AS53: Free Will with Ryan Born

Free Will with Ryan Born

This week we’ve got Ryan Born, who you may remember as the winner of the Sam Harris essay contest. Ryan is a philosopher who runs the blog http://pointofcontroversy.com. Last time we spoke, Ryan had a ton to teach us about Moral Philosophy. This time though, we’re here to discuss a very different topic, but one he is well versed in. Ryan Born has worked with the philosopher Eddy Nahmias. Nahmias wrote a very interesting review of Harris’s book, which can be found here: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=5208. Nahmias has done some unique work on determining just what normal people actually think free will is. As you will find out, this may be very relevant to the debate between Harris and Dennett.

In this discussion, we explore the definition of free will. Ryan is very concerned with the question of what most people believe the definition to be. The disagreement between Harris and Dennett may simply amount to a difference in opinion as to what most people believe free will ought to be.  Are most people naturally compatibilist? Or would most people say that determinism makes free will impossible? Or, is this information really relevant? Should we just be discussing what the definition of free will ought to be? As we found out in previous episodes, Harris has accused Dennett of a bait and switch, where Dennett is taking the old, damaged definition of free will and switching it out with a new better version that is compatible with Determinism. Ryan Born sees this as a totally justified move, but Harris sees the concept as far too damaged to simply substitute out. Harris alleges that the classical conception of free will is so wrong and so prevalent that Dennett cannot simply reinvent it because he will no longer be referring to the same experience everyone believes they have.

3 thoughts on “AS53: Free Will with Ryan Born”

  1. Great discussion! Ryan Born is such an excellent resource – he is so good at laying out the current state of the philosophical discourse.

    Although I was surprised when Ryan expressed doubts about possible evolutionary benefits of consciousness. Consciousness is integration of different sensory modalities, time, memory, etc. Consciousness also helps us to learn from experience by replaying memories or simulating scenarios. Evolutionary benefits of such capabilities are clear.

    Why do we ask: “do we have free will?” Does this question help us discuss issues of praise, blame, punishment, responsibility? I don’t think so. Questions like “what do we have” and “how it works” seem much more relevant.

    Although philosophers have a lot of interesting perspectives on consciousness and free will, I keep seeing “do we have free will?” question as another phrasing of the “what should we call the thing we have?” question. How much value does this question add?

    As science marches on, some philosophical questions increasingly turn into empirical questions. D. Dennett seems to distinguish himself from many other philosophers by accepting and embracing that process.

  2. I feel like when an Incompatablist cites those experiments that seem to indicate that we make decisions before we consciously evaluate them that they are tacitly admitting to the charge from Compatablists that they are secretly dualists. Let me explain:

    Free will does not exist, says the Incompatablist, because, as we see here, the conscious mind does not actually enter in to the decision-making process. This is what we have been saying all along! What is left unsaid is the implication that, apparently, if our conscious mind /was/ involved in decision-making, we /would/ have free will. Because Incompatablists seem to view the consciousness as a free agent and deny that it can enter into the causal chain, whereas Compatablists seems to acknowledge that consciousness is a part of the causal chain, and also a very real part of us as beings. The question of free will is really — do we, as we understand ourselves, exists within the causal chain? The compatablist says yes, /of course/ we do.

    1. Dale,

      That’s a great point! It makes me wonder – why are we tempted to see subconsciousness as something other than ourselves?

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