Dennett’s dangerous idea

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In Freedom Evolves, 2003, Daniel C. Dennett wrote:

If you are one of those who think free will is only really free will if it springs from an immaterial soul that hovers happily in your brain, shooting arrows of decision into your motor cortex, then, given by what you mean by free will, my view is that there is no free will at all. If, on the other hand, you think free will might be morally important without being supernatural, then my view is that free will is indeed real…

The book is dedicated to explaining that second sentence. As far as I am concerned, it fails. Nothing in the book indicates to me that even Dennett’s reasoned version of ‘free will’ has any bearing on morality.

Like his outstanding book Consciousness Explained, in Freedom Evolves he uses up many pages dismissing obviously ridiculous ideas. However, he is extraordinarily good at pinpointing the nature of the faults.

Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, reviewed by Everard Cunion, December 2009

Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett 2003, Allen Lane the Penguin Press, London, 2003, ISBN 0-71399-339-1

Dennett’s use of ‘free will’ is nothing like the way most people use the term. (That goes without saying, really.) Dennett’s usage is a literal combination of freedom in its engineering sense (the joint has two degrees of freedom in rotation) and will, as in what you want to do. An example of freedom he cites is the ability of a bird to fly ‘wherever it wants’. Obviously it doesn’t ‘want’ anything in the human sense, but all he means is it can fly north as easily as it can fly south.

You can delete the words freedom and will from all the examples he provides and the conclusions are the same. ‘Free will’ is simply an unnecessary invention, rather like the ‘soul’, the ‘essence’ of life, and similar ideas that confused ancient peoples.

If determinism is true, then there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future, so since every choice has already been determined, all life is just a playing out of a script that was fixed at the dawn of time.

He rejects this, although he fails to explain that rejection. Like some folk I have encountered who, although educated, seem to have been infected with a kind of religious belief that has worked its way so deeply into the foundations of their mental model of the universe, it leaves traces in their reasoning as regards morality. (Can that possibly be true of Dennett, our greatest philosopher?) He seems to simply assume, as a premise, that moral responsibility requires ‘free will’. People used to say the same of ‘God’; a supernatural and all-powerful being who just happens to subscribe to the same views as themselves. (Therefore, you had better do as I say…) It is the sort of trick that self-styled ‘working class’ males boast of using to seduce women (here in provincial Britain, anyway).

We spend quite a lot of time thinking about how things may go today or next year, or might have gone if only such and such. We seem, in other words, to assume that our world is not deterministic.

Certainly it can feel non-deterministic, especially when we are faced with an important decision that hinges on opposing arguments of apparently equal weight, but that is because we do not yet know the outcome. However, the anguish and worry involved in such a decision is also just part of the deterministic working of the universe, as was the process of natural selection that equipped us with those emotions.

Another fault with this book is that, in places, he seems to have lost the plot as far as clarity is concerned. At one point he criticises others for using mathematical shorthand to no effect. Yet, in this book, he does the same.

However, like most Dennett books, his extensive digressions into related discussions are worth reading. Included in these is a good exposition of how simulation differs from reality:

In a virtual hotel, if you want people in adjacent rooms to be able to overhear each other, you have to add that capacity… You also have to add shadows, aromas, vibration, dirt, footprints, and wear-and-tear. All these non-functional features come for free in the real, concrete world—and they play a crucial role in evolution.

It is an interesting fact that by the time you specify Life worlds that are complex enough to be candidates for such capacities, they are much too complex to run in simulation.

Life is a computer simulation he uses to illustrate his arguments. However, all such illustrations merely demonstrate the simpler view of determinism:

Some Life worlds contain competitions, and even though Laplace’s demon knows exactly how each competition will end, there may be genuine drama and suspense for lesser intelligences, who cannot know, from their limited perspective, how the contest will end.

…and this unavoidable ignorance guarantees that it has a subjectively open future.

Exactly! (He fits his ‘free will’ into that subjectivity, but there is no need for it.)

He summarises his argument so:

In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms.

Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided.

Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable.

Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable.

Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability.

[I put evitable in italics because it is a word he has dragged up from 1502, apparently.]

He seems to forget that consciousness is an after the fact narrative. (An extraordinary omission given that he is one of the foremost advocates of that position.) Just because you weave your actions into a story with yourself at its centre does not make them any less deterministic and inevitable. (He is using evitable for the part of the play yet to be acted out.)

He states:

Maybe there is a sense of “possible” in which Austin could not possibly have made that very putt, if determinism is true. Now why on earth should we care [about that]?

We should care about it because it reminds us that “possible,” when used in retrospect, is different from when we use it about future plans (“I can hole this putt. It is perfectly possible.”) When we use “possible” in retrospect (“I should have holed that putt. It was perfectly possible”) it is shorthand for “I am surprised at my failure and I must investigate its cause and thereby learn from the experience so as not to make the same mistake again.” Sure, from Austin’s point of view before the event it is possible, but how does artefact of intelligence combined with imperfect knowledge constitute ‘free will’ or any other species of will?

Maybe Dennett, who is I believe still our greatest thinker, comes from a weird place:

Where does the oomph come from to override our own instincts? Tradition would say it comes from some psychic force called willpower, but this just names the phenomenon and postpones explanation.

What tradition? Dennett is an east-coast intellectual, which I imagine cannot be very different from my ‘London intellectual’ background. Maybe all those covered bridges and New England churches have confused him lately. (Remind me not to go there…)

One of our most pressing tasks, as psychic engineers, is to see if we can secure the fundamental concept of a responsible moral agent, an agent who, unlike the cooperative prairie dog or loyal wolf or friendly dolphin, chooses freely for considered reasons and may be held morally accountable for the acts chosen.

You can delete the word freely and no change in meaning results. (It seems to me the ‘agent’ can be held morally accountable for other, practical, reasons, not those Dennett cites.)

However, there is possibly more to his argument than philosophy. There are indications that he is not just bending over backwards to see the other fellow’s point of view, he is using politicians’ expedience in attempting to gain popularity for his version of ‘free will’. (Perhaps he sees it as an interim state until the people are able to understand morality without even his version of ‘free will’.) He leaves a clue to this throughout the book (at least once in every chapter) by using the phrase, “Stop that crow!” It refers to a Disney movie in which a crow hands an elephant a feather; a psychological crutch that persuades the elephant to fly. In other words, he is admonishing us to refrain from criticizing the concept of ‘free will’ because it is useful as a psychological crutch that he imagines will enable the ignorant to achieve enlightenment.

That enterprise is surely doomed to fail because those whose view of the universe is founded on hokum are not open to rational argument.

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