Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Conversation with Dan Dennett. Part 4

Daniel Dennett, Austin Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University
This view, this materialistic view, to which extent leads to determinism? In the sense that a lot of people think that when you have a materialistic view, means that you are deterministic. Which is, of course, not correct… What do you think on that? What is free will? I think that determinism is a misunderstood concept. And people, for instance, they confuse it with fatalism. “If determinism is true, then I can never improve, I can never get rid of my bad habits”. No, it doesn’t follow at all! If you get rid of your bad habits, then I guess you were determined to get rid of your bad habits.
And determinism is just as compatible with “you can teach an old dog new tricks”, as is with “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. So, determinism is actually neutral on all the questions of our competence and our futures that really matter. And oddly enough, there’s a perfectly good concept of freedom; which has nothing to do with determinism. Which is the right one to think of for free will. And that’s the engineer’s concept of “degrees of freedom”.
A hot air balloon has one degree of freedom, up and down, you got a single switch, so there’s not much controlling you can do, but if you’re really clever as a hot air balloon pilot, then you know where the wind is blowing; you can make the balloon go to places you want it to go to. Now, that’s all deterministic and there’s only one variable degree of freedom that you can control. But a human being, while your eyes alone have, six or seven or eight degrees of freedom, you can look up, down, you have convergence for looking at things close or far, you can move your head sideways, like this; you get yaw to get parallax information…
You got all this degrees of freedom, and they all have to be under control. If you think of an organism as a system with many degrees of freedom, which its life depends on controlling those degrees of freedom in appropriate ways. Now, human beings have orders of magnitude more degrees of freedom than any other creature that they can use. That’s because of the productivity, the generativity of our representation of space. We can think about anything; and it’s that cornucopia of possibilities that makes the problem of free will. And that’s why free will is a talent, it’s not just given, it’s not just the absence of determinism.
Free will is the ability, the competence, to be a moral agent; to be able to shut down the degrees of freedom that don’t matter and use -exploit- the degrees of freedom that do matter, and use them to figure out on the basis of the information you have what the best thing to do is. Now that’s all… you can describe every bit of that in deterministic terms, and you still have a profound difference between a competent adult human being and say, a profoundly, pathologically, damaged human being who can’t control those degrees of freedom. We don’t hold that person responsible. OK, Dan!
As you have seen, Dan always has very interesting ideas and I hope most of you will follow his ideas reading his very last book, From Bacteria to Bach. Thank you very much, Dan, for this interview.
Daniel Dennett, Austin Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University

He supports a materialist theory of mind and aims to provide a materialist account of the evolutionary origins of the human mind and consciousness.

This article is from the free online

Why Biology Matters: The Genome and You

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education