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.

But if there are reliable patterns—if there's a degree of determinism—then we can take steps to protect ourselves.

Reason: Would a deterministic world mean that, say, the assassination of John F. Kennedy was going to happen ever since the Big Bang?

Dennett: "Going to happen" is a very misleading phrase. Say somebody throws a baseball at your head and you see it. That baseball was "going to" hit you until you saw it and ducked, and then it didn't hit you, even though it was "going to."

In that sense of "going to," Kennedy's assassination was by no means going to happen. There were no trajectories which guaranteed that it was going to happen independently of what people might have done about it. If he had overslept or if somebody else had done this or that, then it wouldn't have happened the way it did.

People confuse determinism with fatalism. They're two completely different notions.

Reason: Would you unpack that a little bit?

Dennett: Fatalism is the idea that something's going to happen no matter what you do. Determinism is the idea that what you do depends. What happens depends on what you do, what you do depends on what you know, what you know depends on what you're caused to know, and so forth—but still, what you do matters. There's a big difference between that and fatalism. Fatalism is determinism with you left out.

If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there's lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There's no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There's been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it's all independent of determinism.

Reason: What do you mean when you call human beings "choice machines"?

Dennett: That's actually Gary Drescher's phrase. He's an artificial intelligence theoretician. He distinguishes choice machines from situation-action machines.

Situation-action machines are built with a bunch of rules that say, "If in situation X, do A," "If in situation B, do Z," and so forth. It's as if you had a list that you kept in your wallet and when important decisions came up, you looked at the list. If the conditions for a particular decision were met, you just did it. You don't know why. It's just that the rule says to do it.

A choice machine is different. A choice machine looks at the world and sees options, and it says, "If I did this, what would happen? If I did that, what would happen? If I did this other thing, what would happen?" It builds up an anticipation of what the likely outcome of one action or another would be, and then chooses on the basis of how much that outcome is valued or disvalued.

They're both machines, but one of them is much more free than the other. It's choosing its actions on the basis of its values, and it's choosing its values on the basis of what it knows.

Reason: Where do our values come from in the first place?

Dennett: The Darwinian answer is a really good one. They don't come ex nihilo. They evolve over time. Our responsibility for our values is not absolute and it's not zero. You can't choose who your parents are, you can't choose what culture you belong to, and you can't even choose your kindergarten teacher. But as you mature, you can gradually—this is the Darwinian part—incorporate responsibility for your own actions. We try to turn our children into agents that can take responsibility, and then we have to do something that makes parents really anxious: We have to let go. You let go of your children and say, "I've done the best I can. Now you're on your own. I've created this hopefully moral agent and released this person into the world."

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.

Dennett: I think the book is politically optimistic. And it is opposed to a sort of paternalism that I find offensive.

Reason: What sorts of political and economic institutions maximize both freedom and responsibility?

Dennett: People all over the world are pretty smart. Some of them, through no fault of their own, are relatively uninformed. If you inform them, if you remove the disinformation and misinformation they have, they'll make good choices. You can trust democracy. This is all just Civics 101. Give the people the information, and they'll make wise choices.

Not that they'll always make good choices. Not that people can't ever pull the wool over their eyes. Not that they don't have other motives. But in spite of all of this, the capacity to tell truth from falsehood is pretty strong.

Now, if you think my account of human freedom is right, then the way to protect it is to make sure that your society is one in which the benefits of being a member of the society are so tempting and so great that people will take responsibility in order for it to happen.

Reason: Most of human history was not characterized by such societies.

Dennett: Well, that's right. That's why freedom evolved. That's why we're in better shape now than we were before.

Reason: You argue that ideas can evolve in a way analogous to genes in biological evolution. Some ideas survive better than others; they can mutate and recombine into new ideas. Such units of cultural evolution have been called memes. But unlike genes, memes are not discrete units.

Dennett: That's not necessarily true. The boundary conditions are problematic, yes, but so are the conditions for where a gene begins and where it ends. It's not just a straightforward sequence.

There's an area of the law that deals with this set of problems, and that's copyright and patent protection. Patentable ideas don't come in discrete units, yet we can do a pretty good job of treating them like they do. The boundary problems of copyright and patent law are exactly the same boundary problems of meme identification.

We have patent law and copyright law because there are ideas out there that are worth copying. Well, "something worth copying" is what a gene is.

Reason: Genes can be defined in terms of the proteins that they make: This sequence makes only this protein. Can you say that about memes?

Dennett: Genes are all pretty much in one language, DNA and RNA. Cultural production is more varied. There are more different routes to production, but maybe it was like that in the early days of genes too.

In culture we have lots of different alphabets. Potters have the alphabet of how you make a pot. If an expert potter or even a good apprentice watches a master make a pot, that potter can see something that you and I can't. He can parse what he's watching into a sort of alphabet of moves, of features that are more or less invisible to you and me, but if you're a potter you know them. They're recipes, basically, and wherever there are recipes made up out of parts that are copyable, you have a stabilizing influence. When you have a repertoire of moves, you have fidelity in copying.

Plato wrote thousands of years ago. We don't have the original texts, but we have very pure, highly reliable, 99-point-something-percent reliability. How do we know that? Because the alphabet has several different levels. At the word level and even at the idea level, there are places where we've corrected the text of Plato, found the corruption—which is like a mutation—and corrected it with proofreading enzymes. The proofreading enzymes in this case are scholars.

By the way, Mother Nature doesn't care whether information gets transmitted by genes or through culture. If it travels just as well in socially transmitted patterns, that's fine.

Reason: Of course, Mother Nature isn't trying to transmit information anyway.

Dennett: Yes, but the point is that information is available for cultural transmission. It's just as visible to natural selection as information that's available for genetic transmission. So natural selection will recognize and favor information transmitted socially just as quickly, in fact more quickly, than genetically transmitted information.

That's one of the main reasons I bring in memes. I want to emphasize the fact that this is not just about the genetic evolution of human morality. Genetic evolution is not the only kind of evolution. In some respects, the dividing line between genetic and cultural evolution is not very important.

Reason: You argue that a self is a metaphor for our bodies and brains as they exist over time, something that provides us an outlook on what is going on in our own brains and in the brains of others. You claim that the self wouldn't exist if it weren't for the evolution of social interactions requiring each human animal to create within itself a subsystem designed for interacting with others. But this idea of a subsystem seems like a sneaky way of having a little homunculus sitting in a Cartesian theater again.

Dennett: For many years I joined in the general battle against a homunculus or one big bunch of them. Then it hit me: Homunculi are fine as long as they're stupid.

The straight Cartesian theory is that you've got a powerful homunculus at the center of the self doing all the work. But if you could break that homunculus down into lesser homunculi that only do part of the job, and break them into even lesser homunculi, and so on, you replace the central smart homunculus with a team of stupid homunculi. Then eventually you can replace it with a machine in place of a self. This view is called homuncular functionalism.

It's not an infinite regress. It bottoms out with the neurons. Yes, you can think of an individual neuron as a little homunculus. It doesn't help much, but you can do it. The point is that you take larger assemblages, cells, tissues, and the like. Then they begin to have individual tasks, larger projects. When you get to a high enough level, you've got homunculi that are really quite agent-like.

The self is the systems control of the whole body over time. If you're doing things over an extended period of time, the self is your way to keep track of them. You have to be able to remember where you were so you can pick up the threads and continue after an interruption. So you have projects. And you have goals and fears and hopes.

Reason: Is language the crucial invention?

Dennett: With language we can formulate things and remember the formulation and remind ourselves of what we screwed up the last time. And we can do it with other people.

Reason: There are a lot of people, from both the left and the right, who want to resist these ideas.

Dennett: Yes, that's right, from both the left and the right. I'm glad you noticed that. I figure I'm hitting the nail on the head.

Reason: The people on the right seem to be afraid that you've disenchanted the world. You've made it meaningless.

Dennett: I've disenchanted it, but I haven't made it meaningless. Meaning doesn't depend on magic.

You know, that's a really fundamental thing. For some people, if it isn't magic, it doesn't mean anything.

Reason: Think tanks like the Ethics and Public Policy Center and thinkers like Leon Kass and Irving Kristol seem very frightened about the moral implications of your project.

Dennett: They're scared to death of this, and I think they're just wrong. They're clinging to a straw that won't float. I don't know whether it's comic or tragic. The idea that they could save what they hold dear by making it magical, by embodying it in this little pearl of soul stuff, that's superstitious thinking of the worst sort.

Reason: How would you comfort them?

Dennett: There, there. There, there. It's not as scary as you think.

Reason: I actually suspect some of them of believing that you are correct. They just don't want ordinary people to think about this stuff. They are afraid that if people believed that God doesn't exist, then they might think that everything's permitted.

Dennett: Yes. They don't want me letting the cat out of the bag. I think that's incredibly paternalistic and arrogant. They underestimate the intelligence of their fellow human beings.

Reason: So you're fairly confident that the world will go on and people will still raise their families and they won't murder each other in their sleep?

Dennett: Absolutely. I think it's time to grow up.

Reason: Why would people resist growing up?

Dennett: There are so many reasons. At its worst, it's that paternalism: "I don't need it, but look at all these childish people around me. They need it. I won't dare walk the streets at night if my fellow man doesn't persist in this delusion."

At its best, it's an understandable conservatism, one that says, "You're proposing a really big shift—'a strange inversion of reason,' as one reviewer characterized evolutionary theory in 1867. You're going to upset so many apple carts, and this will be so scary, and we're better off clinging to the old-fashioned way even though we grant you that the arguments you're putting forward are correct."

That's why I called one of my books Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Darwin subverted everything. He replaced the top-down theory with the bottom-up theory, and for many people this is just a very scary change.

Reason: Let me turn your own arguments on you. The memes for the top-down theories seem to have been doing fine for all these centuries.

Dennett: No, they haven't. It's been one defeat after another. There was the Galilean defeat and the Copernican defeat and the Darwinian defeat and the Einsteinian defeat. The domain of the supernatural has been shrinking. The retreat has sometimes been graceful, and sometimes it's the farthest thing from graceful.

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.