Daniel Dennett

Free will and dualism

I’ve been planning to write about free will for years but it’s never quite happened. I have, on more than one occasion, planned large scholarly articles….and then failed to write them. The form and content of those potential articles is probably lost forever, oh well. Free will is a huge subject, one of the most written about and argued about subjects in all of philosophy. That’s why every time I start planning to write about it the range of arguments I want to discuss quickly expands, the project becomes bloated, and I slink back to my day job as an evolutionary biologist. Well, maybe it’s because I’m currently between day jobs, but I figure if I don’t start by writing something short and sweet and posting it on my blog (which exists for this very purpose, after all) I might never write anything about it at all. I think that would be a shame (for me, at least), so here goes.

As one of the most popular and controversial subjects in philosophy, and one of those that people have the strongest intuitions about, it’s unsurprising a lot of arguments about free will are somewhat (dare I say it) incoherent. Actually, “incoherent” is a very common word utilised in these arguments themselves, typically directed by proponents of one view towards those of another. I’m going to continue this venerable tradition (mostly because it’s fun)  – there are plenty of incoherent arguments both for and against the existence of free will. If I keep writing about this subject, I might get around to reviewing many of them, but I’m going to start by putting some of my own cards on the table at the outset. I believe that Kant, who probably didn’t believe in free will in the metaphysical sense and who famously considered compatibilism (the claim that free will can exist in a deterministic universe) a “wretched subterfuge”, nonetheless refuted the majority of arguments against the existence of free will. This includes many modern arguments. When a philosopher who died in 1804 can be considered to have refuted arguments still being made in 2016, this is an example of what I like to call “proactive refutation”. How did he accomplish this? Simply by asserting that we “cannot act except under the idea of freedom”. For Kant, all actions (or inactions) result from choosing to act (or not to). This includes making the choice to believe that we have no free will – unless you have been somehow coerced (by another agent) into making this choice, you have made it freely.

There is, of course, a sizeable literature devoted to this claim of Kant’s, and there have been many attempts to refute it, but I think that most of them fail. This is going to be a short piece and I want to get to why I think denying the existence of free will is fundamentally dualistic, but before I do I better try to explain what (I think) Kant is on about. There are complicated arguments about coercion etc – e.g. when one is forced to do something is one free to do otherwise, and if not can one be said to be “acting” in the Kantian sense – but let’s leave those aside for now. I think the most important thing about what Kant is saying is that “freedom” and “autonomy of the will” are part of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the manifest image”. This means that these concepts are part of the level of reality on which humans have evolved to act and on which (in one of Sellars’ examples) we perceive and interact with objects like tables rather than clouds of loosely interacting subatomic particles with a whole lot of empty space between them. Daniel Dennett has developed this line of argument in considerable detail, but the punch line is that arguments from physics (e.g. arguments about determinism) are irrelevant to discussions regarding the existence of free will. Now, most of the arguments from physics against the existence of free will are incoherent (told you!) anyway and wouldn’t demonstrate the non-existence of free will even if they were relevant, but they aren’t. They also aren’t really even arguments from physics, more like arguments from pseudophysics, but that line of argument can wait.

So, a striking majority of arguments against free will are refuted simply by a recognition of the fact that there are many “levels of description” when it comes to reality and that free will is relevant to (and exists on) only some of them. This simple argument takes care of a lot of modern arguments from neuroscience as well as those from physics, but I want to dwell on the former a little longer. To me it seems quite ironic that many people who deny the existence of free will on the basis of evidence from neuroscience accuse those who persist in believing in it of being closet dualists. For me quite the opposite is true  – not that those who deny free will based on neuroscience have a considered belief in dualism that they are hiding, but that their intuitions are guided by (vestigial) dualist notions.

Dan Dennett has caricatured these arguments as “my brain made me do it” and lamented the naïve (in his view) attempts at philosophy perpetrated by certain scientists who have advocated this position. I don’t always agree with Dennett (I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear this), but I do wish that those who consistently lampoon his positions (“Dan doesn’t believe in consciousness!”) would actually take the time to understand them first. Another way of caricaturing the argument from neuroscience is as “the self is an illusion, therefore free will doesn’t exist”. This is incoherent (am I over doing it yet?). Sure, the self isn’t what it might naïvely appear to be (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it is acausal, but I won’t get into that) but acknowledging that simple fact and then using it to justify doing away with free will is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

If you are a monist, you are committed to the idea that everything is, at some deep level, made of the same stuff. This stuff might be vibrations, subatomic particles, atoms, whatever you want. To me, that’s all physicalism. It’s not “materialism”, because matter is not fundamental, but no matter (ha!) how far “down” you go it’s still physicalism (vibrations in fields are physical). Anyway, unless you are absurdly reductionist, you agree that there are entities at some range of levels above your chosen fundamental level. If you have any respect for biology, you acknowledge that at some number of levels above the fundamental you find entities like proteins, cells, and ultimately organisms. Which level is the “causal level”? The position people take on free will often hinges on their answer to this question. A very influential position of the past (famously illustrated by Laplace’s Demon, an intuition pump so potent it is still guiding people’s thoughts today) is that, since the only really real stuff is atoms moving in a void, the atom is the important level for causal analysis. Many neuroscientists seem to think that the cell (specifically the neuron, or perhaps the neuronal network) is the relevant level. The problem isn’t the preferred answer though, it’s the question. It’s meaningless (incoherent?). There is no level of causal primacy. There is no prime mover. This is taking the worst of theological thinking and the worst of reductionist thinking and mashing them together to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of an intuition pump that refuses to die. Forget that question forever if you want to be able to think clearly about the evolution of the universe, including the organisms present within it, all the way “up” to the level of the consciousness that at least some of those organisms possess.

If you don’t believe in free will, you are not just committed to a hard form of epiphenomenalism (the incoherent notion that consciousness is entirely acausal), you are also a (vestigial) dualist. Why? Because you are suggesting that the “you” which is your “self” is causally disconnected from the “you” that is your neurons (and all the rest of your physiology). What would that mean? If you are a physical monist, you must believe that the experience you are having, your sentience, awareness, meta-consciousness and self, is realised due to activity in your brain. You also can’t be an idealist (in the Berkeleyan sense) – you must believe there is an actual reality out there that your brain evolved to allow you to interact with. So, you believe that signals are coming in via your sense organs and ultimately are “transduced” into your awareness. All this is happening in your brain. Consciousness is just an (integrated) form of awareness (actually it’s an affordance-seeking predictive engine of awareness, but anyway). The “self” is something you are (or can be) aware of. So, do signals come in, get integrated and go into your awareness, but then find the neuronal blind alley in which meta-consciousness hides? Can signals go in to this blind alley but not come out? Is the neuronal substrate of your consciousness somehow causally isolated from the rest of your brain? Hmmmm, sounds a lot like vestigial dualism to me  – it’s a recasting of the “problem of interaction” that has long been used as an argument against dualism (how does the soul/consciousness “stuff” interact with the physical stuff?).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. I know I haven’t addressed a lot of arguments that people use to try and refute free will (e.g. some of those glossed over above, as well as arguments from phenomenology and more), but this is enough for now. Ultimately, a lot of the arguing about free will is arguing about the definition of the term itself. There are plenty of people, who I have a great deal of respect for, who are basically compatibilists but who nonetheless claim that there is no such thing as “free will”. I prefer to concentrate on the common ground in such cases, in so far as the real goal of discussion and debate is inching slightly closer to whatever truth of the matter might be accessible. However, arguing semantics can sometimes be very productive too, as long as all parties involved in the debate understand the level on which the debate is taking place. I myself am essentially a fallibilist and this means that I’m not all that attached to any particular way of saying things because ultimately they are all wrong. I’m not a relativist though, which means that some ways of saying things are more right than others, so now that I’ve made a start in my writings about free will you can expect to hear more from me on this subject in the future.

P.S. That’s Kant at the top. He’s on my side, really he is.

Billy and the daemons.

Later that “day” in hyper-dimensional space, Billy bumped into Laplace’s Daemon, who was looking dejected.

“Hey, LD, what’s up?” Billy asked, cheerfully.

“Oh, hi Billy,” the daemon rumbled. His voice, almost subsonic, sounded hollow. “I’m feeling a bit low, to tell the truth.”

“Cheer up LD, what’s wrong?”

“I feel pretty useless, Billy.”

“Oh come on.”

“I’m not good at anything…”

“That’s nonsense LD! You know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe! That’s pretty awesome!”

“I thought so too, but now I don’t know…”

“What happened?”

“I failed to predict the outcome of the US presidential election…”

“Oh, bummer…but you’ve predicted a lot of other stuff correctly, right?”

“Well, not as such, no…”

“But…I thought prediction was your whole thing LD?”

“So did I…but I’ve never actually tried to predict anything before now.”

“Wow – isn’t that what you were created for?”

“I guess not. I guess I was created as an intuition pump like some smart arse philosophers have claimed…oh man, this sucks – I was so determined to try,” the daemon let out an almighty sigh. “Ha! ‘Determined’!” he suddenly shouted, slapping his daemonic thigh ironically.

“What’s an intuition pump LD?” chirped Billy, his ears ringing. He’d missed the joke but was always excited to learn new things.

“It means I was created just to convince people that prediction was possible in principle. You know, to show people how obvious and logical determinism is and how incoherent the idea that puny creatures like them could have ‘Free Will’ is,” the daemon made little bunny ears with his daemonic fingers as he pronounced the words “Free Will”, “…but I never really thought to test my powers.” He paused, shaking his daemonic head, “I mean, it was so obvious!”

Suddenly, Tegmark’s Daemon appeared in a puff of mathematics.

“Hi TD!” chirped Billy, whose irrepressible chirping was starting to get on the daemonic nerves of Laplace’s Daemon.

“Hi Billy! Hi LD – I hear you’ve had a spot of bother bit of predicting the future old chap,” said the newcomer.

“Bloody hell,” growled the older daemon, “everybody knows… I’ll be a laughing stock at the next meeting of the Council of Daemons.”

“Cheer up mate,” replied TD, trying to console his friend, “it’s not your fault. You just don’t know anything about quantum indeterminacy, that’s all.”

“What’s that?” asked LD, without enthusiasm.

“Would you like me to show you?”

“Not really…”

“Yes!” exclaimed Billy, who knew it was rude to interrupt when daemons were talking to each other but was unable to contain his excitement.

“Excellent!” said Tegmark’s Daemon, ruffling Billy’s hair affectionately before opening his daemonic mouth and spewing forth a huge jumble of equations. While he explained them to his eager young student, Laplace’s Daemon picked his daemonic teeth disinterestedly with his daemonic claws.

Some “time” later, when Tegmark’s Daemon had finished his daemonic explanation, he turned to his fellow daemon and said, “So now you know, LD – it’s a bit harder to predict the future than you thought, because you have to analyse all possible universes and work out which one you’re in! You couldn’t possibly have known…”

“Whatever,” grunted the downcast daemon, brusquely interrupting his younger colleague.

Tegmark’s Daemon shrugged his daemonic shoulders, “OK chaps, I’m off then,” he said, and promptly disappeared in another puff of mathematics.

“Fucking precocious upstart,” muttered Laplace’s Daemon, alone with Billy once more.

“I feel bad for you LD,” said Billy, “but you have to admit, that was pretty cool!” The boy was beaming in the afterglow of the brief encounter with his favourite daemon – Tegmark’s.

“Piss off, kid.”

“Aw, don’t be sore LD. What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know…probably start a psychic hotline.”




Art: William Blake’s “The Number of the Beast is 666”

The science of consciousness, “why” questions, and philosopher David Chalmers (Part 1)


Consciousness is something we are all intimately familiar with – we not only possess it, we inhabit it. Unfortunately, deep familiarity and deep understanding do not always go hand in hand and the vast majority of us know very little about consciousness – how it arises, how it evolved or what its function is. Indeed even at the cutting edge of science many questions about consciousness remain unanswered. The study of consciousness is one of those branches of science (theoretical physics is another), increasingly rare in the 21st-century1, in which philosophical and experimental science stand side-by-side on almost equal footing. Attend a conference of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC), as I did earlier this year, and you will find the papers almost evenly divided between the philosophical and theoretical or experimental approaches.

Not only are many questions about consciousness yet to be answered, many scientists and philosophers are unable to agree as to the very nature of the questions themselves. One particularly contentious question is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness research. The hard problem, as elucidated by philosopher David Chalmers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhRhtFFhNzQ), the man who coined the term, is the “why?” of consciousness – why do certain types of brain activity give rise to the experience of subjectivity? Chalmers says that identifying the brain activity associated with the various subsets of conscious experience constitutes the “easy problem(s)”. He maintains that even when “neural correlates” for all conscious experiences have been identified the hard problem will remain unsolved.

A founding member of the ASSC, Chalmers believes that the hard problem is a scientific question for which a scientific answer is possible. In his 1994 paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, he states that pessimism regarding the possibility of a scientific theory that explains consciousness is premature despite the fact that reductionist explanations of consciousness have, in his view, failed. Chalmers believes that a non-reductionist explanation is required and therefore that the hard problem may be answerable via panpsychism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panpsychism) – by treating subjectivity as a fundamental property of matter, rather than something that arises secondarily through functional evolutionary pathways. Essentially, Chalmers is suggesting that what is generally considered a question for biology (in which there are both properties and functions) should be treated as a question for physics (in which there are only properties). Although this seems like a category error, in itself it is not an intrinsically “unscientific” approach. However, leaving aside his claim that reductionist theories of consciousness have failed to account for subjectivity, let’s consider whether or not the hard problem is indeed a scientific question.

I propose that we can divide why? questions roughly into two discrete categories: “mechanistic why?” and “metaphysical why?”. An example of a mechanistic why? is the kind of question evolutionary biologists routinely investigate, e.g., “why is the venom of some Australian snakes so toxic to lab mice?” Such a mechanistic why? can be further divided into two subcategories – it is either a question about property or a question about function. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has referred to these as “how come?” (property) and “what for?” (function) questions. Rephrased, we can derive either “what are the specific biochemical properties of the venom that make it so toxic?” (property); or “what are the evolutionary selection pressures that have resulted in the venom being so toxic to lab mice?” (function), from this one mechanistic why? A mechanistic why? is therefore a question that can be easily and effectively rephrased as one or other of the two kinds of what? A metaphysical why?, on the other hand, concerns the “ultimate reason” for things being as they are. A classic metaphysical why?, derived from the Anthropic Principle, is: “why are the physics of our universe such that on this planet the conditions are precisely right for life to arise and humans to eventually evolve?” Questions such as these have been amusingly termed “vertiginous questions” by Scott Aaronson (http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1799).

Science is not fond of metaphysical why? because they do not function as standard hypotheses – they generate no predictions and are thus fundamentally untestable. Although there is no universally accepted definition of the scientific method, it is often considered that a major pathway2 through which science advances is the generation of testable hypotheses. Scientific hypotheses generate predictions about observable reality in the format “if A (the hypothesis) is true, then B will be observable.” It is not strictly speaking necessary that a hypothesis be immediately testable with current technology, but it must generate predictions that are testable “in theory”. Questions about “ultimate reasons” generate no predictions.

Like experimental science, the field of metaphysics concerns itself with what? and largely eschews why? Here is a modern definition of metaphysics (emphasis mine):

“Metaphysics is about what could be and what must be. Except incidentally, metaphysics is not about explanatorily ultimate aspects of reality that are actual.” (Conee and Snyder, 2005)

So, a metaphysical what? asks “what is actual or possible?”; whilst a metaphysical why? question asks “why are things actual or possible?” An example of the former is “are there atoms?” An example of the latter is “why are there atoms?” If science eschews metaphysical why? because they are fundamentally untestable, why should metaphysics eschew them? After all, metaphysics is concerned with the possible as well as the actual and the testability or predictive power of metaphysical questions is not relevant. One reason may be that answers to metaphysical why? only beget more metaphysical why? – to ask a metaphysical why? is to set in motion a never-ending chain of questions that beget questions that beget questions. Perhaps another reason is that answering a metaphysical why? (i.e. postulating an “ultimate reason” ) would seem to require the existence of what Daniel Dennett has termed an “invisible intentional system”. There is a major branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the asking of metaphysical why? – theology.

So what about the hard problem of consciousness? We’ve established that it’s a why? – but what sort of why? Let’s begin by examining the question in more detail, first as it was posed in Chalmers’ 1994 paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, and then in his more recent elucidation of it in the previously linked TED talk. In the 1994 paper, Chalmers initially defines the hard problem in the following passage (emphasis mine):

Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”

Although it contains the word “why” four times, there’s nothing in this passage that makes it explicitly clear what kind of why? Chalmers is asking – taken out of context, he could be asking a question about the mechanisms from which subjectivity arises or about the selection pressures that have favoured the evolution of subjectivity. As we’ve seen, however, Chalmers defines the hard problem in relation to the easy problems. In the same paper, he tells us that the “…easy problems of consciousness include those of explaining the following phenomena:

  • the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
  • the integration of information by a cognitive system;
  • the reportability of mental states;
  • the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
  • the focus of attention;
  • the deliberate control of behavior;
  • the difference between wakefulness and sleep.”

In the TED talk, he tells us explicitly that identifying the neural correlates of consciousness will not answer the hard problem. During the talk, he phrases his why? in the following way:

“We know that these brain areas go along with certain kinds of conscious experience, but we don’t know why they do.”

And tells us that the “real mystery” is “why is it that all that physical processing in the brain should be accompanied by consciousness at all?”

Chalmers thereby makes it clear that one avenue of interpreting the hard problem as a mechanistic why question is closed to us – he explicitly tells us that the mystery is not what kinds of brain activity subjectivity arises from, but why it arises from this brain activity. So, despite his desire to frame the hard problem as a question for physics, for Chalmers the “hard question” is not a “how come?” (property) question about the brain. Nor, apparently, is it a “what for?” (function) question – at no point in his discussion, in either the paper from 1994 or his TED talk, does Chalmers mention evolution. In fact, he tells us that unlike Daniel Dennett he finds a functional explanation of consciousness to be unsatisfactory. It is therefore clear that his why? can not be interpreted in terms of selection pressures favouring the evolution of subjectivity.

It seems we can be reasonably confident in ruling out the hard problem as a mechanistic why? altogether. Chalmers says that he is “a scientific materialist at heart” and that the panpsychist approach he advocates “opens up the way to do science” with consciousness, but then he explicitly disavows both possible scientific interpretations of his why?, including the one “opened up” by reframing it as a question for physics (i.e. a question about properties). It appears Chalmers’ hard problem is a metaphysical why? – a search for the “ultimate reason” that subjectivity exists.

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll be considering why (ha!) we feel so compelled to ask why?



1 A compelling case can be made for the point that the generalised “separation” of science and philosophy (including philosophy of science) is to the detriment of scientific thought.

2 There are others, but they are less relevant to the asking of specific questions (i.e., the generation of hypotheses).