Daniel Dennett's review of
A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes
by Ted Honderich

    From a bird's-eye view, the central argument of A Theory of Determinism appears as follows: (A) The mind is the brain; every mental event (including every decision and every framing of intention) is intimately related to a neural event. (B) Probably all neural events are deterministically caused, so, thanks to the intimate relation, determinism is likely to be true of our decisions and actions. (C) Does this mean that there is no free will? Incompatibilists say yes, Compatibilists say no, and Ted Honderich says they are both wrong. Both schools fail to recognize that we have no single conception of free will, but rather several, and the prospect of determinism appropriately evinces different "families of attitudes" depending on which conception of freedom one is attending to or embracing. Three different responses to these conceptions are available: dismay, intransigence and affirmation. Affirmation is ultimately recommended,

    Now swoop down lower and visualize an army of ants attacking this central argument at the details: What exactly is the intimate relation between a mental event and a neural event? Is it identity, or causal dependence, or co-occurrence, or something else? What exactly is causation, and what is determinism? (And what are events and what are attitudes and what does "freedom" mean and what does "mean" mean in this context, etc?) The army is composed about equally of real ants (published philosophers) and imaginary ants (holders of logically possible, but not yet occupied, positions), clever ants and obtuse ants. And now look closely -- how heroic and how appalling! -- Honderich is apparently taking them all on single-handedly, one at a time.

    Just as a biologist can learn a good deal about the niche an organism inhabits by examining its defences, and particularly the way it budgets them, so a reader can learn about the intellectual world a writer inhabits by seeing whose work gets short shrift, whose objections are carefully rebutted, and which issues are "too obvious" to need defence. I am unsettled by the discovery that there can be a distinguished author, working in the same tradition and writing in the same language as I, working on the same topics -- the nature of mind, the problem of free will, the relation of our every-day conceptions to the world-view of science -- arriving at very similar conclusions, and yet living in such a different niche.

    My first reaction was dismay: here was Honderich lavishing hundreds of pages on painstaking refutations of positions I would never even mention, so unrewarding would their demolition be for the reader, while at the same time I found him seriously misreading, underestimating, all too brusquely dismissing some of the most fruitful and promising strands of current thought (in my opinion). A likely symmetry of our respective vantage-points was not long lost on me, however, as I began to imagine that one reason I had sometimes failed to persuade him by arguments in my own work could be his reflection that anyone who so cavaliarly ignored the contributions of X, or Y, or Z should hardly be taken to have thought deeply enough about these issues.

    My dismay was of course tempered by the recognition that Honderich was in the main coming to the conclusions I also defend: (1) Indeterminism provides no sanctuary whatsoever for those who hanker after free will (so determinism might as well be true, whether or not it is true -- as Honderich thinks). (2) There are different conceptions (or varieties) of free will, and the stalemate of the philosophical tradition is largely due to failure to appreciate this. (3) "Arguably it is with respect to our conception of our own future lives that a determinism is most challenging to us, least tolerable", but the appropriate response to this upsetting project is to recognize and appreciate the varieties of free will that are unscathed by it, and adjust our institutions and attitudes to fit this clear-sighted vision of our circumstances; enough survives to sustain our life-hopes without the dubious crutch of the "obscure and panicky metaphysics (P. F. Sterawson) of indeterminism.

    Agreement is a rare and cherished commodity among philosophers, but it is the disagreements that can lead to discovery. From what subterranean source do our differences spring? Part of the explanation is probably geographical. For instance, the ambient attitude towards science among philosophers in Britain is now apparently quite unlike that in the United States, where positions expounded in defiant ignorance of the relevant science are no longer taken seriously. It is striking to an American eye to see how hard Honderich thinks he must work to persuade the general run of his colleagues of the inescapable bearing of the neurosciences and physics on their jealously guarded topics, and hence on the untenability of certain perennially tempting positions. I suspect that this appearance owes more to eccentricities in Honderich's judgment than to the actual state of play in British philosophy, but C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures" do co-exist on somewhat different terms in our two nations, and the British version encourages, or at least permits, Honderich's project.

    More specifically, it encourages Honderich to explore the implications of a dramatically conservative view of what parts of common sense are immune to scientific overthrow. For while he has proper -- that is, informed and not slavish -- respect for science, and aspires to resolve the conflict we all can see between what Wilfrid Sellars calls "the manifest image" of common sense and the scientific image, he is not remotely convinced by some of the philosophic campaigns that have carried the day on my side of the Atlantic. The conflict is deeper than we have thought, Honderich believes, and so he has attempted his own resolution, giving fewer hostages to science from the outset.

    Central among the truths he declares to be self-evident and non-negotiable is the axiom [sic] of mental indispensability: "earlier mental events are ineliminable parts of any full explanations of many mental events and also actions". What this implies is that no satisfactory account may swallow up the allusion to specifically mental events -- for instance by identifying them with neural events, or with functionalistically characterized events. Thus, if the "full" explanation of Tom's pulling the trigger invokes inter alia the earlier mental event of Tom's suddenly thinking that the thing in the bushes is a tiger, then identifying this sudden thought as some purely physically described brain event would permit the trigger-pulling to be "fully" explained in those neural terms without recourse to mental terms -- violating the axiom. Honderich is unpersuaded by the various doctrines of co-existing levels of explanation, supervenience and emergence that have helped American "functionalist" philosophers in the cognitive science movement to satisfy both their intuitions and their respect for physical science. On this point Honderich joins forces with bis colleague Colin McGinn (and the Americans, John Searle and Thomas Nagel) in insisting that these doctrines, by forsaking the primacy of "the first-person point of view", simply fail to "deal with half of the subject-matter".

    This sets him the task of defining -- not yet defending -- an alternative, and the result, after 258 pages of definitional thrust-and-parry, is the Union Theory, and its attendant doctrine of the "causation of psychoneural pairs". The "theory" looks, not surprisingly, a lot like an identity theory after all, and a lot like a dualism, too. What is it? So far as I can see, it is just an identity theory minus that dreaded swallowing up and plus nothing of any further use or interest to the theorist in either neurosdence or philosophy. He sums up its virtues on page 338:

'If the term "physical" is used otherwise than we have used it, so as not to include the mental, the objection is that determinism allows for the conditional predictability of mental events and actions on the basis of physical facts alone. But the determinism to which we have come does respect the axiom of the indispensability of the mental and hence does not have the given consequence.'

    Having distinguished the view-to-be-defended from all its real and imaginary alternatives, Honderich has a relatively easier time arguing for its truth, and for its deterministic implications. As I have suggested, I find most of this labour gratuitous, since its improvements over the prevailing brands of materalism (with their identical implications for free will) are impressive only to those who cling to Honderich's axiom of mental indispensability. But suppose McGinn, Searle and Nagel prove to be right: then Honderich will indeed have shown that, even so, the implications of deterministic physical science cannot be escaped by any routes their vision opens up.

    The chief novelty of this second part of the book is Honderich's defence Of determinism in the face of the contrary received wisdom as purveyed by the exponents of quantum mechanics. Honderich is one of those who still firmly believe, with Einstein, that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics will eventually be made to evaporate; and whether or not he is right about that, he is certainty right to refuse to be overwhelmed by the physicists' rather impressionistic and loosely argued interpretations of the quantum-theoretical formulations, whose success is quite beyond reasonable doubt. As he notes, "The endeavour of interpretation... [of quantum mechanics] is in large part philosophical in nature. Still, it must be that some significant weight is to be given to the ; views of those who have a firm grip of the formalism." Honderich is not such a one (as he acknowledges) nor am I, so rather than criticize his tenacious but modest attempts to undermine and restrict the physicists' near-unanimous verdict in favour of indetenninism, I will comment on his motivation for such a brave stand. It stems from his faith in an unbendingly strict concept of causation, which he believes to be part of self-evident common sense, and which rules out, a priori, all merely probabilistic visions of causal connection. In Honderich's eyes, the burden of proof lies with the physicists and their interpreters to show indetenninism to be so much as coherent, let alone empirically supported, and he finds the standard accounts unpersuasive.

    One of the virtues he sees in his defence of determinism is that it clears the air for the neuroscientists who are tackling the terribly difficult problems of causation in the nervous system, but it is ironic -- and a sign of Honderich's somewhat skewed understanding of science -- that he should thus try to save determinism for the neuroscientists just as they are discovering the virtues of noise in the nervous system, and rushing to develop probabilistic models of neural-net activity. But still, suppose the physicists are wrong, and that determinism, with all its implications, is the final truth of the matter.

    What are those implications? Once again Honderich upholds more of common sense, and hence sees a deeper conflict, than others have done, but in at least one regard I think he is demonstrably in error. In support of his contention that determinism definitely does cast shadows on what he calls our life-hopes, he offers, among others, the following reflection:

'If things have gone well for a person, there is more to hope for in what follows on the assumption that the entire run of his or her life is fixed.... If things have not gone well, or not so well as was hoped, it is at least not unreasonable to have greater hopes on the assumption that the whole of one's life is not fixed, but is connected with the activity of the self.... Given the sanguine premiss of our reasonableness, there is reason to think that we do not tend to the idea of a fixed personal future.'

    This passage displays a fundamental error that probably underlies the thought of many people about determinism. Determinism does not imply or even render probable any of the following: all trends are permanent, character is by and large immutable, I am less likely to change my ways, my fortunes, or my basic nature in the future. After all, many phenomena are classically understood to be determined to be changeable, chaotic, unpredictable! The implications of having a "fixed personal future" are entirely distinct from the implications of having a "fixed personal nature". It is the latter that is cause for dismay, perhaps, but not the former, for it may be one's fixed personal future to have a protean personal nature, highly responsive to the "activity of the self"; among the fixed personal futures are all the triumphant futures that include victory over adversity, the overcoming of weakness, the reformation of character and, for that matter, a change of luck. It could be just as determined a fact that you can teach an old dog new tricks as that you can't. The general thesis of determinism has no implications about such matters -- though the individual fields of biology and social science might on their own have either dire or heartening messages on these scores for us -- whether or not they are themselves deterministic sciences. But perhaps once again I have underestimated the challenge; if so, Honderich will have shown that a certain valuable conception of life-hopes is still consistent with determinism.

    In the course of defining and defending his theory, Honderich presents detailed discussions of virtually every topic debated in the vast recent literature on free will, and some of these discussions make valuable new contributions. In the end, the message of this book is that no matter how conservatively you cling to the home truths of the manifest image, you will never find a good use for indeterminism in support of a doctrine of free will, and hence must make your peace with determinism. But a good peace can be made, Honderich argues, and I agree. Since he reaches this gratifying conclusion after treating the antipathy and resistance to science much more patiently than I (for one) have done, and since he resolutely defends more of the common sense that reigns in his intellectual niche, he probably stands a better chance than I of being believed. But if after such an effort he finds his audience still unpersuaded, I invite him to switch niches.


A letter to the editor by Ted Honderich
on Dennett's review

    Sir, - With respect to Daniel Dennett's opening bird's-eye view of my A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes (November 4-10), I don't think "the mind is the brain". It's an awful lot closer to the brain than, say, the numinous item imagined by Sir Karl Popper as hovering over the two hemispheres of the young brain and deciding whether to alight on the left or the right one. Still, the Identity Theory of mind and brain is wrong and needs supplanting by something better, and more in accordance with neuroscience, which is the Union Theory. They may look similar to Professor Dennett when he is aloft, but he needs to get down closer.

    He eventually does that in his review, and notices that the Union Theory is still like the Identity Theory except that it lacks a fatal flaw or two. That little difference, I concede, is part of what makes me like it. I also have the funny feeling that neuroscience and philosophy may get a little benefit from a true theory of the mind rather than a false one. Maybe the reason Dennett doesn't share my enthusiasm is that he takes the virtues of the theory to be summed up in one of my sentences that does not do that job well. That is because the sentence is about something else.

    When he did get down closer to my argument, as he also remarks, what he found was my single-handed struggle with each one in turn of an army of ants. He means the number of diverse philosophers and others whose views I consider. He implies that some or a lot of them are not worth the trouble, low company, and that I should inhabit a smaller intellectual world. Get thee to a better niche, he says. Come into my niche, which has in it, mainly, a lot more ants crawling through a computer and giving off little cries to the effect that the mind is the programme.

    I do want to say a little word for my ants. They are for a start Blakemore, Brentano, Chomsky, Cohen (G. A.), Dummett, Feynman, Glover, Hampshire, Kenny, Kim, Kripke, McGinn, Mellor, O'Shaughnessy, Parfit, Quinton, Russell (B.), Sprigge, one Strawson, a couple of Wamocks, a lot more neuroscientists and physicists, and, last and no doubt least, Freud -- all of whom turn up in the index to my book but not that of Dennett's Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. They seem to me a half-decent lot, even if they have not seen the light of cognitive science and are not giving off those little cries.

    It is sometimes the case, certainly, that philosophy is advanced by restricting one's interlocutors to like-minded persons. It is at least as often advanced by taking into account more than one's own kind. I also recommend the practice to Dennett on another and vulgar ground, which is to say a future readership, The limp idea that mind is adequately conceived as programme -- abstract states out of space and time, in fact yet more ghostly than Popper's item -- has a remaining life-espectancy, I guess, of about five and a half years.

    Since Dennett struggled hard with my many pages, and was by his lights, and mine on some days, kindly and just, let me not harp on that error he puports to demonstrate, or a lot else, including the news that neuroscience has gone indeterminist. Let me add only one additional piece of cavilling, or, to come clean, amour propre.

    He says that he in his book and I in mine, despite the different company we keep, arrive at very similar conclusions about mind, science, freedom and so on, that I come to conclusions he arrived at some time ago. There is some similarity, but I cannot forbear remarking something about my main one. It is that the two great traditions of philosophical thought about determinism and freedom -- that the two things are logically compatible and that they are logically incompatible -- are both wrong.

    Dennett is not exactly singleminded in his book, but he does not come anywhere near that conclusion. In much of his argument and in specific declarations he is pretty much the standard Compatibilist which reviewers have taken him to be. (Try his pp 19, 51, 131.) Elsewhere, he makes the unmistakable and mistaken response to the problem of determinism and freedom which can be called Intransigence (pp 4, 6, 18). In particular, he has it that the explanation of the problem's having gone on for some centuries is in large part that dozy philosophers have raised up theoretical bugbears and bogeypersons to trouble and confuse us -- The Nefarious Neurosurgeon, the Malevolent Mindreader, the Cosmic Child Whose Dolls We Are et al. What I say is diametrically opposite.

Ted Honderich.
Department of Philosophy, University College London,
Gower Street, London WC1.

A letter to the editor by Daniel Dennett
in reply to Ted Honderich's

    Sir, - A brief reply to two suggestions made by Ted Honderich in his letter (November 18-24), about my review of A Theory of Determinism: The mind, Neuroscience, and Life-Hopes. First, I did not suggest that "neuroscience has gone indeterminist" but that neuroscientists, having discovered the importance of noise ("randomness" in one sense) to the nervous system, were unlikely to be grateful for a strictly non-probalistic concept of causation. The neurosciences are (correctly) unconcerned about the truth or falsity of determinism, since their models are neutral with regard to it.

    Second, I now wonder what Professor Honderich could mean by his central claim, which he presents in his letter in a sharper version than I thought I had detected in the book. He now says that the two theses, "freedom and determinism are logically incompatible" and "freedom and determinism are logically compatible", are both "wrong". I can readily understand this, if Honderich means that each side is wrong because each side thinks there is just one sort of freedom being talked about, when in fact there are several. They would each by wrong the way each would be wrong who said "New York is a city" and "New York is not a city (it's a state)". Indeed, I have endorsed just such a charge myself, but Honderich says I don't "come anywhere near" his stronger conclusion. He is right; I try to keep more than an arm's length away from any conclusion that says -- as his apparently does -- that a well-formed thesis and its negation are both false.

Daniel C. Dennett
Department of Philosophy, Tufts University,
Medford, Massachusetts 02155.


Another letter to the editor by Ted Honderich
in reply to Daniel Dennett's

Sir,- Daniel Dennett says (Letters, December 2-8) that neuroscience uses an idea of an effect as something made no more than probable, perhaps only slightly probable, by what went before it. It is something finally mysterious that might not have happened at all despite everything that went before. Neuroscience in fact uses this factitious idea hardly anywhere. It makes use everywhere of the standard idea of an effect: something that had to happen given what went before. Neuroscience in taking neural events to be standard effects is not neutral about determinism but supports it.

Compatibilism is the doctrine that we have one idea of freedom, which idea is logically compatible with determinism. Incompatibilism is that we have one idea of freedom a different one, which is incompatible with determinism. Both are wrong, for more than one reason. Intransigence is the mistaken attitude that anything that is incompatible with determimsm is unimportant to us; insignificant in our lives. Dennett in his book, whatever he is endorsing now, is mainly Compatibilist, sometimes Intransigent. I am neither. I don't believe, either, that contradictory propositions can both be true. Not both of "Cognitive Science is good for philosophy" and its denial are true. Only one is.

Ted Honderich
University College London,
Gower Street, London WC1

Dennett's review appeared in The Times Literary Supplement on 4 November 1988. The letters to the editor appeared in subsequent editions. For some more on one thing in the disagreement, go to Freedom and Responsibility Neither Compatible Nor Incompatible With Determinism -- a Note on Why.

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