The Free Will To Debate: Sam Harris V Daniel Dennett

free will book cover sam harris

Sam Harris is easily misunderstood, regularly misrepresented and at times rightly challenged for what he says. All of these can apply on the same topic. Harris is wide ranging, from the nature of belief, use of torture, to his latest book – Free Will. His opponent on free will is a fellow member of the four horsemen of new atheism, Daniel Dennett. There have been more convivial discussions between them in the past.

In The Four Horsemen video filmed years ago, an accord was quite evident when talking about the virtues of rationalism and the principled position of atheism versus religion. Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and (the departed) Christopher Hitchens gave a lively round-table discussion. Whether you agreed or not, it provided an insight as they engaged each other in a civil discussion.

Daniel Dennett has this month done the academic equivalent of breaking into a book wrap party, bad mouthing the author, and showing he can urinate higher up the wall then all the assembled VIP scientists that support Harris. In an impressively long review of Sam Harris’ book “Free Will”, Dennett describes it as a museum of mistakes and that scientists are not thinking clearly on the subject – least of all Richard Dawkins. We need philosophers to remind them that there have been advances in thinking and that we need the concept of free will or else no one will be held responsible for their actions. No punches are pulled as Sam is described as needing instruction as an undergraduate on a philosophy course.

Dennett stresses that we may not have ultimate credit for our actions (e.g. moral education in childhood versus none, the genes we have) but we aid this by our subsequent cultivation and decisions. An endowed disposition  is tempered by many actions which are not random or subjective  – let alone out of our control – before we intuitively decide to act. An example is a tennis player practices ground strokes, and return of serve. They have a game plan against their opponent. How they return serve when a hundred plus mile per hour serve comes their way will not be consciously chosen at that moment – but it has been influenced prior to hitting the ball.

Dan is body serving Sam Harris, going for long rallies to show up his opponents game. Sam has opted in his reply for trying to keep the rallies short as a counter puncher. Do read both – they go into the concept of free will in more depth than a short blog post should even dare.

However, I will quote this bit from Sam Harris’ reply to Dan:

It is worth noting that the most common objection I’ve heard to my position on free will is some version of the following:

“If there is no free will, why write books or try to convince anyone of anything? People will believe whatever they believe. They have no choice! Your position on free will is, therefore, self-refuting. The fact that you are trying to convince people of the truth of your argument proves that you think they have the very freedom that you deny them.”

Granted, some confusion between determinism and fatalism (which you and I have both warned against) is probably operating here, but comments of this kind also suggest that people think they have control over what they believe, as if the experience of being convinced by evidence and argument were voluntary. Perhaps such people also believe that they have decided to obey the law of gravity rather than fly around at their pleasure—but I doubt it. An illusion about mental freedom seems to be very widespread. My argument is that such freedom is incompatible with any form of causation (deterministic or otherwise)—which, as you know, is not a novel view. But I also argue that it is incompatible with the actual character of our subjective experience. That is why I say that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion—which is another way of saying that if one really pays attention (and this is difficult), the illusion of free will disappears.

That is why I suggest you settle down, with your favourite tipple when you are unlikely to be disturbed, to read Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris discussing free will. Maybe the Richard Dawkins Foundation might even sponsor a discussion between the two of them in the future.

We need to end this with a tie break –  if there is a rational way to conclude the subject of free will.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

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7 responses to “The Free Will To Debate: Sam Harris V Daniel Dennett

  1. These were fun reads. I find Harris to be the better writer and the winner of the argument. His ability to actually say what he wants to say and then stop writing is a wonderful gift he has that Dennet, and others need to learn from. Extended talks, or reads, on free will are as excruciatingly painful to me as are extended writings and talks on god, faith, grace, and the nature of good and evil. Such writings and yammerings quickly digress into pointless rhetorical masturbation from which nothing really ever comes except more masturbatory rhetoric. Harris’ book “Free Will” was well stated and to the point. To write an opinion on free will in such a way is a great credit to him. I’m not saying one has to agree with him, but he makes his opinion on a very aloof and wind-blown topic very clear in a very succinct way.

    • Sam in person is very easy to discuss things with too, exploring what you are saying and replies taking that into account, without sounding superior.

      It is always good to feel that my book list grows faster than I can keep up with.

      • Indeed. As does mine. I’m currently writing a 1000 page book in which I provide the definitive answer to where the universe came from and what it all means. In it, the free will question will be answered definitively and finally to everyone’s satisfaction. I’m relying heavily on James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” as the primary source of my information for the book and will quote from it heavily throughout it. My hope is that this will both bore people to tears as well as confuse them enough so that they won’t realize I’ve absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. L. Ron Hubbard did something like this with his book “Dianetics” and started a whole new religion/Tom Cruise fan club kinda thingy with it. In the mean time, as I do greatly respect both Dennet and Harris, and know they are friends, I hope they find the time to debate this issue, briefly, and face to face in the near future.

      • Don’t forget to make some money out of it 😉

      • Oh, I hope to. Amen to that idea brother. Amen.

  2. Sorry, but how can you convince anyone by evidence and argument to do anything if we are just biologically predetermined? For exemple Sam’s Harri’s claimed that just like serial killers, ordinary people are just a prisoners of their own biology. OK, so can he convince serial killers that they should stop killing? Can he reason with them and on a conscious level or unconscious level, change who they are and what they do? I bet he can’t – and I never seen anyone changing mind of a serial killer. Can Sam Harris influence blood cells or reason with brain tumor – other two exemples used by him- uisng power of his philosophical arguments ? No, he can’t. How anyone could influence biology with non biological, non material things like idea? If you can’t change a mind of presumably, biologically determined serial killer, then what make you think that you can change a mind of presumably, biologically determined, average joe? And if he can use logic and reason – product of conscious mind – to influence biology, then what make him think that free will is impossible?

    So even if I would agree with Harris – and I’m not, I actually pro-free will – then even then his theory is inconsistent at best, and self contradictory at worst.

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