Why can’t we agree?

There’s something really interesting to me about the Dan Dennett / Sam Harris free will debate. It’s not so much the content of the debate, and it’s not so much that they disagree. It’s the fact that they seem so close in their views but have been unable to agree. They are both philosophers who pride themselves on their clarity of thought, amenability to reason, willingness to change their minds when shown evidence of their wrongness.

And yet, in this debate, not only have they been unable to come to an agreement, they actually damaged their friendship for 2 years over it.

In the podcast episode, it begins to look like this is a verbal dispute — a trivial disagreement that would be resolved by unraveling ambiguity in terminology. But if that’s the case, why weren’t these two experts able to identify and dissolve it?

Maybe it’s that our tools are bad. That we use this loose, ambiguous, unstructured natural language, either spoken or written, but in any case the actual parsing for semantics is done in the head of each participant, in each case out of view of the other.

What if we could get more of that parsing happening out in the open?


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