Daniel Dennett On Determinism

If you are not familiar with Daniel Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, he is a good friend of Richard Dawkins and an atheist “philosopher”. (I use the scare quotes advisedly.) As an atheist he is, almost as a matter of course, a determinist. However, he’s also a proponent of “compatibalism,” the “idea” that free will and determinism are compatible. (The trick is to redefine “free will” to mean, not something freely chosen, but something deterministically done without outside force being applied at the time.) There is a wonderful video that Dennett made in which he chides neuroscientsts who tell people that they don’t have free will for being irresponsible in doing so, because if people don’t believe that they are responsible for their actions they make less morally responsible choices:

You read that correctly. A determinist is telling other determinists that if they tell people who have no free will that they don’t have free will, the people without free will will then make morally worse choices because they now know the truth that they’re not making any choices and are thus not culpable for the choices that they’re not making.

He even cites a scientific study showing that people more frequently choose to cheat if they’ve recently read an article telling them that neuroscience proves that people don’t have free will and thus are not culpable for their actions.

Of course, Dennett is a determinist, so therefore doesn’t believe that the neuroscientists can choose to be more responsible and lie to people that they have free will in order to get them to make better choices in their lives. But determinism means never having to say you’re sorry (unless you have to): Dennett himself believes that he has no free will and so he had no choice but to make this video. So it’s all OK. He’s not actually an idiot.

He’s just a puppet being made to look like an idiot by the forces pulling his strings.

2 thoughts on “Daniel Dennett On Determinism

  1. Right? Hilarious.

    The problem of culpability goes out the window along with any semblance of jurisprudence, but if that’s not what’s determined, then it won’t happen. Thankfully, humans are also determined to be categorically dense, so fate has plausible deniability.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Determinism has a definitional problem also. Determinists typically assert that a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect implies that a person “could not have done otherwise”. But this is a mistake.

    There is a temptation to confuse what “can” happen with what “will” happen. If we are certain that something will not happen then it is AS IF it cannot happen, but it still could have happened.

    For example, you’re driving down the highway and you see a traffic light up ahead. Will it be red or will it be green when we reach it? We don’t know. We do know that it “might” be red and also that it “might” be green. Both are real possibilities. Both are things that “can” happen.

    So, as we get closer you decide it would be wise to slow down. As we begin to slow down, the light turns green, and we drive on through. The following conversation ensues:

    I say, “Why did you slow down back there?”

    You say, “Because the light could have been red”.

    I say, “No, it was not red, and therefore it was impossible for it to have been red. Because of determinism, it could not have been otherwise. So, again, why did you slow down?”

    You say, “Well, just because it didn’t turn red, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have turned red”.

    What “can” happen constrains what “will” happen, because something that cannot happen will not happen. But what “will” happen never constrain what “can” happen and what “did” happen never constrains what “could have” happened.

    Liked by 1 person

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