterial controllers. The neural processes associated with consciousness obviously play crucial roles in behavior control, even though the causal role of experience itself is contested. In any case, we’re not passive puppets but active agents with robust causal powers.
Consequentialism and criminal justice. Both Sam and Dan endorse a consequentialist, pragmatic conception of responsibility and criminal justice. Dan emphasizes the need for punishment for general deterrence and maintaining respect for the law, but with reasonable and revisable excusing conditions. Although he concedes the necessity of punishment, Sam is more concerned to point out the fully determined, unlucky, non-ultimately self-authored status of offenders, which should help to reduce punitive attitudes based in libertarianism and motivate a shift from retributivism to a more humane consequentialism. Lack of libertarian agency - the revolution in our self-concept driven by naturalism - doesn’t count as an excuse, but it does require we rethink our justifications for punishment and the nature of desert.


Blogger Alice said...

Thank you Tom. You summarise significant points, whilst highlighting the implications of our lacking contra-causal or libertarian free will.

Jul 8, 2016, 6:19:00 PM  

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