Daniel Dennett Dissects a Bad Thought Experiment

Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist
Schrödinger's cat. The prisoner's dilemma. The trolley problem. These are brand names as much as they're philosophical thought experiments. Philosopher Daniel Dennett explains the importance of concocting an attractive package in which to wrap your argument. At the same time, Dennett warns that this can backfire and, to demonstrate, he dissects one of his "favorite bad thought experiments," an investigation of free will based on the sci-fi film "The Boys From Brazil."
  • Transcript


Daniel Dennett: Scientists and philosophers like to think that they're very sober, rational people who are above the need to advertise.  And yet, if you look closely you'll see that they often go to great lengths to come up with a vivid memorable term, a label for their theory or a name for it that will stick in people's head.  In other words, they're trying to develop a brand name or advertising or trademark for their view.  And we should recognize that's a good thing to do if you're going to run an example or if you're gonna run an argument -- try to make it as easy as possible for the audience or the reader to keep track of the elements.
Don't call them A, B, C, D and E.  Call them Bill and Arthur and Freddie and so forth. But, of course, that can backfire on you, too.  Or it can be misused.  One of my favorite bad thought experiments -- bad intuition pumps is one in a very influential paper by Greene and Cohen published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society on what neuroscience tells us about free will.  And this is The Boys from Brazil.  And in this thought experiment we're to imagine -- it's inspired by the hokey science fiction film The Boys from Brazil about some evil doctors who clone Hitler and they're trying to make Hitler clones.  But in this telling they create a human being who's been designed by their evil intentions to live a life of crime -- to do evil things.
But just as rational as anybody else, he's very much controlled.  He's sort of a designed psychopath.  And they call him Mr. Puppet.  And they describe Mr. Puppet and Mr. Puppet goes out and commits a crime.  And they appeal to the readers to conclude that Mr. Puppet isn't really responsible for his evil deeds.  He shouldn't be punished certainly.  He's just the victim of his circumstances.  And then, bless them, they say, "Now Daniel Dennett might object that this is just an intuition pump and that we shouldn't take it seriously."  Yes.  It's not that it's an intuition pump.  Intuition pumps can be good.  It's a bad intuition pump.  And they said -- they just having noticed -- having imagined that I might be critical of their intuition pump they go ahead and do it anyway.
So let me now turn the knobs on this intuition pump and we'll see what we can make of it.  First they say the fact that this person was created by evil scientists with evil intent -- that's irrelevant to the example really.  All right, so let's get rid of it.  Turn that knob and so -- an indifferent environment produces a human being who, they say, by design is set out on a sort of antisocial trajectory.  Well, but we can get rid of that by design, too, because if it's an indifferent environment then there's no intent on this.  So now we've got this indifferent environment happens to produce an individual who, with high probability, will engage in some criminal activities, let's say.  Okay.
 And then they imagine that he kills somebody in a drug bust or something, you know, in a drug deal gone bad.  Well, that's inessential so we're gonna change the crime.  We're gonna make it he killed somebody who has witnessed some embezzlement that he's done.  It shouldn't make any difference.  If you thought that the Mr. Puppet in the first instance wasn't responsible and shouldn't be held responsible, this shouldn't change it.  Now I want to change just one more thing.  They keep talking about Mr. Puppet.  Okay, that's a nice vivid name but it's just a name.  Shouldn't make any difference -- I'm gonna change it.  Let's call Mr. Puppet, oh, Captain Autonomy.  Okay, so now Captain Autonomy is caused by an indifferent environment to enter on a trajectory where it becomes likely that he's going to commit some antisocial behavior.
And now the question is whether he should be held responsible.  Well, I think Captain Autonomy?  Why shouldn't he be held responsible?  Let me flush it out a little bit  more.  Let's suppose that Captain Autonomy is a Harvard graduate who goes to work at Lehman Brothers and sees a clever way of embezzling a few million dollars and has pulled off his white collar crime when he discovered a person who is about to expose him and he lures him to the edge of the balcony in the high rise and pushes him off and he falls to his death.  Now that's my case.  Now are we so clear that Captain Autonomy is not responsible for his deed?  It seems to me that I drained the example of most of the umph that provided the intuitions.
I'm not saying that my retelling of it shows that he is responsible.  I'm just pointing out that those details which presumably are ad lib and they shouldn't make a difference -- they make a huge difference into how we think about this person and whether or not to hold him responsible.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton