Dennett and the “Little People” – Round#2

Recasting the arguments from the previous post, it’s comments – and a twitter thread of disagreements.

How this started:

Public tweet – FTP – recommending “Brother Hamill’s great blog”.

Public response – Me – a two word response “[great, but] wrong, though”.

All arguments / debates start with a gap or a point of contention. The content of any possible argument being multiple points, many levels, highly interconnected. My agenda (and Dan Dennett’s) is to get argument going that is dialogue based on shared understanding intended to extend understanding and evolve explanation NOT arguments that simply aim to disprove, by the evidence and logic of existing science, the points or theses of one side or the other. (Necessarily circular, strange-loopy arguments, with poorly defined objects and potentially incoherent initially …. but which evolve by iterations.)

When asked to explain “wrong” – Me to FTP – there “seems” to be a disagreement with Dennett based on a misunderstanding of his position on free-will, determinism and compatibilism.

Hamill responded @me directly, confirming the disagreement …

“Dennett is wrong.
Not least because his reasoning is based on the little people”

…. and we’re off, we have a (possible) dialogue. He also provided – in defence of my suggestion of his misunderstanding, or misrepresentation of Dennett’s position, I supposed – a link to Jerry Coyne citing Dennett’s 2015 Big Think piece and the so-called “little people” argument.

At this point there are many possible threads of discussion, “solicited” by the personal interaction above, all potentially entangled in the terse 140 char interaction up to this point. Some directed to Hamill and Hamill’s specific points, but most directed at the topics and arguments generally. After all, I’d never heard of Hamill until 24 hours ago.

My agenda is epistemology – arising out of practical concern with cybernetics and decision-making controls in human organisations – and an evolving thesis that information is the most fundamental “particle” of (physical) reality. As an evolutionary philosopher with a keen focus on “free-floating” information, Dennett is close to the core of my work, but of course Turing and Shannon are pretty much the godfathers of information and computation in cybernetics. Some of the most obvious topics start with:

(A) Dennett’s position on consciousness and free will. 50 years of work, hundreds of publications, already many in 2017.

(B) Hamill’s piece from his declared position as a (strict) determinist, expressed contrary to Dennett’s “slippery” compatibilist position, but whose main point is an argument claiming Turing’s support for free-will being an illusion.

(C) Dennett’s “Stop Telling People They Don’t Have Free Will” Big Think piece. (And secondarily, Coyne’s interpretation of it also suggesting compatibilism is …. untenable …. and promoting the deterministic Free-will is an Illusion position. ) Both referenced by Hamill, in his piece and individually in his tweeted responses.

Dennett and Free-will run through them all. Given my agenda, I’d very much like to get to constructive dialogue on the information processing fundaments of free-will (and everything else in our naturally evolved world) but there is some ground clearing to do before there is any chance of shared understanding. Since Dennett’s position (and mine) is that free-will is real and naturally evolved I need to unpick any point that “he’s wrong” before we can progress any constructive avenues. Compatibilism is indeed a slippery concept, one I prefer not to use, since free-will either is or isn’t part of the natural world. What more is there to say? It goes without saying, any suggestion Turing, Turing machines and computability can “prove” that consciousness is an illusion, I am going to take issue with by default, until we can clear some common ground.

CAVEAT, arguing the Dennett way, towards increased explanatory understanding, involves constructive and iterative evolutionary dialogue, not simply proving the other guy wrong or being proven wrong by the other guy. Being wrong is something each discovers in order to improve their own position in the shared understanding. Objective facts may not change, though they may change if they turn out not to have been so well-defined objectively in the first place, but more often the interpretations and relationships between information and understandings will be the things to evolve.

I am only responding to “Dennett is wrong” because that is the assertion being made, right from the very first piece. So, focussing first on (C)

(1) “The little people” is an SMBC parody of Dennett’s position on compatibilism and the illusory nature of free will as picked-up by Coyne et al (*). Nowhere in Dennett’s Big Think piece does he use such an argument, nor does he choose to identify as compatibilist. Dennett does of course talk about Surgeons and their patients, Judges and offenders, Researchers and their subjects, like any typical scientific neurosurgeon might. The pejorative suggestion that those with less expert knowledge are “the little people” of this world is a travesty extrapolated from the otherwise fair-game parody. A “ludicrous characterisation” as one of the commenters on the Coyne thread said. Hear, hear, I say.

(2) Notwithstanding the little people slur, what does Dennett say about actual free-will in his piece? Absolutely nothing. Right from the off, it’s a thought experiment in both reality and science fiction, one of his thinking tools or intuition pumps. And, furthermore, even as a thought experiment, it is simply addressing the private and public denial of free-will. In his words – and in the trajectory of the piece:

“A thought experiment” …
“Devised to jangle the nerves of those who claim free will is an illusion”.

It is part of the rhetorical “war” intended to get deniers to stop and think and to honestly consider alternative arguments (*). It contains no attempt to explain what free-will is or how it arises and functions. It is simply part of a rhetorical plea. To suggest Dennett’s scientific and philosophical position of free will is based on the little people argument or on a denial-of-free-will thought-experiment is at the very least misleading, and more a straw-man positively misrepresenting his position on consciousness and free will more generally.

Go. (Do not pass)


If deniers can stop denying, and trying to prove others wrong, we can switch the focus to what Turing really does tell us about the reality of free will (B) and maybe for those interested, what Dennett’s position on free-will (A) really is. I’m pretty sure we’ll find Dennett’s position (and mine) legitimately – at least debatably – takes Turing into account.


(*) Appendix.

Argument as warfare – with winners, losers and casualties – is very much the flavour of the millennial new-atheist God vs Science debates and various evidence-based campaigns against potentially anti-science and political-correct positions on public issues. Being introduced as “brother Hamill” suggested to me he was  another brother-in-arms in the science vs religion wars. Trouble is that style of argumentation is dominating would-be science and philosophical topics that should be advancing basic understanding of the natural world more generally. Political campaigning is infecting science itself.

As I said in the previous post “Coyne et al” is simply a symptom of this warlike infection, and having been part of the four horsemen – the least apocalyptic of the four, as Baggini put it – Dennett now disagreeing with Harris and several of Dawkins’ bulldogs finds himself the target of warlike arguments rather than constructive dialogues. For this reason his main thrust has switched from arguing with his critics on their established terms, to simply a plea that his actual position be considered on the terms that might arise, and a bet that if we do so we might learn something new. Life’s too short to do otherwise.

If that sounds patronising, I’m sorry, but I’m serious we need to get to first base before we can pass go. However sincere, it will certainly appear incoherent until we do so.

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