Free Will is Real

Just started reading Dan Dennett’s 2003 “Freedom Evolves”. I’ve had it quite some time, but I’m not sure why I’ve only just picked it up.

First off, it slays any doubts that Dennett is one of those who believes consciousness and free-will are illusory and in any sense non-existent. I always knew he was too common-sensible to think that, whatever his detractors implied. (Sue Blackmore on the other hand does really seem to say free-will is completely illusory – see her Edge 2006 Response – and everything totally pointless. I still harbour the hope she’s just being provocative on the former, even if the latter is certainly true on any over-arching teleological sense.)

I’ve only just started Dennett – but the confusion is in not making any distinction between “determinism” and the “what if” (in another possible world) I did this instead of that. The illusory intuition is in the possible worlds, not in the fact that in the actual world that does happen, it’s the actions we do take that determine the actual outcomes (determine that is, along with all the other causes and effects that actually do happen.) If A, then B happens. The inevitability is in the “then”, the free-will is in the “if”. Fundamentally the world is deterministic, but that doesn’t preclude free-will. Our will’s are applied at quite different higher levels of ontological abstraction and language, from the fundamental deterministic level. It’s one of those level-switching or “category errors”.

Interestingly all roads lead back to “if” – ie the varieties of possibility (metaphysical, conceivable, logical, physical) and to good old causation and time themselves. A promising start.

2 thoughts on “Free Will is Real”

  1. It’s the kind of naive question philosophers must and do ask.

    I think the issue is as you suggest, depending what you meant by “preclude”. If people equate determinism, with no direct causal consequences of their actions, being themselves “determined” by something other than personal free will, then it seems to a recipe for irresponsibility. Either way such a situation (of no consequences) is the subject of many a thought experiment (**).

    A dangerous idea that some find terrifying, some liberating. Of course since (only) intuition says that cannot be true, the questions fall back on exactly what free will and causation really are, and how they fundamentally relate to determinism and inevitability – beyond intuition. Which is the point here.

    (** A recurring thesis of Dennett’s is that such thought experiments are misleading and often re-inforce mistaken intuitions – “intuition pumps”.)

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