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Freedom EvolvesReview - Freedom Evolves
by Daniel C. Dennett
Viking Press, 2003
Review by George Graham, Ph.D.
Jun 17th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 25)

In a Crowd of Theorists it is hard to miss Daniel Dennett.  Dennett is tall in philosophical stature, pleasing in paragraph, and famous in wit.  He is an intellectual force to be both reckoned with and enjoyed.

The shortest book-length introduction to Dennett's thought is his Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness (1996).  Kinds, however, is undernourished in argumentation and less than robust in content.  The best introduction to Dennett, in my judgment, is his first book on freedom of the will: Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984).  It sparkles, it reads, and it substantively contributes.

Elbow Room contains several pages on the evolution of consciousness, as Dennett in the early 1980's understood that phenomenon.  Freedom Evolves offers a much more detailed tale of humankind's place in nature and of the role of natural selection in the design of the mind/brain.  The tale, if not inspiring, is arresting and provocative.  The story has two main themes.  One is that human biology, psychology, and cultures are products of evolution.  We, unlike bacteria and dogs, have evolved into self-conscious, self-monitoring, brains-in-bodies in motion, living in complex societies, endowed with a natural concern for others and not just concern for ourselves.  The second is that from an evolutionary point of view freedom is not a buck-stopping causal power but a fine-tuned sensitivity to a variety of different types of reasons for action.  Human beings very often – hundreds of times each day – perform actions for reasons.  The better are the reasons, the better are the actions, and the more free the performance.

So, one theme is evolution.  The other is freedom and decisional improvement through using the tools that Mother Nature has given to us.  Thus the title of the book is Freedom Evolves.

The book is filled with telling metaphors, stunning turns of phrase, and bold contentions.  Appreciative attention is given to work of George Ainslie on self-control and Daniel Wegner on conscious will.  Robert Kane's account of libertarian/dual power free will is treated to extensive criticism.  (Kane is the author of The Significance of Free Will [Oxford, 1996]).  A host of other theorists receive attention or prolonged mention including Richard Dawkins, Benjamin Libet, and Brian Skyrms.  Dennett is wide in his reading and generous in his citations.

In a review of this book that appeared in The New York Times Book Review (March 2, 2003), Galen Strawson complains that it is "cluttered, overlong, and too concerned with theatricals" (p. 11).  Cluttered?  Goodly portions are aimed by Dennett at freeing himself from self-described past misinterpretations inflicted by critics as well as by friendly but misunderstanding fellow travelers.  One might argue, however, that Dennett is at the point in his career where he is entitled to defend himself – to seeming clutter.  Overlong?  Well, there are two books here.  One is on free will; the other on evolution.  However that's one way of expressing Dennett's point: Two in one.  Freedom evolves.  Theatrical?  Just look at some of the titles of chapter sub-sections.  'Dumbo's magic feather and the perils of paulina'.  'Austin's Putt'. 'Nice tools but you still have to use them'.  Do they tell us what's on Broadway or reveal a writer inventing means to hold our attention through a book on a complex topic?

I am not tempted to describe the book as cluttered and so on.  Still, I do have a criticism – one of a general sort that Dennett has heard before.  It is less than consistently vivid or upfront about its brand of freedom, though phrases here and there (see below) reveal its purport.  In this it may lend itself to misinterpretation.  Let me explain.

What is free will?  The term 'free will' is a philosophical term of art for an alleged causal power.  The phrase 'of one's own free will' occurs in English, but not to refer to a power, but rather to an action that is uncompelled or uncoerced.  Dennett wrote this book of his own free will in the 'uncoerced' sense of 'free will'.

As a term of philosophical art 'free will' means something like the following:  Suppose I am contemplating incompatible courses of action A (writing this review) and B (having a can of beer with a friend while watching the NBA finals).  To speak of my having free will is to speak of the fact that I can choose to do A and I can choose to do B.  If I pick A, I could have chosen B instead.  If B, I could otherwise have chosen to do A.  My choice and ultimately my action are up to me.  I have the two-way power to go either way.

This dual power is not contingent for its being two-way on contrary-to-fact changes in my circumstances or world.  To speak of my ability to choose A and my ability to choose B is not to speak of my ability to choose A if my desires are different or of my ability to choose B if gravitational forces somehow miss my body.  It is to speak of my power here (as I am) and now (as Nature Reigns).

Dennett vigorously denies that we have such power (or should want it).  He most certainly is not alone in denying that we have dual power.  Many philosophers and others (as Strawson aptly notes in his review) agree with him.  It's never up to me what I do.  Only one choice is consistent with the past and the laws of nature.  In this Dennett is a determinist of sorts.  Determinism is the thesis that the past and laws of nature determine a unique future; not just for me but for each and everything that moves.  However he is a determinist with an independent and unique metaphysical commitment.

Determinism is not central to his conception of evolution.   Nor is commitment to determinism the soul of his conception of freedom.

Traditional or orthodox determnism relies on a contrast between me as a self or agent and that which determines (controls) my choices and actions, namely, the past and the laws of nature.  It is committed to something which the philosopher Peter Unger calls the thesis of the 'separateness of subjects (selves)' (parenthesis added) (Peter Unger, Identity, Consciousness and Value [Oxford 1990]).  This is the thesis that a person qua person is separate and distinct from every other person, as well as from everything else that is not part of him.  Dennett denies that there is such a person or subject.  He says that the self is a fiction.  So Dennett rejects the contrast between me and the rest of nature.  Some things are parts of what seems to non-metaphysical commonsense to be me and those parts (sub-personal systems of various sorts) are governed by the past and laws of nature.  While we certainly may distinguish for heuristic purposes between my constituents or parts and the rest of nature, ultimately this distinction is arbitrary and nothing substantially separates the constituents of me from the rest of world.  The distinction between me or mine and not-me/not-mine is all just appearances.

Dennett is a determinist with a Fictional Self.  Or as he calls selfhood in this book: "the brain's user-illusion of itself", "fragmented into shifting coalitions" (p. 253, p. 254).  His agent is not an agent free or otherwise.  The apparent fact that I act is only an apparent fact.  It is not a real fact.

Dennett's freedom is the freedom from coercion and compulsion of virtual persons in a deterministic world.  It is not my freedom but the situational sensitivity and coalitional integration of what composes me.  Acting or behaving is the cooperative activity of my parts.

Given the book's title readers might miss this: the fact that Dennett's commitment to determinism is less important, to him and to his world view, then his commitment to the Doctrine of the Fictional Self.  I am reminded, in an analogous respect, of Dennett's Consciousness Explained (1991).  In that book Dennett took first person verbal reports of consciousness as the primary data to ground his theory of consciousness, as if the only consciousness that needs explaining are dispositions to react to stimuli and report.   Many readers missed that fact, given the title of the book, although some philosophical critics complained that by focusing on dispositions to react as the only consciousness that needs be to be explained, consciousness was being neglected or explained away.

Robert Kane, Roderick Chisholm, and others have claimed -- on one reading of their work -- that free will in the sense of dual power constitutes or defines us as selves, agents or persons.  I am the ultimate source of my choices; absent such freedom there is no real me.  You are the ultimate source of your choices; absent such dual power there is no real you.  Kane puts this by speaking of the decisional buck stopping here with or in us.  Kane also adds important features to the theoretical description of this power (such as its rationality) to keep it operating up at the conceptual level of the whole person as a responsible, deliberating agent.  Dennett takes such claims seriously if only to reject them.  Yes, absent dual power freedom I am not a real me.  However "there is no such place", he says (p. 123).  There is no here there.  Dual power freedom is a frictionless fiction.

So: This is a much bolder book than may meet the naked eye.  By connecting the issue of free will with the issue of the reality of selfhood more hinges on the success of its arguments than whether freedom evolves.  If Dennett is right, there are no persons evolving to be free.  There is freedom, of a sort, but no person, self, or agent that is free, uncompelled or otherwise.

Freedom Evolves is not a book to take to the summer cottage.  It's too complex for that.  It is not the sparkling treat of Elbow Room.  It covers too much tough ground to glisten.  But there is a book here that skillfully probes and excites.  It is vintage Dennett.

 

© 2003 George Graham

 

George Graham is the AC Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University.


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Welcome to MHN's unique book review site Metapsychology. We feature over 7800 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than thirty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716