The Argument Daniel Dennett Should Be Making

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I responded recently to Daniel Dennett’s response to Sam Harris on the topic of free will. I’ll begin by saying again that I continue to have massive respect for Daniel Dennett—not just for what he says, but how he says it. I enjoy the way he presents information in person.

In writing, however, I feel that he suffers from the unfortunately common habit among academics of using fifty words to express what could be said in ten. The impact of this is compounded by an apparent reticence to admit that he outright denies what I call Absolute Free Will, meaning the ability for an individual to have chosen differently for any previous choice.

A few things don’t seem to match here:

  1. He’s a demystifier of the pseudo-magical, calling consciousness a “bag of tricks”, and educating others on “we are not the authorities on our consciousness that we think we are”.

  2. He has on many occasions, in the free will debate, said that, “there are simply some kinds of freedom that we cannot have.”, referring (I believe) to Absolute Free Will.

  3. Yet he fails to agree with incompatibilists on the main point (the lack of Absolute Free Will) and instead tries to jump to his version of compatibilism.

So on one side he’s a clear penetrator of mysticism around how our minds work, but on the other he seems unwilling to simply be outright with it. It’s fascinating and frustrating.

Then, without closing that gap, he goes on to make a very telling statement:

This opens a curtain of potential compromise of the two positions, and this could be isolated and magnified by some plain language on Dennett’s part.

So, here’s what I think he should say:

Fake Dennett:

Harris has written a great book about free will that I mostly agree with. Interestingly, I think we’re far more synchronized than most believe, and my comments below will attempt to show that we are in fact both compaitibilists.

It sounds strange, perhaps, but this is mostly due to a misunderstanding of compatibilism. Many make the mistake of thinking that when debating a compatibilist you need to pound home the point of determinism. Well, we’re already determinists. We already believe that outcomes are the result of the interaction of variables that we don’t control.

So Harris (and others) who spend significant time trying to illustrate that we don’t—at the level of physics—don’t truly make our decisions are chopping at tree that has already fallen. “Our choices are illusory, just like consciousness.”, they say. “We don’t have control of the variables, so we can’t be in control of the outcomes.”, they say.

Yes, we know. You’re not telling us anything new. We’re compatibilists because we don’t think that matters (that’s actually the definition). That’s where the disconnect lies: Incompatibilists think we believe in magic, and we don’t. So, we’re starting off 90% in sync with you; the interesting discussion lies in the final 10%.

That brings us to Harris’ closing comments in his book. He speaks lucidly about “choices” he makes everyday. He talks about writing his book, and about how it would not have written itself. He talks about self-improvement and self-discipline.

These are are all firmly in the realm of compatibilism. I believe in these things as tangible, real-world concepts that are valuable and worth discussing. It seems clear that Harris does as well.

So where does that leave us?

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It means that we really have far less of a disagreement than most think we do. I too reject the “true choice” or Absolute Free Will that he rejects. That’s plain fantasy, as more and more scientists are coming to accept. But it doesn’t matter to me. And more importantly, it doesn’t seem to matter to Harris either (and shouldn’t matter to you).

He seems to go to the gym, and sculpt his habits, and nurture his career, etc.—all without any apparent burden of knowing that physics-level choice is impossible.

This is what it means to be a compatibilist.

It’s not a belief in magic; it’s a belief in the tangible. It’s the embrace of the only reality that we know as humans, and the acknowledgement that in that reality we do experience choices and struggles.

So let us not quibble over definitions or pound into oblivion a point that we both agree on. Let’s instead both acknowledge that tomorrow morning each of us will wake up and try to build a better life for ourselves.

Let’s view our lack of true freedom not as the end of the conversation, but instead as the beginning of one. In other words, let’s stop talking about the type of freedom we don’t have, and focus on the type that we do.

I for one would find this unbelievably refreshing, and invigorating. I honestly believe there is something to this position, and I 1) hope it is Dennett’s position, and 2) hope that he comes to express it this way if it is.

As fake Dennett said above, it’d be the beginning of a discussion worth having.


  1. What Dennett “should” say is really me saying that IF I am right about his position (which I may not be), that this is the way I would approach it. I obviously cannot speak for him.

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