In our discussions of free will, and my continuing puzzlement about how it could really exist, several commenters recommended that I read Dan Dennett’s Freedom Evolves. There, they said, I’d find a solution to the problem about how free will could exist in a deterministic universe. So I read it. And while I enjoyed it a lot, in the end I wasn’t convinced that he’d solved the problem—at least not in a way that was satisfying.
Dennett has always been known for three things: his clear writing about philosophy, his strong stands on contentious issues, and his insistence on undergirding philosophy with science, especially evolution. All of these are on tap in Freedom Evolves. Would that all philosophers could write so clearly and entertainingly! (And yes, I know that Dan’s been taken to task for popularizing, but I pay no attention to this.)
To make a long story short, Dan is a determinist who believes that physical events in the universe are, with the exception of quantum events, fully predicted by the laws of physics. He has no belief in dualism—the ghost in the machine. And he has no truck with locating free will in quantum indeterminacy, an idea that has seemed pretty dumb to me as well.
But he’s also a compatibilist: one who thinks that we can still have free will in a determined universe. That’s important, of course, because closely connected with free will is the notion of moral responsibility: without real freedom to choose what we do, how can we be held responsible for our acts?
Where does Dennett find freedom in a determined world? As his title implies, in evolution. His thesis is that evolution imposes a new and distinct “cause” of behavior that is superimposed on the laws of physics. That is, through evolved behavior we can make “choices” that wouldn’t be there without natural selection. He uses, for instance, the act of turning your head to avoid being beaned by a baseball. That behavior is an evolved one: like many things we do, it enables us to survive. Those individuals who didn’t react to and avoid oncoming objects didn’t leave their genes behind! We are always making “decisions,” like whether to turn our head, where to find food, whom to mate with, that were built into our genes by natural selection. In those decisions resides our freedom.
It’s a bit more complicated than this, because Dennett sees free will as something largely limited to humans. Animals, of course, can also make those kinds of evolution-based “choices”: a squirrel must decide where to look for acorns, a sage grouse female must choose among displaying males. What’s unique in humans is the complexity of our social interactions, which has mediated types of behavior unknown in other beasts. We plot, we scheme, we consider our actions way in advance, we attribute motivations to others, we decide who to treat well and why. We make long-range plans not just for ourselves, but for our society. And Dennett also sees this complex behavior as a production of evolution. Because we have so many choices to make, and because they’re so complicated, this gives us a kind of “freedom” unprecedented among beasts.
This is the way Dennett reconciles deterministic causation with “will” and “free will.” At bottom, things are still physically determined. There’s just a new layer of complexity, one added by biology and evolution.
But if our “choices” are still really determined, how can we have moral responsibility? This is a bit tricker. As far as I understand it, Dennett’s solution is that we must be morally responsible if we’re to be allowed to take our place in society, and to enjoy all its benefits. Our understanding of this contract is our tacit admission that we’re morally responsible beings. If we don’t acquiesce, and don’t accept our punishment when we err, then we have no business enjoying the largesse of society.
That’s Dennett’s argument, and he presents it with clarity and panache. There’s lots of good writing in the book, and many interesting digressions, although sometimes those digressions distract one from his overarching argument. But in the end I wasn’t satisfied. Even though evolution tells us why we make certain “choices,” they still are not choices in the classical free-will sense: situations in which we could have decided otherwise. Even if evolution tells us why we turn our heads when a baseball approaches, it is still a “decision” that must obey the laws of physics. It’s just that those laws of physics are worked out through fantastically complex and evolved collections of molecules called “organisms”. We turn our head because our evolved eyes perceive that something is approaching fast, and our evolved neurons, interacting with our evolved brain, make us swivel our skull to avoid collision. But it’s still all physics and molecules; in the end, we didn’t really choose to turn our head. It just looks (and feels) that way. Natural selection and evolution, of course, were themselves determined.
In the end, I saw the argument as a type of philosophical prestidigitation, in which our intuitive notion of free will had suddenly been replaced by something that, at first, sounded good, but ultimately didn’t comport with how we see “free” choice. I felt as though I’d been presented with a cake, only to find that it was hollow in the middle, like a hatbox covered with frosting. And the argument for moral responsibility seems contrived, as if innate responsibility were replaced by something else: a social contract. Now I freely admit that I’m not deeply trained in philosophy (viz., Massimo “The Decider” Pigliucci), so perhaps I’m missing some of Dennett’s subtler and more convincing points. In that case perhaps the readers will enlighten me.
I’m starting to realize that my quest for free will in philosophy may be futile, because I have a narrow notion of what I mean by the term. I see free will as the way most of us conceive of it: a situation in which one could have made more than one choice. If that’s how you see it, and you’re a determinist—which I think you pretty much have to be if you accept science—then you’re doomed. You’re left with the task of defining free will is some other way that comports with determinism.
But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise? It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents. If we didn’t, of course, society would break down, so we really need to find a philosophical justification for moral responsibility. But this is hardly scientific: we decide what conclusion we want to reach a priori, and then twist the facts, and our arguments, so they lead to that result. Ubi sunt the philosophers who follow the facts to their logical conclusion: we aren’t really responsible for anything we do?
Well, there may be such philosophers. I continue my readings with the very large Oxford Handbook of Free Will (hardly a “handbook” since it’s 550 pages long), which contains many short articles and a wide disparity of views. I’m hoping this will be fun!