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Hi Bill,

Another interesting entry. I hazard the guess that this abuts against a fundamental question or “mystery” about our existence, and depending on your perspective the path to that more fundamental truth is plural. Further, I more and more believe that perhaps in the end the approach will only ever be, as with all similar sorts of puzzles, asymptotic.

You are correct that step (6) of the mammals argument is false. But its falsity conflicts with your claim that "There are mammals even though there is no Prime Mammal."

Assuming that "Prime Mammal" means "the first mammal (or first mammals if there was a tie for first)," the falsity of (6) implies the existence of a Prime Mammal.

Analogous reasoning implies that if some of my actions (but only finitely many) have been up to me, then there was a first of my actions that was up to me.

Hi Bill,

Sixteen years ago, when my outlook on things was quite a bit different (as you may remember from our interactions back then, I was a pretty firm materialist), I wrote a linked series of posts about Dennett's compatibilism, and on free will generally. (Here, for example, is one from the middle of the series; each one links to the next.) They're brief (and I haven't really looked at them for years), but as I recall they make a fair summary of D's position.

What I thought was best about Dennett's attempt at compatibilism was, first, his questioning how the idea of free will could be coherent or meaningful if every choice we make is completely UNcaused -- that is, radically disconnected from everything leading up to it, and somehow just popping out of nowhere.

Second, I was struck by his emphasis that what we should realistically want "free will" to mean would be for our choices to be caused by what we are, what we know, what needs and desires we have, what the pressing circumstances are, what we think the resuts of different options will be, what our consciences tell us, etc. -- in other words, we would want our choices to be the result of our deliberations. And this, he says, is indeed what they are!

But what if our deliberations are themselves deterministic? Does that mean they aren't "real" deliberations?

Dennett wrote:

…isn’t a determined thunderstorm a real thunderstorm? Isn’t a determined traffic accident a real traffic accident? It begs the question to declare, without support, that determined deliberation is not real deliberation. But — comes the reply — in real deliberation there is a genuine opportunity for the agent, with both branches “open to the agent”. The agent’s deliberation closes off one of these as it selects the other. If the outcome of the deliberation were itself determined, then it would have been determined “all along” — so there wouldn’t have been a real opportunity in the first place, just an apparent opportunity.

That's a substantial objection, and all these years later I'm still not sure if the compatibilist position is defensible. (I'm going to have to go back over all those old posts...)

A quote of his that has stayed with me is "If you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything." (I quote this one all the time in response to leftists' denial of responsibility for "protected classes.) So his focus is on understanding oneself to be a fantastically complex nexus of deliberation; on drawing the boundary around our "selves" widely enough to include whatever impenetrable activity goes on inside us when we decide.

I would like to venture that Dennett’s error might be located in his comparison between the discrete and discontinuous phenomena of the “determinism” argument with the continuous phenomena of the “mammal” argument.

Both arguments have to do with time. Time is a flow and thus a continuum, and thus unintelligible. We make it intelligible by imposing arbitrary categories on it, such as minutes, hours, or centuries. The determinism argument imposes on this flow such categories as “events in the distant past” as well as the the present moment, when the subject decides whether to come or go. The argument conceives of time as a succession of intervals.

The mammal argument has no such discontinuous phenomenon. We can agree that “mammals evolved from non-mammals.” Evolution does not conceive of time as a succession of intervals, but rather as a continuous flow.

When I read through the two arguments, for some reason I thought of Achilles and the hare, with Dennett replacing space with time. Both space and time are continua. Zeno’s paradox rests on the misconception of space as a succession of intervals, no matter how infinitely small we measure them, such that Achilles could never catch the hare. In the determinism argument Dennett conceives of time as a succession of events, but does not apply that same conception to the mammals argument.

In holding the mammal argument to be an appropriate analogy to the consequence argument, it seems to me like an obvious case of affirming emergence. However, that's hardly compatible with Dennetts materialism and more importantly, if determinism was true as a metaphysical theory of causation, then that emergence of freedom would be impossible in the first place.

I don't want to psychoanalyze someone I haven't met, but if the article of the Washington Examiner on Nagel's book and a Naturalist Workshop Dennett has participated in, is reliable, then perhaps his arguments here should be seen as a political agenda in order to mitigate societal effects on what he takes to be the obvious conclusion of science?

If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes.[...]Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.

https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/magazine/2191959/the-heretic/

On a different note, the Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy provided a section in their article on compatibilism to the consequence argument. Section 4 should be most interesting.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#ContComp

I will only comment that unless I'm misunderstanding the more recent proposals, it seems that "determinism" gets restricted to the purely physical, while the emerging/higher activities are treated differently. Sadly though, contrary to dealing with hard-nosed naturalists like Dennett, this just muddies the water.

Malcolm writes,

>>What I thought was best about Dennett's attempt at compatibilism was, first, his questioning how the idea of free will could be coherent or meaningful if every choice we make is completely UNcaused -- that is, radically disconnected from everything leading up to it, and somehow just popping out of nowhere.<<

That point is not original with Dennett, but was made by many before him. But it is a good point. No one says that a free action is a wholly uncaused action, a random event that pops out of nowhere. A free action is one caused by the agent.

>>But what if our deliberations are themselves deterministic? Does that mean they aren't "real" deliberations?<<

No. Who would say that a determined thunderstorm is not a real thunderstorm? The problem is that if the deliberations that issue in an action are themselves determined by prior events in accordance with the laws of nature, events that reach back before my birth, then I am deterministic system through and through no different than the thunderstorm.

Your final paragraph is less than pellucid . . . I don't know what you are saying.

Dominik,

Thanks for those references. Andrew Ferguson is a journalist and I wouldn't take what he says too seriously. He makes several mistakes in that piece.

The SEP article gives a nice clean statement of the Consequence Argument:

1) No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature.
2) No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true).
Therefore,
(3) no one has power over the facts of the future.

According to the Consequence Argument, if determinism is true, it appears that no person has any power to alter how her own future will unfold.

Have you read my "Could Free Will be an Illusion?" ? https://williamfvallicella.substack.com/p/could-free-will-be-an-illusion?sd=pf

BV wrote: "The problem is that if the deliberations that issue in an action are themselves determined by prior events in accordance with the laws of nature, events that reach back before my birth, then I am deterministic system through and through no different than the thunderstorm."

SM replies: You are no different from the thunderstorm in regard to whether determinism applies to you. But in other regards, just as important, you are very different from a thunderstorm. Those differences explain why you can act freely whereas a thunderstorm can't.

Hi Bill,

"Your final paragraph is less than pellucid . . . I don't know what you are saying."

Well, the point of saying "If you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything" is to ask: what is the boundary of the locus of agency?

In the case of our culture of victimhood, paternalistic wokesters (and those who've adopted their dehumanizing ideology) want to shrink that locus of personal agency in the "oppressed" to zero, so they can blame everything on racism, sexism, etc.

In Dennett's case, he wants to make boundary of the the "self" inclusive enough that all of the incalculably complex deliberations that take place when we choose or future can somehow be imagined to belong to us.

We want our choices to be the result of our own deliberations, he says, and indeed they are, if we can see the "source of agency" as that incomparably special place -- human brains -- where all these threads come together and deliberation happens.

I realize this doesn't settle the argument against hard determinists like Sopolsky, Harris, et al. Like so many of these stubborn questions, if there were some knockdown argument, the discussion would be over -- but Dennett's is the best try I've seen to square some sort of agency and responsibility with materialism.

I should say, though, that I'm not here to swear allegiance to Dennett's view; I find both purely uncaused agency and hard determinism hard to get my head around, and the general problem of consciousness has nagged at me for ages. I will be very grateful to anyone who can clear it all up for me!

P.S. I've just read your Substack article. I suppose if one wanted to avoid the term "illusion", a determinist might instead say something like "false but compelling intuition". But mainly what stood out for me was your section 7, in which you wrote:

"We are left with a huge problem that no philosopher has ever solved, namely, the integration of the first-person and third-person points of view. How do they cohere?"

All I can say is: beats me!

If one assumes the truth of Determinism (i.e. the antecedent of premise 1 in your original synopsis of Dennett's argument), then, sure, the argument is sound.

But why should anyone believe that Determinism is true? There's nothing in the argument that even gestures in the direction of such an affirmation.

Am I missing something?

you state as much in your latest response to Dominik:

2) No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true).

for Dennett's argument to go through, one needs to assume the truth of this premise, (i.e. of Determinism).

but why should anyone do that?

His argument neither entails the truth of Determinism, nor makes its truth more epistemically likely.

I might as well make an "argument against Triangularity" by starting:

1) If triangles have more than three sides, then their internal angles will not sum to 180 degrees

Sure. but triangles DON'T have more than three sides.

And determinism is false.

John Doran wrote: "But why should anyone believe that Determinism is true?"

SM replies: https://www.routledge.com/Determinism-Death-and-Meaning/Maitzen/p/book/9781032134185

John Doran,

What you are missing is that the topic is compatibilism. Compatibilism (sometimes called soft determinism) is the view that determinism and free will are logically compatible. The opposite view is incompatibilism which is either hard determinism or free-willism (exclusive disjunction).

Every compatibilist is a determinist, but not every determinist is a compatibilist.

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