I finally started reading philosopher Daniel Dennet’s Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking. Though I’ve made little progress given the onslaughts of a new school year, I’ve enjoyed his opening discourse covering broadly applicable thinking tools and advice. In particular
- Cultivate the habit of making mistakes – But make them good mistakes, mistakes worth correcting … that provide a start … something to work with … that create the possibility of making something truly new. It is important not to hide mistakes, especially from yourself … making them public provides feedback.
- Rapoport’s Rules: Follow these steps for engaging in productive critical commentary with a “target”: (1) Re-express your target’s position clearly, vividly, and fairly, (2) list the points of agreement, (3) mention anything you have learned from your target, and (4) only then permit yourself to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
- Sturgeon’s law: 90% of everything is crap. And that’s true whether you’re talking about physics or chemistry or evolutionary psychology or sociology…90% of everything is crap, so don’t waste our time and yours hooting at the crap. Go for the good stuff. 
Several years ago I read Dennett’s Religion Explained – the book that earned him a spot in pantheon of the “New Atheists” – and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which I remember holding terrific insights, but somewhat dense … but not as dense as Consciousness Explained, which tamped down my motivation to start Freedom Evolves, in which he presented his compatibilist view of free will. ,  (Was this an ironic case of my emotions circumscribing my free will to choose to learn about free will?)
I have since felt reluctant to dive fully into the issue of free will – a topic hotly debated among naturalists/materialists. Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist, wrote a very accessible short book on the topic Free Will that made a compelling case for it being an illusion . Harris was also – I thought – at his rhetorical best lecturing on the topic.  My other light exposure to the topic came from reading some of the work of the psychologists Daniel Wegner (Harvard) and John Bargh (Yale), whose research focuses on unconscious cognition and automaticity. Both offer empirical evidence against free will , 
I left these three free will skeptics emotionally comfortable with the idea that free will might very well be an illusion, though it’s hard to shake the pesky intuitive sense of a distinction between my experience of choosing and … let’s say an amoeba responding to a glucose concentration gradient. But that may only be a product of more complex information processing leading to the emergence of abstract representations, particularly the ability to simulate future outcomes, and then mentally rewind the clock from that imaginary future and choose the imaginary alternative course to another future. A simulated “counterfacuality.” But even if our sense of free will arises from this sort of thing, then there is the more straight-forward issue of our unconscious doing more high-level cognitive work than we realize because – duh – it’s unconscious and we don’t have introspective access to it. Our choices are made before we have the conscious experience of a self “owning” them. Our motor centers stimulate the appropriate movements automatically. Our self-aware selves are to our unconscious as a little girl is to her father on the dance floor. She thinks she leads as she stands on his feet as they shuffle along. 
Returning to the idea of our counterfactual simulation ability. The common notion of free will is often expressed in terms of a counterfactual conjecture. That is, free will is associated with the belief that if the “clock were turned back” and a person were confronted with the same choice – all conditions being identical (and no memory of the first round) – he would be able to chose an alternative. Unfortunately, since time reversal is impossible, this intuition provides a groundless basis for a free will claim.
On several occasions I tried to warm myself up to the task of entering this free will morass – to make the – ahem -choice of committing more time to it. Reading Dennett’s Intuition Pumps … reminded me of his Point of Inquiry podcast interview over a year ago in which he summarized his compatibilist position on free will.  I went back this evening to re-read the comment I posted on the Point of Inquiry website, and discovered it was recognized as the “comment of the week” by the producers – well whoopie for me 
Here is that comment – which gives a sense of Dennett’s position – and which just might launch me into a my own free will project, motivated as I now am by such flattery – which I may not have the will to resist 
[I offer these] few of responses to Dan Dennett’s discussion of free will, fully acknowledging that I am picking at the following “nutshell” definition he offered starting at 29:00 minutes.
“Free will is moral competence of the following sort. A person – an agent – has free will who is well informed and has well-ordered desires and preferences, who is good at detecting when he or she is being manipulated by other agents, and is good at protecting itself from manipulation by others, and also in order to have free will in the requisite sense you got to have … “skin in game” – you’ve got to be punishable … have something to worry about … so it can be motivated not to do things because it would hate to be punished.”
First, this seems less a definition of free will than a statement of the underlying “requisite” cognitive capacities and conditions. Still, I can see an operational definition arising from this – it sounds synonymous with simple rationally. I agree this is sufficient for assigning moral responsibility
Second, these capacities are harder won than most suppose. Dennett seemed to be discounting those innate frailties of mind that undermine these capacities, even in intelligent educated adults. More fundamentally, the pervasive influence of the adaptive unconscious, coupled with our inability to uncover the root causes of our choices by introspection, poses severe limitations on these capacities. In other words, the psychological illusion of self knowledge overshadows – if not overwhelms -philosophical arguments over free will.
Third, I am not sure that free will qua cognitive capacity is the free will most people would find “worth wanting.” What most find worth wanting is fixed to the metaphysical axiom: “I could have chosen otherwise if we rolled back time.” For such people Dennett’s equation of free will with moral competence would sound circular, since there can be no morality – or moral responsibility – without free will.
Finally, framing free will in terms of moral competency seems a bit narrowing. Certainly there are many important choices we make in life that have no moral implications.
Having said that, I do feel free to blame my parents for all the bad personal decisions I’ve made since I turned 18! :)
Now, how to start myproject? Perhaps I’ll ease into Dennett’s denser discourses with the hour-long lecture he delivered at Edinburg University in 2007.  Then I’ll read the Stanford Encyclopedia article on compatiblism . … Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. This may all depend on my body’s present configuration of atoms and all the atoms and photons “out there” already on a collision course with it. At the moment I see them all conspiring to move me toward my bed.
 Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking, by Daniel Dennett: http://www.amazon.com/Intuition-Pumps-Other-Tools-Thinking/dp/1491518871
 ]Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett: http://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Evolves-Daniel-C-Dennett/dp/0142003840
 Free Will by Sam Harris: http://www.amazon.com/Free-Will-Sam-Harris/dp/1451683405
 “The Delusion of Free Will”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FanhvXO9Pk
 The Illusion of Free Will: http://www.amazon.com/Illusion-Conscious-Will-Bradford-Books/dp/0262731622/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410652762&sr=1-1&keywords=Illusion+of+Free+Will
 The New Unconscious: http://www.amazon.com/New-Unconscious-Social-Cognition-Neuroscience/dp/0195307690/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410652839&sr=1-2&keywords=John+bargh
 Some excellent general audience books dealing directly or indirectly with the modern scientific examination of the adaptive unconscious are.
Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious by Timothy Wilson (http://www.amazon.com/Strangers-Ourselves-Discovering-Adaptive-Unconscious/dp/0674013824)
Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinov (http://www.amazon.com/Subliminal-Your-Unconscious-Rules-Behavior/dp/0307378217/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1410699471)
Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurban (http://www.amazon.com/Why-Everyone-Else-Hypocrite-Evolution/dp/0691154392/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410699570&sr=1-1&keywords=everyone+a+hypocrite)
 Point of Inquiry podcast interview of Daniel Dennett (http://www.pointofinquiry.org/daniel_dennett_tools_for_thinking/)
 Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel Dennett (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbow_Room_%28book%29)
 “Is Science Showing That We Don’t Have Free Will” A Lecture by Daniel Dennet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKLAbWFCh1E)