Sunday, July 31, 2016

Dennett's Compatibilism

This is a follow-up on my earlier post on Determinism and Responsibility, where I presented my own views on responsibility in a deterministic world.  This view is not shared by all materialists.  In one of my recent discussions, there was disagreement over the notion of compatibilism being a "cop-out", as stated by John Searle.  Many materialists agree with Searle.  But others, including Daniel Dennett, take a compatibilist stance.  The compatibilist stance says that because we consider the consequences of our actions, we have responsibility for what we do.  The incompatibilists, on the other hand, hold to the line that because our actions are fully determined, the actor cannot be held responsible for what he does.

Searle says "Compatibilism evades the problem."  Searle recognizes that our actions are fully determined by antecedent conditions, and yet evolution has made us to believe that we are acting of our own volition.  But this is purely an illusion.  Searle also recognizes the fact that we can't help but live in accordance with this illusion.  You can't go to a restaurant and refuse to make a choice from the menu on the assumption that your choice doesn't matter.  And even if you did, that refusal itself would still constitute an active choice on the part of the actor.  Nevertheless, as materialists, we understand that our choices are driven by physical factors, and free will is indeed just an illusion.  For the incompatibilist, to say that we have responsibility is to kick the can down the road, and allow an element of contra-causal free will to creep in.

Dennett disagrees with this notion of compatibilism.  In his view, there is no element of contra-causal free will.  But there is a higher level of cognition of our own actions than any other animal exhibits.  And because of this cognition, we can anticipate consequences.  Our deliberation about a choice is not simply a matter of conscious reflection of what the brain has decided.  There is a feedback loop in which our conscious reflection itself enters into the brain's decision-making process.  "We don't just act for reasons - we represent our reasons to ourselves and to others.  ...  It is the key to responsibility. ... We are responsible because we can respond to challenges to our reasons."  This is still a fully deterministic process, but it is much more complex than this simplistic model that incompatibilists seem to favor:
1. Brain chooses action A by deterministic means.
2. Conscious reflection produces thought: "I choose action A".
3. Brain causes person to perform action A.
So why is there a chasm between these two views of compatibilism?  I think there are two basically different understandings of what compatibilism entails.  Many theists call themselves compatibilists.  They believe that the will is influenced by physical factors, but in their view the ultimate decision is still made by some immaterial aspect of the will.  In other words, true free will exists, and strict determinism ultimately does not.  The alternative view, more in keeping with classic compatibilism, is that free will is only the illusion of libertarianism.  In the absence of external restraints we can act in accordance with our own nature, which implies that we follow our desires and goals.  But that "nature" is still comprised of a collection of physical influences, and so it is still fully deterministic. 

It also doesn't help that philosophical discussions of compatibilism are wrapped in the issue of "moral" responsibility, which only serves to introduce an extra layer of controversy.  Are people morally responsible, or are they responsible in some other way that doesn't imply any theistic notion of morality?  Jerry Coyne is in the latter camp, along with Dennett, and I am in agreement with them.  Theistic moral responsibility entails retributive punishment for wrongdoing, but responsibility in a deterministic world should never entail retribution.  Instead, people should be corrected or restrained to prevent wrongdoing that is detrimental to the interests of society.

When Searle says that compatibilism is a cop-out, he is evidently alluding to the first type of compatibilism.  He doesn't seem to recognize the second type at all.  Others such as Sam Harris also take issue with Dennett's compatibilism, as illustrated in this (rather lengthy but worthwhile) discussion between Dennett and Harris in which they didn't quite manage to come to terms.  In my opinion, Harris misses the point of what Dennett is saying about responsibility for one's actions.  Being a neuroscientist, he certainly understands that our choices are physically determined, as does Dennett.  But I think he doesn't get the idea of what Dennett means by responsibility.  Dennett's view is more in keeping with actual human behavior.  It recognizes that our cognitive function is engaged in the deliberative process, not just a passive observer.  It also recognizes that we have responsibility for what we do, not from the perspective of theistic morality, but responsibility that evolves from our need to cooperate with our society.  And it is not surprising that Coyne accepts this view.

In the end, I believe that there is not much of a gap between Searle/Harris and Dennett/Coyne.  To a degree, they are talking past each other.  It is mostly due to a failure to communicate precisely what they mean by compatibilism and by responsibility.  But in both cases, they believe that human actions are fully physically determined, and fully compatible with materialism.

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