[Dennett has consistently resisted the crude extension of scientific thinking into areas where it does not belong. Nowhere is this more evident than in the issue of free will, which he describes in the book as “the most difficult and the most important philosophical problem confronting us today”.
“It’s important because of the longstanding tradition that free will is a prerequisite for moral responsibility,” he says. “Our system of law and order, of punishment, and praise and blame, promise keeping, promise making, the law of contracts, criminal law – all of this depends on one notion or another of free will. And then you have neuroscientists, physicists and philosophers saying that ‘science has shown us that free will is an illusion’ and then not shrinking from the implication that our systems of law are built on foundations of sand.”
Dennett argues: “There is nothing we have learned from neuroscience that undercuts the foundation for both the law of contract and criminal law.” It is true that we do not have “ultimate responsibility” because our choices are always in some ways the result of things we didn’t choose, such as our core personalities and the values we have absorbed from our society and families. But we have enough self-control to make sense of the difference between the psychopath and the criminal murder, the person who murders unwittingly in a sleepwalk and the cold-blooded killer….
… He may not be crudely scientific, but it is true that these days Dennett spends more time around scientists than other philosophers. “I find the discoveries in those fields mind candy, just delicious,” he says. “If I go to a scientific conference I come away with a bunch of new things to think about. If I go to a philosophy conference I may come away just having learned four more wrinkles in the debate about something philosophers have been thinking about for all my life.”
But Dennett also maintains that we need philosophy to protect us from scientific overreach. “The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don’t learn that history you’ll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they’re very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart.”
Ridicule and misrepresentation are in some sense an occupational hazard for the philosopher. “The best philosophers are always walking a tightrope where one misstep either side is just nonsense,” he says. “That’s why caricatures are too easy to be worth doing. You can make any philosopher – any, Aristotle, Kant, you name it – look like a complete flaming idiot with just a slightest little tweak…”]
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