Pulling Our Own Strings

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

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When you do that, you are, as a parent, to some degree, relinquishing authority. "You are your own authority now," you in effect say to the child. "I'm not responsible for what you do anymore. You are responsible for what you do." You're making them accountable.

Some human beings never make it, and that's sometimes very obvious. They never grow up, or they're retarded or they're damaged in some way. They have some pathology that makes them unable to take responsibility for themselves. The fact that there are such people is not refutable, just as there are people who do take responsibility.

And then there are the problematic ones, where we just can't tell. Are they fully responsible adults, or are they more like children? I think it's important that we recognize the existence of this problematic, penumbral group, but that doesn't mean that there aren't people who do take responsibility. It means that we've always had this class of people who are problematic.

Reason: How is it that those who do take responsibility differ from those who can't or don't?

Dennett: Don't look at the physical level. It's not as if they have indeterministic physics in their brains whereas the rest of us have deterministic physics.

One of the main points of my book is that if you want to see the distinctions that matter, you have to look at higher levels. The difference between a responsible brain and a nonresponsible one -- not irresponsible, but nonresponsible -- is not a difference in the physics. It is a difference in the organization of that brain. It is a difference in the capacity of that brain to respond to information, to respond to reason, to be able to reflect.

Reflection is a really important feature of human competence. If you're simply unable to notice what you're doing and what the implications of that are, then you're not as responsible as somebody who can.

Reason: The philosopher Patricia Churchill suggests that we learn morality much the same way we learn language. We hear stories, or we watch how people get rewarded or punished, and what we see and hear shapes our characters over time.

Dennett: That's a large part of it. I think that it's a mistake to think that we're born moral or that the process of maturing into a moral adult is like aging. It's not aging; it's learning. There's a lot of acculturation. There's a lot of input from our neighbors, our peers, our friends, the adults that we respect.

There's a lot of luck involved in that. You can get stuck in a terrible home situation or another terrible environment, and your chances of emerging from that as a responsible adult are diminished.

Reason: One of the arguments the social theorist Friedrich Hayek made is that cultures that have better rules tend to spread while cultures that have worse rules don't, and one of the ways you find out whether something is good or bad is, pretty crudely, which cultures are winning over other cultures.

Dennett: This is a claim that I'm cautiously skeptical of. But if you couch it very carefully, I think there is something to it.

Change the topic from moralities to, say, scientific theory. There's no question, contrary to some of the blather you see, that good, coherent, true scientific theories in general tend to win out over second-rate, formless, incoherent theories. We've improved our understanding of the world over the years. The good theories spread. Bad theories don't.

Well, not always. Sometimes they get a foothold, and they're sort of like diseases and they're hard to eradicate, but those are the exceptions. I think it's an uphill battle for falsehoods to get established.

Reason: At the end of Freedom Evolves, you seem to be somewhat optimistic. You say social institutions like democracy and equality are spreading.

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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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