Dennett and the “Little People”

I came across a twitter thread of Free Thought Prophet (FTP, otherwise anon) recommending a blog post by John Hamill (Atheist Ireland National Committee) about Dennett’s position on free-will.

FTP I know as a knockabout humorous commentator in the space occupied by the four horsemen. As a rationalist, atheist, humanist myself, “free-thought” is the traditional tag I also cling to in the shifting and overlapping debates in this space, so I have a soft-spot for FTP.

Hamill I know no more about at this point.

[TL;DR? – Long story short: This post (and a second post) drew lots of comments. My inclusion of Jerry Coyne and Dan Dennett ideas meant that it wasn’t clear where my comments related specifically to what Hamill had actually said – so I put that right in “Dennett and the Little People #3.]

Dennett has been ploughing his furrow on consciousness and free-will for some 50 years, so his evolving “position” is obviously tricky to represent, and leaves plenty of scope for confusion if you dip into specific snapshots. Most of my own thought journey has evolved with Dennett’s so I feel I have a pretty good grip on where he’s coming from, summarised several times recently in response to his 2017 From Bacteria to Bach and Back (B2BnB). [Links at the end.]

I was a bit puzzled when this recommended post referred to “brother Hamill” claiming:

At which point it becomes apparent Hamill’s point relies on Jerry Coyne’s post on Dennett’s 2015 Big Think contribution. That’s been done to death before and, like Dennett in 2017, I find myself in the “life’s too short” position for continuing to argue with one’s critics on their terms.

But, Hamill continued the discussion, so in the spirit of free-thought, here goes:

[Post Note: Everything that follows here, as noted explicitly, is about the Gerry Coyne contributions referenced in the piece above – as I said I knew little about Hamill’s actual position at this point. In view of the critical comments that continued below, I did do a subsequent review of what Hamill said in some detail.]

Firstly “meta”. We need to look at the nature of the arguments before we can constructively unpack their content.

Coyne I have previously characterised as a bulldog (one of several) on the side of the four-horsemen. And Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” blog has it’s own bulldogs and “brothers in arms” in turn. As with Darwin’s original “dangerous” idea, when reason vs dogma is caricatured as a “war” between science and religion, we have a fight to the death, where aggressive supporters are seen as an asset, however good their actual arguments. The rhetorical noise has it’s value in promoting the topics into the daylight for debate, but unless defeating your opponent is the main objective, it doesn’t necessarily advance the content of any debate towards better understanding. Darwin had his Thomas Henry Huxley, but it took many later thinkers to advance our present day understanding of the underlying mechanisms of evolution by natural selection.

Dennett has been a part of the four horsemen in the millennial science vs religion wars and the rise of new atheism. He made his own contributions in Breaking the Spell (of religion) and in promoting and supporting fellow evolutionary thinker Richard Dawkins in his God Delusion and more. The difference is Dennett has also maintained his free-thought philosophical rigour and has been prepared to educate his fellow conspirators (eg Sam Harris) as well as support them. In the “contact sport” of debate and argument he has engaged with as much rhetorical weaponry as the next man, but that makes it crucial to recognise the distinction between the rhetoric of defeating or deflecting an opponent and the content of arguments that advance understanding.

Much of the argument against Dennett’s position applies all the usual rhetorical gambits – ad-hominem accusations of motives, straw-man mis-representation of his position, and so on. Hey, it’s a contact sport. But, like Dennett, when it comes to advancing understanding I prefer the “Rappaport’s principle”, an extreme version of the principle of charity. So to move closer to the content:

Coyne, picking-up on Dennett’s Big Think quotes, says:

Supposedly aimed at promulgating a better concept of free will, Dan’s video in fact doesn’t do that at all. Rather, Dennett tries to show that those neuroscientists who tell people they don’t have free will are being “mischievous” and “irresponsible.”

He’s right. And Dennett is right too, to be telling “scientists” that. But that’s part of the rhetorical war, not the content of the argument about understanding. Those more “scientistic” scientists and commentators are being irresponsible in “reducing” explanations of consciousness and free-will to “(so far as we can tell) it’s an illusion, get used to it”. That is scientists slipping back to a kind of dualism where conscious will (whatever it is) is not part of our real physical world.

It’s not a matter of “little people” – people lesser than “we” thinkers – not getting the argument, it’s an honest admission that none of us – not even the best of scientists and philosophers – get the argument yet, not the whole explanation of understanding, not even close to consensus on the root ontological point, let alone the devil in the details. Historically few have been more conscientious than Dennett in patient argument with anyone prepared to ask. His mind certainly doesn’t entertain the thought of little people, except maybe Harris and Krauss, but then that’s me being mischievously rhetorical. Whilst the free-will argument is at the ’tis / ’tisn’t level of debate, any scientist publicly promoting their conclusion – as opposed to the content of the argument – is being irresponsible.

I’ve written plenty on Dennett’s actual arguments, and even critiqued Harris take on free-will, and since it’s an evolutionary one, it’s not easy to package it in any simple definitive statement – that’s the point in fact.

Start here:

I suspect Dennett is right, Like him, I’d make a sporting bet on his being right.

If you think truth is otherwise, suspend disbelief and engage in honest constructive debate.

Start with Rappaport, and do not pass go until you can express Dennett’s position in terms he would thank you for.

Life’s too short. For any of us, that includes you, who have spent decades considering, debating and arguing this stuff, it is poor use of time to continue arguing on the basis of existing science. It’s all too easy to pay lip-service to the contingent, self-correcting and evolving nature of the content of scientific knowledge, much harder to apply that principle to the nature of the processes and discourse of science. Go on, be charitable, give it a go. (The Dennett bet is that the reality of free-will, as part of an explanation of the reality of consciousness, will evolve if we do.)

The only “little people” are those with closed minds.

If we’ve made it to first-base, we can now consider the content of any debate towards explaining consciousness and free-will?



Some previous links:

What Sam Harris actually said.

My 2016 “noddy” presentation – Me & My Free Will.

The Harris / Dennett dialogue.

My most recent summary of Dennett’s latest position.

Dennett & David Haig’s Mind & Language piece.

Psybertron on Dennett in New Humanist Autumn 2017


Post Notes:

By tweet, and in the comment below, we have dialogue.

OK, that’s fair. I didn’t really “represent”  Hamill’s position at all (in his post, or anywhere else). Hamill’s tweeted response to my initial contact was to share the Coyne post, so I focussed on that (and the wider “new atheist” agenda) rather than Hamill. Hamill’s responses to my tweet invoked Coyne’s post and the Dennett Big Think video. Hamill’s post …? We can put that right.

Hamill’s position nevertheless seems pretty clear:

“… I’m convinced by the determinist argument and I find compatibilist positions to be rather slippery. The conclusion that our decisions are determined by the matter in our brains obeying the laws of physics, rather than by some ethereal mind or soul, is one that is of great import. Since the dualism on which so much of religion depends is false, explaining the implications of that would seem to be a good use of any philosopher’s time. Instead, it seems that compatibilist philosophers quite often prefer to spend their time inventing new definitions of free will, which can accommodate determinism.”

(Although I didn’t represent that as Hamill’s position, I think it is implicitly pretty clear that I already got that, it is the common position, but I can address specifics explicitly.)

How my understanding of that statement differs from his own, is going to lie in how we see key concepts, and are using any definitions. The position suggests that it is “slippery” to rely on flexibility and evolution of definitions to advance an argument. Dennett’s position (and mine) is the opposite – to hold off on reifying definitions until after agreement is being reached. “Preferring to spend time” – is a point I already made. What is best use of time, to achieve understanding.

Personally I don’t hold “compatibilism” to be a helpful concept. Either consciousness and free-will are real in this real world or they’re not. If they are in this real world, then they must be explicable in nature.

Religion says that god gave man free will, but Turing shows that it only seems like we have free will, because we’re computationally intractable and so we cannot know what we’re going to do next.

In looking at the ontology of consciousness and free-will, I’m back to that same point about natural explanations of that reality, rather than questions of how religion might exploit or abuse that. So I’m parking the religious angle for now. Obviously my position is that consciousness and free-will evolved naturally, and it would be a straw-man to suggest Dennett differed on that.

Not sure whether Hamill’s position on determinism in any way distances him from Coyne et al, but it’s not his main point here. In fact notwithstanding this “determinist” position – I would say greedy-reductionist-objectivist-determinist position (maybe?) – Hamill’s main aim is not to simply state this position, but to make his main point (in his original tweet) about Turing and Computational Intractability.

This is good. My main focus on what is new about Dennett’s position (in links already provided above) has been about Shannon on information and Turing on computation (ironically these are my main interests, prior to and independent of any consciousness and free-will debates).

So apart from my suggestion Hamill mis-represented Dennett’s position – eg on determinism / compatibilism – which I would still maintain, my original point was to disagree with this statement:

“You’re just a Turing Machine but nobody can prove what you’ll do next.”

That’s a click-bait headline – a sub-title to the original post title, condensing the actual statement in the piece “Turing shows that it only seems like we have free will, because we’re computationally intractable and so we cannot know what we’re going to do next.”

My problems lie in “just” and “prove”. As Turing says (quoted in Hamill’s piece) ….

In short for now – do we still have a dialogue? –

A very complex and many layered Turning machine with emergent objects and properties. And, the predictability of (and influence over) future actions is obviously limited many ways, but like Hamill, who uses the Austin’s golfer (I use Wegner’s tennis player) we only need a very small amount of “free-won’t” to have significant and worthwhile free-will – despite determinism.

Next level?

10 thoughts on “Dennett and the “Little People””

  1. Firstly, you accuse me of relying on Jerry Coyne’s opinion in order to accurately represent Dennett. This is just not true. I sent you a link of Dennett himself describing the position I referred to, in his own words. Then you proceed to a rambling and condescending lecture on Rappaport. Well, physician heal thyself.

    Secondly, your position appears incoherent and self-contradictory. You initially scold me (as Dennett does others) that to state free will to be an illusion, is inherently irresponsible and people shouldn’t do it. Then you invite me to argue my position. I don’t think that a philosopher of Dennett’s experience is required to see the difficulty here.

  2. I’ve added post notes (above) but I was objecting to you misrepresenting Dennett’s position re “little people” that much is clear, hopefully.

  3. i’ve read your post notes. Is the intention to distract from the factual errors in your initial post by adding a bunch of new ones?

    “Hamill’s point relies on Jerry Coyne’s post”
    This is just not true. You accused me of misrepresenting Dennett by saying that he argued in favour of what is beneficial (by his lights) rather than what is true. That is not a misrepresentation. I linked to a source for Dennett himself saying that, first in the Coyne article and with a direct link to Dennett himself in a YouTube video.

    “Hamill continued the discussion, so in the spirit of free-thought, here goes:”
    I merely answered your tweets to me. In response you have written 7 or 8 paragraphs about Coyne and then dropped in a few comments (I assume aimed at me?) suggesting that others are not engaging in constructive debate and instead have closed minds. So, that’s nice.

    “Dennett’s position (and mine) is to hold off on reifying definitions”
    Having chastised me for saying that Dennett wants to debate definitions of free will rather than find what the truth is, you then proceed to make my point for me. Words have definitions that people understand by them and they don’t need permission from you or Dennett to use them. There are well-understood definitions of dualism, libertarian free will and other terms. Instead of trying to find the truth of which description most accurately reflects the reality of our brains and minds, you and Dennett prefer an exercise in changing the definitions of words.

    “My problems lie in “just” and “prove””
    I’m not sure what problem you have with the word “prove” in respect to Turing’s 1936 paper, since it contains a proof of exactly what I have asserted in the article.

    “A very complex and many layered Turning machine”
    Again, I’m not sure how you could make a remark like this after reading an article about a Universal Turing Machine, which is one that can simulate any other Turing Machine. That is, the whole point of the argument is that it doesn’t matter whether you posit a hugely complex machine like a human brain or the very simplest single-tape Turing Machine … they are equivalent. Turing also provides a “proof” of this, if you ever get over your aversion to the word “prove”.

    “we only need a very small amount of “free-won’t” to have significant and worthwhile free-will”
    So? I could also say that we only need a very small amount of Jesus to have a significant a worthwhile god. That is vacuous in the extreme.

    So I wrote a short article about Turing’s proof with respect to Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem. My feeling having read your post, with your long list of pejorative adjectives, is that you have yet to express any coherent view of either.

  4. No it’s not. Why Impute “my intentions” uncharitably …. just trying to start a dialogue homing in on substantive points …. finding contact points between us … (The misrepresentation of Dennett’s reasoning was simply my entry point …. )

  5. I asked what your intentions were. I was wondering if they were uncharitable, as to date you have directed the following terms in my direction, without knowing me or even speaking to me:

    – engage in honest constructive debate (to suggest I’ve been dishonest and destructive?)
    – closed mind
    – greedy reductionist

    When I read these terms in a set of unsolicited comments, along with factual errors and a condescending lecture on Rappaport … is it unreasonable for me to wonder about how charitable your intentions are?

    If you were really interested in a dialogue on substantive points, we’d be talking about Turing and Hilbert. Not Coyne or your mistaken suggestion that I misrepresented Dennett.

  6. I am. Agreed. (This simply started in a tweet where you – IMHO – misrepresented Dennett’s position) So moving on ….

    [None of the original post was aimed at you – as I said I know nothing about you – but at “Coyne et al” – as I’ve said in the post-notes.]

  7. I didn’t represent Dennett. In fact, I linked to a video of Dennett making the precise point that I said he was making. In his own words. You’re also trying to rewrite history by saying that none of your original post was aimed at me …

    “Hamill’s point relies on Jerry Coyne’s post”
    “Hamill continued the discussion, so in the spirit of free-thought, here goes:”

    You also sent *me* unsolicited tweets about your post. I don’t think you sent the tweets to Coyne?

  8. Ha, none is always an overstatement, apologies. None of it from “in the spirit of free-thought …”

    The point has always been to move from (old school) argument to (evolutionary) dialogue.

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