Editor's Note: Human Choice Machines


"Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?"—Edgar Allan Poe

Not long after my first encounter with the great, insane Poe, I began to separate the world into two kinds of people: those who have entertained the notion that they have been dreamed by someone or something else, and those who have not. I confess I find the former group far more interesting than the latter.

If nothing else, the first set of folks is likely to indulge a taste not only for Poe but also for Philip K. Dick and a host of other writers who explore unnerving questions about free will and determinism—of how we can know that our actions are really our own and that we're not simply being led about by other people, the random firing of synapses, or evolutionary imperatives that leave little room for such quaint notions as human agency and autonomy.

In its adolescent forms, this is the stuff of long, late-night bull sessions fueled by booze, coffee, and other drugs, but it's not simply a stoner's game. It gets at a paradox of the Enlightenment discourses that still infuse our world. Even as the Enlightenment helped usher in an age of political self-determination, it also underwrote a continuing investigation into how human behavior is heavily—perhaps even decisively—shaped by all sorts of factors, including biology, psychology, sociology, and more. In the end, we all have to ask, are we simply puppets whose strings are being pulled by unseen forces?

Our cover story, an interview with the controversial philosopher Daniel Dennett, speaks directly to this question ("Pulling Our Own Strings," page 24). "People confuse determinism with fatalism," explains Dennett, author of the new book Freedom Evolves. While "fatalism is the idea that something's going to happen no matter what you do," determinism is the idea that what you do depends on your knowledge and your values. In Dennett's provocative view, we are wired by evolution to be "choice machines" that are relatively free to choose actions based on our values and our knowledge of likely outcomes.

Other stories in this issue also analyze human choice machines, albeit in different ways. Associate Editor Jesse Walker's "Inside the Spiritual Jacuzzi" (page 32) is a tour of new customized religions that range from attempts to fuse Judaism with Buddhism to neopaganism to something called the Hot Tub Mystery Religion. What these new faiths share with each other—and with established religions—is a desire for personal meaning and community.

Matt Welch's essay on the just-retired Vaclav Havel pays tribute to one of the great figures in the struggle against communism ("Velvet President," page 42). First as a writer who stared down a repressive state and then as the improbable president of the Czech Republic, Havel has lived the sort of bizarre, triumphant life that almost makes us think we must be dreaming. Yet in his case, unlike in Poe's, the dream is nothing less than inspiring.