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February 21, 2011



I have not read the original on which Lawler comments, but Lawler's summary conflicts* with other positions Dennett has taken regarding the ontology of free will and the intersubjective status of ethics. It is possible that Dennett has changed his mind or said something additional that adds an unexpected wrinkle in his position, but I suspect not, considering how consistent Dennett has been between the early 80s and the mid 2000s. Instead, I think that Lawler is badly misrepresenting Dennett's beliefs. I don't think this is intentional, but is due to unfamiliarity. After all, Lawler describes Dennett as an "evolutionary scientist," which he is not in any respect. He is a philosopher not a scientist, and even as a philosopher his greatest contributions have been to philosophy of mind, not of science or biology. Thus, I take leave to more or less ignore Lawler's assessment of Dennett's position. After all, people have interpreted Dennett as claiming that thermostats have beliefs and people do not.

That said, I would like to read Dennett's actual contribution to find out what it was he did say. When I do, I'm not sure I'll agree.

*I originally typed "seem to conflict," but then thought about it some more, and there just doesn't seem to be two ways about it: Lawler's account of Dennett's position *does* conflict.


So I read the original essay:

It confirms that Lawler did indeed seriously misunderstand Dennett's position. Put shortly, Dennet would describe himself as believing in both free will and human dignity, and his argument here is about the dangers of discarding 'mythical' justifications for these concepts in favor of scientifically-sound alternatives. He tries to take seriously the risks posed by even considering changing ideas we hold sacred, and in fact lends support to the idea of holding things sacred in the sense of being beyond consideration of whether they are actually true*. At the same time, he says that 'mythical' supports for critical beliefs are too brittle and we need a more robust replacement.

Dennett's proposed 'equilibrium' mentions the effect of liability laws for doctors that cause them to err on the side of extreme caution. He mentions this right after a discussion of legalized torture, and is intended, I think, to support the idea of strong laws against things that are *potentially* outrages against human dignity even if we're not sure. In his discussion, this is not only to prevent such outrages directly, but also to help maintain the belief environment that supports that dignity in the first place.

And, while we are policing those borders of behavior and policy to keep action from straying near the traditionally forbidden, we nevertheless strive to demonstrate in intersubjective ways the virtues of human dignity**, in much the same way we've demonstrated the virtues of democracy and a free society.

*Not because we don't care about truth, or because the truth might conflict, but because in many cases considering the details of the truth tends to obscure the 'bright lines' we need for moral guidance. This relates to Dennett's criticisms of utilitarianism (expressed elsewhere).

**Dennett brackets any actual justifications for free will and human dignity for this essay, both of which he just assumes as true. Note his implied rejection of Davies' claim to have discovered the "awful truth" about free will.

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