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Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett

Freedom Evolves (original 2003; edition 2004)

by Daniel C. Dennett

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1,257169,407 (3.75)10
Title:Freedom Evolves
Authors:Daniel C. Dennett
Info:Penguin (Non-Classics) (2004), Paperback, 368 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:popsci, philosophy, pb

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Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett (2003)


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I was interested in this book because of the hypocritical inconsistency exhibited by many secular types who, reasonably enough, deny the existence of "God" but bristle at the prospect that we all live in a completely determined universe. They (and I include myself here) reflexively feel that while science rightly treats the entirety of the natural world as subject to the same universal (deterministic) laws, they must preserve an idea of human free will as an exception to the laws of physics, in exactly the same way that theists allow for intervention by "God". As Dennett puts it, this indeterminism insists that human beings are little godlets, or miracle workers, able to defy the otherwise universal laws of physics. Dennett understands that we want to believe that we are always "able to choose otherwise" in a given situation because, if we're not, there seems to be no basis for moral responsibility: praise and blame only make sense in relation to free choices, and why care about anything if we can never deserve praise or blame for whatever good or bad we do? His thesis, in short, is that it is unnecessary to invoke miraculous powers to solve this apparent problem. Thanks to natural selection, humans have more freedom than has ever existed in the history of the universe. Although this freedom is not exempt from the physical laws governing every particle in the universe, and is hence determined, it is only determined in the same sense that a coin toss is determined. That is to say our choices are determined by so many intervening variables that no observer can possibly know their outcomes. Dennett's view is that in the important sense of everyday life, humans make free choices. The key distinction here is between the physical level, the fundamental variables that determine the outcome of the coin toss, versus the design level, what agents are actually able to observe and experience. The latter is what matters to all of us, and the observable operation and evolution of freedom on that level--in our everyday experience--gives us a sufficient (Dennett argues, more well-founded) basis for moral responsibility.

All of this makes pretty good sense to me, despite my ingrained aversion to determinism. My only problem with Dennett, and I am still mulling whether I think it taints his whole philosophical outlook, is that he is utterly uncritical of his own implicit mainstream views of technological progress (which he presumes even now to be an inevitable, unstoppable impulse of human culture) and the state (which he presumes to be the only solution to organizing human society). He reaffirms these positions in his pejorative use of the terms "anarchy" and "Luddites" and in his praise of "civilization". "Science" is his main affinity, and those very institutions are prerequisite for its existence. It should not be a surprise then that they aren't in question here. What remains to be answered for me is, what is the benefit of a scientific deterministic worldview when we have concluded that the state system and the technological progress that created it (and that it demonstrably perpetuates in return) were not, are not, and cannot be desirable? Early in the book, (with none of his characteristic well-reasoned argument) Dennett parodies postmodern critics of science who characterize it as "just another in a long line of myths". But he proves himself, disappointingly, to be an equally simple-minded partisan of "science"; he sees history and the future going in only one direction, that of more elaborate guns, memes, and steel for which our "freedom" is evolving to help us to be prepared. The book leaves me more worried about the possibilities of a future with more science than about the question of my own free will. Personally, I hope that imperialistic science eventually becomes a detour, albeit an informative one, from which a freer, wiser humanity was able to return, instead of the dead end of absolute control which is its inexorable instinct. ( )
  dmac7 | Jun 14, 2013 |
Always erudite, always instructive, and always frustratingly dense Dennett here does not disappoint again. He takes on the task of explaining how much or how little free will and freedom the being called a person has.
  gmicksmith | Feb 11, 2010 |
This was a second helping of Dennett for me--I picked it up immediately after having finished Consciousness Explained, which was fantastic. On its heels, Freedom Evolves was a decided, albeit mild, disappointment. Why? Because Dennett skips the question that prompted me (and probably most others) to buy his book: how can free will be compatible with physical determinism?

This question is the subject of only two of the book's ten chapters, and Dennett's answer is just a matter of sophistry and slippery wordplay. What is not unavoidable, he says, is not inevitable. But even in a deterministic world, some things are avoided. Therefore not all things are unavoidable. Therefore not all things are inevitable. Q.E.D. I was hoping for a better reason to agree with him on this matter.

Dennett's reasons for punting become clear later on: the existence of free will is actually not his primary concern in this book. What he really wants to show is not that free will is compatible with determinism, but rather that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism, and admittedly, I found his argument persuasive on this point. But Dennett does such a poor job of showing that free will itself is a coherent concept, that the real lesson of the book seems to be that moral responsibility does not depend upon free will.

Dennett is at his best here when he's criticizing the extremists on either side of the debate, the "hard determinists" who think that determinism precludes ethics (meaning no guilt, shame, or punishment), and the "libertarians," some of whom have spilled a lot of ink arguing that quantum physics makes free will coherent. (It doesn't). I sympathize with Dennett's project, insofar as he tries to stake out tenable middle ground. I just don't think that the ground Dennett stakes out is as tenable as he thinks it is.
1 vote polutropon | Aug 14, 2009 |
Please, note that the exposition and the writing should get 1/5.

And it's a shame, since what Dennett has to say is awfully important.

In a nutshell, Dennett claims that all the fear of genetic determinism and neuroscience is a phobia.
This fear comes from a series of misunderstandings.

1) First of all, we muddle two different meanings of the word 'determined'.
The first is the 'God perspective': the way things are and will be. There's only one future, only one past. Determined.
But this point of view doesn't concern us, because it's not our own.
We do care about the second meaning of the word: determined from US.
Which could be expressed better with 'predicted'.
We are free only as long as we can act to change a certain outcome.
This difference is fundamental and it is the source of a lot of mistrust toward scientific thinking.
On the contrary, we have a lot of freedom. Maybe more than we'd like.
2) The fear of genetic determinism.
We're afraid that genes may determine our behaviour like the instructions of a program controls a computer.
But this is false. Genes don't think for us. They make us able to think, they lay down the first bricks and leave the rest to chance, enviroment and OUR choices.
An animal is very much like a computer, ridden by instincts and reactions.
But far beyond any animal process of learning, we evolved a self.
We developed language. Every idea of 'I' is a thick web of social reletionships, past experiences, desires.
Genes simply can't do all this. We do.

Human freedom and human responsability persist even now that we're discovering the mind and debunking consciousness. ( )
  Ramirez | Jun 23, 2009 |
A stunning book about determinism and free will. Reading it has changed my mind on any subject; Dennett added a new dimension to the realm of my thoughts. Written in a very clever style, the content of this work is easy to understand, hard to ignore. ( )
1 vote bopje | Mar 1, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Daniel Dennett has charted a new and welcome course between free will and scientific determinism in Freedom Evolves, says Mary Midgley
added by mikeg2 | editThe Guardian, Mary Midgley (Mar 1, 2003)
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One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0142003840, Paperback)

Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? Renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett emphatically answers “yes!” Using an array of provocative formulations, Dennett sets out to show how we alone among the animals have evolved minds that give us free will and morality. Weaving a richly detailed narrative, Dennett explains in a series of strikingly original
arguments—drawing upon evolutionary biology, cognitive  neuroscience, economics, and philosophy—that far from being an enemy of traditional explorations of freedom, morality, and meaning, the evolutionary perspective can be an indispensable ally. In Freedom Evolves, Dennett seeks to place ethics on the foundation it deserves: a realistic, naturalistic, potentially unified vision of our place in nature.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:35 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Four billion years ago, there was no freedom on our planet, because there was no life. What kinds of freedom have evolved since the origin of life? Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? If you are free, are you responsible for being free, or just lucky?" "In Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained, sets out to answer these questions, showing how we, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and morality. In a series of strikingly original arguments drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics, and philosophy, he demonstrates that if we accept Darwin's reasoning, we can build from the simplest life forms all the way up to the best and deepest human thoughts on questions of morality and meaning, ethics and freedom."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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