Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Deterministic Free Will of Daniel C. Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett

One of the greatest philosophical dilemmas posed by the development of the modern scientific view of the world concerns the place of human beings in this view. Scientific thinking is based on determinism, an understanding of all things as material objects linked in chains of causes and effects. Anything that happens must happen because something has caused it to happen. If human beings live inside such a chain, though, then all the things that people do are consequences of other events, such as environmental or biological occurrences.  To many thinkers, such a perspective implies that humans cannot choose to do anything because both their actions and the apparent choices behind these actions are determined.

One answer to the dilemma is to argue that people are in some way outside of any chain of causation. This was the strategy of René Descartes, who presented the non-human world in terms of the interactions of material objects, but who argued that human consciousness was a special kind of spiritual entity, influencing the objects but existing outside of them. Another answer is to simply accept that freedom is nothing but an illusion, and that all of our actions are nothing but results of the influences on us.

Both answers have problems. The response of Descartes is not supported by any evidence on the working of the brain and it is hard to see how a spiritual being could move a physical body. The anti-freedom response not only raises the question of how people can be held responsible for anything, it also seems to refute itself, because we would not be free to come to any meaningful conclusions about ourselves, including our own lack of freedom, if we were not the agents of our own thoughts. Both answers have also been criticized by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. In Consciousness Explained (1990), he offered a detailed criticism of the Cartesian view of human consciousness. In Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), he defended ideas of choosing and goal-seeking. Dennett is a scientific materialist, though, and one who bases much of his own philosophical work on Darwinian evolution.  In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995), he described evolution as fundamental to the contemporary scientific perspective. Freedom Evolves (2003) attempted to bring together the ideas in these earlier works and I think we can take it as a summary of Dennett’s thinking on the free will problem.  Determinism, according to Dennett, is entirely consistent with the concept of free will, which he argues, somewhat paradoxically, is a result of evolutionary determinism.

Dennett maintains that determinism is often confused with inevitability. However, few events are inevitable in our complex world. Any present state of affairs may result in a variety of future states. Some natural entities, moreover, can obtain information from the environment to anticipate futures and to act in a way that is likely to lead to one future, rather than to others. According to Dennett, this proves that there can be such a thing as “evitability” in an entirely deterministic world. There are also random and therefore uncaused events that are still determined, such as the results of the flipping of coins.

Some philosophers have argued that freedom requires philosophical libertarianism, a point within the decision maker where the decision is undetermined. Dennett responds that we cannot identify this point and that freedom can be more readily identified as intentional responses to imperfectly predictable occurrences outside the decision maker. He then moves on to evolution and argues that being able to foresee possible outcomes and to respond to these can provide an evolutionary advantage to organisms. Further, beings that can respond by cooperating with each other have special advantages. Human culture, then, should be understood as a product of evolution.  Because culture consists of communication, the evolution of human culture gives rise to the emergence of pieces of communication that pass from person to person and survive or go extinct as genes survive or go extinct.  Drawing on evolutionary speculation about culture, Dennett refers to these pieces of communication as “memes.”  The moral ideas that guide choices about behavior are memes, patterns of thought that have been selected by environmental pressures.

The use of communication by human beings as a way of surviving together makes humans a special kind of animal in a way that is significant both for freedom and for moral responsibility. Dennett maintains that communication makes possible conscious thought as well as communication.  This is because language makes possible reflection. The social relations involved in communication through language entail imagining ourselves in the positions of others in order to predict what kinds of results when we communicate with them in different ways. This imagining means creating sets of social relations within ourselves (a view that those of us in the social sciences will immediately associate with George Herbert Mead). Therefore, to communicate effectively with others, we must be able to communicate with ourselves, or to be conscious. 

Because we are conscious, the rules that we have developed for cooperating with others are internalized.  This means that we do not follow the rules only when other people are looking and we do not follow the rules blindly. Moral ideas form part of our relations to ourselves, as well as part of our relations to other people. The fact that we consciously hold those ideas means that we reflect on them in communication with ourselves and in communication with other people.

Reflection on moral ideas, which are particular kinds of memes, result in what Dennett calls “benselfishness,” a word coined from the name of Benjamin Franklin, who famously advised the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “we should all hang together, or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” “Benselfishness” is the realization that one’s own well-being is, in the long run, inseparable from the well-being of others. Dennett takes this as the basis of altruism, of concern for other people.

Human culture enables us to engage in “bootstrapping,” in raising ourselves to ever greater levels of freedom and responsibility. Our interactions with other people lead us to give our reasons for acting as we do and to reflect on our reasons. This means that we discuss our reasons both with others and with ourselves. Freedom, in Dennett’s view, does not depend on the absence of causal influences on us but on how we share ideas with each other in order to be led toward greater responsibility for our acts.

Although Dennett’s “deterministic free will” argument is deft, I do not find it convincing. Ultimately, in this author’s view, the threats to human freedom do not come from claims about the position of humans in a chain of causation, but from political and social sources. As we learn more about how human beings make decisions, he argues, we have the responsibility to devise systems of government that are consistent with scientific evidence on our nature. This conclusion, though, suggests that Dennett’s version of free will is simply putting a contemporary happyface on Comtean positivism. Scientific evidence has to be interpreted; and those who interpret it do so within their own set of moral predispositions. The experts too often eagerly represent their own social and political preferences as scientific truths.

One of the difficulties with Dennett’s argument concerns the idea of moral responsibility, a central aspect of freedom of choice. When one claims that an individual is responsible for making a choice, one is claiming not only that the individual can choose, but that there is a morally right choice and a morally wrong one, not just a useful way of acting from an evolutionary point of view. To say that humans have evolved to be altruistic to some extent is only to say that they frequently tend not to rob and kill one another for the sake of their own  long-term ends.  The evolutionary argument does not address the question of whether people should rob and kill each other, or even cheat on their spouses or income taxes, and it therefore gives us little help with the responsibility part of free will.  An explanation of human morality in terms of evolution may be able to provide an account of why morality exists, but it cannot provide a justification for specific moral beliefs.

Dennett does suggest that some moral ideas, such as egalitarian views of distributive justice, have a tendency to survive and spread among people.  He cites, as an example of moral evolution, a thought experiment in which people dividing up chocolate cakes gradually develop a fair-minded morality, in which they realize that each individual will get the most cake in the long run if the cakes are equally divided. This particular example may, however, only demonstrate the problem with using adaptability to an environment as a justification for moral principles. The strategy requires selecting a setting that will select the desired kind of morality. Very few real environments involve simply coming across cakes and deciding how to divide them up. It may be argued that all cakes must be made and that making them requires skill and dedication.  It looks as if Dennett has chosen his example of an environment based on the moral ideas he already values, a classic example of an expert presenting his own social and political perspective as a scientific truth.  Given the variation in environments, we cannot expect adaptation to them to lead us continually closer to an American professor’s preferred norms.

It is also debatable whether “evitability” and intentionality imply freedom, as Dennett suggests. An event may not be inevitable because the causes of it are too numerous and complex to allow us to predict the event. We cannot say that it is inevitable that it will rain on a given day next year because long-range weather conditions are notoriously unpredictable. Few people would say that this gives any amount of free choice to the clouds. Unpredictability is a limitation of the predictor, not a characteristic of the thing predicted. If we cannot predict the rain, or which side of a coin will be up after flipping, this is because we cannot obtain enough information. Probability is a matter of having incomplete information. The more information we have, the more an occurrence approaches certainty, or inevitability.

Even if evading an outcome or changing an outcome is a matter of purposive action on the basis of possibilities, this would not necessarily mean that either the action or the purpose were free. We can program a computer to weigh a variety of responses to a situation and to choose the response most likely to lead to a desired end. This means that we have a machine that is acting efficiently, not one that is acting freely. Making the machine much more complicated and giving it the power to incorporate previous actions and outcomes into its programming would improve both its efficiency and unpredictability, but the improvements would not push it toward greater levels of freedom.  .

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