Last year I read Free Will by Sam Harris. The book impressed me as a concise demolition of folk psychology’s casual (lazy) assumptions about free will, written with straightforward language and a direct approach. I had a few issues with the book, and as an exercise wrote a “Devil’s Advocate” critique in which I used the last vestiges of the dualism I inherited from growing up with church and Catholic school.
Shortly after I read Free Will, I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The latter struck me as beautifully written, philosophically and scientifically strong, and it razed my already crumbling Cartesian Theater. I remember thinking distinctly that I’d like to read Dennett’s take on Harris’ book, as Free Will openly challenges Dennett’s stance on the issue.
Monday I was happily informed through social media that this has happened. Sam Harris has posted Dennett’s rebuttal here. The rebuttal is a bit long, a bit thorough, and, to my thinking, imperfect, but I highly recommend both Free Will and Dennett’s take on it. Because what’s more fun than sitting at home reading philosophy?
Why should you read Harris’ opinion that free will is an illusion, then read Dennett’s opinion that Harris is wrong? It might seem a bit of a waste on the surface; if neither has the whole answer, what do we gain from these essays? We get a glimpse into a dialogue between two intelligent minds, and dialogue is the reason books like Free Will should be written in the first place.
Newton’s theories of space and time held sway for a couple hundred years until they were shown to be wrong by Einstein. But there could have been no “Einstein” if not for the foundations laid by Newton. Without Newton’s boldness, his willingness to put opinion to paper and publish it, science might have remained a stagnant morass of religious dogma and superstition. Even as Einstein was proving those theories wrong, he was standing on Newton’s shoulders (and the shoulders of many more recent scientists and philosophers).
“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.” – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy
It takes guts to point out what you think are mistakes and sloppy thinking in the work of a professional, especially one that is a friend. But Dennett speaks his mind and isn’t worried about Harris’ feelings because this is what intellectual adults do. They make rational arguments, arguments that come from science and sound philosophy. They are not arguing emotionally, and you can be sure since Harris posted the rebuttal on his own website that he respects the man behind it and thinks the rebuttal worthy of our time, even if it is expressly intent on showing Harris is wrong.
Why does this behavior seem strange to me? Because so many outspoken debaters fail at it. Deepak Chopra, for example, debates publicly about God but quickly gets emotional and degrades himself by hurling ad hominem attacks, like this muddled thing he co-authored about Sam Harris. This confused article says nothing of significance, continually attacks Harris, and yet is couched as a sort of moral high road for sloppy thinkers who hold onto beliefs despite evidence.
Some scientific figures like Richard Dawkins think some debates can be a bad idea. Dawkins posted this article on his website admonishing Bill Nye the Science Guy for debating evolution with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum (what items this “museum” contains, I do not know). Dawkins thinks these debates give undo credence to propositions that are not falsifiable and lack real evidence.
But this free will debate is completely justified, and I’m excited to read Harris’ response. Dialogues like these enrich our understanding, and though Harris and Dennett share many beliefs, they are two very distinct minds with distinct styles of argument. Neither is liable to make a proposition without either empirical evidence or a strong philosophical argument.
I don’t think this dialogue will resolve the issue once and for all. Certainly neither side will convince everyone in the world if scientists can’t even convince creationists of evolution. But if the debate causes us to question our own beliefs, maybe even shed some of our lazy assumptions, it will have done the us good.