Skip to main content

Are we just 'moist robots'? Autonomy, Control and the Brain

Daniel Dennett
Tuesday, October 6, 2020, 3:45 pm – 5:10 pm

If science shows us that we are composed of trillions of cells and no “magic ingredients,” then we are, as Dilbert says “just moist robots” but does that mean that free will is an illusion? Many think that determinism and genuine free will are incompatible, but the arguments for this familiar conclusion have a serious flaw: they confuse causation with control.  Both a boulder rolling and bouncing down a mountain and a skier skiing down a mountain are caused to move where they do, but one is an agent and one isn’t. When the skier loses control, she becomes like the boulder: out of control but not out of causation. A coin toss is a good example of a ‘random’ event, but it is not undetermined; it is uncontrolled. We can control ourselves so long as we protect our control systems from the efforts of manipulators, of which there are many. As Sam Harris has said,  “A puppet is free as long as it loves its strings.”  So love your strings, guarding against would-be puppeteers, and you will have all the free will worth wanting. Free will is an achievement, not an innate capacity.