Free Will


Sam Harris and Dan Dennett, two of my intellectual heroes, have been discussing free will and I can’t quite decide who I agree with most. I actually think they might be saying the same thing, just in two different ways.

Dennett thinks that morally responsible people (so, not children and the mentally ill) have a limited kind of free will while Harris thinks that if we have no say in the person we became (that is, we didn’t choose our genes, our family etc.), then we can’t have free will.

I think whether you believe in free will depends on whether you look at it from close-up or far-off. If determinism is true, and I think it is, then nothing escapes the relentless cause and effect set in motion by the Big Bang. This is Sam Harris’s bear-hug strategy, which sees all action as just so many falling dominoes, one knocking down the next, relentlessly on and on from the Big Bang until now.

However, from close-up things look very different. If we have no free will, why do the mentally ill, children and animals appear less responsible than normal, healthy adults? After all, if normal adults have no free will, how can a child or an animal have less than none?

Normal people can often be persuaded to act better than they otherwise might. This necessitates having the ability to reflect, which some people nurture more than others. Children, the mentally ill and animals (and amoral people?) simply don’t reflect much on anything and are driven more by instinct.

No sensible person is arguing that we can escape determinism. Yet some people achieve some elbow room in which to think about the consequences of their actions while others don’t. Sam Harris would say that even this elbow room is contained within determinism. He would also say that whether you have elbow room or not is down to pure chance and thus beyond your control, and I think that Dennett would agree. But Dennett would add that being lucky enough to possess this ability doesn’t make it any less real.

So I agree with both since I think they are saying the same thing. Only their definitions of free will differ.


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