Quick post – Dan Dennett’s Brain talk on Free Will vs Moral Responsibility

As a few people have asked me to give some impression of Dan’s talk at the FIL Brain meeting today, i’m just going to jot my quickest impressions before I run off to the pub to celebrate finishing my dissertation today. Please excuse any typos as what follows is unedited! Dan gave a talk very similar to his previous one several months ago at the UCL philosophy department. As always Dan gave a lively talk with lots of funny moments and appeals to common sense. Here the focus was more on the media activities of neuroscientists, with some particularly funny finger wagging at Patrick Haggard and Chris Frith. Some good bits where his discussion of evidence that priming subjects against free will seems to make them more likely to commit immoral acts (cheating, stealing) and a very firm statement that neuroscience is being irresponsible complete with bombastic anti-free will quotes by the usual suspects. Although I am a bit rusty on the mechanics of the free will debate, Dennett essentially argued for a compatiblist  view of free will and determinism. The argument goes something like this: the basic idea that free will is incompatible with determinism comes from a mythology that says in order to have free will, an agent must be wholly unpredictable. Dennett argues that this is absurd, we only need to be somewhat unpredictable. Rather than being perfectly random free agents, Dennett argues that what really matters is moral responsibility pragmatically construed.  Dennett lists a “spec sheet” for constructing a morally responsible agent including “could have done otherwise, is somewhat unpredictable, acts for reasons, is subject to punishment…”. In essence Dan seems to be claiming that neuroscientists don’t really care about “free will”, rather we care about the pragmatic limits within which we feel comfortable entering into legal agreements with an agent. Thus the job of the neuroscientists is not to try to reconcile the folk and scientific views of “free will”, which isn’t interesting (on Dennett’s acocunt) anyway, but rather to describe the conditions under which an agent can be considered morally responsible. The take home message seemed to be that moral responsibility is essentially a political rather than metaphysical construct. I’m afraid I can’t go into terrible detail about the supporting arguments- to be honest Dan’s talk was extremely short on argumentation. The version he gave to the philosophy department was much heavier on technical argumentation, particularly centered around proving that compatibilism doesn’t contradict with “it could have been otherwise”. In all the talk was very pragmatic, and I do agree with the conclusions to some degree- that we ought to be more concerned with the conditions and function of “will” and not argue so much about the meta-physics of “free”. Still my inner philosopher felt that Dan is embracing some kind of basic logical contradiction and hand-waving it away with funny intuition pumps, which for me are typically unsatisfying.

For reference, here is the abstract of the talk:

Nothing—yet—in neuroscience shows we don’t have free will

Contrary to the recent chorus of neuroscientists and psychologists declaring that free will is an illusion, I’ll be arguing (not for the first time, but with some new arguments and considerations) that this familiar claim is so far from having been demonstrated by neuroscience that those who advance it are professionally negligent, especially given the substantial social consequences of their being believed by lay people. None of the Libet-inspired work has the drastic implications typically adduced, and in fact the Soon et al (2008) work, and its descendants, can be seen to demonstrate an evolved adaptation to enhance our free will, not threaten it. Neuroscientists are not asking the right questions about free will—or what we might better call moral competence—and once they start asking and answering the right questions we may discover that the standard presumption that all “normal” adults are roughly equal in moral competence and hence in accountability is in for some serious erosion. It is this discoverable difference between superficially similar human beings that may oblige us to make major revisions in our laws and customs. Do we human beings have free will? Some of us do, but we must be careful about imposing the obligations of our good fortune on our fellow citizens wholesale.

3 thoughts on “Quick post – Dan Dennett’s Brain talk on Free Will vs Moral Responsibility

  1. Bounded rationality. You need boundaries to ensure you have sufficient degrees of freedom to appropriately express behaviours but not so many that expressing any behaviour becomes problematic in terms of effort. Think of an arm detached from a body, lots of degrees of freedom but little capacity for work. Contrast that with an arm still attached at the shoulder and you have fewer degrees of freedom but much greater capacity for work.

  2. I like to think of it in terms of the executive capacities of the frontal lobe. If you have fully developed human frontal lobes (or something functionally similar), then you have more “willing ability” than someone with a frontal lobotomy (or lack of functionally similar capacities). In my opinion, the physical ability to do something that violates the necessity of the causal powers instantaneously preceding any given physical action is impossible (i.e. the closure of physics), but we still have the ability to imagine future possibilities. That imagination can then influence our current behavior in ways that bring imagined possibilities into fruition. This is something animals do all the time on a very short time scale. But it’s just that when you can do it on the scale of years that opens up a type of “freedom” that is special because the generalities of that imagination provides an abstract constraint on current behavior that works over longer time scales, enabling a very high degree of complexity in the goals or decision variables. On the flip side, our ability to think about our past on the timescale of years allows us to think about the causal determinants of our actions in ways that allows us to act about the causal determinants and thus change our current behavior. Thus, we couldn’t be “free” from our causal constraints unless we WERE causally constrained in the first place. By developing ideas about our causal conditioning, we can try to change ourselves or the environment in order to change that conditioning and thus free ourselves of any particular restraint on our freedoms. Higher forms of self-understanding lead to higher forms of willing. I don’t think we need to get all metaphysical in understanding free will (although of course it is metaphysics that drives the concept of the complete closure of physics). By understanding the kinds of action planning available to human adults with working frontal lobes versus those without such capabilities, we can come to understand the nature of freedom.

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