Dennett on Consciousness and Free Will


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2 responses to “Dennett on Consciousness and Free Will

  1. I’m going for the shortest resolution of the paradox:

    (A) We observe in ourselves, and share with others, the experience of choosing one thing rather than another. The choice is our will at that moment. If not coerced into doing something different, our action is of our own free will.

    (B) We observe in reality in general, that events have one or more relevant causes, and that these causes themselves may each have its own set of relevant causes. In theory, we could understand the relevant causes of every event, such that events may be predicted, and even deliberately caused or prevented by manipulating these causes.

    One is an actual observed phenomena in the real world. The other is an actual observed characteristic of the real world. Both appear to be true.

    However, one of the implications of cause and effect is that everything that happens was caused by other things that happened earlier. Therefore each event was inevitable. And that’s where the confusion arises.

    The word “inevitable” commonly suggests (1) something “beyond our control”. But this is not always true. There are (2) also things which only become inevitable by our making one choice rather than another.

    When the mind is stuck on definition (1) and fails to see definition (2), we get a semantic paradox due to the mental error. The solution is to realize that some events rely upon our agency to become inevitable.

    Pretty much all the rest of the stuff is irrelevant to resolving the underlying issue. Where the mental process takes place (e.g., souls) is irrelevant. Whether God exists or not is irrelevant (God has the same problem). What parts of the mental process are conscious and what parts unconscious is irrelevant (if we are conscious of a choice, than we are the agent).


  2. Determinism and Responsibility

    Determinism is nothing more than the belief in cause and effect. Every change, every event, every action, every phenomenon in the real world can, at least in theory, be accounted for in terms of one or more specific causes that made it happen. And each of these specific causes is itself a change, event, action, or phenomena in the real world, with its own specific causes. These chains of causes reach back to the beginning of time and will reach forward to its end.

    Everything that happens is, in theory, inevitable. This was never a big deal until some dumb philosopher suggested that, if everything is inevitable, then (1) everything is beyond our control, and, (2) we cannot be held responsible for anything we do.

    Both assumptions are false.

    The first assumption is false because, although many things are beyond our control, we are actually the relevant causes of a great deal of what happens in this world. And these events are only inevitable because of choices we deliberately made.

    Are our choices also inevitable? Of course. When we make a deliberate choice, we consider alternatives, we estimate the outcomes of one option over another, and then we choose what we think or feel would be best. Given sufficient knowledge of the decider and the situation, even the amateur could predict the outcome with reasonable reliability. But the decider himself will not know for sure until he has actually made the decision. Knowledge that the decision is theoretically inevitable and predictable is completely useless to the decider.

    The second assumption is false because it misrepresents the meaning of “holding responsible”. In all practical matters, to “hold” someone or something “responsible” actually means to identify who or what needs to be corrected.

    Suppose a person decides that he can “hold his liquor” and drive safely home after a party. He may do this successfully many times. But then his inebriation causes him to lose attention and hit a pedestrian crossing the street.

    His conscious decision to drink and drive caused a fatal accident. And it also was the relevant cause of his arrest, conviction, and punishment.

    He cannot claim exemption from punishment due to the “inevitability” of his choice to drink and drive. There is nothing we can do to rewrite the offender’s personal history. The practical problem at this point is how we might influence his future behavior. Therefore, the person as he is now is the “point of correction” rather than his past, and it is the person as he is now that is “held responsible” for the pedestrian’s death.

    So, determinism does nothing to release anyone from being held responsible for their choices. We may, though, by studying those early influences, design educational programs to reduce the likelihood that others will make the same bad choice.

    There is nothing in determinism that diminishes personal responsibility or the impact of the decisions we make of our own free will. And free will itself exists quite comfortably within the context of a deterministic universe.


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