Sam Harris and Dan Dennett try to sort out their differences over free will

Sam Harris and philosopher Dan Dennett used to be good buds. They’re aligned on some important and controversial topics. But about two years ago, they got into this somewhat nasty public fight over, of all things, the nature of free will. Recently, they got together again to try to has things out. This post provides some background and introduction to that conversation.


How it started: a couple years ago Sam Harris wrote a book about free will. In it, he made the case that free will is an illusion: all of your actions and decisions are the product of the physical state of the world, including your body; and that state is entirely the product of the world as it was a moment before, and so on back until the beginning of time. In no moment do ‘you’ come into the picture as the actual author of your decisions.

Before he published the book, Sam asked his friend Daniel Dennett, the prominent philosopher, to read a draft and provide comments. Dan was too busy and he told Sam so. As a result, Dan didn’t read the book before it came out.

When the book did come out, Dan released a public review and Sam released a public response. The exchange contained barbed language and an adversarial tone.

Many people were dismayed: these two are intellectual luminaries and friends who are both explicitly committed to the art of productive intellectual confrontation. And yet they failed to keep it civil. They failed to come closer to agreeing. Their friendship blew up.

What the hell happened? If they can’t do it, what hope do the rest of us have?

The podcast conversation

A couple months ago the two met, for the first time since the spat, at the TED conference in Banff, Canada. They sat in a bar and recorded a 90-minute conversation in which they resurrected their conversation about free will and at the same time tried to heal some wounds between them.

Unfortunately, they weren’t able to fully resolve the disagreement or fully repair their relationship — but they did make some progress. I’ve had that conversation transcribed, and over the next few days I’ll be pulling it apart so that we can see if we can make sense of it.

For now, here’s a brief intro.

At the core of the debate is the question “Does free will exist?”

  • SH says no, it does not.
  • DD says yes it does, it’s just not the kind of free will that SH is looking for.

DD’s move is to propose that the term ‘free will’ is ambiguous, containing at least two separate meanings. Those are:

  • ‘Libertarian free will’ — an agent is the ultimate author of his actions.
  • ‘Compatibilist free will’ — free will that’s compatible with determinism. In DD’s compatibilist free will, freedom comes in degrees.

DD and SH accept that libertarian free will doesn’t exist. They also accept that many people think it does, and that they have it, and that when they hear arguments that it doesn’t exist, this can be subversive.

DD and SH can’t get the conversation off the ground with regard to compatibilist free will, because SH thinks it’s missing some core component of free will, and is thus not free will at all. DD thinks it’s not missing anything important.

So this becomes the first key crux: is compatibilist free will missing some core, essential feature of free will? If so, what is it and why is it important?


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