In reaction to his podcast with Sam, I posted a youtube video as an open letter to Daniel Dennett. Feel free to listen to it and discuss it:
If you prefer to read the text, here it is (but I haven’t thought about, where to put commas too much ):
A few month ago, I had the pleasure of listening to a podcast of my favorite intellectual Sam Harris and the philosopher Daniel Dennett – both very smart people. In this video I would like to discus the topic of free will, which is what Sam and Daniel talked about in the podcast.
This is also an open letter, or better an open video directed at Professor Daniel Dennett. I’ll try to contact him and for the slight change, that he will actually answer and he gives me permission to publish it, I will do so on this channel.
So Daniel – I hope it’s alright, if I just call you Daniel – you are a naturalist. You agree that nothing that ever happens, contradicts the laws of nature.
Let’s look at a scene in bar where somebody punches another guy because he accidentally spilled beer on his shoe. Now, what happened here?
We first might describe it this way: The guy got angry, thought about controlling himself, but selfishly decided it would be satisfying for him to punch the other guy.
But please comment on the following idea of how the world might function: When somebody spilled beer over his shoe, photons were hitting his retina accordingly, the impulses were transferred into neurons firing and a complicated chain reactions was triggered in the already running system of his brain. As a side effect consciousness arose and the images of what happened appeared in his consciousness, but the chain reaction wasn’t stopped or altered in any way. Next, the neurons firing caused the side effect of him feeling angry, but again, the chain reaction wasn’t stopped or altered in any way. If we look at every single part of his nervous system and check if every atom and molecule and cell behaves exactly like it has to, I think it does. Gravity does exactly what it did before. The weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force and the strong nuclear force do exactly what they did before. Nothing that has influence on the physical world, was added through his experiences. Next the neurons firing caused the side effects of him having the experience of struggling with the decision to constrain himself and than deciding to punch the guy. Again, these experiences were just side effects, that didn’t stop or alter the chain reaction, that led to his fist rushing forward even though he felt like he was the author of this action.
We can look at the chain reaction like it was a computer calculating something, but to be exact, the mass of his body was arranged in a way, that photons hitting his retina in a specific way, led to him punching another guy a few seconds later just because of the laws of nature. Do you think this assumption is factually wrong, do you think it’s unlikely or do you say, it’s still consistent with your view?
Let’s look the practical implications of this for a second. The guy later stands in front of a judge and says: “Your honor, I don’t have free will, I’m just terribly unlucky, please let me go.” But a reasonable judge can answer: “Unlucky? Yes, so was the poor guy that got hit.” And the judge continues and says: “The universe somehow made your brain into a terrible information processing system, because it’s output leads to the suffering of other people, so it’s reasonable to lock you up (at least if something like this didn’t happen the first time). Other people can be protected this way and in prison your brain might analyze the situation and change into something more reasonable. If you think it’s rational to led all criminals go and led them cause more suffering, that only confirms how messed up your brain is right now.” The judge can also look at the audience and state. “By the way, if anybody who is watching this lawsuit is thinking to himself: ‘If I don’t have free will, from now on I can do whatever I feel like, because I’m not responsible for my actions’, than I can tell you, that if your brain is smart enough to understand that you might not have free will, than it’s smart enough to understand what fairness is and that the only thing that matters in this universe are the perceptions of sentient entities. If you don’t have the brain of a psychopath, you have a conscience and you know that these things are true and important. And everybody is going to hold you responsible anyway.
So even though I understand your worrying, that it could be harmful, to just tell people that they don’t have free will, you can always add important information, like the judge did and I think there are definitely also benefits that come with it, otherwise I wouldn’t have made this video. I think the benefits are what Sam already mentioned: It might be natural to hate someone, but if a person believes in this view, I think he’d agree that it’s not rational. And if we look at a few crisis in this world, it might be useful if everybody thought, that it was completely understandable how everybody acted so far and how we got into the state that we are in right now and it might open the door for more pragmatic thinking, if the feeling of hatred get’s dialed down by this view. A view that I think can operate unifying.
I’ll get back to the practical implications later. Now I would like to look into some points you where discussing with Sam. At one point you said – I am starting the quote:
“As a sailor I can’t control the properties of the water, I can’t control the wind, but I can control the boat. Your argument is trying to remove the very idea of control from the world. Nobody is ever controlling anything, not really, and I think, that this is a riductio ad absurdum. Of course we control things.” End of quote. I left out a few sentences you said there.
Yes, I think, Sams argument really wants to remove the very idea of control from the world, in the sense that someone is the true initializer of something. Someone who disagrees might now say: “Look, I am really controlling things. I’ll prove it to you. I’m going to raise my right arm now. See? I’m raising it. I’m controlling it.”
But I would answer: “Well, what I’m suggesting here is, that sound waves of what I said arrived at your ears and they were transferred into neurons firing and the chain reaction of neurons firing determined your behavior. Billions of neurons were on some level processing information, including the information, that you are a human, someone who wants to prove a point and that you would raise your arm and as a side effect the thought appeared in your mind: “I’m going to raise my arm, to prove my point”. But the thought was kind of irrelevant. The universe was doing fine without thoughts for billions of years. I think it handles matter like it always did. You raised your arm because of the laws of nature. Daniel, can you comment on the statement, that every moment of our lives might be like that. If we look deep and closely, there’s only one initializer. The Universe is how it is. It is the one and only and final player and it doesn’t share it’s power. I’ll look into the alternative, that thoughts influence the physical world later, but I’m pretty sure you don’t like the idea of a dualistic world view, and you like the idea, that thoughts override, how the laws of nature normally handle matter even less.
You say you agree with naturalism and than, I think you’d look at the scene in the bar that I described and say: “He should have know better and he should have looked into his heart”, is that correct? As an advice for him, that sounds good. He doesn’t need the complicated stuff. It’s not important that it’s 100% technically correct, it’s important, that he understands it and that it’s useful. But if we tried to describe exactly how the world might function, I would say: “Wow, wait a second. Photons hit his retina, the impulses were transferred into neurons firing and a complicated chain reaction determined his behavior through the laws of nature. Tell me where the mistake is. If you agree that he can’t control a neuron or a group of neurons, or the impulse that is send from his neurons to his arm, or his arm that is controlled by the impulse – if he can not control his brain or his body or any part of the system or his personality that is determined by his brain, than I think it’s illegitimate to say he has any control over the system, without giving a reason why it isn’t inconsistent with what we believe to be true about the micro level and the laws of nature.” I hope you don’t feel misrepresented by what I’m saying. I’m just trying to figure out, where we might disagree and why and where there is only a misunderstanding.
I would like to look at the practical implications a little bit more.
I want to pick up the example of a football game you mentioned. If someone makes a brutal foul and get’s a red card, I think he should take the punishment gracefully. What kind of world does he want to live in? If he tries to argue, that he shouldn’t get the red card, because he didn’t have free will, I think he is clearly going to lose. No one deserves to suffer and if we want to come close to that state, we need rules. Rules for protecting players from brutal fouls and fans from feeling betrayed, because they understand the rules and agree with the concept. So rules and the enforcement of rules are justified. The player who get’s the red card may be suffering, because he get’s the red card, but we are doing our best to keep the suffering for everybody as low as possible.
But isn’t accepting determinism, doing something to the general understanding of blame. If somebody is mean to you, you are going to hold him responsible, because you have to protect yourself from further damage and because you need him to change his behavior, but I think every rational reason we can come up with is practical, even if we count the reason that it is satisfying to hold a grudge as rational reason. But can you ever say, that someone really, really deserves punishment, even if he is the last living creature in the universe, because he really, really controlled his behavior. If this is what you think, please take me to the moment, in which he behaved blameworthy and tell me exactly what happened at the micro level in that moment and how it leaves any room for control in the sense of being the true initializer.
I want to take a close look at the relationship between a first person experience and the physical world again. I am interested in looking at every model that is in itself consistent.
Now let’s think about the idea, that for example the first person experience of deciding something, does have influence on the physical world. We have first person experiences, because of what is happening in our brains, right? If supporters of the idea of libertarian free will agree so far – and I think they should – I would like them to present a hypothesis, of how the experience of making a decision relates to what happens next in the physical world. If they suggest that this decision making process or the agent in which it appears has some kind of a soul, which influences what happens next in the physical world, I would be skeptical, but I don’t I think we should be too dismissive. Let’s say the universe just functions in a way, where this kind of decision making process knows which atom to influence or how to change the probability density of an electron. Sounds weird, but in quantum theory there are also happening things that sound weird. But now Sam might mention, that in experiments we can predict what people will decide by scanning there brains, before they decide it. Maybe it’s hard for a test person to execute this test correctly, but if the test results are correct, I think the idea of libertarian free will looks bad.
I think the other possibility is, what I already mentioned. The experience of making a decision is a side effect and without this side effect everything would happen exactly the same way.
If the movement of any atom at any time can be completely and exactly explained by the forces of nature no matter if the atom is inside the sun or inside your brain or inside your arm, than I think someones claim that his first person experience of making a decision influenced the movement of his arm, hasn’t really more credibility than the claim, that it influenced the movement of an atom in the sun. If the laws of nature stayed the same but first person experiences would disappear from the Universe, how would the world continue? Well, next year there would probably be a championship boxing match. The fighters would evade punches, even though they would have no fear of getting hit. Millions of people would watch it, even though no one would feel a desire to watch it. After the fight the winner might even say, that he was scared after he got hit and he felt the pain, but when the sound of the crowd cheering for him appeared in his consciousness, he fought even harder, even though the experiences never happened. The extremely complex network of billions of neurons firing on some level process the information that the mass of the fighter is a person that has goals and in the world we live in, there actually appears consciousness through that brain and the goals arise in that consciousness, but to me it seems, that is probability just a side effect.
I think it’s important to think about why and when perceptions are felt in this world, because for example if we conclude, it might be reasonable, that a systems that is complex and intelligent and processes information about itself might become sentient, we have the responsibility to be careful while developing AI. Well, we are not responsible, in the sense that we have free will but you know what I mean .
I really have to come to an end here. Daniel if you listened to this hole thing, I am very grateful! Thank you!
Einstein’s hypothetical 5-year-old says What?
Awesome letters guys
Here’s my short analysis of their discussion, containing the source of their disagreement.
SAM HARRIS AND DANIEL DENNETT DISAGREEMENT ANALYSIS Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett uses the term ‘free will’ differently. Sam is focused on the metaphysical aspect - how any event in the universe is causally linked so as to render a person as predetermined as any other phenomena. Dennett is focused on the practical aspect - how a person has the perceived potential to do different things in different situations, and how this affects our notion of responsibility. Sam understands Dennetts concern but fails to persuade him of some metaphysical implications. Dennett, who has assigned a more practical meaning to the words ‘free will’, is unable to square Sams arguments with his concepts of control. Dennett seems to be more responsible than Sam in cluttering the conversation, as he more often changes the analogies and hypothetical situations to better fit his arguments. Sam is ready to make the metaphysical argument in either case. Some confusion emerges from Dennett interpreting Sams metaphysical claims as practical ones, and from Sam interpreting Dennetts practical claims as metaphysical ones. This is the “talking past each other” effect. THE RESOLUTION The resolution depends on whether Dennett believes our potential landscape of actions in a given situation (which he calls control) is perceived or actual. It is somewhat hard to ascertain Dennetts view, as he accepts determinism outright but then claims to be in control over a boat without pointing to causal factors beyond himself. Alternative 1: If he believes this landscape of potential is perceived, there is no foundational disagreement; a deterministic universe contains brains which deterministically process information to maneuver options, which in turn produce an illusion of free control during this processing. The perception of control is strictly conceptual, as far as it serves as a mental tool for information processing. In this view, the sailors training only changes his trajectory in the causal chain. Alternative 2: If he believes this landscape of actions to be actual (existing independently of our conception of it), there is a metaphysical implication of Dennetts view of free will. Our potential actions in a situation are not independently interchangeable in a deterministic universe; a deterministic universe has causal coherence. If you change one event, all other events must be changed to achieve causal coherence. If a sailor really could browse and choose between actions, his choices would have to change both the past and the future to maintain causal coherence. SPECULATION Perhaps Dennetts view of control is that whichever predetermined choices could make us more likely to achieve well-being in different situations (not dying, keeping promises, not killing people) are more useful if we can address them with terms like ‘free will’ or ‘control’.?