Determined to Disagree

by rsbakker

So I had the privilege of seeing Dan Dennett speak for the first time. It’s nice to discover than an author you’ve followed your entire adult life possesses genuine charisma. The presentation, which was entitled “My Brain Made Me Do It” was as much a comedy act as a philosophical discursus. The auditorium was packed, but thanks to my friend Nandita, I enjoyed everything from the second row.

His argument was that all the neuroscientists making alarmist claims regarding volition and freedom were being socially irresponsible in addition to getting the philosophy wrong. He cited a recent study where college students became more inclined to cheat after reading that responsibility is an illusion, the suggestion being that a post-responsibility society wouldn’t be much of a society at all. Then he basically repeated several of the arguments he made in Elbow Room years back, and more recently in Freedom Evolves.

Dennett is an exceedingly slippery thinker. Depending on the frame of reference you take to him, he’ll sound like an eliminitivist (someone who thinks all our psychological categories are so mistaken that we need to replace them wholesale) one minute, then an intentional realist (someone who thinks our psychological categories are generally right on the button) the next.

He’s also brilliant at expressing his ideas: reading him, I often find myself nodding and nodding, thinking that it all sounds so obvious, only to screw my face up in confusion while I’m making a coffee several moments later.

But he’s neither an eliminitivist nor an intentional realist. He’s a kind of Quinenan pragmatist. He doesn’t care so much whether intentionality is real, as he cares whether its useful–and there’s no denying the latter. It simply doesn’t pay to consider others as machines, even though that’s what they are. What does pay, is taking what he calls the ‘intentional stance,’ treating things and others as agents, as a kind of cognitive shorthand, a way to successfully manipulate and interact with monstrously complicated systems. For all intents and purposes, the ‘metaphysical reality’ of the intentional is beside the point (do you smell the circularity here?).

So when it comes to the issue of free will, he argues in numerous ways that we have the only free will that matters, so allowing him to preserve all the concepts further down the implicative foodchain. So for instance, it makes no sense to say “my brain made me do it” because we are our brains. We’re literally just saying that we did something.

Of course, the problem is that ‘we’ are just a small part of our brains.

Dennett is after a kind of ‘semantic compatibilism’: he wants to find ways to make our old psychological vocabulary fit with the findings of cognitive neuroscience, and so preserve the institutions raised upon the former. Over the years, he has waged an ingenious guerrilla campaign of equivocation. So with free will for instance, he takes our ‘common sense’ understanding, shows how it’s so ridiculous that it can’t be the ‘free will’ we want, then redefine into something that gives us all the things we really want, even if we didn’t realize as much in the first place. If you say, “No, that’s not what I wanted,” he just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, good luck with your magic. I’m quite fine, thank you.”

For me, the traditional philosophical debates about determinism are now beside the point. The problem is the chasm that seems to be opening between the world we experience versus the world we know, thanks to the accumulating horror that is science. More and more, the intuitions of the former jar against the findings of the latter. Dennett seems to assume that our intuitions turn on our concepts: if we could just get clear on our concepts, then the conflict between our experience and our knowledge would simply dissappear. Personally, I think the situation is muddier: that our concepts turn on our intuitions turn on our concepts turn on… and so on. In the particular case of free will, I think the intuitions drive the concepts more than vice versa.

So, for instance, I think the intuition that tells me my sense of willing is behind my actions, rather than something that happens to accompany them (as the research suggests), is damn near universal. I find the notion that my sense of willing could be selectively shut down out and out terrifying. And I would suggest that the reason so many people intellectually agree with Dennett, only to suffer a subsequent experiential revolt, is a result of ‘mandated intuitions’ like this.

I think we are hardwired to believe in magic of various kinds, and that an immense amount of specialized training is required to get us believing otherwise. Far too much for Dennett’s prescriptive conceptual approach to even begin commanding the kind of consensus he needs to justify–let alone realize–his social project.

Like I say in the Afterword to Neuropath: what Dennett is doing is like telling us at the funeral of our beloved Gramma Mildred to simply begin calling our dog ‘Mildred.’ When we object, he just shrugs and reminds us that the dog was Gramma Mildred all along anyway

But he never quite explains the body in the coffin next to him.

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