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2 Reviews of Dennett's New Book 'Freedom Evolves'
« on: 2003-02-12 06:03:44 »
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Review by Kenan Malik (kenan malik)

daniel dennett freedom evolves

Humans are physical beings with evolved brains and evolved minds. Humans are also moral agents with consciousness and will. How should we try to reconcile these very different visions of our humanness? Is it possible - or even desirable - to attempt such a reconciliation? Much of the spit and fury of recent debates about what science can and cannot tell us about human nature has emerged from attempts to answer these questions.

For some, the 'dual character' of human nature is a scientific embarrassment that can only be resolved by viewing consciousness and agency as fictions. The philosopher Derk Pereboom, for instance, in his recent book Living Without Free Will, argues that 'given our best scientific theories, factors beyond our control ultimately produce all our actions, and we are therefore not morally responsible for them.'

Others argue that if scientific advances threaten to undermine our concept of morality, then science itself will have to be reined in. The novelist Tom Wolfe worries that 'science has stolen our soul' while Francis Fukuyama wants tighter regulation on genetics and neuroscience, fearing that they are undermining fundamental human values, including our concepts of moral responsibility and legal rights. Such critics view free will and morality as mysterious phenomena not amenable to rational inquiry and seek to protect the 'human realm' from the clutches of science.

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. '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.' Since human freedom is real, 'so it can be studied objectively from a no-nonsense, scientific point of view.' And in Freedom Evolves, Dennett attempts to produce just such no-nonsense, scientific account of human freedom, to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable.

Reading Dennett is a bit like watching a high-wire trapeze artist. You're forever on the edge of your seat, marvelling at the dextrousness of the amazing moves, but constantly fearing that he's about to fall off. It's exhilarating, but exhausting - as the best writing should be.

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?

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.

How you respond to such arguments depends, I suspect, on what you already believe in. If, like me, you accept that freedom and determinism are compatible, you applaud Dennett the trapeze artist performing a miraculous feat on the high wire. If, on the other hand, you think that the coexistence of freedom and determinism is a preposterous notion, you probably saw him fall off a long time ago.

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. Natural selection, he argues, designs organisms that are increasingly able to control their environments. And as organisms become behaviourally more complex, this includes not just the outer environment but also the inner environment of brain and mind.

Understanding one's own mind becomes particularly important in humans with the development of language. As humans begin communicating with others, so they require better understanding of themselves and their own minds. So, evolution designs new ways of monitoring our own thoughts and of keeping track of them. Such access to our thinking is what we experience as 'consciousness'.

Where does free will fit into all this? For most people, conscious will derives from what they would call the 'self'. But this notion of the self, according to Dennett, is an illusion. The self is not the entity that governs brain processes, but is the outcome of those processes. Echoing the neurologist Daniel Wegner, Dennett suggests that 'People become what they think they are, or what they find others think they are.' Free will, in other words, is not the capacity to do something but the capacity to know that something is being done in your name. Dennett has reconciled the seemingly irreconcilable effectively by redefining freedom out of existence.

The real difficulty with Dennett's argument is not his belief that freedom and determinism must coexist - a proposition with which I agree - but his insistence on viewing agency simply as a biological phenomenon. Our very possession of agency reveals that humans cannot be understood in this fashion. Agency is an expression not just of our embodiment in nature but also of our capacity to transcend it. It is an expression of our existence not simply as natural creatures but as historical beings.

All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history. And it is through history that freedom develops. Our Stone Age ancestors were biologically identical to us, but they could not be free in any real sense because they were almost completely at the mercy of natural forces. The development of consciousness, and hence of freedom, requires humans, through historical progress, to begin to control nature and to regulate its impact upon our lives.

Natural science, in other words, can tell us much about humans as natural beings. But it is limited in what it can say about humans as moral agents. Not because agency is mysterious and beyond rational ken, but because it is a product of history and politics, not of nature.

There is an unwitting thread that links Dennett's argument to that of critics such as Tom Wolfe or Francis Fukuyama. Dennett believes that 'science can help put our moral lives on a new and better foundation'. The critics worry that science might undermine our moral lives altogether. The real problem is that both sides have turned science into the battleground for what are essentially political and moral debates. Science will not undermine human freedom. But nor will it necessarily bolster it. Freedom is a political, not a scientific, issue.


Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett

Does human evolution move onwards and upwards towards liberty and progress? John Gray suspects that chance and cruelty also play their part

08 February 2003

SOURCE: Independent UK

If natural selection had been discovered in India, China or Japan, it is hard to imagine it making much of a stir. Darwin's discovery signalled a major advance in human knowledge, but its cultural impact came from the fact that it was made in a milieu permeated by the Judaeo-Christian belief in human uniqueness. If along with hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists you have never believed that humans differ from everything else in the natural world in having an immortal soul, you will find it hard to get worked up by a theory that shows how much we have in common with other animals.

Among us, in contrast, it has triggered savage and unending controversy. In the 19th century, the conflict was waged between Darwinists and Christians. Now, the controversy is played out between Darwinism and humanists, who seek to defend a revised version of Western ideas about the special nature of humans.

In Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett has produced the most powerful and ingenious attempt at reconciling Darwinism with the belief in human freedom to date. Writing with a verve that puts to shame the leaden prose that has become the trademark of academic philosophy, Dennett presents the definitive argument that the human mind is a product of evolution, not something that stands outside the natural world.

Making full use of his seminal writings on consciousness, he contends that we do not need to believe in free will to be able to think of ourselves as responsible moral beings. On the contrary, moral agency is a by-product of natural selection. In that sense, it is an accident; but once it has come about, we can "bootstrap ourselves" into freedom. The evolution of human culture enables us to be free as no other animal can be. "Human freedom," Dennett writes, "is not an illusion; it is an objective phenomenon, distinct from all other biological conditions and found in only one species, us."

The ringing tone of Dennett's declaration of human uniqueness provokes a certain suspicion regarding the scientific character of his argument. After all, the notion that humans are free in a way that other animals are not does not come from science. Its origins are in religion above all, in Christianity.

Philosophical interest in uncaused events is found beyond the Christian world, among ancient Epicureans for example; but the obsession with reconciling scientific determinism with freedom is characteristic of cultures that have shed Christianity but wish to retain the belief in the special standing of humans that Christianity once assured. No one who did not share the Judaeo-Christian notion that humans have a kind of freedom denied to other animals would labour so devoutly to show that it is compatible with scientific knowledge.

In fact, despite all his impassioned protestations to the contrary, Dennett is seeking to salvage a view of humankind derived from Western religion. To be sure, he wants to demolish the metaphysical belief in freedom of the will that has been the foundation of this view in the past but only in order to give it another, more solid foundation in contemporary science. Like many others over the past 100 years or so, Dennett looks to evolution for the moral uplift that used to be afforded by religion.

He avoids many of the errors of reasoning that trapped evolutionist thinkers like Julian Huxley, such as the naturalistic fallacy of defining the good in terms of evolutionary change. Even so, his aim is the same as these earlier thinkers': to reinstate the unique standing of humans by showing that it is grounded in an evolutionary process. The result is a sort of humanist variation on the "process theology" concocted by philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead.

In developing his conception of evolving freedom, Dennett relies heavily on Richard Dawkins' theory of memes: ideas that compete with one another in a way analogous to natural selection in biology. The trouble with this unhappy metaphor is that there is no known mechanism for the spread of ideas akin to the transmission of genes. The history of ideas is made largely by political power and human folly not through the workings of natural selection.

If there is no Cathar religion today, the reason is not that natural selection has weeded out the memes that composed the Cathar belief-system. It is that the Cathars were persecuted into extinction. Moreover, even if there were something like a mechanism for the natural selection of ideas, its results could be deeply regressive from an ethical point of view. Think of anti-Semitism, a highly versatile meme that continues to replicate itself virulently. Successful memes include some that express humanity's worst traits. Evolution is one thing, progress another.

Dennett is vastly more sophisticated a thinker than Huxley, but like him he seems to derive a curious comfort from the belief that human culture is an evolving process. Perhaps, like Huxley, he cannot help identifying himself with the evolutionary process and imagining that it is working obscurely to replicate his own values; but if there is such a thing as cultural evolution, it is no less blind, purposeless and value-free than biological evolution.

Dennett describes human history as a "communal process of memetic engineering" a saga that includes, he tells us, his own book. He seems not to have digested the fact that the world is full of memetic engineers who do not share his values, some of them using methods rather more effective than philosophical argument, and who are as much a part of cultural evolution as he is himself.

John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the LSE


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Re:2 Reviews of Dennett's New Book 'Freedom Evolves'
« Reply #1 on: 2003-02-12 06:56:29 »
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