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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 168

Daniel Dennett & Gregg Caruso — Just Deserts: Debating Free Will (moderated by Michael Shermer)

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The concept of free will is profoundly important to our self-understanding, our interpersonal relationships, and our moral and legal practices. If it turns out that no one is ever free and morally responsible, what would that mean for society, morality, meaning, and the law?

Just Deserts brings together two philosophers — Daniel C. Dennett and Gregg D. Caruso — to debate their respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and legal punishment. In this conversation Dennett and Caruso present their arguments for and against the existence of free will and debate their implications. Dennett argues that the kind of free will required for moral responsibility is compatible with determinism — for him, self-control is key; we are not responsible for becoming responsible, but are responsible for staying responsible, for keeping would-be puppeteers at bay. Caruso takes the opposite view, arguing that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward.

Just Deserts introduces the concepts central to the debate about free will and moral responsibility by way of an entertaining, rigorous, and sometimes heated philosophical dialogue between two leading thinkers.

Dr. Daniel C. Dennett is Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Science and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. His books include Content and Consciousness (1969), Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), Freedom Evolves (2003), Breaking the Spell (2006), and From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). He is a leading defender of compatibilism, the view that determinism can be reconciled with free will, and is perhaps best known in cognitive science for his concept of intentional systems and his multiple drafts model of human consciousness.

Dr. Gregg D. Caruso is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY, Corning and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is also the Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network at the University of Aberdeen School of Law. His books include Free Will and Consciousness (2012), Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice (2021), Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (ed. 2013), Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience (co-ed. with Owen Flanagan, 2018), and Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society: Challenging Retributive Justice (co-ed. with Elizabeth Shaw and Derk Pereboom, 2019). He is a leading proponent of free will skepticism, which maintains that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense — i.e., the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward.

Survey discussed at the beginning of the podcast

At the beginning of the podcast Dr. Shermer discussed the results of a 2009 survey that asked 3,226 philosophy professors and graduate students to weigh in on 30 different subjects of concern in their field, from a priori knowledge, aesthetic value, and God to knowledge, mind, and moral realism. On the topic of “free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will,” the survey found the following results:

Accept or lean toward
Compatibilism 59.1%
Other 14.9%
Libertarianism 13.7%
No free will 12.2%

By far, the majority of professional philosophers hold the position that free will and determinism are compatible.

Now, from a scientific perspective it shouldn’t matter how many people support one or another position. Only the quality of the evidence and arguments should matter. As Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory titled A Hundred Authors Against Einstein, “Why one hundred? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”

But there is something revealing about these figures, and that is this: if the most qualified people to assess a problem are not in agreement on an answer — and the free-will/determinism problem has been around for thousands of years — it may be that it is an insoluble one. For example, is it really reasonable for the 12.2 percent of philosophers who are determinists to conclude that 59.1 percent of their professional colleagues are simply wrong in taking the compatibilist position? Isn’t it more likely that the issue comes down to language and what is meant by the terms “free will” and “determinism”?

Dr. Shermer asks Dr. Dennett and Dr. Caruso their response to these findings.

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