Free will as moral competence

The 2012 Barry Taylor and David Lewis Philosophy Lecture: Free will as moral competence. Professor Daniel Dennett at The University of Melbourne, Australia.


Do recent discoveries of neuroscience prove that we have no free will? Some neuroscientists claim that free will is an illusion. But according to Professor Dennett, this claim rests on a mistaken understanding of free will and moral practices. This is a public lecture presented at the Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne, Australia, on Thursday 12 April 2012.

Professor Daniel Dennett

Thank you very much for the wonderful introduction. You you've got me pegged exactly right, and my talk with indeed further the things that you mention.

But before I start my talk I've been looking at that lovely picture of David Lewis, and I have to tell a couple of David Lewis stories… I don't have any Barry Taylor stories, but… I transferred to Harvard in the fall of 1960 in order to go and work with a philosopher named [Willard Van Orman] Quine who was there, and the very first course I signed up for was Quine's Philosophy of Language.

Of course that was 1960, the text book was a brand new book by him called Word and Object and I thought well, you know, after a week or two, it was really good the transfer to Harvard [because] there are some really smart people in this class. There was this amazing looking fellow, David Lewis, and his girlfriend at that time Steffi, and they became my pals right off - but there were other people: Tom Nagal, Bill Harmon, Saul Kripke, Margaret Wilson were a few the other people in the class. It was a fast crowd… that was a great way to start my educational philosophy at Harvard, and David and I stayed in touch over the years.

A few years later he was at UCLA and I was at Irvine, and their not that far apart, two campuses - the University of California and, oh, it's less than an hour's drive between Westwood and Irvine. And, very often David and Richard Montague would a come down to the colloquia at Irvine - we had a pretty good colloquium series. They were the two people from the department that often came down from UCLA (we'd go up to UCLA too) - and one night their was a colloquium at Irvine, and this was early years so there were hardly any trees growing there at the time… and afterwards the three of us - Montague, David and I - Steffi wasn't there - walked out in the parking lot to get in our cars, and they were going back to UCLS, and I looked, and there, in the scruffy Irvine parking lot, was a GOLD Rolls-Royce.

I'd never seen a goal Rolls-Royce and I said "Holy cow, look at that it's a gold Rolls-Royce, what on earth is this car doing here at Irvine" and then I went and looked inside and put my nose against the window, went all around, marvelling at this amazing and, of course, tasteless car… trivia at UC Irvine and what could ever explain it. And David just let me go on like this, and so did Richard and then Montague got the keys out, they both got in the car and drove back to UCLA. Montague was independently wealthy and he had flashy taste.

So now, I could tell other David Lewis stories but really I want to get on with my talk so maybe some other time later today…

One of my favourite philosophers, Wilfred Sellars, in a famous paper made a distinction that to this day I find very valuable between what he called the manifest and the scientific images. The manifest image is the everyday world, the world that we live in, even every physicist and cosmologist lives in the world of the manifest image - whether things like colors and and living things an opportunities and free will and dollars and the sort of furniture of life.

The scientific image is where you find the proteins and the atoms and the quarks and maybe the strings - and for actually several hundred years now we've known that the two images do not mesh as nicely as you might like…

Sellars was a view that perhaps the main job of philosophy was to try to unite these two different images - the world everyday things, the manifest image - with the scientific image, and it was going to take some poking and pushing and negotiating: no simple reduction was going to be possible.

I think is phrase was that philosophy is answering the question of how things hang together, how things in the broadest possible sense of things hang together in the broadest possible sense of hanging together. And, I've often thought that that's about as good a way of characterising the field the philosophy, and that;s certainly up what I've been trying to do, as in fact [name?] was suggesting.

Well, scientists try to do it too and they are sometimes very impatient. They say things like, "Colours are just illusions…" How many of you believe that colour exists? [asks the audience] But of course, you could take the view - well there's this electromagnetic radiation and then there's a reason a of things in the nervous system - but COLOUR in the traditional relationship simply does not exist. It is an illusion, and of course the literature, the scientific literature on colour show the colour is very different from what you thought it was. It really is quite surprising once you to get into it.

But I think very few people would say that colour is an illusion and, you know, when the biology, when the life sciences pretty well drove Vitalism from the field, when we no longer a harbour the idea that living things depended on élan vitale - this is not what happened. Since there's no élan vitale we're all dead. There's no such thing as being alive. That's just one of those illusions! I don't think that anybody has really made than plain…

Nor have I found many people who that dollars are illusions because you ask yourself, what's a dollar, what's it made of. Don't say metal or paper because most dollars aren't that, their just virtual these days. They seem to have a fairly robust existence but certain sort of hard physicalists would say that there is no such thing as dollars that's just an illusion. Well I'm not read to give that illusion up.