Free Will Debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris — and a plea to a third party…

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by Neil Godfrey

I used to be fascinated by the question of free will. I still am, but it is some times since I have read the various debates. I see that Richard Carrier has posted a review of an online debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris at Dennett vs. Harris on Free Will that will be of interest to some.  (As you may guess from my recent post addressing Harris’s views on another matter, I think Sam Harris comes out as the less clear thinker in such a debate.)

I don’t know if I have Richard Carrier’s attention with this post but just on the off-chance I do, with well-meaning intention I would like to add another comment on an unrelated matter. Carrier writes:

In his response, after 200 words of introduction, Sam Harris first burns 600 words complaining about Dennett being mean to him, treating criticism as an affront to his dignity that requires elaborating on for some reason. This is not a good start. It is usually a red flag for not having an actual defense. It’s the sign of a hack: If you can’t rebut content, complain about tone.

And concludes with:

Maybe some day Harris will realize all the mistakes he made here, and how he may be making them elsewhere too. The outcome will be marvelous.

Richard Carrier knows what it is like to have critics treating him and his works unfairly, very unfairly, even falsely, “being [extremely] mean to him”. Richard is known not to shrink back from complaining about such treatment in some of his response. Now in Richard’s case complaining in such cases about “tone” is not a sign that he has no “actual defense” or that he is “a hack”. But that’s not how people tend to react. Complaining in the heat of the moment about tone and unfair treatment can create the impression of being shrill. It certainly robs one of the moral high ground one has just gained by being the subject of bitter and false accusations. That moral high ground becomes evident by a response that shows up one’s attackers for what they are. The moral high ground is clear for all when an unprofessional attack is confronted with a professional and civil response.

I think it is a shame that John Loftus (an anti-Christian polemicist) and Richard Carrier cannot work harmoniously and supportively together. Recently, for example, John Loftus in his post Dr. Wallace Marshall Highly Endorses David Marshall’s Book, “Jesus is No Myth” added this disappointing remark:

Richard Carrier thinks this book is bad to say the least, but I find Carrier to be shrill, very offensive and exaggerated in defense of his own work.

Richard, you know you have the method and logic on your side (generally) so there is no need to display anything but the sound method and logic of your arguments against the criticisms. People don’t “work” in an ideal righteous and rational world of our own liking. The most devastating and memorable critiques I have seen against unfair or obtuse critics come from scholars like Michael Goulder, for one, who always responded with scholarly but wry wit. The punch line usually came towards the end — leaving room for readers to be impressed by the devastating logical dismantling of the opponents.

Another scholar I like and who demonstrates calm, devastating critique in a scholarly manner is Crispin Fletcher-Louis. He has the ability to demonstrate, for example, that Larry Hurtado is an apologist some of whose arguments are without merit in the scholarly world by calm scholarly prose:

If, as we have argued here, the New Testament nowhere in fact presents direct evidence to support Hurtado’s account of religious experience in christological origins then, for his thesis to have any credence, he surely has to explain why it is that the early Christians buried the evidence for what really happened and created so thoroughgoing an alternative story.

Fletcher-Louis, C. (2009). A New Explanation of Christological Origins. Tyndale Bulletin, 45. pp. 200f

Ouch! That’s a professional way to say that Hurtado’s argument is baseless and flies in the face of all the evidence for which there are other far more cogent explanations, that Hurtado is arguing like an apologist despite his claims to be doing otherwise.

There are a number of points where I think Richard goes beyond the evidence, too, and that his main arguments would be stronger without some of those loose bricks. I have had to tidy up a few of my own in the past. But that’s not the main point here.

The main point is a plea to do a Saul to Paul turnabout. It’s okay for those “on the top” in the professional world to display their bigotry, bias and falseness. What puts the spotlight on those warts is a calm and scholarly and professional rebuttal of the content, ignoring the “tone”. The contrast is immediately evident. Those “on the bottom” of the pecking order can never afford to look like the aggressor or as if they are prepared to get as dirty as their opponents. I know. I sometimes in the past crossed the line in responses to a few critics whom I considered blatantly dishonest — and it always backfired.

End of plea.


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Free Will Debate between Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris — and a plea to a third party…”

  1. Part of the motivation to make attacks on the person making an argument is to goad them into losing their cool. It can be difficult to restrain the impulse to take a swing at the person who just (metaphorically) punched you in the nose. Having been in the situation myself many times online, I know the feeling. You are right, of course, that it’s better to resist allowing your discussion partner to provoke a mud-slinging match.

    1. You speak the truth. Anger can be as potent as alcohol when it come to turning off the frontal lobes and getting you to say and do things you later feel compelled to apologize for.

  2. A heads-up and grateful shout- out to the magnanimous folks who publish the Tyndall Bulletin for making past issues available for download rather than locking them up behind a paywall.
    I personally view the field of “academic” theology as closed group pulling off an elaborate fraud, since the majority of their research publications are locked up in limited access journals and behind paywalls where they are for all intents and purposes inaccessible to any one who is not a member of the club, ie someone who had been properly annointed by orthodox academia, and has free access via an academic portal. The academicians can publish circularly referential blather, and no one outside their private club can call them out.
    Theology and religious studies are not valid “sciences” and have no right to claim they are legitimate academic departments as ong as they run a closed shop and shield their discussions and publications from public scrutiny.

  3. Based on having read both Harris and Dennett’s work in this area in the past I have no real interest in a debate between them on this topic.

    “Free Will” is a subject of exaggerated complexity, but it’s really quite simple.

    Quantum physics does NOT define the future as deterministic, but rather as probabilistic. Probability is NOT freedom or responsiveness to will but rather randomness.

    Brain scans showing decisions forming before a subject is aware of them is not determinism and actually has nothing to do with will at all. The problem is choice. Making choices between very similar things is HARD. Making choices where there is a clear advantage of one option over another is easy. So when a person is forced to make a choice between very similar things, a person is simply allowing a random choice to bubble up from their subconscious. Scientifically this matter is completely settled.

    Religious people rely on “Free Will” for passing judgment and executing punishment, as basically justification for revenge as a form of punishment, yet they simultaneously rely on the absolute Will and Power of God. Most people who are not especially religious are totally okay with this. Lay people don’t like the idea that they don’t have “Free Will” because it sounds like they are puppets dragged around by fate. They like the idea of society imposing harsh punishments because it makes the decision of whether to commit crime seem “easy”. This is of course based on the overall flawed understanding of HOW people end up committing crimes, as if their choice was simply between the gains of crime versus the punishment of getting caught and NOTHING to do with the social order which causes people to suffer to the point that they have no choices for survival.

    Harris and Dennett are both well known atheists. Harris holds a hardline atheist position against “Free Will”, the technically correct position, but he argues extremely poorly. He wrote a “book”/pamphlet about “Free Will” which is totally garbage. Dennett on the other hand argues to the lay person who wants free will using the same error that everyone who argues for “Free Will” makes, by conflating it with choice.

    Being able to make choices is not “Free Will”, your will is what you want not what you choose. When you want something and there are no consequences to choosing it, your will and your choice will be aligned, but most of the time this is not how choice works. There are usually consequences, and consequences are those things that lend the argument to determinism. Fate is the end of a life full of consequences. Only a rich, privileged person is going to have a life full of choices.

    1. John Loftus falls into a category of former pastors who can’t seem to get over whatever it was that led them to become pastors. If you had “Free Will” this would be one of those things you’d just stop doing.

  4. Richard Carrier makes some very good points that potentially add a lot to everyone’s ability to engage in clear thinking about this and any question: e.g. alertness to the difference between analytic and synthetic propositions; the fact that some charlatans use logic or science to trick the unwary does not mean logic or science are invalid, etc.

    Unfortunately he embeds his often valuable analysis in doofus insults.

    He has a lot to offer but does not appreciate how the world works. He could learn from The1Janitor’s criticism of Sam Harris who also reacts with insults when challenged: https://vridar.org/2018/06/18/are-you-politically-correct-or-are-you-an-arsehole/

    Removing the doofus insults from his response may not change the mind of John Loftus but it would certainly have a more positive impact on the audience watching the debate.

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