Daniel Dennett, Free Will and the Nefarious Neurosurgeon

In a brief video on the website Big Think, philosopher Daniel Dennett accuses neuroscientists of corrupting the public by telling people they don’t have free will. Rather than addressing the question of whether or not free will exists, Dennett questions whether or not people are better off believing in free will, regardless of the accuracy of this belief. However, the consequences of free will skepticism are not always negative. And experts in science, philosophy and other specialized fields should share their well-founded opinions with the public and help guide public behavior in light of this shared knowledge.

Daniel Dennett on Free Will

Dennett is a compatibilist, meaning he subscribes to the belief that free will and determinism can coexist without being logically incoherent. For compatibilists, this means agents are morally responsible for their actions as long as those actions do not arise from external coercion. So under this view, a thief is responsible for his crime as long as no one coerced him into committing it (e.g. by holding his wife hostage). And the thief is responsible even if his crime was a direct consequence of his genetic makeup, upbringing, socioeconomic status or other factors outside his control. After all, a compatibilist might argue, if the thief isn’t responsible for his crime, then who is?

So Dennett wants to uphold free will, even if determinism turns out to be true. In the following video, he offers a thought experiment to “jangle the nerves of neuroscientists who’ve been going around saying that neuroscience shows that we don’t have free will.”

Dennett asks us to imagine a “nefarious neuroscientist” who treats a patient with obsessive-compulsive disorder by inserting a microchip into the patient’s brain to prevent the thoughts and behaviors caused by his disorder. Following the surgery, the neuroscientist tells the patient his OCD is under control. The chip also allows the neuroscientist and her team to monitor the patient at all times and control his behavior. From this point forward, the patient may think he has free will, when in fact the neuroscientists will control all his actions.

The patient believes his doctor and accepts that he no longer has free will. Thinking he is no longer in control of his own actions, he becomes self-indulgent, aggressive and negligent, and commits a crime. As to why a disbelief in free will might lead someone to perform immoral actions, Dennett cites a 2008 paper by Vohs and Schooler. In this experiment, college students who read statements claiming that free will was contradicted by scientific laws and that humans “are biological computers—designed by evolution, built through genetics, and programmed by the environment” were more likely to cheat on a set of word problems with monetary rewards offered for correct answers.

At his trial, the patient admits to committing the crime but claims he is not at fault because he no longer has free will. The judge subpoenas the neuroscientist and asks her if the patient’s claim is true. She admits she told the patient he did not have free will but says she was just kidding and that the patient actually did have free will all along.

Dennett concludes the neuroscientist did something really bad. By convincing her patient he didn’t have free will, she induced immoral behavior akin to that of the subjects in the Vohs and Schooler paper. And if we agree Dennett’s fictional neuroscientist did something really bad, Dennett thinks we should express similar misgivings about real neuroscientists who tell people every day that they have disproved the existence of free will. Real neuroscientists should question whether it is irresponsible for them to make claims about free will.

A Closer Look

We can summarize Dennett’s argument as follows:

  1. Neuroscientists regularly tell people they don’t have free will.
  2. Believing we don’t have free will has negative consequences.
  3. In general, experts ought to be careful about making public statements (even if they believe those statements to be true) that lead to negative consequences. (Though not explicitly stated, this premise is necessary for Dennett to move from his fictional neuroscientist lying to her patient about the nonexistence of free will to real-world neuroscientists making (presumably) earnest claims about the nonexistence of free will.)
  4. Therefore, neuroscientists should stop telling people they don’t have free will.

Rampant Misinformation?

In the video, Dennett describes neuroscientists telling the public “every day” that we don’t have free will. But is this behavior really as common as Dennett makes it sound? Benjamin Libet, whose 1980s research provides some of the earliest papers cited as evidence against free will, didn’t believe his research justified the conclusion that free will was an illusion. And despite Dennett’s fears, disbelief in free will doesn’t seem to be rampant in popular society. In fact, the free will-linked American myth of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps seems a far more commonly accepted idea in the United States.

Free Will and Its Consequences

Dennett justifies his second premise, that disbelief in free will has negative consequences, by appeal to the aforementioned experiment by Vohs and Schooler. But in that very paper, the authors caution:

“Although the study reported here raises concerns about the possible impact of deterministic views on moral behavior, it is important not to overinterpret our findings. Our experiments measured only modest forms of ethical behavior, and whether or not free-will beliefs have the same effect on more significant moral and ethical infractions is unknown.”

Thus, it seems Dennett is willing to do the very thing he warns neuroscientists to avoid, namely, to overgeneralize the results of scientific research.

Moreover, a 2015 review of the Vohs and Schooler paper noted discrepancies between the effect size (a statistical concept that measures the strength of the relationship between two variables on a numeric scale) found during the experiment and the effect size reported in the final paper. In essence, the paper reported a greater difference in cheating between the groups that read pro-free will and anti-free will statements than the researchers actually observed during the experiment.

Sisyphus, demonstrating his perseverance
Sisyphus, demonstrating his perseverance

In addition, other studies on free will belief show a variety of outcomes. One set of experiments found that people with an independent disbelief in free will were more likely to have a history of drug or alcohol use, more likely to have failed to quit substance use and more likely to have exhibited addictive behavior with regard to drugs and alcohol. The same researchers found that subjects who read an article calling free will an illusion said drugs were more addictive and believed they had less self-control over their behavior than participants who did not read the article.

A pair of studies done in China found that a stronger belief in free will was associated with higher life satisfaction and positive affect as well as increased perseverance for long-term goals. However, another study showed that female participants who read the same anti-free will text used by Vohs and Schooler administered fewer shocks to co-participants in exchange for monetary rewards (there was no significant difference in the number of shocks delivered between male participants who read the anti-free will text and those who read a neutral text). In other words, the evidence that disbelief in free will leads to negative behavior is far from conclusive.

Free Will, God and Truth

Finally, Dennett claims that neuroscientists should not tell people they don’t have free will because this belief has negative consequences. However, it is important to note how his analogy differs from real-world practices. In his “nefarious neuroscientist” story, the neuroscientist tells her patient she has removed his free will even though she does not believe that to be the case. But real-world neuroscientists aren’t lying when they claim humans don’t have free will. They may be misinterpreting or overgeneralizing their scientific research, but I doubt even Dennett would say they are purposely trying to deceive the public.

Furthermore, even if not believing in free will has negative consequences, the argument that neuroscientists should therefore refrain from voicing their anti-free will beliefs is a position Dennett himself is unwilling to take on other issues. Take, for example, the existence of God. Scientific evidence for the existence of an all-powerful creator is sorely lacking. And Dennett himself has been stylized as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.” In an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, Dennett defends his fellow “horsemen” against the charge that they are rude and intemperate, saying:

“There is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”

He then compares telling people that God does not exist to another case:

“Think of how horrible it would be to have to go around and tell people they had been taken in by Bernie Madoff. Think of the pain of learning that you’ve been made a complete fool of by Bernie Madoff. Do we have to tell those people? Yes. Do we really? Well, yeah, they’ve lost everything and we have to tell them and no matter how we tell them they’re going to feel rotten.”

But somehow, Dennett remains unwilling to extend this analogy to beliefs about free will. When it comes to beliefs about God and Bernie Madoff, Dennett is perfectly willing to tell people what he believes is the truth, even if that truth is painful to hear. Yet he balks at neuroscientists sharing what they believe to be true about free will based on their scientific research.

The Four Horsemen of New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett
The Four Horsemen of New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett

In addition, evidence shows not believing in God has some negative consequences. A review of research on religious and spiritual beliefs and mental and physical health found that in the majority of published studies, religious and spiritual beliefs were correlated with better coping with adversity, increased positive emotions, lower incidences of depression and suicide, reduced risk of substance abuse, fewer social problems such as crime and marital instability, lower incidence of cigarette smoking, and increased exercise and physical activity. And in an experiment reminiscent of Vohs’ and Schooler’s free will research, participants who read sentences that activated concepts associated with God or religion gave more money to anonymous strangers than participants who read neutral statements. Given the apparent benefits of religious beliefs, if Dennett wants neuroscientists to stop claiming we don’t have free will because that belief has negative social consequences, he should also stop claiming God does not exist.

Yet in reality, we don’t want experts in specialized fields to refrain from stating their opinions based on the information they have and their training and experience in analyzing such information. We want scientists, philosophers and other experts to share their knowledge with us and state their opinions honestly, along with their reasons for reaching those opinions.

A Better Way Forward

Although experts should share their well-founded opinions with the general public, they should avoid generalizing the results of experiments too broadly. So the nefarious neuroscientist should not tell her patient he does not have free will if she does not believe that to be the case. And real neuroscientists should not make claims about free will if those claims are not supported by experimental data. But Dennett is not arguing that neuroscientists’ claims about free will are unfounded (at least not in this video). He is arguing that neuroscientists should never tell people they don’t have free will, regardless of the available evidence. And as I have explained above, this view flies in the face of what society generally wants from experts in their fields.

We need Daniel Dennett and other intelligent people to help us understand what all these experimental results mean.

So instead of muzzling neuroscientists, Dennett and other truth-seekers should welcome continued scientific research on how human brains make decisions and the amount of conscious control involved in this process. And we need Dennett and other intelligent people in related fields to help us understand what all these experimental results mean. If scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates free will is an illusion, scientists and philosophers should not lie about these results.

However, we should also be aware that changing people’s beliefs about free will may initially result in negative changes in their behavior. It seems these changes, when they do occur, stem from the belief that people are not in control of their actions and cannot be blamed for their crimes. While those beliefs may be accurate, those who commit crimes—whether they do so freely or not—pose a threat to others. Neurobiologist and free will skeptic Robert Sapolsky compares a dangerous criminal to a car with irreparably bad brakes. Just as the car is not to blame for its faulty brakes, a psychopath or other dangerous criminal is not to blame for the myriad biological, chemical and historical factors that determined his current character. Yet when the car or criminal demonstrates a danger to society, both must be taken off the streets.

Note that removing a dangerous person from society need not follow the vindictive and punitive approaches of most modern penal systems. Just as the car is kept in a garage until its brakes are fixed, criminals could be forced to undergo isolated, humane therapy until they can safely return to society. And since isolation and enforced therapy are not desirable or advantageous for the individual on the receiving end of such measures, the prospect of these repercussions could offer another deterministic factor to discourage such antisocial behavior. In short, if we know the consequences of free will skepticism, we can devise approaches to mitigate the negative consequences without denying people access to scientific knowledge.

Final Thoughts

While Dennett may have good reasons to believe in the existence of free will, his argument that denying free will is a public danger comes up short. The evidence he cites in favor of this belief is mixed, and there is no reason to think people’s behavior cannot change over time in response to new knowledge. Furthermore, denying scientists, philosophers and other experts the ability to share their well-founded opinions sets an undesirable precedent—one that Dennett himself shows no inclination of following. We need more research on how humans make decisions and the amount of freedom they have in this regard. And we need to understand how changing views about free will affect public behavior and how we can modify this behavior when it becomes socially disadvantageous. Ignoring careful research and thoughtful discussion has never been a fruitful approach in our quest for knowledge.