In The Self as a Responding—and Responsible Artifact. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1001: 39-50. doi: 10.1196/annals.1279.003 Dennett writes as follows.

Non-human animals can engage in voluntary actions of sorts. The bird that flies wherever it wants is voluntarily wheeling this way and that, voluntarily moving its wings.

But Dennett doesn't consider this Free Will.

Humans differ from every other species in that we represent our reasons to ourselves and others. This is what gives us the power, and the obligation, to think ahead, to anticipate, to see the consequences of our actions, to be able to evaluate those actions in the light of what other people tell us, and to share our wisdom with each other. That’s what makes us free in a way that no bird is free.

[Evolution produced] creatures capable of considering different courses of action in advance of committing to any one of them, and weighting them on the basis of some projection of the probable outcome of each. In the quest by brains to produce a useful future, this is a major improvement over the risky business of blind trial and error, since, as Karl Popper [1978] once put it, it permits some of your hypotheses to die in your stead.

Dennett calls this the only kind of free will worth having.

Computer programs that play games have this sort of capability. Does that mean that Dennett would attribute Free Will to game-playing computer programs?

I see this question as very similar to but not quite the same as the one about compatibilism. As I understand it compatibilism is the position that an agent has free will if its actions are determined (to the extent possible) by its internal state. ("To the extent possible" intends to rule out the argument that one does not have free will if one wishes to fly but cannot for physical reasons.)

I would guess that compatibilists would claim that the birds in Dennett's example have free will: their actions are determined (to the extent possible) by their internal states. But Dennett does not attribute free will to those birds. So Dennett's position and generic compatibilism (as I understand it) a somewhat different.

The underlying issue, though, seems to be essentially the same: if an agent's actions are determined (to the extent possible) by its internal state does it have free will? The only thing Dennett adds to that is that the agent's internal processing capability must include the ability to "think ahead."

So it would seem that both Dennett in particular and compatibilists in general would attribute free will to a chess playing program.

The compatibilist question also raised the issue of learning from experience. I think that's somewhat different. But we know that some game-playing programs, for example AlphaGo, are capable of learning from experience. So adding that requirement doesn't seem to change the underlying question very much: Do game playing programs that are capable of learning from experience have free will?

  • Possible duplicate of Does compatibilism imply that a chess program has free will? Jul 30, 2017 at 11:03
  • I think this is not exactly a duplicate, as it is much more specific and does not have an answer in the other thread.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 30, 2017 at 11:38
  • I agree that this isn't a duplicate because the OP is specifically asking about Dennett's views while the other question only mentions Dennett in a tangental way related to the main question here.
    – Not_Here
    Jul 30, 2017 at 14:10
  • while I'm not a compatibilist it seems to me that your representation of dennett's view is very simplistic and out of context. For example the question of free will is usually attached to the problem of moral agency in a society as hinted in his first quote. Flying birds and chess playing programs are not such moral agents and cannot be ones. Trying to accommodate that into the question and in general do justice to his views will either dissolve the question or transform it completely.
    – nir
    Jul 30, 2017 at 17:51
  • I understand and agree that free will is frequently attached to the problem of moral agency. I'm looking at free will independent of moral agency. If Dennett would refuse to talk about free will separately from moral agency, then I guess I should not be asking about Dennett. On the other hand, it seems to me he is willing to split the issue of free will from concerns about moral agency. Whatever Dennett's position, I'm interested in free will by itself.
    – RussAbbott
    Jul 30, 2017 at 22:49

3 Answers 3


Dennett's ideas about animal free will are primarily based on his poor understanding of biology rather than some philosophical distinction. In "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" for example he specifically argues that there is no real difference between a sufficiently complex robot and a human entirely because we have to accept that our motives are the product of DNA in the same way as robot's intentions might be written by a programmer. Following this logic, then yes, one would have to ascribe such "free-will" to a sufficiently complicated game-playing machine that showed the ability to weigh options and choose the best one, even if it did so only because it was programmed to. To do otherwise would lead either to the conclusion that we have no free-will either (as we are simply programmed by our DNA), or that we somehow inhabit, or link up to some magic realm which provides us with free will (as dualists believe).

Why Dennett then feels the need to arbitrarily decide that other animals are incapable of weighing two options with regards to their possible future outcomes when there is overwhelming evidence that they can I'm afraid I don't know.

  • 1
    plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness-animal/#humans Some explanation of why Dennett argues for what he does. I too am not convinced by the ideas
    – Not_Here
    Jul 30, 2017 at 7:58
  • @Not_Here Yes, I have come across that line of argument, but it would also deny conciousness to the born deaf-mute, unless the language required is internal and acquirable without speech, in which case - why conclude it is not present in other animals? As you say, most unconvincing.
    – user22791
    Jul 30, 2017 at 8:05
  • Aargh. Why do we worry about what Dennett thinks? Has he ever solved a problem or explained anything? 'All fur coat and no knickers' is a saying used around here.
    – user20253
    Jul 30, 2017 at 13:31
  • @PeterJ He's certainly solved problems for some people and explained things to the satisfaction of his editors at least. What other standard would you hold him to?
    – user22791
    Jul 30, 2017 at 15:16
  • @Isaacson - I shouldn't have been so flippant but I have trouble with self-control. It is not difficult to meet the standards of his editors since they do not expect him to solve any problems. It is not a specification for his audience or for his style of philosophy. He has many admirers and in some ways I'm one, but it is not for his scholarship, knowledge of philosophy or ability to think clearly. But ignore me if you like, I shouldn't be so quick with my opinions. He has enough fans not to worry about my complaints.
    – user20253
    Jul 31, 2017 at 16:48

As Dennett explains in "Elbow Room" and "Freedom Evolves," he sees very simple organisms as having very small amounts of free will, so he would likely see a simple computer program as being similar, and more complex programs as having a bit more.

Note that something like GPT is very different, in that it doesn't make decisions, but is simply an algorithm to predict the next word, and thus would not have free will in that sense, even though, say, a chess program would.


No non-living thing has any kind of will, free or otherwise.

Dennett describes creatures capable of considering different courses of action. Computer programs that play games are not creatures and do not have this sort of capability.

The programmers of the computer are the creatures making all the decisions concerning what the computer does. They do all the "thinking ahead", anticipate all possible game scenarios and write appropriate actions for each.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .