Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett


I recently read Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves. He offers some interesting speculations about how humans' cognitive and decision-making capacities have evolved, though he sometimes isn't as specific as I'd like. For instance, in the section of chapter 8 titled "A Self of One's Own," paragraph 10, he says he's going to tell a "Just So Story," but what follows isn't nearly detailed or concrete enough to meet this description, by my lights.

Where he loses me is in his fixation with showing how a naturalistic, deterministic account of human decision-making is compatible with the concept of "free will" -- without ever offering a definition of this term. In fact, he doesn't offer any definition of "freedom" either until page 302 of my edition (trade paper), where he approvingly quotes someone else's. How can you devote a book to a subject and not bother to define it -- almost in passing -- till you're nearly at the end?

Perhaps this oversight is related to his preoccupation with proving to "libertarians" -- defined as people who base their belief in free will on indeterminism -- that it's just as compatible with a deterministic view. If one is addressing oneself to people who believe in (and care about) a principle very strongly -- and who therefore must (at least think they) have a clear idea of what it means -- you may forget that other people don't think it's so clear. But he can't claim he doesn't know such people exist; here's how his definition of "hard determinists" begins (chapter 4, paragraph 3):

Hard determinism: Determinism is true, so we don't have free will. Hard-headed scientific types sometimes proclaim their acceptance of this position, even declaring it a no-brainer. Many of them would add: And if determinism is false, we still don't have free will -- we don't have free will in any case; it's an incoherent concept.

Since Dennett presumably disagrees with this last point, we might expect him here to disprove it by offering a clear definition of his own. But he doesn't. Instead, he continues:

But they typically [note: weasel word alert!] excuse themselves from exploring the question of how they can justify the often strongly held moral convictions that continue to guide their lives. Where does this leave us? What sense are we to make of human striving, praising, blaming?... (The hard determinists among you may find in subsequent chapters that your considered view is that whereas free will -- as you understand the term -- truly doesn't exist, something rather like free will does exist, and it's just what the doctor ordered for shoring up your moral convictions, permitting you to make the distinctions you need to make. Such a soft landing for a hard determinist is perhaps only terminologically different from compatibilism, the view that free will and determinism are compatible after all, the view that I am defending in this book.)

Note that Dennett spends fewer (in fact less than half as many) words actually defining hard determinists than he does in an effort to suggest that it's their position, rather than the concept of free will itself, that's incoherent. But this effort is built on a foundation of unproven or overgeneralized attributions.

While I can't speak for anyone else, I have a handy answer to the question of how I "justify" my morality: I don't, because I have no need to. As a consistent materialist, I don't believe there are objectively existing moral principles -- objective in a metaphysical sense, rather than merely that of social consensus. A fortiori, I don't believe there's any objective obligation for me to "justify" the values or principles I use to help guide my actions. Darwin chose an apt turn of phrase when he wrote of "the evolution of moral sentiments" (my emphasis); it may be more plausible, from a naturalistic standpoint, to posit that sentiments gave rise to ethical abstractions rather than the other way around.

Dennett's assumption that hard determinists need to "justify" their morality is clearly related to another assumption implied throughout the book: that one can't have any notion of morality without some concept of free will. Yet he never really states why he thinks this
is so; he seems to just take it for granted. This may work fine insofar as he's addressing himself to libertarians. But for those of us who better fit his definition of hard determinists, it makes significant parts of his book, especially toward the end, seem simply irrelevant.

As I suggested in an earlier post, I suspect that some people's resistance to determinism has less to do with an intellectual or even a moral objection, than with an emotional reaction to the idea. I've tried to discover the basis for this with a "thought experiment" -- meaning, in this case, an experiment actually performed, not just imagined, in my head, because the subject of the experiment is thought itself. It involves contemplating the idea of determinism as it applies to my own decision-making, and searching for whence the discomfort appears. It soon becomes apparent: the idea that my choices are predetermined manifests, metaphorically, as a sort of train track that my mind is traveling on, moving toward a fixed destination. Imagining this fixity entails, willy-nilly, imagining myself being unable to swerve from the track, which, in turn, entails imagining myself trying to swerve from it. And the feeling this imagined effort generates is one of unfreedom -- because real freedom, in the everyday sense of the term, means not being frustrated or obstructed from pursuing one's desire, whether by a physical barrier, threat of punishment, or what-have-you.

Problem is, this feeling of unfreedom is an artifact of the way I mentally experience a metaphor for determinism, which is quite different from the way it actually works. In reality, insofar as determinism is true, I cannot want to swerve, to go any other way than the track does. This is because the track is only a metaphor for the fact that my desires themselves are preordained. Yet it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine the situation "from the inside" without experiencing just the opposite.

This, by the way, draws our attention to the question of what is a "morally relevant" idea of freedom -- a phrase that appears frequently in Dennett's book. To me, it's relevant as all heck whether or not I can freely pursue my desire; and it feels decidedly "wrong" if I can't. And note that this is completely independent of whether I have any ability to reevaluate or change my desire; the experience of frustration is equally oppressive either way.

Of course, I recognize that having "free will" in the latter sense may confer an advantage; it gives my expanded options for adapting to my environment when I can't adapt it to me. Nonetheless, there's nothing intrinsically gratifying about this ability, and Dennett simply hasn't proven his case when he presupposes that this is the kind of freedom most "worth having," or that we can't have morality without it.

Eric Hamell

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