Daniel C. Dennett: Herding Cats and Free Will Inflation

Dan Dennett’s Romanell lecture delivered at the one hundred seventeenth annual Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association:

Causation and control are not the same thing. Not all things that are caused are controlled. Things that are controlled are caused, like everything else, but control requires a controller, an agent of sorts designed to control a process, and that requires feedback: information about the trajectory and conditions that can be used by the controller to modulate the action. This is a fundamental point of control theory. Think about firing a rifle bullet. You’re controlling the direction of the gun barrel and, with the trigger, the time of the bullet emerging from the gun barrel. Are you controlling the course of the bullet after that? No. Where it goes after it leaves the muzzle is out of your control. Now, if you’re a really good shot, you may be able to calculate in advance the windage and so forth and you may be able to get it in the bull’s eye almost every time. But you are unable to affect the trajectory of the bullet after it leaves the gun. So it is not a controlled trajectory, it is a ballistic trajectory. It goes where it goes and, if your eyes were good enough to watch it and see that it was going “off course,” you’d have feedback, but you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Feedback is only useful information coming back to a controller if the controller also maintains an informational link back to the thing that’s being controlled. You fired the gun. You caused that bullet to go where it went, but you did not control the bullet after it left the gun. Compare that with a guided missile. A guided missile, after it’s launched, can still be controlled, to some extent, often to a great extent (as in a cruise missile). As you know, one of the chief inventions of technology in warfare in the last fifty years is the development of remote control missiles and, of course, remote control drones. Remote control is real, and readily distinguished from out of control. Autonomy is non-remote control, local or internal control, and it is just as real, and even more important.

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