Dennett on freewill

Some observations on the psychology of thinking about freewill

Daniel Dennett

In:  Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will  Eds. Baer, J. Kaufman, J. & Baumeister, R.

This chapter is remarkable for Dennett’s style. There can be little doubt that Dennett’s dominance over much of modern consciousness studies is due in part to the beguiling quality of his style of writing. However, his approach in this chapter is markedly different from his seminal work ‘Consciousness Explained’. In that, he came over as the rather domineering professor hectoring first-year students newly arrived from low quality high schools. The students are periodically slapped down, when their ideas betray a lingering believe in the existence of a ‘Cartesian theatre’ in the brain. Gradually the student/reader comes to watch what they are thinking, and to wait for approval from Dennett.  Then over 200 pages into the book, Dennett springs his trap. He runs through a description of the existing knowledge of brain function and then, without any actual supporting argument, simply issues a ditact that this is the same thing as consciousness. By now, resistance seems futile, and much of the consciousness studies community is ready to accept him as their guru.

The approach in this recent chapter is different. The readers are no longer under-performing students. Now they have been accepted into the inner circle that is fully aware of the non-existence of freewill, with belief in freewill seen as a concept only held by ignorant outsiders. We can almost feel ourselves easing into a comfortable leather chair, a heavy cut glass tumbler generously charged with whisky at our side, as we settle down to the privilege of a private chat with the great man. Dennett knows that he is among friends, and need not bother with the rigours of evidence or logical debate. It is sufficient to belittle his opponents for writing ‘ill considered stuff’, sensing things in ‘an inchoate way’, and worst of all, ‘finding wishful thinking and other distortions of reason almost irrestible.’ More of this kind follows as the whisky finds its deterministic route to our brains.

Dennett touches on the problem, raised elsewhere in this volume, of what will happen to public behaviour and morality, if the view that our will cannot influence our actions seeps from the laboratory and hard to read to academic papers into the general consciousness. He reminds us of his belief in the convenient miracle by which ‘a variety of freewill‘ underwrites moral responsibility, despite the fact that freewill does not exist. Anyone dissenting from this idea, or even wanting to debate it, is referred to as ‘muddying the waters’ or even ‘throwing tantrums’. Dennett airily declines to enter into direct debate on the topic, because he has ‘already dealt with them at great length’. It sounds as if time is limited, and we become uncomfortably aware that our privileged chat may not last as long as we had hoped.

The only place in this chapter at which Dennett descends to grappling with research studies and their interpretation is in discussing a disturbing experiment by Vohs & Schooler (1) showing that subjects in a study, who had read a paper by Francis Crick decrying the idea of freewill, were more likely to take an opportunity to cheat in a subsequent Maths test than were subjects who had not read the paper. Dennett tries to evade the implications of this by suggesting a test in which subjects read a paper suggesting that although brain activity is determined, there is some special, but hard to comprehend philosophical way, you still have freewill despite all outcomes being determined.

This special freewill involves an indefinite amount of deliberation and consideration of what sort of person one wants to be. It’s hard to see how this works. The amount of deliberation might have an influence, but in a deterministic mind, the amount of deliberation has also been determined. Similarly in reflecting on what sort of person one wants to be, the ideal persona will also be determined if the mechanism of the mind is deterministic. Dennett’s idea is superficially plausible, but that is only because of an underling an assumption in most people’s minds that the conscious will influences deliberations and reflections, the very thing that Dennett seeks to deny. Moreover, if the no freewill view spreads to the wider popular level, it seems unlikley that this rather complex idea will catch on, in contrast to the more straight forward notion that there is no point in trying to be responsible or moral.


1.) Vohs, K. & Schooler, J. – The value of believing in free will

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