Dennett and the Darwinizing of Free Will by David P. Barash
- Human Nature Review 2003 Volume 3: 222-225 ( 22 March )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/dcdennett.html
Dennett and the Darwinizing of Free Will
David P. Barash
By Daniel C. Dennett
347 pp, Viking Press (2003)
It has ruefully been noted that we have lots of philosophy professors, but
precious few genuine philosophers. But at least, we also have Daniel Dennett.
He wrote the best book on evolution by a non-biologist (Dennett, 1995), and has
been a tireless, effective, and creative advocate for incorporating natural
selection into the purview of philosophers and thinkers generally. Dennett is
not just a philosophy professor, but a genuine philosopher, much to our
benefit. In Freedom Evolves, he takes on the question of free will and
determinism, one of the oldest and most intransigent of conundrums,
transporting the discussion where it belongs, into the realm of Darwinian
And conundrum it is. Thus, to my mind (and I believe I write this of my own
free will!), there can be no such thing as free will for the committed
scientist, in his or her professional life. Thus, science itself presupposes
that every phenomenon has a cause. We may speak of "spontaneous combustion" or
a "spontaneous abortion" or even "spontaneous applause," but in each of these
cases, some cause is more than likely. it is essential to a sober, naturalistic
worldview. "Spontaneous" is simply another way of saying: "cause unknown," not
"uncaused." Similarly, we are unlikely to describe a stone as moving
"spontaneously," not only because it lacks any possible organs of volition, but
because it is entirely subject to the laws of physics. What, then, about a
jellyfish that moves "spontaneously"? A rhinoceros? A person?
At the same time, I suspect that we all - even the most hard-headed
materialists - live with an unspoken hypocrisy: even as we assume determinism
in our intellectual pursuits and professional lives, we actually experience our
subjective lives as though free will reigns supreme. In our heart of hearts, we
know that in most ways that really count (and many that don't), we have plenty
of free will, and so do those around us. Inconsistent? Yes, indeed. But like
the denial of death, it is a useful inconsistency, and perhaps even one that is
essential. (Nor is the free will/determinism debate unique in this regard. We
might add Hume's demonstration of the impossibility of proving causation
itself, and Berkeley's questioning of the existence of an objective world. In
many ways, we are all forced to live with a degree of absurdity, if only
because to acknowledge it in our daily lives is to admit yet more absurdity!)
Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett
by Daniel Clement Dennett
Hardcover: 352 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.18 x 9.46 x 6.38
Publisher: Viking Press; (February 10, 2003) ISBN: 0670031860
AMAZON - US
AMAZON - UK
From Publishers Weekly
"Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul-is this a fair bargain?"
Dennett, seeking to fend off "caricatures of Darwinian thinking" that plague
his philosophical camp, argues in this incendiary, brilliant, even dangerous
book that it is. Picking up where he left off in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (a
Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist), he zeroes in on free will, a
sticking point to the opposing camp. Dennett calls his perspective
"naturalism," a synthesis of philosophy and the natural sciences; his critics
have called it determinism, reductionism, bioprophecy, Lamarckianism. Drawing
on evolutionary biology, neuroscience, economic game theory, philosophy and
Richard Dawkins's meme, the author argues that there is indeed such a thing as
free will, but it "is not a preexisting feature of our existence, like the law
of gravity." Dennett seeks to counter scientific caricature with precision,
empiricism and philosophical outcomes derived from rigorous logic. This book
comprises a kind of toolbox of intellectual exercises favoring cultural
evolution, the idea that culture, morality and freedom are as much a result of
evolution by natural selection as our physical and genetic attributes. Yet
genetic determinism, he argues, does not imply inevitability, as his critics
may claim, nor does it cancel out the soul. Rather, he says, it bolsters the
ideals of morality and choice, and illustrates why those ideals must be
nurtured and guarded. Dennett clearly relishes pushing other scientists'
buttons. Though natural selection itself is still a subject of controversy, the
author, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, most certainly
is in the vanguard of the philosophy of science.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
The man who advanced our understanding of consciousness and evolution in books
like Darwin's Dangerous Idea now addresses the issue of freedom.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
An aggressive writer certain of his positions (he titled an earlier book
Consciousness Explained, 1991), philosopher Dennett here continues his quest to
demolish metaphysical conceptions of human nature. Our cherished concept of
free will is the subject of this work. It may relieve those delving into his
dense Darwinian argumentation that Dennett decides that such an attribute of
humanity does indeed exist, albeit as a product of aimless evolution. He builds
up to his conclusion by first breaking down a definition of determinism,
illustrated with references to atoms, Martin Luther, and a computer model of
evolution. Dennett then upholds the principles of Darwinian algorithms, which
endlessly iterated created robotlike cells and, ultimately, us. The latter
topic will perk up general readers' interest, as Dennett advances the
nitty-gritty of his view of free will by seeking out logical flaws in a
no-free-will interpretation of neurological experiments, and by insisting on an
evolutionary picture of altruism and responsibility. In a complex presentation,
Dennett's essential points will be plain to the serious readership for this
work. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Daniel C. Dennett is a brilliant polemicist, famous for challenging unexamined
orthodoxies. Over the last thirty years, he has played a major role in
expanding our understanding of consciousness, developmental psychology, and
evolutionary theory. And with such groundbreaking, critically acclaimed books
as Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea (a National Book Award
and Pulitzer Prize finalist), he has reached a huge general and professional
In this new book, Dennett shows that evolution is the key to resolving the
ancient problems of moral and political freedom. Like the planet's atmosphere
on which life depends, the conditions on which our freedom depends had to
evolve, and like the atmosphere, they continue to evolve-and could be
extinguished. According to Dennett, biology provides the perspective from which
we can distinguish the varieties of freedom that matter. Throughout the history
of life on this planet, an interacting web and internal and external conditions
have provided the frameworks for the design of agents that are more free than
their parts-from the unwitting gropings of the simplest life forms to the more
informed activities of animals to the moral dilemmas that confront human beings
living in societies.
As in his previous books, Dennett weaves a richly detailed narrative enlivened
by analogies as entertaining as they are challenging. Here is the story of how
we came to be different from all other creatures, how our early ancestors
mindlessly created human culture, and then, how culture gave us our minds, our
visions, our moral problems-in a nutshell, our freedom.
About the Author
Daniel C. Dennett is a university professor and the director of the Center for
Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. In addition to Darwin's Dangerous Idea,
he is also the author of Kinds of Minds and Consciousness Explained.
- Unbeknownst to most scholars, the "free will" paradox
was resolved some years ago, the answer proclaimed by
none other than Sammy Davis in his great hit "I've
Gotta be Me".
IMHO, the continuing confusion results primarily from
a residual dualism (or dualistic hangover) that
opposes material processes (brain chemistry, neuronal
activity, etc.)with our subjective experience of
consciousness, generally according the former the
ontologically prior (hence "determining") role.
The attempts to resolve this "dilemma" by introducing
random phenomena, e.g. quantum mechanics, are
particularly misguided. Imagine getting up to get
another beer from the fridge and, via quantum
mechanical brain burp, finding yourself standing
outside on the front porch (still in your skivvies),
wondering how exactly you got there. This is freedom?
What we call determinism on one side of this duality
is experienced as phenomenological coherence
(sanity?)on the other.
Unfortunately, most discussions of "the problem of
free will" never get beyond these paradigmatically
induced conundrums, and miss the truly interesting
(and problematic) aspect of this issue, illustrated as
1--I can choose whether to eat this pizza, but I can't
choose not to be hungry.
2--I can choose to abstain from sexual activity, but I
cannot choose to eliminate my feelings of arousal in
the presence of men, women, children, etc. as the case
Both the conscious choices and the unconscious (i.e.
unwilled) feelings/desires in these examples are
aspects of the monistic (material/experiential)
"system"--for lack of a better word--that constitutes
"me" or what it means "to be me".
Traditionally, society assigns "responsibility" to
individuals for the former (willed choices) but not
necessarily for the latter (unwilled desires).
Obviously these 2 categories are not independent;
presumably the differential ability to subordinate or,
conversely, give rein to, desires via conscious
choices conferred selective advantage to individuals.
In any case, I think that understanding the
interactions between these 2 categories is perhaps the
most interesting and socially useful aspect of the
whole free will issue.
"In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man
never gains social acceptance."
Do you Yahoo!?
Yahoo! Tax Center - File online, calculators, forms, and more