Free will, Religion without God, Dennett’s Compatibilism…

I recently finished reading Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. The book “argues that Darwinian processes are the central organizing force that gives rise to complexity. Dennett asserts that natural selection is a blind and algorithmic process which is sufficiently powerful to account for the evolution of life including the complexities of human minds and societies.”

The book was fantastic, as I’ve come to feel about the other Dennett books I’ve read (Consciousness Explained, Freedom Evolves, and Sweet Dreams). It is rare, in life and in books and articles, to find someone who believes that ultimately there is no metaphysical thing such as free-will, a soul (a mind cut off from the physical world), or meaning in life. I stress my use of the word metaphysical there.

I find it difficult to discuss my views with others because I find people to either misunderstand me, or to be diametrically opposed to my ideas. Let me try to explain where my views come from:

The best of our scientific understanding of the world would lead one to believe that at base there are physical laws, to which everything else follows. Physics to chemistry to biology/evolution to social organizations to complex computational brains. As far as psychology, and neuroscience are concerned, our minds are products of our brains, which are products of vastly complex neural signalling. I would say that this would lead one to conclude that our prior notions of ourselves, our agency, our ‘free-will’, our life’s meanings, are ultimately refuted. What then?

I think that the reasons people maintain these beliefs are either because: 1. they have not read up on the scientific / philosophical literature; or 2. they do not want to believe these things: “if that were true, then life would be meaningless”, which is not a rejection of the facts, but a rejection of willingness to believe; or 3. they believe that evidence from introspection can count as counter evidence: I feel like I have free will; that I am the ultimate source of my actions and feelings.

I think that (3) ultimately suffers from (1), since a look at the literature would reveal how our intuition and introspection leads us to false conclusions about reality and the actual workings of the brain so often. That is why we have science.

It is (2) that I’ve been more recently concerned about. How do I manage to find meaning in life if my concept of myself and my agency is all an illusion?

Well, I guess at this point I want to consider the idea that there may be useful illusions and useless/harmful illusions. At the same time, I’d want to discuss the idea of going along with an illusion while at the same time knowing its falsity.

What I’m trying to suggest is that…

[note: so I wrote this draft about a month ago, and don’t really feel like finishing it; that’s why it cuts off like that. It would appear that the next thing I wanted to talk about was Nietzsche and his concepts of nihilism. From my memory of a second/third year continental philosophy class, Nietzsche talks about two concepts of nihilism: active and passive forms. The idea being that, once one loses faith in God, and realizes all the beliefs that were built up around that one belief, people become disoriented and pretty much just ‘give up’. That’s passive nihilism. That is, people throw up their hands and proclaim “well then what’s the use? Why bother doing anything”. Active nihilism, on the other hand, actively continues to break down the false beliefs and actively works at making new foundations built on new beliefs. Thus, his ‘beyond good and evil’ and such. Wikipedia:

This wilful destruction of values and the overcoming of the condition of nihilism by the constructing of new meaning, this active nihilism could be related to what Nietzsche elsewhere calls a ‘free spirit’ or the Übermensch from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Antichrist, the model of the strong individual who posits his own values and lives his life as if it were a work of art.

So, although I can’t remember where I was going with this article before, it would appear as though I was relating Nietzsche’s active nihilism with the discovery that ‘free-will’ is an illusion. Instead of throwing up our hands and saying “well what’s the use then?”, we can actively attempt to accept this fact and move on / use it. I don’t exactly know how. All I do is ignore it… I mean, no matter what I believe, I am forced to see the world as if I was the agent of my own actions. So, although that may not be ‘true’, it is something that is hard-wired into my being… and so be it.

The other thing it seems I was going to talk about is Dennett’s discussion of George Santayana:

The view I am expressing has clear ancestors. The philosopher George Santayana was a Catholic atheist, if you can imagine such a thing. According to Bertrand Russell (1945, p. 811), William James once denounced Santayana’s ideas as “the perfection of rottenness,” and one can see why some people would be offended by his brand of aestheticism: a deep appreciation for all the formulae, ceremonies, and trappings of his religious heritage, but lacking the faith. Santayana’s position was aptly caricatured: “There is no God and Mary is His Mother.” But how many of us are caught in that very dilemma, loving the heritage, firmly convinced of its value, yet unable to sustain any conviction at all in its truth? We are faced with a difficult choice. Because we value it, we are eager to preserve it in a rather precarious and “denatured” state—in churches and cathedrals and synagogues, built to house huge congregations of the devout, and now on the way to being cultural museums. There is really not that much difference between the roles of the Beefeaters who stand picturesque guard at the Tower of London, and the Cardinals who march in their magnificent costumes and meet to elect the next Pope. Both are keeping alive traditions, rituals, liturgies, symbols, that otherwise would fade.

Although I wouldn’t label myself as a religious atheist, I can relate to Santayana’s love to for traditions, rituals, liturgies and symbols.

Also, fun fact: Santayana is known for his comment: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

Finally, as the title suggests, it looks like I wanted to talk about Dennett’s Compatibilism; that is, how he believes in free-will yet doesn’t deny a physicalist explanation to our minds/brains.

Stanford encyclopedia to the rescue!!!

One influential contemporary defense of compatibilism is Daniel Dennett’s. In his 1984 book Elbow Room, as well as in several important papers, including “On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want,” (1981c) and “Mechanism and Responsibility” (1973), Dennett advances compatibilism by drawing upon important developments in the philosophy of mind.

5.2.1 Intentions and Stances

Dennett argues for the legitimacy of folk psychological notions in the explanation of intentional action. His view turns upon the range of stances adopted towards a system, stances that are legitimated by their effectiveness in understanding, predicting, and interacting with the system. According to Dennett, even a thermostat can be interpreted as a very limited intentional system since its behavior can usefully be predicted by attributing to it adequate beliefs and desires to display it as acting rationally within some limited domain. For example, the thermostat desires that the room’s temperature (or the engine’s internal temperature) not go above or below a certain range. If it believes that it is out of the requisite range, the thermostat will respond appropriately to achieve its desired results.

But surely, it might be objected, a thermostat does not “really” have intentions, not like titmice, toddlers or college freshmen. According to Dennett, this starts one down the wrong path (1973, p. 155). To seek a clean distinction between some metaphysically authentic intentional beings and simulacra like thermostats presupposes that there is more to any intentional system than adopting a stance toward it as an intentional system. If that stance genuinely pays off — if it facilitates a fruitful exchange, allows for helpful predictions, allows one to engage rationally with it — then it wins the status of an intentional creature. No special metaphysical tag is needed. Hence, for Dennett, the propriety of adopting the intentional stance towards a system is settled pragmatically in terms of the utility of its application in interacting with the system. Along with this thesis goes Dennett’s claim that folk psychological explanations (appealing to the intentional stance) are entirely consistent with more basic stances such as the designor physical stances, the former appealing to the intentions, not of the system, but of its designer, the latter appealing only to the basic mechanistic processes that cause the system from moment to moment to move from one physical state into another. Once a system becomes sufficiently complex, as with even a chess playing computer, the intentional stance will become indispensable for successful interaction (1973, p. 154).

5.2.2 The Intentional Stance and the Personal Stance

Dennett makes use of his treatment of the intentional stance to argue for compatibilism. Just as the decision to adopt the intentional stance towards a system is a pragmatic one, so too is it a pragmatic decision to adopt towards a system the stance that it is a morally responsible person. Dennett calls this latter stance the personal stance (1973, pp. 157–8). As with the intentional stance, there is nothing metaphysically deep required to interpret legitimately a system as a person (no special faculty of the will, for instance). Such systems are morally responsible agents if interpreting them according to the personal stance pays off (1984a, pp. 158–63). And of course, just as the physical (or the deterministic) stance is compatible with the intentional stance, so too, according to Dennett, is it compatible with the personal stance. Furthermore, just as he treats the intentional stance, Dennett argues that, due to the complexity of such systems, it is practically impossible to interpret and predict the system purely from the physical (deterministic) stance. Hence, the physical stance will never supplant the personal stance. We persons involved in the everyday commerce of interacting with each other need the personal stance; it is not threatened by the specter of determinism. Let us call Dennett’s view, Multiple Viewpoints Compatibilism.

5.2.3 Dennettian Free Will

What is free will on Dennett’s account? He certainly thinks that regulative control is compatible with determinism, and he endorses Slote’s rejection (see 5.1.3) of the Consequence Argument (Dennett, 1984a, p. 123). While Dennett does not offer a careful analysis of the ability to do otherwise, as for instance the new dispositionalists have (see 5.1.5), he does offer a general explanation of avoidability for free agents at determined worlds in terms of the evolution of intentionally complex beings “designed” to be able to avoid some outcomes and seek others (2003). Nevertheless, like Frankfurt (1969), Dennett argues that regulative control is not necessary for moral responsibility or the sort of control moral responsibility requires (1984a, 1984b). But Dennett finds Frankfurt’s manner of arguing unpersuasive since it relies upon esoteric examples (1984a, p. 132). His strategy is instead to show that our practical interests in freedom and responsibility are not in any way informed by considerations of the ability to do otherwise in the precise sense that incompatibilists have thought of it (holding fixed the past and the laws). One example he uses to defend his position is the case of Martin Luther, who when standing at the church doors, claimed that he (Luther) “could do no other” (1984a, p. 133). But appeals to examples of these sorts seem especially unsuited to the debate between compatibilists and those incompatibilists who are invested in arguments such as the Consequence Argument. The incompatiblist, it seems, can take Luther’s case to be one in which, if he was free, he literally could have done otherwise, but given his moral convictions, he simply would not have done otherwise; he was resolute.

Suppose Dennett is correct that the crucial sense of freedom for moral responsibility does not require regulative control, regardless of his manner of arguing for the point. How does Dennett account for guidance control? For Dennett, free will consists in the ability of a person to control her conduct on the basis of rational considerations through means that arise from, or are subject to, critical self-evaluation, self-adjusting and self-monitoring. That is, free will involves responsiveness to reasons. Dennett certainly has many useful observations about how creatures possessing this sort of control might have naturally arisen from less sophisticated sorts of creatures through a process of evolution (1981b). Later on other philosophers offered careful explications of control understood in terms of responsiveness to reasons. (See John Martin Fischer’s work, discussed below in section 5.5.)

5.2.4 Dennett versus the Source Incompatibilist

But what about the Source model of control, as well as the Source Incompatibilist Argument (section 2.2)? How does Dennett’s multiple viewpoints compatibilism stack up against them? Against the crucial first premise of the Source Incompatibilist Argument — A person acts of her own free will only if she is its ultimate source — in his book Elbow Room, Dennett, it seems, wants to place the incompatibilist on the defensive, arguing that it is only confusion driven by appeal to what he calls “intuition pumps” that makes the premise seem at all plausible. Intuition pumps, according to Dennett, are examples designed to sway our philosophical intuitions, but are themselves philosophically suspect. Such examples involve cases of (apparently) normally functioning agents being manipulated, for example, as if like a puppet hooked up to some wires. But Dennett’s polemical approach might seem dialectically unfair. Not all worries about the sources of action are groundless, even those arising from “intuition pumps” built on cases of ghastly manipulation. Dennett’s incompatibilist opponent deserves more credit than he seems willing to give her. Indeed, incompatibilist arguments built upon examples involving manipulation have gained considerable respect in recent times, and a couple of versions have taken center stage in the free will debate (e.g., see Pereboom, 2001; and Mele, 2006).[24] Regardless of his dismissive attitude towards worries about manipulation, the notion of ultimacy, and of an argument like the Source Incompatibilist Argument, Dennett’s positive account of morally responsible agency certainly does take very seriously a source model of free will. By appealing to views on intentionality, rational action, agency, and personhood, Dennett offers a suggestive account of how it is that an agent can be an authentic source of her action (1984a, pp. 50–73).

Oh Dennett, how I love you so…]


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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