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IN the last several years the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has published two very large, interesting and influential books. The first, ''Consciousness Explained'' , aimed to account for all the phenomena of consciousness within the general theoretical framework set by current physics. It failed, of course, and came to be affectionately known as ''Consciousness Ignored. The second, ''Darwin's Dangerous Idea'' , set out to make the case for the theory of evolution even more irresistible than it already is, and it was right on target: vivid, ingenious and illuminating, if sometimes huffy and overpolemical.
Now Dennett is advancing on free will. In ''Freedom Evolves,'' he wants to show how evolution can get us ''all the way from senseless atoms to freely chosen actions.
But he doesn't establish the kind of absolute free will and moral responsibility that most people want to believe in and do believe in. That can't be done, and he knows it. So what does Dennett mean by freedom? Well, he's a ''compatibilist'': he thinks that freedom is wholly compatible with determinism, although determinism is the view that everything that happens in the universe is necessitated by what has already happened, so that nothing can ever occur otherwise than it actually does.
He thinks, in other words, that you can be wholly free and morally responsible for your choices and actions even if every single one of them was determined by events that happened long before your birth. You think this a strange notion of freedom? Me too. But here Dennett is part of an old tradition that stretches from the ancient Greeks through Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill and many others, and was the orthodoxy among analytic philosophers for most of the 20th century.
This compatibilist freedom -- call it C-freedom -- seems intensely unsatisfactory. It doesn't give us what we want and are sure we have: ultimate, buck-stopping responsibility for what we do, of a kind that can make blame and punishment and praise and reward truly just and fair. It allows, after all, that the whole course of our lives may be fixed down to the last detail before we've even been conceived. But one of Dennett's main aims is precisely to convince us that C-freedom is all that is really worth having in the way of freedom.
It is restated here with new story-bells and example-whistles, and responses to recent work by other writers. Dennett is a compatibilist about freedom, but a compatibilist can be a creationist and believe that we have immaterial souls. Dennett will have none of that. He's a supercompatibilist. He not only grants that determinism may be true, he is also an ''uncompromising'' materialist, one who holds that every phenomenon in the universe is wholly physical or material.
He is also committed to a completely ''naturalistic'' approach to the problem: one that rules out the existence of anything that would be classified as supernatural from the perspective of the natural sciences. And he thinks that everything about us can be explained within the framework of the theory of evolution. His claim, then, is that the existence of human freedom, free choice, free action, free will is entirely compatible with materialism, naturalism, determinism and the theory of evolution.
Is this plausible? Given that Dennett is talking only about C-freedom, I'm sure he's right. I'm sure he's right that all the freedom of choice and action and will that we actually have is a product of evolution. But his rhetoric is all wrong. He stands forth as the lone ranger of hard truth, the indomitable, beleaguered word-warrior fighting a vast rampant dragon of misguided and aggressive orthodoxy. But most philosophers and a host of others fully agree with him that determinism may be true and that a materialist, naturalistic, evolutionary approach is best, and find it obvious that C-freedom is compatible with all these things.
They also know that there is no way in which the falsity of determinism -- the existence of truly random or indeterministic occurrences in the universe -- could help to give us greater freedom of will or moral responsibility many have been beguiled by this last idea, though it doesn't take much thought to see that it won't work.
As for the basic story of how evolution gives rise to C-freedom, Dennettian free will, it's just the story of how we evolved, period. It has no special extra features. So if you already accept the general idea that we are products of evolution, you don't really have to look any farther to accept that C-freedom evolved. How does the story go? Well, it's obvious looking across living species rather than backward in time that we have more freedom than a chemically switched bacterium, or a clam that clams up by reflex when something strikes its shell, or a clever rat.
We have more freedom than a bird that is as free as a bird, or a dog even a very smart dog standing at the point of bifurcation of a raging river watching his master and mistress being carried away equidistantly down the two channels, looking agitatedly from side to side before plunging in after one or the other , or a smart chimpanzee.
And we have more freedom, we take it, than a small child. How so? It's simply that we have evolved into self-conscious, self-monitoring agents, language users, with all that that entails.
We are creatures who are able to reflect consciously and deliberately on alternative courses of action before choosing between them. We are also creatures who live in complex societies, creatures whom evolution has endowed with natural concern for others, a conscience, a moral sense Dennett gives a useful summary of how genuine moral feelings can evolve in a world of ''selfish'' genes, following Robert Trivers, Robert Frank and others. What is most striking, perhaps, is that our evolution into self-conscious agents has had the consequence that we find it impossible not to believe that we are radically free and responsible in our choices and actions, even if we're not: even if determinism is true and we have only C-freedom.
And there is a peculiar respect, noted by Kant and Sartre, among others, in which we can seem to be rendered truly free for all the everyday purposes of life simply by believing that we are. Dennett makes this point, citing Dumbo the elephant, who was able to fly at least in the first instance only because he believed he had a magic feather that conferred the power of flight.
This belief in radical freedom, in ultimate responsibility, cannot actually make radical freedom exist. To be absolutely responsible for what one does, one would have to be causa sui, the cause of oneself, and this is impossible it certainly wouldn't be any more possible if we had immaterial souls rather than being wholly material. There is nonetheless a sense in which our conviction that we are radically free provides a robust foundation for the whole sociocultural edifice of treating people as responsible and in particular as morally responsible; it provides an effective basis for all our ordinary practices of punishment, reward and so on, even though these things can never be totally fair or just.
THIS, then, is the sense in which freedom and moral responsibility have evolved: they have evolved by cultural evolution on top of biological evolution. This is Dennett's story, which he is trying to make palatable to those who fear materialism, naturalism, determinism and the implacable beauty of evolution. It's a worthy enterprise. But where is the lovely, ingenious Dennett? Scarcely to be found here.
But the book is cluttered, overlong and too concerned with theatricals. Dennett claims dramatically that determinism does not imply inevitability, and is ''perfectly compatible with the notion that some events have no cause at all,'' but the first claim is a linguistic quibble and the second, embedded in a seriously muddled account of causality, is false by definition. There is an important point here -- the point that fatalism is false even if determinism is true -- but it's best stated in a couple of paragraphs, not buried in 40 pages of unnecessary complication.
New York: Viking. Home Page World U.
Evolution Explains It All for You
Freedom Evolves is a popular science and philosophy book by Daniel C. Dennett describes the book as an installment of a lifelong philosophical project, earlier parts of which were The Intentional Stance , Consciousness Explained and Elbow Room. It attempts to give an account of free will and moral responsibility which is complementary to Dennett's other views on consciousness and personhood. As in Consciousness Explained , Dennett advertises the controversial nature of his views extensively in advance. He expects hostility from those who fear that a skeptical analysis of freedom will undermine people's belief in the reality of moral considerations; he likens himself to an interfering crow who insists on telling Dumbo he doesn't really need the feather he believes is allowing him to fly. Dennett's stance on free will is compatibilism with an evolutionary twist — the view that, although in the strict physical sense our actions might be pre-determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved. Free will, seen this way, is about freedom to make decisions without duress and so is a version of Kantian positive practical free will, i.
Fate by fluke
Recognising our uniqueness as reflective, communicating animals does not require any 'human exceptionalism' that must shake a defiant fist at Darwin We may thus concede that material forces ultimately govern behaviour, and yet at the same time reject the notion that people are always and everywhere motivated by material self-interest. This is the burden of Daniel Dennett's new book and it is really welcome. As he points out, educated people today are often trapped in a strange kind of double-think on this topic. Officially, they believe physical science calls for determinism, which proves they have no control over their lives. But in actual living, most of the time they assume they do have this control. They ignore their supposedly scientific beliefs rather as their ancestors often ignored threats of eternal punishment.