The Science of Free Will and Other Matters

In December 2011, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) held a conference titled “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion: A Celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” Breaking the Spell launched an unprecedented era of openness for atheists and public discussion of the validity of religious belief. During that conference, John Shook, CFI’s director of education, sat down with Dennett to discuss Dennett’s past and current work and his thoughts on free will, morality, and how to expand the reach of secular humanism. A portion of that discussion follows.

Dennett is a philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist whose research centers on philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. In addition to Breaking the Spell (2006), he’s written many hugely influential books such as Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (with Alvin Plantinga, 2011); Freedom Evolves (2003); Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995); and Consciousness Explained (1992). He is currently the codirector of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.

This interview was originally broadcast on Point of Inquiry, CFI’s radio show and podcast. To hear the interview in its entirety, please visit www.pointofinquiry.org.

—The Editors


John Shook: Religion is often credited with being very useful for human beings, and that has to do with giving human beings a sense of control and responsibility, of agency. Could you talk a little bit about what science says about free will?

Daniel C. Dennett: Back in 1984 I published the first of two books on free will called Elbow Room. The subtitle was just as important: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. I and other philosophers have defined varieties of free will that are incompatible with modern science, with what we know. The question is, are they anything that we should care about having? And I argued that no, those are not worth wanting. They seem to be worth wanting because people are confused about what free will is or could be.

There are varieties of free will that are definitely worth wanting that do underwrite our sense of purpose and responsibility. The very meaning of life depends on these senses of free will, and they are all compatible with what we’re learning from science. Unfortunately—you asked me what science tells us—if only that’s what scientists were telling people. But scientists, especially in the last few years, have been on a rampage writing ill-considered public pronouncements about free will that actually in some cases verge on social irresponsibility.

Shook: You might have in mind brain scientists or neuroscientists?

Dennett: The recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused. And, as we’re now actually beginning to get some scientific confirmation, it makes a difference, because there’s some research that shows that if you present people with the claim that “science has shown that we don’t really have free will” in a variety of circumstances, they will actually behave less morally. They will be more apt to cheat. There are some very unsettling experiments that show that, and it’s important to replicate them and see what the effects are and what they aren’t. Quite independently of science, people can talk themselves out of free will and turn themselves into fatalists. If you actually succeed in turning yourself into some sort of fatalist, you disable yourself. We certainly don’t want people disabling themselves with bad science.

Shook: What is Daniel Dennett’s quick, scientifically approvable, 100-percent-naturalistic-yet-friendly-to-agency definition of free will?

Dennett: Let me back up and build to it. When life started on this planet, there was no free will. Bacteria have negligible options and negligible capacities to act on those options. Basically, they’re very myopic if something isn’t touching them. It takes contact. They don’t have any distals: they don’t have any vision; they don’t have any hearing. A distal perception like hearing or vision is really important because for the first time when you have that you can begin to think ahead. You can duck that incoming brick. You can go catch that fleeing dinner or run away from that galloping predator who’s coming toward you.

Now that gets us to quite an interesting variety of agency. It’s just really free agency but still impressive. Where there are options, there are good reasons to go one way or another. And to a remarkable extent, organisms are in effect capable of tracking those reasons. They tend to do the right thing at the right time, because if they didn’t they’d be supper.

Shook: Is it the stage at which it becomes appropriate to have teleonomic or teleological distinctions?

Dennett: Part of my current campaign is to push harder and harder the idea that I’ve been developing over the years: what I call free “floating rationales.” Nature is aflood with reasons. There are reasons for so many things in the bacterial world. There are reasons why the motor proteins are where they are. There are reasons why there’s a membrane. There are reasons all over the place right down to the macromolecules. But they’re not anybody’s reasons; they’re not the reasons of any mind. They are the reason that nature honors in evolving all these things. The first time these reasons are represented are when clever people—scientists—come along and reverse-engineer these things, and then they see the reason the parts are the way they are. And it’s just breathtaking. You find this tremendous ingenuity in nature. In the same way, we can reverse-engineer a radio or an automobile engine or a computer and figure out why the parts are the way they are.

So the first thing is that there are reasons everywhere. It’s just that only a very limited percentage of living things recognize reasons, are moved by reasons, or do things for reasons. There is a reason why trees spread their limbs, but the tree doesn’t have the reason; the tree doesn’t think the reason. There’s a reason why bacteria have membranes, but the bacteria don’t have a reason for having membranes. In fact, dogs don’t have reasons for what they do. Porpoises don’t have reasons for what they do. Or chimpanzees.

Shook: So it’s one thing to have goals, aims, purposes to achieve these things, and it’s quite another to know that you’re deliberately going about doing them.

Dennett: This is a very familiar theme in moral philosophy—to be moved by reasons. You can go back to Kant, or more recently Wilfrid Sellars talking about the space of reasons, how so much of what we do is built on this sort of interactive game of asking for reasons, being able to give reasons, being able to trade reasons and to compare and evaluate reasons and say, well that’s not a very good reason. We’re the only species on the planet that does that, and free will of the kind that’s really worth wanting depends on that. That’s why small children and brutes—animals that don’t have language—don’t have free will in the morally important sense. That’s why if a bear kills a man that’s not homicide.

Shook: So by making sure that this social space of reasons can be understood totally naturalistically, you’ve built a bridge—we develop and share reasons and then hold each other responsible for our conduct.

Dennett: We say, all right, imagine we have morality and we want to have the idea of holding people responsible both for the good and bad things we do. They are the authors of the good things and also of the evil they do, the crimes they commit. If you start there and say, now what has to be the case to justifiably, reasonably, with good grounding, hold people responsible for those deeds? You work back from that, and that’s what free will is. The definition is important, because it’s the necessary condition for the world to take life seriously and hold people responsible.

Shook: That would nicely explain why freedom comes in degrees, because we’re talking about the development of human capacities in the social realm. As John Dewey once famously quipped, no one ever marched in protest over lack of metaphysical free will. What people really want is social freedom, and more of it.

Dennett: Yes, I think that’s true. Metaphysical free will, being somehow sort of insulated from causality, is—the more you think about it—just a preposterous idea. But it’s deeply rooted in everyday thinking. And the fact that so many people think that that is what free will is, is why we get so much thoughtless or imperfectly thought-out work by neuroscientists who see the folk link between determinism and lack of freedom and just take it on its face. And of course there are those who think that, well, at least we don’t have to worry about this because quantum physics is indeterministic. They view quantum mechanics as their trap door to get out. Let’s grant that at least according to current wisdom, indeterminacy reigns thanks to quantum physics. My point is it doesn’t matter. The whole issue between determinism and indeterminism in physics is a red herring as far as free will is concerned. The science that you need in order to understand free will is not physics; it’s biology.

Shook: So perhaps the neuroscientists and other folks are being too reductionistic in trying to look for free will in the relations between atoms and subatomic particles when they should be looking for where it was all along—in the relationships between human beings.

Dennett: Think about it this way. You raise the term reductionism, which usually I want to object to because it means so many different things to so many different people. But I think most people now are quite happy with the idea that things can be colored even though their finest parts aren’t colored. Atoms aren’t colored, but things can be red and blue and green—they can really be red and blue and green, and it’s not just an illusion that they are red and blue and green, even though the atoms that they are made of are not any color at all. Things can be alive, like a cell, even though they are made of parts that are not alive. In fact, if it doesn’t work out that way we’re in deep trouble.

So you can make something living out of parts that are not living. You can make something colored out of parts that aren’t colored. You can make something conscious out of parts that aren’t conscious. Neurons aren’t conscious. To my amazement, some people say, “Well, individual neurons must be conscious.” I think, OK, if neurons are conscious, well, so is athlete’s foot. They’re both eukaryotic cells. Not much difference between them. Do you really want to say that yeast is conscious?

You can make something free out of parts that aren’t free—“free” in the important sense, in the same way as being alive and being conscious and being red—these are macroscopic properties that are not shared by their microscopic parts. The same thing is true of freedom. It doesn’t mean that when you put enough neurons together in this way you have something that violates the laws of physics. It’s just as determined by the laws of physics; if they’re deterministic, it does not escape that. It’s just that it has this property at a higher level, which is the one that matters to us. And it isn’t illusory, any more than being red is illusory or being alive is illusory.

Shook: You’ve now had a chance to look at five years of continuing research along the lines of what you talk about in Breaking the Spell. Do you think that studies on the relationships between religion and morality help us better understand why nonbelievers can be good without God?

Dennett: I think that the idea that one can’t be good without God is probably the single most pernicious myth in the world today. It exploits a wonderful human trait. People want to be good; they want to lead good lives. That’s the lovely thing. So then along comes religion to say you can’t be good without God. That may be the main motivation for people to try to take religion seriously, to try to establish an allegiance with a church, because they want to lead good lives. And in many parts of our nation, it’s the only game in town. So of course you join some church because there’s a community; there’s some teamwork, and it’s the only way you see for doing serious concerted good together. Until secular organizations figure out how to be more attractive—oh, let’s talk about it in market terms: how to compete in the marketplace for the good teamwork market—religions are going to have sway.

Shook: So it’s okay in your view to have secular organizations imitate some of the structural features and functions of religious organizations without duplicating any of the religious flavor or religious emotion.

Dennett: Absolutely! My favorite example, one that I’m actually involved with, is TED, which used to stand for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. If you go to ted.com you will find wonderful, wonderful, talks and presentations that brilliantly adopted the best production values. One of the rules is that the longest talk is eighteen minutes. That’s about the length of the longest sermon, too. They use art, music, and technology brilliantly, and they use the allegiance of their members. And they get people, if not to tithe, at least to pay big bucks to be members of that community. Then they give away the product to everybody on the web! More than half a billion people have downloaded TED talks all round the world. They’re being translated into many languages. You can get subtitles in not just French, German, Spanish, and Japanese, but in languages from Africa and Asia.

Shook: People want to feel connected; they want to feel educated; they want to feel up to date, and they want to be able to share with friends, neighbors—people of similar interests. So you’re saying that’s very important for the secular segment of society to be able to advance those sorts of communities where people are feeling profited from feeling connected and educated.

Dennett: I think we do want to think seriously about finding organizations, structures, and infrastructures in which well-meaning individuals, without losing their individuality, can contribute to larger causes. The technology now exists for citizen science, for instance, where thousands of people for a few minutes a day enter data on—well, there’s one now that Google is starting where they’re going to enter data on people with flu symptoms. You don’t have to diagnose flu; you just have to notice people with flu symptoms in your family and in your neighborhood. As soon as you report it they’re going to create this huge database that will be very valuable to disease-control people. That’s just low-hanging fruit; that’s the first of the nth of hundreds and hundreds of things like this where individuals—without having to march, without having to stand up and sing hymns, without having to sign on to any creed—can contribute to important social projects.

Shook: We need all the advice we can get about effective strategies for dealing with religion. For typical folks out there confronted with religious family, religious neighbors, religious community, how can people “come out” so to speak, in a constructive way to say not just “I don’t believe,” not just “I’m an atheist,” but with some sort of positive, effective response to the resistance that they’re inevitably going to get?

Dennett: For several years after the publication of Breaking the Spell I spoke to groups of unbelievers—student groups and the like—around the country. They would say very often, “Thanks for putting us in the spotlight. For a while we’ve got a lot of new members coming into our groups. Now how do you advise us to proceed?”

I often shock them and say, “Well, why don’t you get together with all your members and see if you can figure out a cause that you would all tithe for?” Their eyes goggle. I say, “How about putting together a group and going to help rebuild houses in the wake of Katrina under the banner of your group?” There’s lots of things you could do, local things, international things, to just put the lie to that not-good-without-God idea.

Shook: Which returns us to the importance of sociality. Atheists shouldn’t just be atheists, shouldn’t just be loud and proud, but should be active contributors to their communities. That’s after all where they live.

Dennett: Yes, I think that to me there’s nothing more boring than sitting around with a bunch of atheists and saying, “Oh my gosh God doesn’t exist. Aren’t those people stupid to believe in God?” Right, right—we got that a long time ago. Now what are we going to do?


In December 2011, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) held a conference titled “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion: A Celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” Breaking the Spell launched an unprecedented era of openness for atheists and public discussion of the validity of religious belief. …

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