Pulling Our Own Strings

Philosopher Daniel Dennett on determinism, human "choice machines," and how evolution generates free will.

Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? Yes, declares the controversial philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. "Human freedom," he writes in his important new book Freedom Evolves (Viking), "is not an illusion; it is an objective phenomenon, distinct from all other biological conditions and found in only one species, us."

One might think that Dennett's ringing endorsement of the reality of human freedom would make him popular with other intellectuals. It doesn't. On the right, the conservative Weekly Standard denounces him as "a vigorous evangelist for evolutionary psychology." The neoconservative journal The Public Interest has called him "an evolutionary fundamentalist." That view was shared by the late left-wing evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, who disparaged Dennett as a "Darwinian fundamentalist." Gould's scientific collaborator Niles Eldredge concurs, dismissing him as an "ultra-Darwinian." The liberal American Prospect accuses him of "cybernetic totalism."

But Dennett has his admirers too. The New York Times Book Review selected his Consciousness Explained as one of the 10 best books of 1991. The Wall Street Journal raved about 1995's Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, and declared that Dennett "does one of the things philosophers are supposed to be good at: clearing up conceptual muddles in the sciences." Zoologist Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue, hails him as the "ebullient, pugnacious and ever pithy sage of Boston."

Born in 1942, Daniel Dennett studied philosophy at Harvard University and Oxford University. His philosophical views can be traced most clearly to the influence of his Oxford teacher, philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle famously attacked Cartesian mind-body dualism, dismissing it as the doctrine of "the ghost in the machine." Dennett is now the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

Dennett has spent his intellectual career trying to extend the Enlightenment project of putting philosophy and morality on a scientific and naturalistic basis. In a sense, Dennett is updating David Hume in the light of Darwin's theory of evolution. In doing so, he provides us with fascinating new ways to think about the meaning of choice, the value of morality, and how the evolution of the human brain and its capabilities has made us more free.

Indeed, Dennett argues that human freedom is dramatically expanding. Language and culture, especially when abetted by modern science and technology, enable us to increase the range of our choices. As our understanding of our genes and brains increases, he believes we will increase our freedom rather than limit it. We will be able to prevent and cure more diseases, improve our social institutions, and even enhance human capabilities. He says that we defend freedom, especially political freedom, because among other things it enables people to make better and better choices over time. As important, Dennett maintains that to whatever extent we were ever at the mercy of our genes and biological evolution, we no longer are. Instead our genes are now at the mercy of our brains.

Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey interviewed Dennett in February.

Reason: Your new book is called Freedom Evolves. Why?

Dennett: Because people have this strange antipathy for evolution and for materialism. They think that if evolution is true, then they're just animals or automatons -- that they won't have freedom and they won't have responsibility, and life will have no meaning. The point of the book is to show that, on the contrary, it's only when you understand life from an evolutionary point of view that you understand what our freedom really is. You realize that it's real. It's different and better than the freedom of other animals, but it's evolved. It's not supernatural.

Reason: A response might be that you're just positing a more complicated form of determinism. A bird may be more "determined" than we are, but we nevertheless are determined.

Dennett: So what? Determinism is not a problem. What you want is freedom, and freedom and determinism are entirely compatible. In fact, we have more freedom if determinism is true than if it isn't.

Reason: Why?

Dennett: Because if determinism is true, then there's less randomness. There's less unpredictability. To have freedom, you need the capacity to make reliable judgments about what's going to happen next, so you can base your action on it.

Imagine that you've got to cross a field and there's lightning about. If it's deterministic, then there's some hope of knowing when the lightning's going to strike. You can get information in advance, and then you can time your run. That's much better than having to rely on a completely random process. If it's random, you're at the mercy of it.

A more telling example is when people worry about genetic determinism, which they completely don't understand. If the effect of our genes on our likely history of disease were chaotic, let alone random, that would mean that there'd be nothing we could do about it. Nothing. It would be like Russian roulette. You would just sit and wait.

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    I find Mr. Denetts arguments as expressed in this article very persuasive. Except for one thing, the statement at the beginning stateing that "Human Freedom ... is not an illusion; it is an objective phenomenon, distinct from all other biological conditions and found in only one species, us"
    Leaving aside the tautology of "Human". I see little evidence that it can only be found in humans.
    For example, I saw a NGC show about a couple of killer whales that killed a great white shark. Upon further examination, the biologists found that pod's members to be rather battle scarred compared to most killer whales.
    The show described the phenomenom as a pod of killer whales that had a learned and shared culture of killing sharks.
    Furthermore, other pods specialized in hunting fish, or seals. In the later case, by driving hard onto the shore nearly beaching themselves. The particular hunting culture seemed to effect the practical size of the pods involved.
    While the show referred to this behavior as culture, I would not be surprised to learn of shunning or devotional behaviors involving killer whales that either refuse a pod's culture or somehow manage to change it, if only the biologists watch long enough.
    If this is true, it would not be much different from the civilizing behavior applied to members of our society Mr. Dennett describes as increasing the scope of free will in humans.

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    A thoroughly impractical but interesting thought experiment would be what would happen to a pod of killer whales if you could attach a radar to each and every member.

    I bet you would find a culture war as some of the whales chose to use the radar while others wanted to stick to the tried and true.


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