Sunday, 16 February 2014


In Philosophy there are a considerable number of problems (and I do not mean the problems of being  dominated by sexist men or analytic philosophy) but instead there is a HISTORY of problems that take on new forms in various epochs. FREE WILL is one of the big ones!

But the Harris - Dennett debate is a little different. They are both determinists and so it is not as simple as discussing 'freedom' in the broad sense. For example, what they are not arguing over is whether we make existential choices in the world, or if we are predestined like Calvinism claims. 

Because they are both 'determinists' are they are not really arguing over if man is free from the deterministic nature. They are arguing over 'moral responsibility' and how and when and if someone should be accountable. 

They both say something like "since the big bang, stuff has been happening in a chain reaction, and you are part of that chain reaction, so do not think when you pick your nose that you actually choose to do that, it was just another billiard ball banging into another" This is what science can tell us. 

But many philosophers have gone further and denied our radical freedom to do 'whatever we want'  like the existentialists tell us we are thrown into the world with being asked (Heidegger) or how we are part of a huge socio-economic order in which we are slaves (Marx) or how only with the rise of modern liberalism do we even have the idea of an 'individual who thinks for himself" (Foucault) which comes out of empirical philosophy, (like John Locke and David Hume)  and was needed to push the economic philosophies of capitalism and free market competition at the time. To make everyone see themselves a lone ship- and Adam Smiths "a high tide raises all ships' meant that everyone would do well in a "competitive" marketplace that created the conditions for profits.That is why today we have a huge class of "working poor people" BUT, BUT, BUT corporations now have RIGHTS! In case you did not know, corporations have the same rights as you! Are they free to choose? I guess that depends on how you define "are" "they" "free" "to" "choose"? Since Dennett seems to agree with Harris - were not for the semantics they both choose. 

Finally, (and I suspect Harris finds some inspiration here) is the Buddhist idea of 'no self" (very similar to David Hume's ideas on the self)  and the idea that we are all 'robots' going through motions set up by lots of different factors. So Buddhists as questions like "what was your face before you were born" or "show me the REAL you -inside you" which can be interpreted to mean they are pointing at a type of "eliminative materialism" like Dennett and Harris suggests. This form of ontology sees the human being as a type of 'empirical shell' and it is kinda cool concept. 

BUT the best explanation of 'eliminative materialism' is by Thomas M here and I find the idea a philosophically fascinating one. 

 Basically it says that a 'self' is just a collection of senses that exists only when you are conscious. So you 'self" turns on when you wake up, if you take away the body that generates the senses then you take away the self. SIMPLE. However they will go as far as to 'eliminate' any sense of '"you" which some people find silly. Many people like to counter this idea with the idea of 'qualia" or the qualitative aspects of you self- like what it feels like to be you, how beer tastes, how love feels and all the stuff that makes life "human". They think of eliminative materialists as lazy thinkers who cannot separate the mind of Bach from the behaviour of 'The Walking Dead' (pop culture reference -check) 

Definition of Determinism: the theory that everything in the cosmos is subject to 'causal laws' - and therefore it is a 'physicalist' theory. 

premise one: no action is free if it must occur 
premise two: for any event X there are antecedent causes that ensure the occurrence of X in accordance with mechanical causal laws. 
 conclusion: Therefore, no action is free. 

It is related to the mind-body problem because it denies the "mind" and only recognizes the body or the physical, measurable organism, as having causal influence. 

(but that is another debate for another day)

SO :

Dennett is a 'soft determinist' or a 'compatibilist' while Harris is a plain old 'determinist'.

This means:

Dennett thinks that we can have FREE WILL and DETERMINISM since they are psychological and political ideas and make no claim to 'metaphysics'. In classical Greece and Rome- this was the STOIC approach to the world. 

Harris thinks that there is only DETERMINISM and we do not choose. Using this logic, one should be able to predict all human behaviour like we can predict the weather- just watch and record and boom we know what you were about to think? (does this sound reasonable to you?) 

SO THIS IS the DEBATE- there is no clear answer, only arguments for each side. 

Personally I am not a determinist like Dennett and Harris and no one should think that the only rational option for an intelligent person today is to pick a side of their present debate. Perhaps one of the two will 'give in' to the other side or they may have a 'near death' experience and change their story altogether, it happens! 

However a SUPER SMART PHILOSOPHER - KANT objected DETERMINISM altogether a few hundred years ago. By basically saying:

  • Persons are things, like rocks, and are subject to physical determinism. SO a rock or a person is pushed off a cliff and both fall down and not up. 
  • But persons are also not like things because they are conscious of the operation of these laws and the rock has no awareness of these things happening. The rock does not understand gravity or wind resistance or east versus west, or who Einstein was. 
  • When someone wonders, should I jump off that cliff- they are not working in cause and effect anymore, but rather REASONS. Like I put weights on my back and do squats because I have a REASON  and that is "a better QUAD sweep" and not because a star bumped into a bigger star and blew up 300,000,000,000 years ago. 
For me, I agree with Christopher Hitchens and others who think "we have no choice but to have free will" and in a sense I think this absorbs the deterministic aspects of humans, while recognizing that this same determinism gave us "intelligence and reflective consciousness" and that the 'game changes' when humans can rationally reflect on their behaviour and choose. HOWEVER the idea of knowledge equalling virtue does back to Socrates and I personally do not agree that it is so simple. I agree with Aristotle and a point I argue academically is that people are good or virtuous only after the proper EDUCATION. Or in simple terms:

Humans evolved under deterministic conditions, but consciousness is a new X factor in human choice. But this consciousness needs to be cultivated so that people choose the 'best' ways to react to situations. How we improve the human being and make them more compassionate and loving to other human beings outside their little circle of family and friends is a true challenge for humanity! I think debates like Harris and Dennett get people talking about this stuff and that is what is important, that people keep questions and working for positive change, even if it means challenging common wisdom and convention.