Saturday, November 20, 2004

Dennett: Freedom Evolves

Daniel Dennett is my favorite philosopher, for several reasons. The first is perhaps most trivial: he writes to communicate, not obfuscate. (On second thought, that's not trivial at all.) His works include web links, for one thing. For another, he consistently chooses accessible illustrations to make his points.

Just for example, in the first section of Freedom Evolves, Dennett is discussing whether determinism (the idea that all outcomes/choices/decisions are set by the initial conditions, that as Andrew Lloyd Webber has Judas complain to Jesus, "everything's fixed, and you can't change it..." ) means that no one is responsible for their choices in life.

To illustrate that determinism - whether or not true - cannot affect guilt, Dennett tells the story of the French Foreign Legionnaire who is hated by all at the fort. Tom, knowing that he will be sent on patrol the next morning, poisons the water in his canteen. Dick, unaware of Tom's actions, empties the Legionnaire's canteen and fills it with dry sand. Harry, also unaware of the previous interventions, pokes a small hole in the canteen so its contents will trickle away as the hated fellow marches out in the morning. When the Legionnaire does march off into the desert with his adulterated canteen, and eventually perishes of the lack of potable water, which man is responsible for his death?

Dennett has said of Freedom Evolves, "If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there’s lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There’s no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There’s been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it’s all independent of determinism." [italics mine, quote from ReasonOnline interview linked below]

Exercise for my reader: Was the Legionnaire's death by dehydration avoidable?

This can only be a first visit because Freedom Evolves is not a book I can grasp with a quick scan; and that's the second reason I like Dennett's work. I will read several pages, then be stunned by the light of reason. Aha! And I must go reread this article, or that book, or even turn back to reread a few pages in Dennett, in the light of a new understanding. So I'll most likely be posting more in coming days as I digest...

Dennett pre-dates my paper journal, so I'll share the other things I've read: Darwin's Dangerous Idea was the first Dennett-encounter for me. I enjoyed so much the philosophical exploration of this scientific revolution (and the pro- and con- arguments of the day, and of today) that I went Dennett-hunting.

Consciousness Explained was next. I found this the toughest to read, because I was also reading Stephen Pinker's How We Think at the time, and many of Dennett's thoughts on Thought run exactly counter to Pinker's. Then I got Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, and had to reread -both- books in the light of what I learned.

The article in the Guardian is more an introduction to the author than to his ideas. Kenan Malik has an insightful review of Freedom Evolves. Other writings by Dennett are available on the Web: Postmodernism and truth, The Bright Stuff and Two Brights Side-by-Side from the New York Times, etc. Search on keywords "naturalistic" or "determinist" and "Daniel Dennett" for more.

Kelby Mason does a good job of boiling down the naturalistic world view in Thoughts as Tools: The Meme in Daniel Dennett's Work. See also the interview with Dennett in Reason Online.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

it doesnt matter at all if you perceive something as being avoided. If your a materialist, logically that avoidance is still determined.You don't change determinism through avoidance, its an obvious fact that things are avoided - its that those particular examples of things which are avoided could never have happened any other way, they were always going to be avoided. This is absolutely no threat to hard determinism. It is a very simplistic eqivocal point to make.

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