Daniel Dennett

Review: Daniel Dennett: ‘Freedom Evolves’

‘Freedom Evolves’ is part of the logical progression of Dennett’s thoughts from ‘The Intentional Stance’ through ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ and it subsequently leads on to ‘Breaking the Spell’. The title adequately explains the book’s argument – that freedom has increased alongside biology up the evolutionary scale:

  • Transition from plants to animals: Organisms can avoid catastrophic events by moving.
  • Cooperation and the benefits of altruism among agents.
  • Evolution of human culture and the role of memes (including morals).

Dennett is a compatibilist (‘free will is compatible with determinism’) and so makes robust attacks on libertarian (‘determinism must be broken to allow free will’) notions. The idea that  breaking the deterministic physical world with gaps to allow free will in intervene with genuine choices just doesn’t work. Random events and quantum indeterminacy will not help.

Dennett has previously attacked what he calls Cartesian Materialism – the idea that consciousness is located in a small space within the brain. But the same approach can be taken with time and he gives a good treatment of Libet’s famous 1985 experiment.

Concluding, he is asserting that our freedom depends on society and politics rather than metaphysics.

Dennett’s thesis hangs together fairly well but I suspect his critics will not be convinced by his equating of freedom with free will – his assertion that determinism operates at the physical level but that we operate at the design and intentional levels. He starts his story of the evolution of freedom with the simple deterministic world of John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ cellular automata. Dennett requires his students to ‘play’ with ‘Life’ to understand how complex behaviour can arise from and be based solely on absurdly simple deterministic physics. In a separate review, David Barash is dismissive of this. But it seems to me there is the potential to quantify ‘freedom’ using these lowest-level ‘worlds’ which would then strengthen Dennett’s qualitative story.


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