Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Harris vs. Dennett 2: Electric Boogaloo

Some of you may recall Dean's earlier post where he showed Sam Harris's fellow "Horseman" and philosopher on free will, Daniel Dennett, responding sharply and astutely to Harris's stunningly short paperback Free Will.  To summarize, Harris is a reasonably strong believer in Scientific Determinism, and Dennett is a Compatibilist.  Dennett's searing review of Harris's book was brilliant, and I say this for many reasons, certainly not the least of which is that I happen to somewhat agree with Dennett in this matter (see his much-longer paperback Freedom Evolves).  However, I still maintain that I think humans are in a position of distinctly being unable to process the thought of not having any free will, because I think it would essentially unravel our entire world-views.  But maybe that's the next major paradigm shift.  Harris certainly thinks so, and so it's of very little surprise that he got equally pointed in his response to Dennett's review.  Harris says within the first few paragraphs:
"Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running."
And so begins one of the most epic intellectual thrashings you'll ever see.

The gloves are off.

It's time for round 2.

And this time...it's personal.

Coming soon to a theater near you.


  1. Oh how I wish atheists would remember to play nice. It really should not be personal. (But of course if Sam's right, it "could not have been otherwise.")

  2. Hm...It's always interesting to watch atheists debate free will, especially from the other side of the spectrum. I'm constantly engaging my Calvinist friends in similar discussions, albeit from the "Libertarian Free Will vs. Compatibilism" focus. I consider myself a "soft" LFWer (as I don't deny the fact that our decisions are HEAVILY influenced by our external circumstances), while my Reformed (a.k.a., "Calvinists") friends are largely Compatibilists (many claim otherwise, but Calvinism is incoherent in a non-Compatibilist/Determinist world). This leads me to a few questions that I'd love to hear answers to from you all. I will read the article when I can (I've started it already), but I'd like your input as well:

    1) What are the differences between Determinism and Compatibilism, for you all?

    2) Does Compatibilism simply redefine "Free Will" to fit with Determinism, or is that too simple an explanation?

    3) Can you get to Libertarian Free Will in a purely materialist reality?

  3. Hi Adam,

    I hope you won't object to my offering a response to your questions.

    1. I would imagine that most compatibilists would say that a comparision of Determinism and Compatibilism wouldn't really make much sense. This is because Compatibilism is based on a determinisitic framework. Compatibilists accept Determinism. It is essentially the position that despite the universe being deterministic, free will can exist.

    The chief argument as I understand it, for Compatibilism is that our minds can ponder possibilities, that we can ponder our past and future actions and weight possible choices. This consideration on our part alters the likely outcome of our deterministically derived response to future situations. Therefore we have some measure of free will.

    I personally don't find this argument compelling. I see no reason why any such pondering would itself be any freer from the chains of determinism, and any more a choice, than any other thought or action. This I think is the chief diagreement between compatibalists and incompatibilists.

    2. Some would say that is basically what it is ,including Harris. I personally think that the arguments for combatibilism imply a hint of libertarian free will. I'd imagine I would be ducking the objects compatibilists would be throwing at me if I suggested that in their presence though :)

    3. In a purely materialist reality, it seems unlikely. The one thing that compatibilists and hard determinists(in the free will sense) agree on is that libertarian free will is impossible. It isn't strickly impossible in a materialist reality if you are willing to invoke ideas like panpsychism which are embedding to some extent the necessary wiggle room into the structure of the physical universe as an axiom. An appeal to indeterminacy, one attempt to square free will with materialism, doesn't stand up very well to scrutiny.

  4. Hi Jon,

    "However, I still maintain that I think humans are in a position of distinctly being unable to process the thought of not having any free will, because I think it would essentially unravel our entire world-views."

    I think this is an extremely important point and too often overlooked. I would more say that it is very, very difficult to really view the world this way rather than impossible, though it may be impossilbe to get to the point of intuiting the world that way.
    The study by Nahmias et al, that is mentioned by Dennett in his response to Harris, reads to me like a loud declaration of this very point. While I didn't think much of the questions that were asked, they seemed terminally flawed to me, I would give the authors credit for an interesting and fairly thorough examination of the possilbe weaknesses of the study and the possible views which might have influenced the answers given. It's well worth a read.