Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

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Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 4th, 2017, 1:50 am 

The title is kind of misleading in that I'm not interested in dissecting either arguments in detail.
Anyone who follows celebrity science at all has probability already heard the arguments, if not it is
easy enough to find Harris's and Dennett's arguments on the Internet. What I want to do is offer
my views on the topic in relationship to determinism.

Not everyone is a determinist but they should be. The arguments about the continued relevance
of philosophy in a scientific age aside, it is only necessary to accept that every effect has a cause
to be a determinist. The religious or spiritual of course have an arguable weak case when they
ascribe supernatural causes but that is another topic. Another topic that is tangentially relevant in
the sense that prior to the advent of scientific understanding about origins there were undoubtedly
many people who were functionally atheist. It is a matter of some importance that strict definitions
play a large part in the discussion of free will, what makes one an atheist, what makes one a
determinist, what is science and what is philosophy. In any case Harris and Dennett are both
determinist with Harris being a incompatibilist and Dennett a compatibilist.

Strict definitions are useful when trying to communicate clearly. A lot of the debate between Harris
and Dennett superficially seems to hinge on how freewill is defined. Harris may even be trying to
claim that Dennett's argument rest almost entirely on redefining free will. Dennett would say to
that that we have free will it just isn't what we think it is.

The Oxford Dictionary defines free will as the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or
fate; the ability to act at one's own discretion. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines free
will as a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among
various alternatives. The Oxford definition is perhaps to broad and creates some problems but
Stanford offers a definition that I would hope even Harris would not object to. Even an ant makes
choices based on instinctual responses to the environment. The question as so often happens
comes down to degree or kind. In this case how free not absolute freedom should be the
question.

Dennett argues we can abandon the idea of the religious that adds a supernatural aspect to free
will and simply say we have the ability to choose. Harris in my opinion is making the absurd
argument that animals do not make choices but are programmed in such a way that they will
always act the same way under certain conditions. At first Harris's argument may appeal to strict
determinist but I think it is based on a kind of scientific arrogance that is unwarranted. While both
Harris and Dennett dismiss quantum randomness as irrelevant to the discussion I think they are
wrong. Quantum randomness may or may not be "real" but it is sufficiently well defined to give
even the most staunch determinist some pause when saying that nothing is random. At the
moment that is the only significance of quantum randomness in so far as the in the quantum
whelm there appear to be events that are probabilistic not deterministic.

All that is needed to deconstruct Harris's argument is the sliver of probabilistic nature that
effectively is the scientific reality. It is the philosophers who we would erroneous expect to believe
in absolutes but atheist and strict deterministic scientist seem to fall into the same trap. As far as I
know we do not hold any scientific "truth" to be absolute in the sense that everything is explained.
It wouldn't be hard to come up with examples of absolutes in science such as the truth of
evolution or the general theory of relativity but it is understood that devil is in the details. Both the
theory of evolution and general relativity are incomplete. We will most likely never know the exact
course of evolution past and certainly not the future and we may not every answer the question of
nothing in physics. It is this limitation on knowing that makes Dennett's argument compelling.

Dennett argues for practical free will. The suggestion is that you do not need to believe that free
will is absolute to believe that it is an evolved trait. Harris on the other hand seems to want to say
that there is no meaning in something that is not absolute. Harris's argument sounds almost
religious in that he is substituting the absolute certainty science will provide for the absolute
certainty of the religiously faithful. Saying that free will does not exist is akin to saying god does
not exist. Any reasonable person would just dismiss the argument against god as a probabilistic
argument and they should do the same with the argument against free will. In the case of free will
it is not that it is improbable however it is the opposite in that it is a case of probabilities not
absolute certainty.

Human behavior is predictable in the aggregate in much the same way as any complex chaotic
system. Engineers predict human behavior everyday to design mass transit and any number of
human systems. It is not important that every individual's behavior is predictable only that the
behavior of the aggregate is predictable. Harris would have us believe that the ability to predict
behavior is proof that free will does not exist. The assumption is that with sufficient advancement
in neuroscience it would be possible to predict all behavior from watching the brain activity of an
individual. It is unlikely however that it will ever be anything more than just a case of determining
the most likely behavior because again we are dealing not with an individual but a complex chaotic
assortment of brain cells. It is an argument base on an absolute principle where that principle
does not apply in the practical sense.

What I find confounding in both Harris's and Dennett's arguments is the oversimplification of
systems. When Dennett says that animals are not conscious or that a certain organism is
relatively simple that is a gross underestimation of complexity. When Harris's dismisses Dennett's
arguments he is also dismissing complexity. In Harris's case it is a question of how many choices
must an organism be able to make giving a certain environment before Dennett's definition of
practical free will becomes relevant.

It may be and probably is true that quantum randomness is not necessary to generate the kind of
complexity that Dennett needs to establish to justify his definition of free will. It is however
necessary to understand the level of complexity that even pseudo randomness adds to already
complex systems to understand that the kind of predictions that neurologist can make using MRI
is not proof of the absence of practical free will. We know from computer science that random
number generation is an intricate part of complex algorithm that are needed for complex problem
solving. We all do the same thing when trying to solve a problem. We generate alternative or
"pseudo random" explanations until we find partial matches and repeat the process until we reach
a close approximation of the problem. It is this ability to generate nearly random choices that is
the foundation for practical free will.

The problem is reducible to kind vs degree. The only kind of free will Harris will discuss is the
erroneously absolute kind that no determinist would accept. Dennett offers us the alternative of
seeing the world in degrees not kind. While I would argue that Dennett as Harris both make the
mistake of defining almost everything to narrowly it is Harris that wants to establish an unrealistic
absolute. Dennett needs to move even further away from the traditional scientific approach of
absolutism towards a view where consciousness can be seen as a matter of degree not kind and
Harris needs to adopt a bit of humility when discussing complex chaotic systems subject to random effects.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby vivian maxine on March 4th, 2017, 1:21 pm 

Wolfhnd wrote: In any case Harris and Dennett are both
determinist with Harris being a incompatibilist and Dennett a iompatibilist.

Strict definitions are useful when trying to communicate clearly.


Please define "incompatibilist" and "compatibilist". Thank you and, no, I am not being picky. I really do want to know.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby Eclogite on March 4th, 2017, 3:52 pm 

wolfhnd » Sat Mar 04, 2017 5:50 am wrote:Not everyone is a determinist but they should be. The arguments about the continued relevance of philosophy in a scientific age aside, it is only necessary to accept that every effect has a cause to be a determinist.
Since this seems unproven, indeed contradicted by -for example - radioactive decay, I choose not to accept it. Consequently I stopped reading at this point. Sorry about that.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 4th, 2017, 5:53 pm 

Thanks for pointing out the spelling error if someone could fix it I would appreciate it.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 4th, 2017, 6:19 pm 

Eclogite » Sat Mar 04, 2017 7:52 pm wrote:
wolfhnd » Sat Mar 04, 2017 5:50 am wrote:Not everyone is a determinist but they should be. The arguments about the continued relevance of philosophy in a scientific age aside, it is only necessary to accept that every effect has a cause to be a determinist.
Since this seems unproven, indeed contradicted by -for example - radioactive decay, I choose not to accept it. Consequently I stopped reading at this point. Sorry about that.


This is the area in which determinism seems to fail where at small scale the universe becomes apparently probabilistic not deterministic. This reflects the arrogant rigidity incompatible with the current state of our understanding. I thing it is wise to define determinism in terms of predictability perhaps as Karl Popper did in his book The Open Universe.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby Dave_Oblad on March 4th, 2017, 7:07 pm 

Hi all,

My view (for what it's worth) is that we can't probe small enough, or fast enough, to measure the Quantum Realm. Therefore, we can only use Probability Math to predict outcomes. I fully expect the Quantum is absolutely Deterministic in nature.

Nature can't be choosy of when to be Random and when not to be Random.
Thus it must be one or the other.
If Nature was absolutely Random at the smallest scales, then that would manifest itself to all scales above it and the Universe would be pure Chaos and couldn't Exist with any Order.

The possibility that there can be an Effect without a Cause is Magic, not Math. Since tracking down a Cause can be Impossible, then I accept Pseudo-Randomness. Pseudo-Randomness is completely Deterministic.

Regards,
Dave :^)
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 4th, 2017, 8:49 pm 

Dave_Oblad » Sat Mar 04, 2017 11:07 pm wrote:Hi all,

My view (for what it's worth) is that we can't probe small enough, or fast enough, to measure the Quantum Realm. Therefore, we can only use Probability Math to predict outcomes. I fully expect the Quantum is absolutely Deterministic in nature.

Nature can't be choosy of when to be Random and when not to be Random.
Thus it must be one or the other.
If Nature was absolutely Random at the smallest scales, then that would manifest itself to all scales above it and the Universe would be pure Chaos and couldn't Exist with any Order.

The possibility that there can be an Effect without a Cause is Magic, not Math. Since tracking down a Cause can be Impossible, then I accept Pseudo-Randomness. Pseudo-Randomness is completely Deterministic.

Regards,
Dave :^)


Thank you Dave

I know we have covered this topic many times. What is different is that Harris and Dennett are public figures on popular internet media outlets. While until fairly recently these topics were almost exclusively within the domain of academics the public is now engaged. Confusion over free will is likely to have significant political impact in the near future if Dennett's view or similar is not winning in the court of public opinion.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby Dave_Oblad on March 5th, 2017, 5:10 am 

Hi wolfhnd,

Fortunately, public opinion doesn't carry any value. There is only one Truth and we don't get to vote on it.. lol.

As far as Randomness or Pseudo-Randomness is concerned, I hope someday the Academics will be proven wrong in adopting the concept of True Randomness as being Real. There is always a Cause for every Effect, no matter how obscure it turns out to be.

Regards,
Dave :^)
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 5th, 2017, 5:31 am 

Dave_Oblad » Sun Mar 05, 2017 9:10 am wrote:Hi wolfhnd,

Fortunately, public opinion doesn't carry any value. There is only one Truth and we don't get to vote on it.. lol.

As far as Randomness or Pseudo-Randomness is concerned, I hope someday the Academics will be proven wrong in adopting the concept of True Randomness as being Real. There is always a Cause for every Effect, no matter how obscure it turns out to be.

Regards,
Dave :^)


Yes I disregard the indeterminists and would have even if I had lived before science was a reality due to personality but we still have the question of compatibility to deal with.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby neuro on March 5th, 2017, 11:07 am 

Dave_Oblad » March 5th, 2017, 12:07 am wrote:Nature can't be choosy of when to be Random and when not to be Random.
Thus it must be one or the other.
If Nature was absolutely Random at the smallest scales, then that would manifest itself to all scales above it and the Universe would be pure Chaos and couldn't Exist with any Order.

David, I am sorry but I keep encountering this attitude of yours, in your posts, which is in my opinion a big error.

You cannot defend determinism by saying that if there existed randomness, then there could be no order.
The point is not that randomness negates cause.

Any stochastic approach to a process must take into account the forces that are present and act on the process. So, nobody negates the existence of causes, forces, differences in energy and so on.

Introducing a stochastic point of view (introducing randomness) simply means that instead of considering a force as a cause that produces a predefined effect, one can consider a force as a cause that determines a probability for events at the quantum and/or molecular scales; whether they actually occur is a matter of chance. And when you observe the macroscopic consequences, they will be perfectly predicted by the deterministic assumption that the force did produce each molecular event rather than simply determining its probability od occurrence.

So, nobody is arguing for pure randomness. It is a straw-man.
And randomness at the micro level (i.e. stochastic processes guided by forces) does not turn in disorder at the macro level.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby Forest_Dump on March 5th, 2017, 11:39 am 

I don't really want to get into Dave's religious views which, as always it seems, provide an odd prism through which he sees the world, but this idea that a randomnes as an ultimate origin must result in a chaotic world and that, therefore, some or any levels of order must therefore come only from order (i.e., order or perceived order cannot be emergent) is simply a redux of Paley's watch maker analogy or more recent Creationist arguments about entropy etc. So, IMHO, Dave's arguments are teleological and only an unusual version of classical Biblical creationism, etc. and lead to the age-old slippery slope of the ultimate cause of the order, etc.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby Dave_Oblad on March 5th, 2017, 11:59 am 

Hi all,

Neuro makes a decent point. If I a shoot a bullet at a wall and bits of wall are scattered as a result, then I accept the scattering has an apparent Random element to it. We can't predict what will scatter where, so we can only use probability for predictions. But if you could rewind Time perfectly.. then the resulting test scatter will play out exactly the same way. That is not truly Random.

wolfhnd: I haven't brought my strange Cosmic Mind Hypothesis into this thread and didn't intend or even need to. That hypothesis is only speculation.. I don't accept it until I find proof.

Regards,
Dave :^)
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby Forest_Dump on March 5th, 2017, 4:35 pm 

Dave_Oblad wrote:If I a shoot a bullet at a wall and bits of wall are scattered as a result, then I accept the scattering has an apparent Random element to it. We can't predict what will scatter where, so we can only use probability for predictions. But if you could rewind Time perfectly.. then the resulting test scatter will play out exactly the same way. That is not truly Random.


Technically that is more along the lines of chaos theory. If you could predict exactly where on the wall the bullet were to ht, to the micron, factor in all the variables of velocity spin and imperfections in the bullet plus the exact characteristics of the wall including fracture mechanics, microvariations in density, micro patterns air of the air including changes in temperature and density, etc., etc., etc., then you could predict with increasing exactitude where and how the wall fragments would fly. Not random at all - classic chaos theory. However, despite all the theory development, experimentation, etc., do we have this kind of predictabilty yet for predicting which unstable atoms will radioactively decay during a halflife and which will not?
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 5th, 2017, 5:54 pm 

It is tempting to just dismiss Dave's arguments as extreme determinism but it is not clear that even quantum randomness is truly random. As he pointed out in another thread even if the multi universe theory is true it just shifts the cause beyond the observable. What we can say is that the world is sufficiently deterministic that we don't need to look for supernatural causes.

What Dennett is arguing is that there are practical reasons to dismiss Harris's argument. That doesn't mean that trying to determine how deterministic the universe is is a waste of time it only means that until science catches up we must assume that people are responsible for their actions. It is simply arrogant to assume that the existing state of science proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Dennett's practical free will is a fantasy.

It should be uncontroversial that people are the product of their genetics and environment. It doesn't matter to what degree you assign heredity or environment to the formulation of the individual it is equally dangerous to deny them moral agency by saying they could not have done otherwise.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby Forest_Dump on March 5th, 2017, 7:04 pm 

I do agree in that there are a number of points where various people, ranging from myself to Dave and Dennett, etc., do seem to make assumptions from perspectives beyond the limits of what we know from science. So, for example:

wolfhnd wrote:It is tempting to just dismiss Dave's arguments as extreme determinism but it is not clear that even quantum randomness is truly random.


The key point is we just don't know. We have only at best models and approximations, no secure foundations for knowledge claims. But I am also being cautious at this point because I am slowly (as time and interest allow) also reading another book by Dennett which does also address his views on free will but I am not there yet. While I am trying to do my best to allow him to develope his arguments with the pronciple of charity (or as he prefers Rapoport's rule), there is one or two points I disagree with but for all I know he will address and answer these later.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 6th, 2017, 12:08 am 

Let us know when you finish it Forest.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby neuro on March 6th, 2017, 3:56 pm 

wolfhnd » March 5th, 2017, 10:54 pm wrote:It is tempting to just dismiss Dave's arguments as extreme determinism but it is not clear that even quantum randomness is truly random.

I am perfectly OK with this. We do not know whether what appears to be random at the quantum level actually is random or is deterministically determined by variables/parameters we cannot spot.

Still, even if it actually IS random, that does not mean that there are not probability density functions (or that the probability density functions are homogeneous); there will not be disorder (although there might be chaos in the strict mathematical meaning of the word) and macro-level behaviour (or at least typical trajectories) will be predictable based on the probability density functions.
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Re: Harris vs Dennett: The Case for Free Will

Postby wolfhnd on March 6th, 2017, 4:45 pm 

I think we have covered the quantum randomness issue very well. I just want to make the final observation that it's relevance to the free will debate has more to do with countering Harris's arrogance than as an argument against determinism.

Neuroscience nor physics have much impact on Dennett's argument in my mind.
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