Pulling Our Own Strings

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

(Page 7 of 7)

In my discipline of philosophy, we have several hundred years of really good, deep, wonderful work in ethics that is completely secular. And it is understood, if not articulated very often, that of course if you want to argue in favor of legislation or a change in attitude about morality, you don't argue it on the basis of what it says in the Bible or the Koran or any old text. You argue on a secular basis. The secular tradition of political affairs and ethics has been growing for several thousand years.

Reason: Albeit at a very slow rate relative to a single human life. The fact of the matter is that people do still argue what the Koran or the Bible says.

Dennett: But it hasn't gone backwards ever. There are setbacks, but the march of secular reason has been doing very well for several thousand years.

Reason: You part company with the left on the question of human nature. The left has traditionally claimed that human nature is completely malleable, a blank slate, on which you can inscribe whatever cultural or political aspirations you want.

Dennett: The blank slate is a preposterous myth, and it's interesting to see how it has been fostered by some on the left as well as some on the right. But the idea that human nature is unadjustable, unexploitable, unbuildable is also baloney.

Reason: So to summarize: Morality evolved to get us past our tendency to short-run selfishness. It's a way of helping us make better decisions in the long run. Is that fair?

Dennett: Yes, that's right. Morality is the cultural artifact for improving the circumstances under which we have to act.

Reason: So human beings are still selfish, but we have developed enlightened selfishness. We can understand the consequences of our actions and control them.

Dennett: There's a Robert Frank quip in the book: It turns out that the way to seem moral is to be moral.

Reason: So morality evolves largely because people get more benefits than not out of it.

Dennett: Yes. Civilization is a good deal.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    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.

  • ||

    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.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.