Philosopher Daniel Dennett's analysis of free will and determinism is fatally flawed ("Pulling Our Own Strings," May). Based on his reasoning in Ronald Bailey's interview, "avoidance" is an illusion when the onion of causality is peeled back. With an evolutionary recursion, every event is contingent upon previous events. The fact that one can duck from an oncoming baseball only demonstrates how evolution (prior events) has wired the agent to duck. The evolutionary wiring in his brain compels him to do just that, just as gravity compels a raindrop to fall. The complexity of the wiring may mask the determinism, but it is indeed there. Free will? Forget about it.
And as for morality, puh-leeze. Whose morality? Dennett's? Why not Genghis Khan's? Where did that come from? With its claim of a universal brotherhood of man, the Enlightenment means nothing in a Darwinian context. Its philosophers merely threw out the baby (God) and improperly appropriated the bath water (an elevated sense of mankind's nature) because the only alternative was nihilism. A Darwinist can now offer that the rejection of the historic Absolute has released man to manifest his intrinsic, naturalistic behavior.
But you know what? The dominant, survival-of-the-fittest behavior may be decidedly tribal, materialistic, self-centered. So using Darwin, I can make an exact counterpoint to Dennett and argue that he is pushing on a utopian rope that contravenes human nature. Or is Dennett, full of hubris and conceit, the new god? Have he and his cohorts divined the new "moral" order that transcends even Darwin?
In the world of Darwin there is no morality, public or otherwise. There may be utilitarian reasons for specific social behaviors but not moral ones.
Daniel Dennett and his philosopher pals are whistling past the graveyard of nihilism. They just haven't the cojones to admit it.
It is rather ironic that Matt Welch's tribute to Vaclav Havel ("Velvet President," May 2003) should appear alongside Daniel Dennett's ruminations about "evolutionary morality"("Pulling Our Own Strings") and Jesse Walker's article on a particularly vapid form of spiritual syncretism ("Inside the Spiritual Jacuzzi").
The recently retired Czech president is the product of a distinctive Central European culture whose artists and intellectuals, through some 50 years of totalitarianism, were remarkable for their often naive but always courageous commitment to a free society. For most of the Cold War period, the philosophical expression of these freedom lovers in communist countries was neither widely known nor acknowledged in the West. Nowadays many would prefer to forget it, lest its memory serve as a reproach against those who were witting or unwitting apologists for appeasement.
In any event, Havel emerged out of this intellectual tradition, which included among its pioneers Tomas Masaryk, Jan Patocka, and Edmund Husserl. Husserl, interestingly, had the mystic Edith Stein as his assistant and exercised considerable influence on the phenomenological approach developed by a young Polish intellectual named Karol Wojty, who later, as Pope John Paul II, played a not insignificant role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
This school of thought argued that the condition for "living in truth" amid the totalitarian nightmare was openness to what Havel calls an objective "order of Being" acknowledged over millennia by all authentic human cultures, often quite independently of one another. The guarantees of human freedom and personal responsibility are to be found neither in programs nor in systems, but in "man's relationship with what transcends him, without which he would not be."
In a 1994 address at the Stanford University Law School on "The Spiritual Roots of Democracy," Havel argued that the fundamental crisis of the modern world is that individuals have lost respect for themselves, for others, and for "the order of nature, the order of humanity." When that respect is lost, laws and moral norms are undermined, as is a sense of responsibility: "The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority...[originates] in that which man has lost, his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect."
Havel contrasted this reverence for the "veiled mystery of Being" with the Marxist presumption that reality is governed by a finite series of laws whose interrelationships can be grasped by the human mind and reduced to formulae, an approach he characterized, pace Dennett, as "the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered."
In his commencement address at Harvard the following year, Havel explained that he does not argue for a single "universal key to salvation" so much as the recovery of the "archetypal spirituality" that is "the foundation of most religions and cultures," the "respect for what transcends us, whether we mean the mystery of Being or a moral order that stands above us." It is each individual's constant quest to experience a part of this mysterious but objective truth -- and not the "feel good" cafeteria-style dabbling of the "Hot Tub Mystery Religion" -- that renders life truly human.
J. Peter Pham
New York, NY