Free will and good writing

I’m probably more interested in free will than you are, presumably for reasons I have no control over.

I don’t believe in free will.  Or, more precisely, I can figure out how it could possibly work.  I read Daniel Dennett’s pro-free-will book Freedom Evolves, and I couldn’t really follow his arguments.  I read Sam Harris’s anti-free-will book Free Will, and it seemed admirably clear.  Is it clearer because Harris is a better writer, or because the case against free will is simply easier to make?

Now Dennett has published a rejoinder to Harris’s book, and Harris has published a rejoinder to Dennett’s rejoinder. Yikes!  The heart of Dennett’s argument, I think, is that of course the naive folk interpretation of free will is wrong, but there is this other kind of free will that’s really real.  This seems to me to be the kind of move that sophisticated religious people like Karen Armstrong make.  Of course the Bible isn’t literally true; everyone knows that.  Instead, atheists need to grapple with my own numinous, apophatic, transcendent view of God.  Except this ends up being so numinous that there’s nothing to grapple with.

Similarly, Dennett’s view of the pernicious effects of an anti-free-will stance remind me of the “belief in belief” point of view that some smart people have about religion.  Of course you and I know better than to take religion seriously, but we have to be quiet about this, because religion is necessary to keep the great unwashed from losing their morality.

Anyway, here is a taste of Harris’s prose:

Holding people responsible for their past actions makes no sense apart from the effects that doing so will have on them and the rest of society in the future (e.g. deterrence, rehabilitation, keeping dangerous people off our streets). The notion of moral responsibility, therefore, is forward-looking. But it is also paradoxical. People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave. For instance, when Tiger Woods misses a three-foot putt, there is a much greater temptation to say that he really should have made it than there is in the case of an average golfer. But Woods’s failure is actually more anomalous. Something must have gone wrong if a person of his ability missed so easy a putt. And he wouldn’t stand to benefit (much) from being admonished to try harder in the future. So in some ways, holding a person responsible for his failures seems to make even less sense the more worthy of responsibility he becomes in the conventional sense.

Jerry Coyne is another clear writer who is not afraid to speak his mind.  Here is his utterly expected view of the debate.  (He could not have written otherwise.)


3 thoughts on “Free will and good writing

  1. I submit that Harris is more convincing because (1) his arguments are much simpler, and (2) he is making arguments that seem more intuitive to you. Neither of these points mean Harris is correct, of course. In fact, you (following Harris) have misunderstood Dennett’s project. Yes, Dennett is claiming that the common interpretation of free will is misguided, but he is not saying that there is another variety of free will worth wanting. He is saying that the variety of free will worth wanting is the same one that the folk are talking about, just without the confusion that usually comes along with it. He’s trying to remove the confusion without denying the underlying experience that motivates it. I’ve written a few lengthy posts on my own blog about all of this recently, if you’re interested.


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