The first point to make about this book is that Daniel Dennett's ability to engage readers is well-nigh unprecedented in current scientific or philosophic writing. Reading him is like watching a lion-tamer whose daring keeps us, breathless, on the edge of our seats.
His basic effort is to reconcile the determinism of Darwinism with the humanist's concern with human freedom. To do so he jettisons the notion that free will is a metaphysical concept. Rather, he explains it in terms of contemporary objective science, specifically via the same sort of evolution that led to the development of the eye or of language. He relies heavily on Richard Dawkin's concept of the evolution of memes: ideas that compete with each other just as other characteristics do via natural selection. In other words he argues that freedom of will grows and evolves. To achieve this conclusion he makes the point that determinism (a cause mechanistically producing an effect) is not the same as inevitability. He uses an example from baseball (shades of the late Stephen Jay Gould!) to make his point. He says that a batter has a choice of turning away from a pitch that is going to hit him or allowing it to hit him, depending on which action will help his team. His action is not determined by the prior history of the universe, but by his own analysis in the moment. In a different game, he might make a different choice. This, and other similar arguments, lead Dennett to the conclusion that the more we know, the more varieties and degrees of freedom we can have. Thus, modern man has more freedom than did, say, the Neanderthal.
Essentially then, Dennett, whose earlier work in the areas of consciousness (another concept that gives determinists fits) are seminal, asserts that natural science is the ally of freedom, not an argument against it. The audacious arguments he posits to support this position are breathtaking in their scope and are, for this reader, convincing.
on March 11, 2003
Daniel Dennett is attempting a thankless task, but one that is long overdue. Back in 1984, with the publication of Elbow Room, he sought to liberate free will - that perennial hobgoblin of philosophy - from a surplus of metaphysical baggage that is increasingly difficult to justify based on what we know about how brains work and how minds evolved. On these two topics, however, Elbow Room required the reader to reserve judgment. Since then, Dennett has given the world Consciousness Explained (1991), which, as the title implies, tries to tell us how brains work, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), which tries to explain how minds evolved, and in the process provides one of the most lucid accounts yet of the philosophical implications of Darwinism. Now, with Freedom Evolves, Dennett attempts to tie it all together.
The problem with this book, as far as I am concerned, is that it feels rushed and disjointed. I was more than happy to read all 500+ pages of DDI because the topic deserved that much space and, honestly, that book is a pleasure to read. The topic of free will, if anything, requires even more space to develop, and I would have gladly sat through six or seven hundred pages if necessary. As it is, my understanding of Dennett's arguments is sketchy - even after letting them sink in a few days and re-reading a few sections - so sketchy, in fact, that I won't attempt anything like a synopsis here, for fear of bungling the job. Beyond that, I was a little annoyed with the amount of recycled material from CE and DDI.
So why is Daniel Dennett's task a thankless one? Because he insists that free will is not an "illusion" as some hardcore materialists claim - nor is it some "extra something" in the sense implied by traditional dualist philosophers. There are a lot of feathers to ruffle in this area. Affirming free will on a strict materialist basis would be quite a feat, if done clearly and convincingly. I believe that case can be made, and that it should be made, and that Dennett is qualified to make it. Unfortunately, in Freedom Evolves he didn't do so as clearly and convincingly as I wish he had. Until Dennett or somebody else does so, the task will remain long overdue.
Although this book doesn't introduce anything radically new for those who follow Dennett, it does clarify his previous ideas on consciousness, free will, and human nature, and this
is far from a trivial matter. For anyone seriously interested in the question of how human free will can possibly be compatible with physical laws of cause and effect, and thought that nothing else could be reasonably said on the matter, this book is an essential. It will indeed help you clarify your thoughts, which is afterall one of the best things a work of philosophy can do for you, and one all too rarely accomplished by most philosophers.
For those who wonder about the conditions that foster human freedom and those that suppress it, this book doesn't quite delve into political or social philosophy per se, but it is at least a start at a real answer by providing clear thoughts and useful science and meta-science.
One very good reason for this book is that while Dan Dennett is a clear and vivid writer, particularly for a philosopher, he is also frequently rather badly misunderstood for some reason.
He has been described by reviewers as denying that human beings have free will or conscious awareness, and he has been accused of being an "ultraDarwinist," although he himself disputes these claims. In Freedom Evolves, he ties his previous ideas together and presents them in a way that will resist these misinterpretations of his ideas.
First, Dennett defends the compatibilist tradition (where free will and determinism are considered compatible in principle). He believes that the universe is probably deterministic in its physical nature, but that this doesn't mean our lives are pre-determined, nor does it prevent us from having forms of freedom worth working and fighting for.
This is done by distinguishing determinism clearly from inevitability with the help of his perspective tool of
different 'stances.' The 'stances' help see causation in different terms: mechanical causes from a physical stance vs.
functional causes from a design stance vs. the action of intentional agents from an intentional stance. We perceive inevitability in causal models from the design stance. Then we get confused between free will and determinism because we apply inevitability back to the physical, where it simply doesn't happen.
Then he builds a non-Cartesian account of choice and agency. Rather than distinguishing mind from mechanicals,
he describes different kinds of agency arising as the result of different raw materials available at different times and places. He uses the "toy model" of Conrad's Game of Life as an intuition pump to show how the appearance of agency arises from Darwinian algorithms through patterns like anticipating and avoiding harm.
The fact that the game is implemented on a device that follows instructions to the letter makes it a tough sell I think, and not entirely convincing (something he is acutely aware of, but can't seem to do anything about).
The human kind of agency is introduced by a much clearer discussion of Libet's "half second delay" experiments than he provided in "Consciousness Explained." He makes the point much more directly here how the half second delay can reflect a distributed decision making process rather than demonstrating that "we" are not in charge of our own actions, as the interpretation sometimes goes.
He still follows the basic interpretation used by Tor Norretranders in "User Illusion" and Dan Wegner in
"Illusion of Free Will," (which he has a lot to say about, mostly very good). The fact that there is a reliable
readiness potential prior to reporting our decision to act does mean that in some sense "I" don't directly initiate my actions. But Dennett further shows how we are shrinking this "I" too far when we use this argument to claim that "we" aren't in control or that a mysterious unconscious mind is in control.
"We" are able to disavow responsibility for our own actions under these contrived conditions because we break in
to the middle of the distributed process of decision making. Libet's results demonstrate the separate operation of the parts comprising the whole process, and the flexibility of our sense of self, not the ultimate powerlessness of the "I". This discussion is a high point of the book.
In building a case for the power of the "I" to take responsibility and form committments, Dennett does a brief
review of the literature on evolutionary game theory and the role of committment problems in human social life. He then makes his most important and final argument, that the capacities evolved to solve these problems have become the basis, through cultural evolution, of a fragile and socially and culturally nurtured and exercised ability to internallize reasons for behavior through reflecting on them and communicating them.
The idea that freedom, in the sense used in Dennett's final argument, is so real and yet so fragile is seen in the
way it can be heavily influenced simply by what we believe about it. The metaphor of "bootstrapping" runs throughout
the book, having been introduced in terms of the children's story of Dumbo the elephant. In some sense, we actually rely on useful illusions, such as the 'magic feather' that boosts Dumbo's confidence enough for him to try to fly. A crow flies up to shatter the useful illusion by grabbing the feather away. Dennett refers back to our frequent attempts to "stop that crow !" at various points in the book, pointing out where we may possibly be building real qbilities on the scaffolding of useful illusions, and trying to determine where the scaffolding can potentially be taken down once the real ability is in place.
on July 29, 2003
All I can say is "Wow." I admit to struggling with this excellent book for much of the first half, then, after digesting as much as I could, the last half was a bit easier. Dennett does his usual outstanding job of defining and carefully leading us through the many different arguments around his controversial topic of Free Will. Having read both Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Ideas, I was really looking forward to this book as well. Little did I know that it would so challenge my focus and ingrained ideas about determinism and free will.
Dennett shows that determinism does not imply inevitability. As if that isn't enough to struggle with, he then goes on to show that indeterminism doesn't give us free will as most people argue it does. And then, to add insult to injury, Dennett shows clearly how there are real options in a deterministic world. Free will becomes "real, but it is not a preexisting feature of our existence, like the law of gravity. It is also not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world. It is an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs, and it is just as real as such other human creations as music and money. And even more valuable."
Since I speak and lecture on Ethics as a Process, I was most interested in Dennett's view on ethics. He gave me much to think about as he states that: "I have not sought to replace the voluminous work in ethics with some Darwinian alternative, but rather to place that work on the foundation it deserves: a realistic, naturalistic, potentially unified vision of our place in nature."
No doubt I will have to return to this book again soon. And there is also no doubt that I will enjoy it even more the next time around and learn perhaps as much as my first time through. This is definitely a five out of five on my review scale!
on March 2, 2004
Just because so many of the other reviews are so glowing, I feel the need to interject with a little bit of criticism. First, this really is just old wine in new bottles. If you're interested in the subject of free will and you aren't very familiar with standard philosophical treatments of the issue, Dennett is a wonderful place to start. As always, his writing is greatly entertaining. On the other hand, don't expect to get anything groundbreakingly new here. If Dennett has made a contribution to the issue, that contribution consists largely in popularizing standard (and fairly widely accepted) compatibilist views of free will and in adding nifty scientific flourishes to the discussion, not in adding anything too philosophically original to the debate. Dennett might be the most fun philosopher/scientist to read (although my vote goes to Fodor). He probably isn't, contrary to what another reviewer suggests, one of "the century's top philosophers" though. (There are worse things to be criticized for)
Also, let me add that I suspect that a not insubstantial number of reviewers espousing enthusiasm have misunderstood Dennett's views at least a little bit. Again, this is just good old compatibilism. If you found compatibilism hard to swallow back when you read Hume in your philosophy 101 class, you should probably find it equally hard to swallow here. (If you liked compatibilism back then, though, Dennett will give you some neat new ways to put your views.)
on December 29, 2003
Each chapter in this book is a lesson, with a specific goal
of teaching us to think about something in a different way
than we probably have in the past. The result guides us to
understanding free will, freedom and morality of humans and
our society from a natural foundation - no God behind the
curtain, no Cartesian split of mind and matter, no meta-
Dennett is a master teacher, skilled in many of the tools
of his trade. This book doesn't read like some of the great
philosophical tracts of the past. It is approachable, and
more tutorial than Great Rhetoric.
If you disagree with his conclusions, then the informality
of his voice will make this book an easy target to criticize.
But, if your intuitions had been leading you in this direction,
as had mine, then you will find that this book completes and
realizes a vision of a natural based understanding of morality
and freedom that two weeks ago I would not have expected to
see in my lifetime.
on April 30, 2006
One never knows with Dennett. His "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" is truly an exceptional work, but his "Consciousness Explained" and "Elbow Room" leave a lot to be desired. This is among the latter.
Here's the gist: Determinism is a fact of nature, evolution is also a fact of nature, humans have evolved to "incorporate" the notion of free-will, even if science denies it, and so by evolution of social norms we accept (i) determinism on the macroscopic level, (ii) indeterminancy on the microscopic level, and (iii) free will on the social or cultural level. Does the conclusion follow from the premises? Hardly.
Dennett is taking a "compatiblist" perspective, by adding features of evolutionary theory. The compatiblist theory admits determinism as a fact of nature, but "allows" free will because we believe we have it. And we believe we have it, because we have evolved to that state of consciousness. Even if it might be untrue, we've been hardwired by evolution to believe it is necessary. It's not a matter of the facts, it's a matter of what we have evolved to believe. Evolution is the reason we adhere to it, even if it's not entirely true.
Dennett, the ever-faithful materialist, cannot escape the physical reality that every effect has a cause, and because all effects are caused, even human behavior is ultimately only an effect of other causes. But we could not, and would not, have survived during evolution's slow process, if we genuinely believed that no one is responsible for his actions. So evolution implanted in humans (maybe it's in our genome) the belief that the important acts of humans are freely chosen, even if on another level they really are not. So both determinism and freewill coexist, but on different models and levels.
That's the gist. He could have been concise as I have been, but then it would have been an article at most, not a book. To fill the remaining pages, and they are many, Dennett opinionates about many things, including his disdain for rationalism, which is especially odd since his disdain is entirely a rationalist claim, even if it may not be rational. I don't deny the probability of some compatiblist theory, but don't undermine an appeal to rational claims, which is the only way to get there. Justifying free will by evolution is necessarily a rational exercise, because free will is not inherently a part of evolutionary theory.
When Dennett fails, it's often miserably. This was also a miserable read.
on March 6, 2006
This book tells a story. A story of how human freedom could arise in a deterministic and Darwinian world. Don't be misled by the use of the term 'freedom': the story is not about how we escaped from determinism and acquired the ability of free choice. Human freedom, in Dennett's view, is the ability to deliberate about what is morally right and to act according to that insight. Note also that the story is a how-possibly story, not a description of what happened. It is meant to show that moral responsibility is not at odds with determinism and darwinism, not to describe how it actually arose. It is a long story, that starts with the evolution of things that can avoid being harmed and ends with a quick glance into the future. I like the story, but strongly dislike the way in which it is told.
For one thing, Dennett is not clear about the meaning of key-terms like 'freedom' and 'moral behaviour'. He doesn't define those terms and their meaning is supposed to become clear in the course of the story. This makes it often very difficult to follow the story and see what the main points are. For instance, somewhere Dennett starts to talk about the freedom of the bird to fly wherever it wants. In his opinion this freedom is much more than that of a jellyfish but only a poor cousin of human freedom (p.?143). However, what the difference is between these kinds of freedom is never told explicitly, it becomes clear only gradually and never entirely.
The problem is exaggerated by the frequency with which Dennett strays into hobby horses that have nothing to with the main point, the need to use the intentional stance for example and rands about genetic determinism. Because it is almost never clear what exactly Dennett's point is, I have wasted a lot of time trying to get the point of things that turned out to be only digressions.
An overview of the main mile stones of the history at the beginning would have been of much help.
Many of Dennett's arguments are cloudy and difficult to follow. He tends to meander around a point endlessly, repeatedly emphasizing that we should be open-minded and sophisticated, that we should not fall into extremes, that we should avoid certain traps, and than, suddenly, without any further argument he claims to have made his point. This is not very convincing.
At other points he seems to contradict himself. For example, chapter 8 starts with an exceptional illuminating discussion of Libet's view on decision making. The argument hinges on the idea that the Self is not kind of Cartesian mission control but the entirety of what we do, or perhaps, the way in which our activity is organized ('you are not out of the loop, you are the loop'). However the second part of chapter 8 presents the Self as a widget of the human user interface (like the mouse pointer on a computer screen). But surely in computers the user interface is a definite part of the operating system, not the computer as a whole.
The book contains many interesting ideas (such as the idea that if you make the self small enough almost anything will be external) and a few gems (I never saw a better criticism of Libet's view), and it often points to interesting literature (Skyrms among others) but all in all it is not a good read.
on June 21, 2005
Daniel Dennett is not a man to shy from grand philosophical pronouncements. Having declared the book closed on the Mind debate in "Consciousness Explained" (others are still offering odds) and having found beyond reasonable doubt for the Botanist in the case of Darwin vs. God in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", Daniel Dennett now purports to settle the third of the great metaphysical questions: Do we have free will? Not only that, indeed, but he purports - I think - to have found a method for achieving moral objectivity while he was at it. Good show, that man!
Yes, I'm being a little ironic. But, for the most part, I'm a buyer: Dennett's books are certainly fascinating, and in large part compelling, and this one is no exception.
Just as there are similar strands between Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, there are some very familiar concepts here - old hands will recognise Conway's life world, the Prisoner's Dilemma, and Benjamin Libet's experiment which (seemed to) describe a "missing 300ms" between neural activity and consciousness of it - to the point where you might think to skip a few pages altogether.
This would be a mistake, however, for a reason which nicely complements Dennett's own "multiple drafts" theory of consciousness: repeated examination of the same ideas, in a new context, and with the benefit of a refined explanation, affords the reader new perspectives, and enhances comprehension of this book, but also the earlier ones. In the case of Libet's experiment, Dennett is much more compelling in his counterarguments than in Consciousness Explained - the revised draft gives a better view of the point.
What is so pleasing about all three books are the consistency of thoughts and ideas between them across what are at first glance disparate lines of inquiry - the unifying meta-theory here is Darwin's - applied in quite different (but clearly related) contexts. Dennett extends the application of his arguments to some economic and quasi-political situations - everyday life, to you and me, where these questions actually matter - and gets mostly the right results. (It never fails to amaze me how highly intelligent, extremely well educated, university professors in social sciences fail to grasp even the basic tenets of economic theory, so it is a welcome sign that one of their number might do, especially one who once publicly struggled with the Laffer curve)
I have two, related, complaints about Freedom Evolves. Of all the metaphysical conundrums, Free Will is - and ought to be - the least interesting, and most prone to catcalls from those in the cheap seats who think philosophy is wishy-washy, head-up-posterior, nonsense.
Where consciousness has profound practical implications for our understanding of the world and how to live in it (not least in the field of AI); and whether God exists or not has profound implications for our sense of morality, the free will debate has neither feature: we all think we are free to choose; as a brute fact either we are or we're not: but either way, we can't change it (if we're not free, then we aren't free to change to be free; if we are free, we're not free to decide not to be). Whatever the answer is, it can't make any difference to the way we live out our lives, since whether we're free to choose begs the very question we're asking.
That said, Dennett's Darwinian-influenced arguments are compelling in support of the case for free will.
What isn't so compelling is the small part of the book in which he allows metaphysics to tip over into ethics. For the second book in a row, Dennett has made some unwelcome noises about sketching out some sort of theory of moral objectivity. He doesn't dwell on it, as such, but it is definitely there: writing elliptically, I think Dennett attempts to make a case for a sort of Moral Objectivism to be derived from evolution. He says, as his book draws to a close:
"The philosopher's problem is to negotiate the transition from `is' to `ought', or more precisely to show how we might go beyond the `merely historical' fact that certain customs and policies have had, as a matter of fact, widespread societal endorsement, and get all the way to norms that command assent in all rational agents. Successful instances of this move are known. Bootstrapping has worked in the past, and it can work here as well. We don't need a skyhook."
I find this paragraph utterly baffling. It arrives so unannounced, and is so totally at odds with the very spirit and sense of everything else in Daniel Dennett's Darwin-influenced meta-theory, I just can't see what on earth possessed him to write it. What conceivable role could "norms commanding asset in all rational agents" in the gloriously unpredictable topography of the evolutionary journey possibly have?
Dennett compares this to the process of obtaining a (virtually) perfect straightedge over centuries by continually refining our technique for making straighter and straighter straightedges - apparently missing the point that in the case of the straightedge there is an immutable, single, unmistakable, universally understood abstract concept of a "perfectly straight line" which the manufactured straightedge is aiming to achieve; as such, it could scarcely be different to describing norms generally agreed amongst poorly defined (and constantly mutating) communities of individuals which have been developed unsystematically over time in reaction to drastically shifting environmental and societal factors to regulate the behaviour of a community which itself is moving randomly through design space (i.e., evolving).
Now, since when is transforming "is" to "ought" the philosopher's problem? Isn't the philosopher's job done when we can look at this wonderful model derived from Darwin's work, and say: Look, mum, no homunculus! No intelligent designer! No rules!
Having knocked off the three main metaphyiscal conundrums, you wonder what might be next on the agenda - "Right and Wrong: Finally Sorted" perhaps?
on July 6, 2003
(4 1/2 *)
Though I heartily despise materialistic monism, the central pillar of Daniel Dennett's philosophy, I am forced to acknowledge him as more than just our ablest defender of that folly. He is the most silver-tongued American philosopher since William James, bursting with fresh insights, sizzling with curiosity, ready to pull the perfect vivifying metaphor out of his pocket on any occasion. He never oversimplifies, yet like James writes with colloquial clarity. And few philosophers work as hard to avoid straw men, doing justice to both the meat and the spirit of opposing thinkers. He is never less than a pleasure to read.
"Freedom Evolves" isn't as seminal or as tightly argued as Dennett's 5-star classic "Consciousness Explained". But it is still brilliant, and essential reading for anyone who thinks about free will.
The book's burden in a nutshell: The traditional metaphysical wrangle over freedom of the will is simply beside the point. All of the practical and ethical benefits we want "free will" to accomplish for us - a sense of control over our own destiny; an anchor for personal responsibility, punishment and reward; and the ability to say "I could have done otherwise" and mean it - are entirely compatible with the most thoroughgoing determinism. And anyway there's no practical way ever to distinguish between a determined decision and one which (whether by the grace of quantum mechanics or some ghost in the machine) is indeterminate. So we should take heart, take pleasure in the freedom our common sense tells us we enjoy, then concentrate on expanding the political freedom of all humans, and on taking responsibility for the expanded choices our technology affords us.
His central new trick is to spell out a new concept that walks like free will, and quacks like free will. Using an example from the libertarian John Austin, who wrote about how he "could have made" a golf putt he actually missed, Dennett observes that Austin is not really saying he could have made the putt under *exactly* the same circumstances. Rather, Austin was claiming that he could have made it under circumstances *indistinguishable* from those which really obtained. Even under determinism, any world state we perceive at a given moment will be fuzzy; we would have perceived not only the actual world at that moment, but any of a host of similar worlds, as being "the same." And even under determinism, it makes perfect sense to say that among the (determinate) futures of that collection of similar worlds are some futures in which Austin made his putt. That, Dennett argues (convincingly) is what Austin *really* meant by "I could have sunk precisely that putt"; and (less convincingly) what everybody means when they say such things in real life. And (convincingly again) that this determinate-world, fuzzy-proposition interpretation of "I could have done otherwise" provides all the elbow room needed to satisfy the free-will druthers of the man on the street.
In this discussion, Dennett pulls a bit of a fast one: he drops into the modal logic jargon common to philosophers these days, and calls these similar worlds "possible worlds". Actually, if determinism is true, no world other than the one that happened was really possible, and only a professional philosopher or an artificial intelligence maven would be prone to fall for the equivocation. But his point carries despite the legerdemain. His gloss on "possible" is a *possible* meaning for possible, and it does afford the benefits he claims for it. Sure, the old metaphysical quarrel is left unresolved. But Dennett's point is that what really matters to most participants in free will debates is not the metaphysics of it, but the social and ethical fallout.
Along the way there are stimulating and illuminating discussions of the phenomenon of temptation (it arises because mammals like ourselves discount future gains on a hyperbolic rather than an exponential curve), and of the ways in which freedom expanded over the course of evolution, right up to the emergence of "free will" - i.e., of self conscious deliberation over reasons for actions, in a way that allows for the sense of "could have done otherwise."
Even opponents (like myself) of materialistic monism will find a lot to take away from Dennett's analysis, because only parts of chapter 8 actually rely on that odious doctrine. The kind of "free will" he describes winds up being the same, and equally useful to have, regardless of whether the underlying cosmology is monist or dualist, determinist or libertarian. And the same goes for his dissection of temptation and of character development. In the best Jamesian (and likewise the best Wittgensteinian) tradition, he manages to be philosophically pertinent while bypassing metaphysics altogether.
He makes a good case that his limited modified hang-out version of free will is practically indistinguishable from the traditional kind. He concludes that the traditional kind is therefore not worth fretting over. For a secular thinker like himself, that's probably so. But some of his readers will not be secular thinkers. It's worth noting that those readers will have a valid reason to care about the difference.
After all, the free will debate in Western philosophy really began with Augustine, who had a non-secular motive: human beings have to have free will in order to absolve God from the moral evils humans commit. And though Austin couldn't distinguish between the world in which he failed to make his putt, and the nearby worlds in which he would have, they would be distinguishable to God - whereupon all of the "could have done otherwises" would shrink back to a deterministic dot.