Thinking as a Hobby

Get Email Updates
Email Me

Admin Password

Remember Me

3477071 Curiosities served
Share on Facebook

Dennett's Freedom Evolves
Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Read/Post Comments (6)

Kenan Malik provides an interesting review of philosopher Daniel Dennett's new book on free will and determinism, Freedom Evolves.

I've read some of Dennett's stuff (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, most recently Kinds of Minds, and even a while back his first book about free will, Elbow Room) but from Malik's review it sounds as if Freedom Evolves is one of his weaker works. Though I'll render a more thorough assessment after reading it.

Malik writes:

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has long been a champion of the materialist view. Humans, he believes, are evolved machines. There is nothing more to the mind than the workings of the brain. But he also regards free will as real and important.

I just don't see these views as compatible. No doubt, Dennett is arguing for a special "emergent property" that arises from the particular construct of human brains that allows for free will, but I'm already highly skeptical of this argument before he even lays it out.

If you believe that the brain is a causal machine, then an increase in complexity isn't going to vault its machinations beyond causality. That's like saying my Pentium-powered PC has free will because it's more complex than the Commodore 64 I had as a kid. But maybe Dennett isn't saying this...

He does say this, though:

'Human freedom', he writes, 'is not an illusion; it is an objective phenomenon, distinct from all other biological conditions and found in only one species, us.'

Huh? So a chimpanzee is a deterministic animal, but humans aren't? When you put a banana and an apple in front of a chimp, their "choice" is illusory, but if you put the same two pieces of fruit in front of a human, their choice is real?

And at what point did this supposed freedom evolve? Home sapien has it, but erectus and habilis didn't?

I'd damn sure like to hear the argument for that.

The conventional arguments against both free will, on the one hand, and scientific materialism, on the other, rests on the belief that in a deterministic universe there is simply no room for freedom. If every state of the universe has been determined by a previous state then in what way could any act be said to be 'free'? Is it not simply the inevitable outcome of a series of causal links that goes all the way back to the Big Bang?

Yes, I'd say. But Dennett the materialist?

Not so, says Dennett. Such a view confuses determinism and inevitability. Suppose I'm playing baseball and the pitcher chucks the ball directly at my face. I turn my head to avoid it. There was, therefore, nothing inevitable about the ball hitting my face. But, a sceptic might say, I turned my head not of my own free will but was caused to do so by factors byond my control. That is to misunderstand the nature of causation, Dennett retorts. What really caused me to turn my head was not a set of deterministic links cascading back to the beginnings of the universe - though that certainly exists - but my desire at that moment not to get hit by the baseball. At a different moment I might decide to take a hit in the face, if by doing so I help my team win the game.

Pardon me, but this argument is just dumb (though I'm making the assumption that Malik is faithfully rendering Dennett's argument).

The question of free will has always been the basis of the "desire" that Dennett mentions in his example. Is that desire a causal result of the biochemical operation of the neurons in your skull, formed into that particular arrangement via a determined environment and genetics? Or something else?

In other words, are you a machine that could only have done exactly what you had done at that particular moment, or are you somehow outside of the bounds of physical laws and causality?

Again, how is the "choice" of a chimp or dog qualitatively different from a choice that I supposedly make?

Having established that a deterministic universe still leaves room for free will, Dennett then attempts to show how such freedom could have evolved just like any biological structure, such as a heart or an eye.

This is the most disheartening part of the review, since Dennett has generally been such a strong proponent for evolutionary thought. Then again, it is the thesis of his book, but it seems ridiculous to me.

Freedom evolves? How? Under what selection pressure? Dennett seems to be simultaneously degrading both evolutionary thought and materialism, though he claims to be a proponent of both. Asserting that freedom "evolves" just seems like a gross misrepresentation of how anything evolves.

Traits, after all, evolve because they are adaptive to a particular environment. No doubt, Dennett tries to argue that free will is adaptive, though personally I think it would be embarassing to watch him try.

Though I will probably eventually have a look at the book and see for myself.

Read/Post Comments (6)

Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Back to Top

Powered by JournalScape © 2001-2010 All rights reserved.
All content rights reserved by the author.