Daniel Dennett recently appeared on the Australian radio show "The Philosopher Zone". (H/T Leiter). Dennett is an incredibly smart and accessible philosopher of consciousness. His book Freedom Evolves is probably one of the most significant intellectual influences in my life, both because of its ideas about consciousness and free will and because it's an excellent example of how a broad range of intellectual interest can (and must) be synthesized in various philosophical pursuits.
Anyways, I strongly recommend the radio show. I read through the transcript, and it's pretty quick. Here are some highlights. (AS is the interviewer, DD is Dennett).
DD: I think we have a very different computational architecture from even our closest neighbours, the great apes, our closest kin...We, our brains, our minds are enough different from that of any other creature that we can hold each other and ourselves morally responsible, and it would be a travesty to do that with any other animal, and that's a key difference.
DD: I think that there are different kinds of subjectivity; that there's the kind of subjectivity that, you know, even a robot can have. It's got a limited view of the world, whatever it can take in. If it doesn't have colour vision, then colours are not part of its subjective state. It has a point of view in a quite obvious sense. But a lot of people are going to say 'yeah, but that's not real subjectivity'. Well, it's a kind of real subjectivity, and there's other kinds of real subjectivity that they're thinking of; and that is, I think, quite a recent development...
DD: I love the theoreticians, and there are quite a few, who go on and on about the continuity of consciousness. To which I say: 'That's exactly backwards. The really remarkable thing about human consciousness is its discontinuity'. It seems to be continuous... It seems to be continuous but it isn't. And this is just obvious in some regards.
For instance, take vision: It seems as if you are continuously aware of the visual world, and it's a plenum of colour all the way out to the edges, but it just isn't so, and we can prove that: For one thing, your eye jumps in a little jump called a saccade. It jumps about four times a second. And during the jump you can't see a thing. Not a thing! You don't notice that, you don't notice your blind spot.
The fact is that there are lots of blind spot-type phenomena that we just don't notice for a very simple reason: You can't see a boundary unless you can see both sides of it. And so lapses of consciousness are hard to detect. So in fact our consciousness is nowhere near as continuous as we like to think, it's just that we don't notice, obviously, we don't notice that we're not conscious.
DD: So my threadbare, threadbare because very accurate and usable, example is the chess-playing computer. You probably have a chess program on your laptop. If you want to play against it, forget about trying to predict its moves on the basis of the physics of your laptop; also forget about trying to predict it on the basis of your understanding of how the program is structured. Your best chance of beating it is to treat it as a rational chess player that knows the rules of the game, knows the positions of the pieces, and has a good sense of the value of particular moves. Then you can start predicting what it's going to do and what it isn't going to do.
AS: On the question of whether we have free will or whether everything we do is predetermined, presumably by prior circumstances, you're what's called a 'compatibilist'. What does that amount to?
DD: Well, mainly it amounts to denying the disjunction that you just gave me. Saying, 'look, determinism has nothing to do with it actually'. We have free will whether or not determinism is true. Determinism is just not the issue. What I've argued for many years is that there are different varieties of free will; there are different concepts of free will. And some of them are really important, because if you don't have free will in these senses then you're not a moral agent, and in a certain sense your capacity as a person, as a normal human being, is not what you would want it to be, and these are the important varieties of free will; the varieties of free will that are worth wanting. And you look at those closely, and you see they have nothing to do with determinism at all. Whether or not determinism is true is simply an orthogonal issue. It doesn't interfere with them, doesn't enhance them.Go read the rest!