Monday, September 22, 2008

Reading *Freedom Evolves*

Yesterday I started reading Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves. A few years ago my friend Deborah Goddard told me it centers on a concept called "evitability." Although I hadn't heard the term before, I'd given some thought to a naturalistic analysis of the concept of free will, so I hazarded the guess that this term describes the situation in which an individual perceives a possible course of action but has the ability to choose not to take it. (At least I think that's more or less what I said -- this was a few years ago.) She said I had it about right. So I won't be surprised if I don't see anything crucial in this book that I hadn't more or less thought of myself; but how he gets there may nonetheless be interesting.

My own thinking had been guided by a sort of Socratic examination of why people have this concept, starting from the assumption that it comes from some aspect of subjective experience. Clearly the experience is that of making a choice, so the essential question was: why do (some) people see this as necessarily involving some process that is uncaused? It struck me immediately that the reason for this would be that we often don't see the causes of our decisions, at least before we've arrived at them. And perhaps some people are resistant to the notion that something important is going on in their heads of which they're not conscious. As the very notion of the unconscious is a pretty recent one, this wouldn't be too surprising; for people who've by default thought of their consciousness as their entire minds, the notion of the unconscious may provoke some paranoia. In fact I remember my father telling me about the unconscious mind when I was something like eight, and emphasizing -- presumably in response to some discomfort I had with it -- that I shouldn't regard it as my enemy. Despite that, I continue even now to have a little "spooky" feeling whenever I hear the song that became associated with that conversation in my head.

Now nearing the end of Chapter 4 of the book, I would mainly note that Dennett's argument about why determinism doesn't imply inevitability, though sound in relation to the definition he offers for the latter term, may not get at what makes some people uncomfortable with determinism. I suspect that despite his point that determinism doesn't make anything inevitable in a practically relevant sense, this may do nothing to relieve some people's emotional discomfort with the idea that "they" (in the sense of their consciousness) aren't in control of their fate. As for myself, I focus on the practical consequence of the notion, rather than an emotional response to it: if determinism makes behavior on my part that is in my interest -- that avoids things that would harm me -- "inevitable" because of mental processes that occur outside of or prior to consciousness, my response is, "Great -- that's just what I wanted!" Why would such a favorable situation upset me? Nonetheless it apparently does upset some, and I suspect helping them overcome this, if that's possible, may require the application of psychology and not just straightforward philosophical argumentation.

Eric Hamell

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