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« Pat Churchland on What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Morality | Main | Michael Tye on Pain »

August 18, 2012



Great interview, thanks for that.

I have to respectfully disagree with Dennett on this.

Yes, I want his version of free will, but I also want a stronger version where I'm a self-creating causal agent. I want the causal buck to stop with the my conscious decisions, as well as with the big bang and random quantum fluctuations.

The teleological level of causality is certainly a valid and useful description, but it doesn't arise from nowhere. The giraffe's neck only gets longer because a chance physical mutation occurred and survived at the biological level, and from there it's much more easy to reduce the cause to physics. Fundamentally there are always non-teleological causes as far as I can see. If not I'd like an example.

Similarly, when the teleological buck stops at my brain, there then has to a fundamental biological cause (firing of neurons etc) which then reduces to a physical cause, which is always - as far as science is currently aware - either deterministic/random.

Of course, Dennett knows all this, and I can't help but feel that such compatiblist arguments are really just trying to appease those of a physicalist mindset who are scared about losing autonomy.

So the teleological description is not good enough for me. For free will to exist in any meaningful way, we need a way for an agent to intervene in the deterministic/random unfolding of the world without appealing to dualist fantasies.

I admit that we'd probably need a paradigm-shifting discovery in science can do that, but I don't think there's reason to lose all hope yet.

Wrote a short piece on this recently referencing an experiment that casts further doubt on Libet's work back in the 50s:



Comment for
Daniel Dennett on Free Will Worth Wanting, Philosophy Bites August 18, 2012

My naive challenge to what I perceived as Dennett's view of free will:
1) Free will and "mental state" -- what we find to be persuasive, compelling. That which motivates us or fails to.
2) How much choice do we have in the response of our adrenal glands, pancreas, thyroid, thalamus, etc and how the action of these components each effect and in sum determine "who we are?"
3) Free of what? ("Thank Dawkins!" I do not attempt to address this question)

Do we choose what we will be pursue? What or who we are attracted by/to?
People often say that we are tempted by something but We decide what to do. Is this true? If so, are there not different ideas, things, and experiences that each of us find challenging or compelling to different degrees? How much choice do we have?
Could I have chosen a series of actions that would have led me to have become a competitive swimmer anywhere near the level of Michael Phelps? One could ask, "Does he freely choose or is he totally driven -- is it a mix of the two?" If even a mix, what does it mean to be free if we are just more or less compelled to do or not do something than another person? In a more nuanced way, I am for example asking, "where are we each on something like a spectra of desire/repulsion for the parameters that lead to or away from pursuing some end?"

Perhaps it is me, with a defective brain, that lacks free will that is so obviously present.

I hope this attempt is not entirely unsuccessful. If this does not make sense now, I will not be able to improve on it at this time.
Please accept my apology for wasting your time.



I would like to begin by saying that I am a huge Daniel Dennet fan and consider him one of my role models soI was fascinated to hear his take on free will and like with all our role models there are areas where we don't see eye to eye. It reminded me of kind of why I left philosophy: It can be seductive to try and reframe the way we think about something in order to derive a solution when in reality we have just redefined terms in a way that obscures or disregards the troublesome, but still relevant details.

I would disagree with Dennet on his two main points:
To begin with, he claims that we need to address questions by looking at them on the appropriate level for the issue. That seems reasonable but if we want to get the whole truth of a situation (or as near as we can get) ALL levels are appropriate for the issue and if you ignore any then you aren't being thorough.

Like his example of the calculator of WHY does it answer 7 to the question of 3+4. He claims that you should not look at the atoms, you should look to the rules of Math. It was a bad example because I don't think the answer to that WHY is to look at the math, it is to look at the fact that a person punched in those numbers and the circuits behaved in a pre-arranged way that whenever the 3+4 buttons were pushed it would produce 7. So yes, you can look at it higher than the level of atoms, but even at a much much higher level, the level of things we can see with the naked eye like brain tissue or things that are relatively big, neurotransmitters and such, on THAT level all the answers of 'why' seem to point to a clear 'no free will'.
If you go to the level that he wants to, of what rules of math tell us 3+4=7, well then, I think you've gone way too far and are ignoring relevant detail to the degree of finding a calulator on a desk that has a '7' it's screen, asking how that number came to be there and saying it is irrelevant to know whether someone entered the buttons 7+4 AND that it and been programmed to spit out that particular number. Even if you did want to go to the atomic level you could and it would shed more light on the situation, but he is right that it wouldn't be most relevant to the situation.
As for his point about how we may attribute lack of free will when someone does something bad because of some physical or mental pathology, we don't do it when someone does something great. While he is right, we usually don't do it in those instances(barring idiot savants or child prodigies), it does not mean that we SHOULDN't. I personally believe we should. I do when i look at the world. Not in every moment, not usually at the gut level, but when I stop and think about it, that is how I see it. Greatness is no less based on unfree choices as badness in my opinion.

I guess the level to which I can agree with Dennet is that within the programming that a human has and the impact the environment has on that programming (also outside of an individuals control) there are certain conditions which would allow an individuals 'program' to express its uniqueness of character more than other conditions and those would be the sort of things he was talking about such as manipulation and refraining for always revealing your emotions etc.
Maybe Dennet considers that free will, but I don't. I guess it would be comparable to if you had two Roombas, each designed somewhat differently, for example they go in somewhat different patterns and respond somewhat differently to stimulation etc etc and both are a little glitchy, so they sometimes do something outside of their programing that is surprising, based on malfunctions of the physical hardware or a glitch within the programming itself ( if you want to tie this analogy to human evolution we could even say that originally Roomba was programmed for a somewhat different environment than it is now in) and that both's ability to intake stimulus or appropriate information is not perfect, which leads to occasionally responded to stimulus in ways one wouldn't expect based on it's programming.
If you put either in a little box or in a big carpet room( with lots of objects it would need to move around) their behavior in the small box would be different than in the large room. In the small box they would both act about the same, just move back and forth a few times, realize they are trapped then stop (i guess. I've never actually had a Roomba). Within the small box They are both being manipulated or their actions limited by an outside force, and because of this they would not have very much freedom to express the uniqueness of their programming/glitches. By Dennet's description these Roombas would then have less 'free will', because they are trapped by the Box.
If these two Roombas were let loose in a large room with a variety of objects, they have more 'freedom' to express the individuality of their programming/glitches. According to Dennetts presentation this would mean they have more 'Free Will'.
However, this freedom to express their uniqueness does not, in my opinion, mean that they are now free, moral agents capable of making different decisions than their program or glitches require of them. By the same turn, it does not mean that since certain environments allow humans to manifest the uniqueness of their programming better than others that we then have 'Free Will'.
BUT, if by Free-Will he DOES mean the sort of not-actually-free-in-a-technical-sense but the able-to-express-it's-uniqueness-with-varying-degrees-depending-on-the-environment sort of freedom described in my Roomba example, then I guess I can agree with him, I just don't know if I would call it 'Free-Will'.

Jim Vaughan

I used to think Daniel Dennet was going a bit crazy e.g. when he compared us to a narrative writing robot called Gerald, thereby eliminating the need for subjective consciousness!

However, I must revise this opinion. I think his ideas here are brilliant.. to ask what meaningful level of free will we want to explain i.e moral decision making rather than getting stuck at the level of molecular level determinism.

Pinker's ideas of a self organising hierarchy of cognitive decision making daemons is supportive, the higher levels of which we call "my free will", the lowest levels of which might be the timing of a single neuron firing or not. Compatibalist freedom comes in at the top of the hierarchy of decision making daemons - not as simple addition, but as a complex and chaos driven dynamic integration of many factors.

Hubert Dreyfus mentions Walter Freemans neurodynamic research on "strange attractors" which form dynamically in the patterns of firing, and which could be the higher level daemons or "top down" decision makers, and thus our perceived free will. Libets work does not preclude this, as long as we accept that we are our brains at every level, that feedback interactions go both ways, and that his predictions were not 100% accurate.

In summary, I think Robinson Crusoe could still exercise free will, say, in deciding whether to sunbathe on the beach, or venture into the interior, without needing Friday, as an intentional agent. It would only require that he has different "intentional agents" competing within his own mind.

Jeff Pooley

Dennet's view of free will worth wanting looks a lot like the autonomy enjoyed by many in the rich West of the present. It's strikingly culture-bound and parochial, yet Dennet presents this kind of "free will" as universally desirable. He sounds like Hegel, whose Berlin of the 1820s was the last stop on history's train ride.

Dhirendra Singh

Hi Matt,

Your rejection of a teleological description is valid within the prevalent reductionist view of science - where everything should be explainable by looking "down there" at physics.

But down there, at the quantum/classical boundary or even beyond, there is little room for values, meanings, choices, and agency. At some point teleological language becomes useful in explaining agency and choice. Physical laws do not lead us there.

Certainly the reductionist viewpoint has been the cornerstone of scientific progress in the last few centuries. But a reductionist viewpoint also fails at explaining what Dennett is talking about. We do not have physical laws and theories to explain all the unfolding creativity around us.

For more on this viewpoint, see Stephen Hawking's article 'Godel and the End of the Universe' where he talks about why he has changed his mind on finding complete physical laws for the universe.

Human biology in general is another area where reductionism has been less successful so far. Despite medical science and current understanding of DNA and genetic function, physical laws do not yet extend to explaining life systems. Famously, Robert Rosen said about reductionism that if we keep insisting on chasing particles, then we will follow them right through an organism and miss the organism entirely. He was referring to the fact that the human body completely changes its ingredients many times over in our lifetimes (through metabolism, replication and repair), yet we remain who we are - functional complex agents with the same values and meanings - despite this. Stuart Kauffman makes similar arguments against the reductionist viewpoint in his book Reinventing the Sacred. However, interestingly and in line with your thinking, his work 'Five problems in the philosophy of mind' does in fact try to reconcile the problem of free will within the quantum/classical framework of physical laws.

Like you said, Dennett knows this view of science. However, I suspect he is saying that a teleological interpretation of agency is necessary, and not just convenient.

All the best,


Hi Dhirendra,

Thanks for your response.

I just read the Hawking essay - very interesting. It reminds me of Roger Penrose's similar use of Godel to address consciousness and human thought. Thanks also for the Kauffman tip. I've found it and will read later.

Without having fully digested the implications of what he's saying, I would offer one comment immediately in reference to a unified theory.

Although I'm fascinated with M Theory, the jury is still very much out on it, and personally I have a problem with it being background-dependent. The likes of Loop Quantum Gravity on the other hand is background-independent, and causality itself is therefore - in a sense - fundamental. I like that better, but of course have no idea as to which (if either) is correct. Perhaps they will turn out to be equivalent in a sense, part of something bigger? I'll certainly be annoyed if Susskind is wrong cos he's a great man!

However, what's for sure is that these are open questions. *Massive* open questions in the most fundamental of fundamental physics. What that leaves is equally huge gaps in our ultimate understanding of causality and emergence. And that, when combined with quastions surrounding consciousness, qualia and free will, creates gaps that leave a place for speculative ideas.

I'm thinking of Whitehead's process theory, Rosenberg's panpsychism, Chalmers' monistic proto-experiential properties, Penrose and Hammeroff's Orch-OR, or even the likes of David Hodgson, or Robert Kane. My point is that although such ideas are admittedly wild, in that they correspond to none of our current scientific understanding, it's also true that we have absolutely no idea about the *truly* fundamental constituents of the universe, and no thinking physicist would claim otherwise.

Therefore, when physicalist philosophers seem slightly scornful of such ideas, to me personally it seems rather presumptious. And to be frank, I suspect it's motivated by a (justified) fear of dualism and theism creeping in, coupled with a too strong adherence to the (wonderful) realisations of anti-anthropocentrism. No, we and our planet are not special, but that doesn't mean that consciousness, qualia and free will *have* to be imagined - they may just be not understood, given our lack of understanding of the most basic building blocks - or processes - of reality.

That said, I still think Dennett's great :)

Hmmm. It's 00.30 and the Foo Fighters are blaring at Reading Festival. Rant over. May come back when I've read more...

Matt IV (@matt37797)


Please note that I retract the word "arrogant" from my previous post. That's way too strong. I would like to replace it with "presumptuous".

I should never post gone midnight!


Matt IV

Hi Dhirendra,

I've now had a first read of the Kauffman essay - thanks for that.

I particularly like the way he summarizes the biological evidence that opens the possibility of the brain effectively being a quantum computer, and the reference to Penrose and Hammeroff.

Section 8.3 "Reversible Decohrence and Recoherence are Partially Lawless and may be subject to Abiotic Natural Selection Blind Final Cause" is fascinating. It has me pondering special relativity at tiny distances and tiny time scales. That's going to require me to do a lot more reading on the subject!

I'm also wondering about how backwards-in-time correlations may or may not fit into the picture. (I wrote a high-level summary of one of these here:

Again, thanks, and I'll get hold of the book ASAP. For my part, if you've not already read it, I'd recommend reading A Place For Consciousness by Gregg Rosenberg. There's some short videos of him talking about his positions here:

All the best,

Bob Rosenberg


You say, "I'm thinking of Whitehead's process theory, Rosenberg's panpsychism, Chalmers' monistic proto-experiential properties, Penrose and Hammeroff's Orch-OR, or even the likes of David Hodgson, or Robert Kane."

May I suggest you follow that train of thought to Kelly et al.'s _Irreducible Mind_ (2007)? The Cartesian either/or--materialism or dualism--begs fundamental questions about matter and mind.

Which leads to a rather deep, interesting place.




Hi Bob,

Thanks for the suggestion - I've just had a look at the book's Wikipedia entry.

I must say that I've not previously been impressed by any argument for substance dualism. The furthest I've been prepared to go has been dual-aspect theories and property dualism.

The theories that attract me tend to be ones where the endpoint is that we've retained a physicalism, but have expanded its ontology to include mental properties, their relations, and an explanation of how they interface with all the currently known physical properties and laws.

In other words I suspect that our understanding of the physical is incomplete, and it's that fact that explains how we currently have no place in physics for consciousness, free will and qualia.

It's a middle position that tends to mean it's get assaulted from both sides!

I'm not interested in explaining or including proposed phenomena like NDEs or life after death. At the moment I'm far from being convinced such things are real, and I'm certainly not interested in bringing immortal souls or gods into the equation.

That all said, I'll pretty much read anything, and in fact do seek out views opposed to my main one (essential in attempting to counter confirmation bias), hence the many titles on my bookshelf by physicalist authors like Dennett.

Perhaps I do need to glance in the opposite direction occasionally, so I might take a look - cheers for the tip.



Hi Bob,

Thanks for the reply, I will try to take a look at that, although I must admit I'm slightly put off by the Wikipedia entry on the book.

I don't want to go in the direction of trying to explain questionable phenomena like NDEs, and I'm wholly uninterested in trying to get from fundamental physics to conclusions on immortal souls or god.

It's tricky enough trying to find scientific facts and philosophical theories to explain phenomena that we (prima facie) know exist, like consciousness and free will, let alone ones that we don't, like life after death or a divine being. Not my cup of tea!

However, like I said, I like to read all around the subject, and substance dualism is something I'm not attracted to, and should therefore read more about... so thanks for the recommend.


Ramesh Raghuvanshi

With my 70 years experienced I can say confidently that we have no freewill.All our life is governed by our unconscious mind.Our conscious mind dancing to tune on our unconscious mind.Even pick-up pencil from table that we do on command of our unconscious mind.This was proved by recent research in neuroscience

Andrew D. Viceroy

Dennett has a seemingly endless amount of rich, thought-provoking material to share with the world (just like this podcast!). I always enjoy interviews with him.

That said, I have never been able to reconcile what appears to be an inconsistency inevitably noted in his version of the free will discussion. He is blue in the face (as a compatibilist) telling us that neuroscientists absolutely, without question, entirely and completely, get it WRONG when they challenge the idea that we have free will. In fact, he's stated that it is even a public disservice to suggest as much. And yet, by his own account, many people do not have free will--worse, he concedes that being manipulated reduces our freedom to some extent. If this is so (and according to the well evidenced pervasive effects of priming alone, it is), then methinks he doth protest too much in the extent that he hand waves away the science. Even if there remains 'free will worth wanting,' it's still tainted in a fundamental way, like an entire wall being painted in a slightly different shade, rather than a portion of it remaining untouched.

ALSO, to my mind, it does NOT matter whether the thwarting of fulfillment of desires is intentional (via humans) or via nature (e.g. accidental priming). The goal of the agent is thwarted. Period. That seems like an origination fallacy to me.

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