Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

He fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will.

One of the great values of good science explanations is that they can make very difficult subjects easy to understand. Sam Harris is usually crystal clear. Sadly, in spite of their claim to be the torch bearers of critical thinking, philosophers’ texts can be downright messy, obtuse, as clear as mud. Dennett’s is no exception. And it doesn’t help when he references the Nahmias et al. 2005 paper. But I’ll try to get around to that soon.

For now I want to address Dennett’s hopeless use of the sunset/free-will analogy. Dennett has used this analogy as one element of his arguments for dismissing the incompatibilism case that free will is an illusion. Here’s the analogy as expressed by Dennett.

After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. … When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

What point is he trying to make here? Well there are two obvious points:

1) On the existence of free will – The sunset exists, even though our understanding of what it does has changed; and therefore free will still exists, even though how we perceive it has changed.

2) On the illusory nature of free will – We have changed our understanding of sunsets, but we don’t call them illusions. Sunsets are real phenomena that can mislead the naive. Therefore we should not infer that free will is an illusion just because we have changed our perception of it.

The trouble is that he is equivocating on the term ‘sunset’, and is not clear in how the various elements of his analogy are related. He starts equating free will with a sunset, which is fine. But at the end he is equating the physical phenomenon that causes the human experience of a sunset with the human experience itself. He insists sunsets, the physical phenomenon, are obviously not illusory, and so free will is not illusory either. But the real problem is that we incompatibilists are not claiming that the physical phenomenon that causes the experience of a sunset is illusory, but that the experience is illusory – and similarly, the phenomenon that causes the experience of free will is real, but the experience, the perception of it, is illusory. The experience, as our brains perceive it, is that the small disk of the sun is moving down below the horizon, while we on our point on earth are stationary.

To make all this clearer here’s the analogy in full, with each element of the analogy stated separately, so we can see which are real phenomena and which are illusory.

Physical phenomenon:

Sunset: The earth rotates in front of the sun, causing the position of the sun and a spot on the surface of the earth to change position and direction with respect to each other.

Free will: Brain activity is caused, and by active feedback processes causes in turn actions by the brain, and these in turn cause actions of the body.

Mistaken perception (illusion):

Sunset: The first person POV, when at a point on the earth’s surface, is to perceive the motion of the sun across the sky and its descending below the horizon. It ‘feels’ like the sun is setting, rather than our point on the earth rotating away from the sun, in a changing direction caused by rotation.

Free will: The first person POV, from subjective feeling and introspection, is to perceive that willed decisions are made free of any physical cause in the brain. In fact the whole mind feels free of physical causation.

Cause of the illusion:

Sunset: Our senses that indicate our personal motion cannot detect the rotation motion of the earth – we cannot ‘feel’ the earth rotating. When we are stationary on the earth relative to all objects around us we feel we are actually stationary. So, we perceive the rotation of the earth in front of the distant sun as the sun moving across the sky, and it’s descending below the horizon at sunset.

Free will: Our senses that indicate our personal physical activity are not activated by the brain itself internally – we cannot ‘feel’ our thinking. When we are thinking and making decisions we cannot detect the brain activity involved, and so we feel as if our mind, our thinking, our decisions, our will, are all free of the physical brain that is actually performing these functions.

Persistence of the illusion:

Sunset: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from astronomy and other sciences, that the earth does indeed rotate in front of the sun and that the sun is not a relatively small disk or ball moving across the sky, our normal POV and the available attendent lack of appropriate motion sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we are watching the sun move.

Free will: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from all science, that the brain is the cause and location of our mental experiences, our normal subjective POV and the attendant lack of appropriate neuronal sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we have free will.

Where the illusion is experienced:

Sunset: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Visual illusions are so called because they are effects that reach our brains through the eyes, but the illusion occurs in the brain. In watching a sunset, or a rotating Necker cube as another example, the visual signals that reach the eyes are consistent with the physical phenomenon. The light reaching our eyes from the Necker cube is consistent with the one actual direction of rotation of the Necker cube; but the brain can perceive it rotating in either direction, and can perceive a change in direction when there isn’t one. When seeing the correct direction the brain is experiencing an accurate representation of the physical phenomenon. When the brain ‘sees’ the cube flip to the wrong direction it is experiencing the illusion. We could walk up to the Necker cube and get a better perspective, and so remove the illusion completely: we change our POV. Watching the sunset we cannot easily changed POV – without leaving the earth. We are pretty much stuck experiencing the illusion of sunsets. The mental illusion.

Free will: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Unlike sunsets and Necker cubes we don’t have any visual cues to aid our thinking. We have no sensory input at all. And unlike the Necker cube we can’t change our POV. We are stuck with the first person subjective and introspective POV. All we have to give us a clue that we don’t have the free will of a free floating non-physical mind is all our third person science: the total lack of any indication that there are such things as non-physical minds (or souls), and all the science that only ever shows that everything has a cause. I’m surprised philosophers put so much store in the subjective POV. I can understand why theologians do; and perhaps this common love of introspection is why they are such good bedfellows so often, and why theologians are often mistaken for philosophers (Plantinga).

What about the language? Should it change?

Sunset: When appropriate, yes. And it does. Astronomers stood on earth, or astronauts stood on the moon for that matter, will generally refer to sunsets, or earth rises, or whatever they experience, using the common terms, when they are in the first person POV. It even makes sense for Mission Control, on earth, to speak in terms of earth rise, when communicating with astronauts stood on the moon. The earth bound controllers are humans, and humans are capable of projecting their POV as appropriate, when required. But in any scientific context that involves an imaginary third person perspective of the solar system scientists will talk in terms of planetary rotations and orbits. We switch the terminology as required.

Free will: When appropriate, yes. Just as astronomers can project their imaginary POV to positions off the surface of the earth, so too scientists (and some philosophers) can shift their POV to view brains as physical objects performing functions of thinking and willing in terms of brain activity. We don’t have to be subject to the first person POV to the point that we deny that free will is an illusion. But nor do we have to abandon the first person POV whereby we succumb to the illusion of free will. Philosophers should not take the incompatibilist perspective as a denial of having the illusory experience of free will.

If the sunset or any visual illusion analogy is going to be used I can’t see how one can conclude that free will is not an illusion.

I can see that Dennett isn’t convinced. Try this:

there are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions-all there is is just neurons and glia and the like

Philosophers and theologians alike love their emotive language. We’re mad dogs now. This makes mockery of Dennett’s complaints about the language Harris uses.

But again Dennett mistakes the phenomena for the experience of the phenomena. It is an illusion that we have a free floating mind. It’s no good Dennett complaining “all there is is just neurons and glia and the like” if he’s not going to give any alternative explanation. That’s all there is inside our heads. What else does he think is the product of the experience? What (i.e. who) does he think is having the mental experience? Get used to Dan, it’s the brain: the neurons and glia and the like. He rules out non-physical dualism, and he rules out the brain. What magic is he supposing?

Here are some more instances of Harris’s move: We do not have the freedom we think we have. Who’s we?

We are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. When “I” say “my brain” is doing it, that’s my brain talking about itself in the first and third person, as the first person possessive of the second. I am me, the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”. We don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. There is no other credible possibility on the table.

So, when Harris says, “We do not have the freedom we think we have.” it means that the brain that perceives itself through thought suffers an illusion that it is a mind free of the brain. The brain is a delusional organ in this respect. This isn’t unreasonable. There are brain conditions where brains feel the are connected to their bodies either – they feel totally disembodied. There are not only specific neurological conditions that lead to this but quite common psychological experiences of being out-of-body. Why is so difficult to understand that a brain can feel itself disembodied from the brain?

So, this is what it feels like to be a massively connected bunch of neurons that have collected and contextualised masses of data about the world, encoded as active neuronal activity and neuron memory states. This is what it feels like for such a system to process data about itself, to ‘observe’ itself. It cannot ‘observe’ itself visually or with any other senses. This thinking business, this is what it feels like for a system with no external experience of its own internal operation to form concepts about itself. It feels like a free floating mind exists that is unconnected to the brain. That is the nature of the illusion of the mind. When that brain switches into action mode, this is what it feels like to will, and we call it free will because it feels free of the brain events that it consists of.

There’s a lot more wrong with the Dennett piece. But I wanted to address this particular perspective on the illusory nature of free will in terms of illusions. particularly since Dennett makes such a bad job of it.

2 thoughts on “Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

  1. Hello Ron:

    A very interesting discussion and I don’t feel up to arguing, but for the record, the philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who is, I believe, an incompatibilist, describes himself as a “mad dog naturalist” and thus, Dennett is using (playfully, I believe) Rosenberg’s own playful self-description.

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