TCS Daily


Degrees of Freedom

By Kenneth Silber - February 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Daniel C. Dennett is a prominent philosopher with a sharp-edged public persona. He has focused on issues of evolution, consciousness and free will, and his positions could be correctly, if concisely, summed up as Darwinism, materialism and determinism. He has engaged in notably heated debates at conferences and in publications like The New York Review of Books, and his varied intellectual opponents have included philosopher John Searle and the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Dennett once responded to a Commentary magazine article by author David Berlinski questioning evolutionary theory by sending a letter that contained a dismissive vulgarity (and no further argument).

Dennett's new book Freedom Evolves presents an engrossing and valuable, though not always convincing, argument about free will. As an exponent of scientific determinism, Dennett believes that human action springs from mechanistic, material causes. Yet he asserts that free will exists - that it is, as he puts it, "as real as language, music, and money." In addition, much like music and such, free will depends in part on how we perceive and think about it. It is possible, therefore, that we could weaken or lose it.

Freedom, in Dennett's telling, has emerged from biological and, importantly, cultural evolution. A bird that can fly where it wants has more freedom than a jellyfish that floats with the tides. Humans, with our capacity to contemplate alternatives and rethink our own convictions, have vastly greater freedom even than fairly intelligent animals like chimps and dolphins. Free will, in this view, is younger than our species, with many of its most important features emerging as civilization developed in the last several millennia.

Dennett's version of free will puts him at odds with philosophers ("libertarians," in a metaphysical, not political, sense) who argue that free will requires an element of indeterminism - that the future must, to some degree, be undetermined by the past. Analyzing a model of indeterministic decision-making presented by libertarian philosopher Robert Kane, Dennett argues that such indeterminism, if it exists, is basically just randomness, having nothing to do with free will or moral responsibility.

Determinism, in Dennett's view, is nothing to be disturbed about. A deterministic world can still have possibilities and opportunities, as is evident even with relatively simple agents like chess-playing computers. Dennett cogently points out that having a fixed future is not the same as having a fixed nature, and that such a future may be very different from the past. Still, his effort to make determinism more palatable veers into what are little more than word games. He asserts, for example, that determinism does not imply "inevitability," because humans and other agents avoid things all the time.

Moreover, Dennett overreaches in dismissing indeterminism as having any relevance to free will. Libertarian philosophers distinguish between random indeterminism at one level (a single brain cell transmitting an electrochemical impulse, say) and nonrandom indeterminism at a higher, system level. Conflating such levels may be a logical error - the "fallacy of composition" - like thinking that a building must be horizontal overall if it is made of horizontal bricks.

Dennett is more persuasive, however, in arguing that moral responsibility does not require indeterminism. Responsibility, in his view, arises from the capacity of people to understand their actions and adjust their behavior. This perspective provides a needed corrective to what Dennett calls "creeping exculpation" - a tendency to repeal people's responsibility on the grounds that some brain state or genetic factor made them do it. (Such exculpation also includes a strange bias whereby society is seen as blameworthy for treating criminals as if they were blameworthy.)

The tone of Freedom Evolves can be overly contentious and smug. Dennett, for instance, mocks libertarian defenders of free will for supposedly wanting to "stop that crow" - a reference to a cartoon crow and the flying elephant Dumbo. Despite such erratic flights, the book is a thought-provoking contribution to an unfinished philosophical debate.
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