Daniel Dennett: ‘You can make Aristotle look like a flaming idiot’

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Daniel Dennett, a cheerleader for Darwin and atheism, attracts fierce criticism for his views on free will. He talks about his new book and explains why philosophers have to walk a tightrope


Big thinkers make for big targets and they don't come much bigger, physically and intellectually, than Daniel Dennett. The tall, 71-year-old philosopher looks every inch the enthusiastic sailor he is, with his white beard and broad torso. With his mild-mannered, avuncular confidence, he comes across a man who could calmly fend off an assault or two. That's just as well, since as a leading cheerleader for Darwin and atheism, he is as much a bete noire for their opponents as a hero for their advocates.

Dennett is in London from his native Massachusetts talking to me about his latest book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. It's a kind of greatest hits collection, pieced together from mainly previously published work to present both a summation of his central ideas about meaning, consciousness, evolution and free will, and to share some of the philosophical tools he has used to craft them. "After half a century in the field I've got some tricks of the trade which I'd like to talk about," he says.

His critics agree, to the extent that they see him as a clever philosophical trickster. Yet time and again it seems the best way to understand Dennett is to understand why so many criticisms miss their targets.

Most assaults are variations on the theme that Dennett takes a too narrowly scientific worldview. The late Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, coined the "shocking" terms "ultra-Darwinist" and "Darwinian fundamentalist" to hurl at him. Yet Dennett has consistently resisted the crude extension of scientific thinking into areas where it does not belong. Nowhere is this more evident than in the issue of free will, which he describes in the book as "the most difficult and the most important philosophical problem confronting us today".

Written By: Julian Baggini
continue to source article at guardian.co.uk

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  1. Yet Dennett has consistently resisted the crude extension of scientific thinking into areas where it does not belong. Nowhere is this more evident than in the issue of free will

    So Baggini gets to decide free will isn’t a scientific problem, does he? Under all definitions, whether we have free will or not concerns counterfactual conditions about causality. The only way to know which counterfactual claims are right is to deduce it from a theory. The only way to trust that theory is its empirical successes, which are unique to science. Further, since science specialises in causality, you can expect it to do a good job of this.

    It’s important because of the longstanding tradition that free will is a prerequisite for moral responsibility… And then you have neuroscientists, physicists and philosophers saying that ‘science has shown us that free will is an illusion’ and then not shrinking from the implication that our systems of law are built on foundations of sand.

    Well, whether it has that implication is a separate issue, of course. But as to whether we have free will itself, that’s definitely a scientific question.

    I see what I think is white-knuckled fear driving people to defend views that are not really well-motivated

    Why would someone be a philosopher if poorly motivated views not only get in their heads, but are subsequently insistently defended? That’s like being a scientist who believes things not supported by evidence, then insists on not changing his or her mind. It’d be like being a religious scientist.

    Some, however, accuse the “new atheists” of being motivated by fears and less than generous prejudices of their own. The most serious charge is that they attack the most simplistic forms of religious belief and leave their most intellectually subtle versions untouched.

    Can anyone even name a critic of religious reasoning who hasn’t taken down Aquinas, Plantinga & Swinburne? In any case, if billions of people believe simple nonsense, it has to be criticised, whether or not the complicated beliefs of people who consider themselves their allies are also nonsense (which they are).

    we need philosophy to protect us from scientific overreach. “The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don’t learn that history you’ll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they’re very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart.

    I’m cool with that, but it could be done more efficiently. Teach critical thinking, preferably from an early age (but at least replacing GCSEs & A-levels in general studies would improve the current situation) and occasionally hand out arguments that make important mistakes with said mistakes highlighted in red and classified as a specific fallacy. We don’t need to have a discipline and practitioners thereof named for doing this thinking – making the mistakes and refuting them – for us. That has the added disadvantage of meaning most people don’t even know the details. Can the man on the street name any of the fallacies in the most common arguments for any of the most popular metaphysical misconceptions? Can he defend accurate but socially unpopular science? The philosopher can do the first of these and hopefully the second, but statistically almost no-one is a philosopher. The scientist can do the second of these and hopefully the first, but statistically almost no-one is a scientist. But scientists have tried very hard to improve people’s scientific comprehension, and philosophers should do something similar, even if it does make their departments seem less necessary afterwards.

    The best philosophers are always walking a tightrope where one misstep either side is just nonsense… You can make any philosopher – any, Aristotle, Kant, you name it – look like a complete flaming idiot with just a slightest little tweak.

    So Baggini’s title was a quote-mine.

    [Philosophy is] a profession that has little concern or sometimes even respect for the wider public conversation.

    I knew it! Here’s a tip, philosophers; if you want to win the “is philosophy worth keeping?” debate of recent years, have philosophy be a thing you cause more people to know. It doesn’t give us technology, so it can only be useful if the ideas themselves are common. There may be some philosophers who campaign for critical thinking in schools, but it’s hardly normal behaviour for them.

    • In reply to #1 by Jos Gibbons:

      So Baggini gets to decide free will isn’t a scientific problem, does he?

      Strictly speaking, I’d say it’s not EVEN a scientific problem. Questions posed to science need to, at the very least, be coherent.

  2. As a long time admirer of DD I am unhappy with his position on the semantics of free will, to whit that the term embodies a moral principle that may be lost if we lose the term. I think this is entirely wrong. I think moral progress will in fact be made when people realise that they have less ownership of their thoughts and actions than they may imagine.

    Just as loss of religion doesn’t lead to moral mayhem, sensible debate over how un-free you decision making is should lead to a better and more informed moral decision making. To understand that as a religious person, say, that little voice in your head was put there by a parasite/priest, a mere human with no necessary concern for you, constraining the range of actions you may even contemplate let alone take, is to understand how un-free your will may be.

    Re-coining a word for this desirable thing (the idea of full autonomy and ownership of your thoughts and actions), might be just the ticket to prompt a second level of introspection on these matters. Trivially, things may be mechanistically determined by the recent past and more approximately so for the day previous to that, but the question is, do we do the due diligence to accept and reject input ideas and materials and see that they are consistent with our beliefs, aesthetics and experience? Just letting stuff in without testing it is to begin the process of abdication of ownership of future actions. So…

    I coined “autonomous will” and then expanded it to “contiguous, autonomous will” to alert us that freedom of will can be lost and that it can be regained… , but it hardly rolls off the tongue.

    I think something like “full ownership will” or “owning inputs, owning outputs” or some such might just do…. Any natty phrases to replace “free will” to propose to DD?

  3. By what mechanism can free will exist where choice is not the inevitable conclusion of the existing biological requirement? In other words, chemistry, and thus biology, must behave in a very specific manner under very specific conditions, there is no alternative for chemistry to behave as it should in any set environment. Can a choice be made that is not the result of biological necessity for the environment it is in?

    Not sure if that makes sense.

  4. It’s important because of the longstanding tradition that free will is a prerequisite for moral responsibility,

    Many long standing traditions are just silly.

    Our system of law and order, of punishment, and praise and blame, promise keeping, promise making, the law of contracts, criminal law – all of this depends on one notion or another of free will.

    No it doesn’t. None of these systems would function if they did.

    And then you have neuroscientists, physicists and philosophers saying that ‘science has shown us that free will is an illusion’ and then not shrinking from the implication that our systems of law are built on foundations of sand.”

    Better on sand than on blatant logical fallacies.

  5. But we have enough self-control to make sense of the difference between the psychopath and the criminal murder,

    What difference? The reason for punishing criminals is not to make them feel guilty.

  6. “Is it from your entire free will that you want to marry xx ?” , let me see, according to neurology most recent knowledge, free will doesn´t exist. (that would certainly be ridiculous.)

    “Free will”, according to judicial procedure is more simply than that ( it´s just common sense practise, it means that the witness is not drunken, under effect of some drug or threat and had knowledge that the crime would not be allowed according to the Law).Better would be not to swear on a bible, that´s weird.

  7. We have free will in gradually widening circles as we grow up, we face constant personal decisions and being creatures of habit we sort our free will into ordered habitual choices, because insisting on free will takes energy and time and only the driven ones suceed and the ones who dont or cant exercise free will are subjugated by the strong willed ones into believing that free will is an illusion…that sounds like a North Korean concept…. Philosophy is the poetic art of the possible, but science is the facts… in spite of human opinion.

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