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Freedom Evolves
by Daniel C. Dennett
Viking Press, February 10, 2003
368 pages, hardcover
Review by Jim Walker

Robert Wright interviews Daniel C. Dennett [Video] (1 hour, 10 minutes. long)

Whenever people discus the concept of freedom, inevitably you will get an argument about freewill or the lack of it. So to clear the philosophical air, Dennett has to first dispel myths associated with determinism and freewill. Can one live freely and possess free will in a deterministic world? Dennett says yes and makes a strong argument for his case. In fact freedom and determinism live compatibly with each other because to make workable choices one must have reliable and predictable (determined) choices to choose from! If determinism holds true, then you have less randomness, less unpredictability. In a totally random universe, you can't have freedom because you can never know or predict the future in a reliable way. Now of course our universe contains both deterministic elements and random elements, and no doubt you need both for an evolutionary system to work, but the point aims to show that determinism does not mean inevitable, or fate. Fatalism claims that something will happen no matter what you do (a godly plan, many times, plays this role). Determinism depends on what you do. A bullet traveling along a trajectory may very well hit its target if you do nothing about it (a deterministic example) but if you deflect its path you can change its deterministic path into another deterministic path. Get it? Even in total random systems (quantum particles, for example,) we can observe normal distribution curves (Bell curves) and make some useful predictions. Don't Bell curves fall under the category of determinism? Don't determined events sometimes emerge from random systems (standing waves, for example, such as the red spot in the random weather system of Jupiter)?

Dennett provides us with a few tools for thinking about determinism such as the computer simulation of Conway's game of "Life," Laplace's demon, and Luis Borges's Library of Babel. If after all this you don't feel convinced, then you probably fall into the tautology trap. Yes you can always claim that everything, including choice, randomness, and determinism fall into to some unseen or godly inevitable fate, but what then can the term freedom or fate possibly mean? It becomes just as tautological, meaningless and useless as claiming your life consists of a hallucination in someone's dream.

Dennett also dispels the myth that free will depends on something random occurring in our brains, such as quantum particles influencing brain patterns. He uses many paragraphs to dispel the quantum indeterminacy myths in Robert Kane's 1996 book, The Significance of Free Will. (The argument also works against Roger Penrose's, The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics.) In short, Dennett shows that one cannot find a defensible location for indeterminism within the decision-making process of a responsible agent.

After using over half the book explaining away the philosophical problems and superstitious myths of freewill, Dennett can then progress to how evolution generates freedom.

Some critics have attempted to label Dennett a "Darwinian fundamentalist" but if you consider all information systems (language, art, music, culture, the DNA code, memes, etc.) can you think of a single one of them that haven't evolved? Even creationists admit that even biological life undergoes microevolution (but not understanding that microevolution leads to speciation). The same goes with freedom because free choice involves information, and don't most humans have more choice today than they did just a thousand years ago? Dennett simply sees all forms of evolution as a set within the Darwinian whole, allowing that evolutionary systems differ only in the mechanism used to carry its information. We can use Darwin's examples in genes, memes, culture and technology, even if the speed of evolution or horizontal transmission differs between them.

Dennett presents a brief view of the evolutionary paths of freedom beginning with the eukaryotic revolution, mitochondria, the first simple cells, (that had very little freedom) which begat complex cells, which begat multicellular organisms which had some freedom, but not much. And finally to the explosion of memes which led to the first human cultures (or does culture come first?), which leads to "democratic" political systems and our way of living a relatively free life. Because we have the ability to recognize the difference between appearance and reality, we have the knowledge of identifying and avoiding the pitfall on the paths projected by our foresightless genes.

But how far does freedom go? Unfortunately Dennett doesn't present us with the possible downsides. If you stop here, you might get the impression that because freedom has evolved, then it will continue to evolve for us humans. But will it? I think even Dennett realizes that evolution does not have a point of view or a predicable path. What prevents the future of freedom to digress or disappear entirely? What if a future path to non-freedom allows the only choice for survival? Yes we humans have the ability to change paths, if we have a path to choose from or if we have knowledge of what path to choose. But what if there occur memetic forces that control us more than we control them? Most people have heard about the fear of robots getting so advanced that they might take control over us, but what if we have no awareness of their control over us? Do corporations, governments, and religions count as memetic robots? Can they, as unconscious entities, collect knowledge beyond our capacity to understand them? Can they use their knowledge to control us in ways that we can't possibly have awareness of while at the same time convincing us that we have control? Perhaps we can see hints of this in our own culture.

Note that corporations exist as memetic systems that even have physical bodies (buildings, products, and humans to act as their thinking cells). To survive they will, if necessary, fire employees (including CEOs) and replace them with more productive workers. And corporations can live well beyond the life spans of their workers. Ad agencies have made it a science to learn how to manipulate humans to purchase products. Religions have learned how to propagandize minds to believe in superstitious myths. Governments now employ corporations, ad agencies, the press, and religions to control the population to their will. Yes you can always find individuals who will rebel and take an independent path. But what if the tide becomes so intense that the government and its majority patriot citizens consider you a traitor, an enemy, or an evil being (like an immune system rejecting a foreign bacteria)? You might make the claim that this won't happen because people want freedom and any government or corporation that tries to take it away will get met with a majority of protesters. Dennett makes a revealing statement: "If you surreptitiously insert grounds for false belief into my stream of consciousness, you can make me think I am making 'free' decisions when it is you who controls my actions." But what if a government or corporation do the inserting of false beliefs?

And what counts as freedom? Haven't you ever met an ignorant person who believes so strongly in his freedom that he thinks he lives in the freest country in the world? Some people have all the freedom they can possibly think of. They raise families, go to church every Sunday, attend NASCAR races, watch TV (believing most of what the media gives them), drive their humongous SUVs, wave their country's flag, and they work eight hours a day in a productive corporation and they make a "lot" of money. What more could they possibly want? They don't see government sponsored religion as a violation of Church and state (many of them don't even believe it ever existed). They believe that the president of the country makes moral and righteous decisions regardless of how many innocent people in other countries die a cruel death or live in poverty. Yes they have some freedom, but not as much as they could have if they knew the possibilities. Can the gov-corp-media-religion system provide just enough freedom to make their citizens believe they have the most freedom in the world while it controls their reproductive systems, the drugs they can have, the foods they can ingest, fights illegal wars, create poverty in other countries, and keeps its dissidents in jails while at the same time grant all of this to the will of a Bronze Age created God? If you look around, this already occurs to some degree in at least one modern society. Will the human race eventually become like mitochodria to a cell in some future multicorporate entity where everyone feels happy (like those Soma drugged citizens in Huxley's Brave New World)? Knowledge begats power and what kind of entity has more knowledge of its products than a corporation (even if unconscious)? Boeing, as a corporate system, has the knowledge of how to build a passenger jet, but not a single person could possibly have all the knowledge of how to design or build one. Can a multi-corporate system gain knowledge (unconscious or not) about humans to the point of controlling them while its members have no knowledge or even the capacity to know about being controlled? Also consider the technological advances that will no doubt occur that will allow corporations even more freedom while humans haven't the capacity to understand that technology. Even if freedom does eventually continue to evolve, what prevents some multimedium system from taking the baton of freedom while using humans as one of its building blocks as a means to getting it?

A few quotes from the book:

What you are is an assemblage of roughly a hundred trillion cells, of thousands of different sorts. The bulk of these cells are "daughters" of the egg cell and sperm cell whose union started you, but they are actually outnumbered by the trillions of bacterial hitchhikers from thousands of different lineages stowed away in your body.

Why is Dumbo [the Walt Disney's character] better off without his myth of magic? Because he is less dependent, more enabled, more autonomous in the undeluded state.

When we invert the top-down perspective of tradition and look at creation from the bottom up, we see intelligence arising from "intelligence," sight being created by a "blind watchmaker," choice emerging from "choice," deliberate voting from mindless "voting," and so on.

Computer simulations of evolution abound, and show us the power of natural selection to create strikingly effective novelties in remarkably short periods of time in one virtual world or another...

I suspect that we find it natural to keep track of the complexities of atoms and the stranger denizens of the world of subatomic physics by treating them rather like tiny agents because our brains are designed to treat everything we encounter as an agent if possible-- just in case it rally is one. In the early days of human culture, the childhood of civilization, you might say, we found it useful to overuse this animism, treating all of nature as made of gods and fairies, malevolent and benevolent sprites, imps, and goblins in charge of all the natural processes we observed.

The real outcome, the actual outcome, is whatever happens, and nothing can change that in a determined world-- or in an undetermined world!

I will argue that determinism is entirely compatible with the assumptions that govern our thinking about what is possible. The apparent incompatibility is a cognitive illusion, plain and simple.

It is a confusion between having a fixed nature and having a fixed future that mismotivates the anguish over determinism.

Simple cells eventually begat complex cells, which eventually begat multicellular organisms, which then begat the complex macroscopic world we live and act in.

The prokaryote hosts who were first "infected" by their symbiotic visitors got a huge gift of competence designed elsewhere.

Mitochondria, the tiny organelles that transform energy in each of our cells, are the descendants of such symbiont invaders, and have their own genomes, their own DNA. Your mitochondrial DNA, which you get only from your mother, exists in each of your cells, alongside your nuclear DNA-- your genome.

Each of us is the beneficiary of the design work done by countless others who are not our ancestors.

The cells that compose multicellular me all share an ancestry: they are a single lineage, the daughter cells, and granddaughter cells of the egg and sperm that united to form my zygote. They are host cells. The other cells, the symbionts, are the same sort of things-- they are themselves eukaryotes and prokaryotes-- but they count as outsiders because they have descended form different lineages.

Opportunities, discernment and ignorance, seeking out the best moves against the competition, avoidance and retaliation, choice and risk. The moves and countermoves in evolutionary R&D have rationales even if nothing and no one explicitly considered them. These are what I call free-floating rationales, and they preceded our articulated, considered rationales by billions of years.

What is inevitable doesn't depend on whether or not determinism reigns, but on whether or not there are steps we can take, based on information we can get in time to take those steps, to avoid the foreseen harm.

The recognition of the difference between appearance and reality is a human discovery.

It is only we human beings who have the long-range knowledge capable of identifying and then avoiding the pitfalls on the paths projected by our foresightless genes. Shared knowledge is the key to our greater freedom from "genetic determinism."

My favorite bad objection is the claim that cultural evolution is "Lamarckian," so it can't be Darwinian," a mantra with several ill-considered variants, none of which hold water.

There may, of course, actually be such things as genes for religion. For instance, heightened "religiosity" is a defining symptom of certain forms of epilepsy, and it is known that there are genetic predispositions for epilepsy.

If you are one of those who think that free will is only really free will if it springs from an immaterial soul that hovers happily in your brain, shooting arrows of decision into your motor cortex, then given what you mean by free will, my view is that there is no free will at all. If, on the other hand, you think free will might be morally important without being supernatural, then my view is that free will is indeed real, but jut not quite what you probably thought it was.

Wegner eventually softens the blow by arguing that conscious will may be an illusion, but responsible, moral action is quite real. And that is the bottom line for both of us.

Our free will, like all our other mental powers, has to be smeared out over time, not measured at instants.

Your are not out of the loop; you are the loop. You are not an extensionless point... Once you can see yourself from that perspective, you can dismiss the heretofore compelling concept of a mental activity that is unconsciously begun and then only later "enters consciousness" (where you are eagerly waiting to get access to it). This is an illusion since many of the reactions you have to that mental activity are initiated at the earlier time-- your "hands" reach that far, in time and space.

Both unconscious and methodical selection are just special cases of the more inclusive process, natural selection, in which the role of human intelligence and choice can stand at zero.

Memetic engineering is the very recent sophistication in the history of evolution on this planet, but it is still several millennia older than genetic engineering; among its first well-known products are Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics.

The real threats to freedom are not metaphysical but political and social. As we learn more about the conditions of human decision-making, we will have to devise, and agree upon, systems of government and law that are not hostage to false myths about human nature, that are robust in the face of further scientific discovery and technological advances.

Institutions and practices based on obvious falsehoods are too brittle to trust. Few people will be willing to wager their futures on a fragile myth that they themselves can see cracks in.

The fact that free will is worth wanting can be used to anchor our conception of free will in a way metaphysical myths fail to do.

The freedom of thought and action that is necessary for discovering truth is a precursor... to the more expansive ideal of political or civil freedom, a meme that spreads easily, apparently. It is much more infectious than fanaticism, thank goodness.

My aim in this book has been to demonstrate that if we accept Darwin's "strange inversion of reasoning" we can build all the way up to the best and deepest human thought on questions of morality and meaning, ethics and freedom.


Chapter 1
Learning What We Are
I Am Who I Am
The Air We Breathe
Dumbo's Magic Feather and the Peril of Paulina
Chapter 2
Some Useful Oversimplifications
From Physics to Design in Conway's Life World
Can We Get the Deus ex Machina?
From Slow-motion Avoidance to Star Wars
The Birth of Evitability
Chapter 3
Possible Worlds
Austin's Putt
A Computer Chess Marathon
Events without Causes in a Deterministic Universe
Will the Future Be Like the Past?
Chapter 4
The Appeal of Libertarianism
Where Should We Put the Much-needed Gap?
Kane's Model of Indeterministic Decision-making
"If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything"
Beware of Prime Mammals
How Can It Be "Up to Me?"
Chapter 5
Early Days
The Prisoner's Dilemma
E Pluribus Unum?
Digression: The Threat of Genetic Determinism
Chapter 6
How Cultural Symbionts Turn Primates into Persons
The Diversity of Darwinian Explanations
Nice Tools, but You Still Have to Use Them
Chapter 7
Being Good in Order to Seem Good
Learning to Deal with Yourself
Our Costly Merit Badges
Chapter 8
Drawing the Wrong Moral
Whenever the Spirit Moves You
A Mind-writer's View
A Self of One's Own
Chapter 9
How we Captured Reasons and Made Them Our Own
Psychic Engineering and the Arms Race of Rationality
With a Little Help from My Friends
Autonomy, Brainwashing and Education
Chapter 10
Holding the Line against Creeping Exculpation
"Thanks, I Needed That!"
Are We Freer Than We Want to Be?
Human Freedom Is Fragile

To obtain this book, click below:

Freedom Evolves

Other books by Daniel C. Dennett:

Brainchildren (1996)

Kinds of Minds (1996)

Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995)

Consciousness Explained (1991)

The Intentional Stance (1987)

Elbow Room (1984)

The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter (1981)

Brainstorms (1978)

Content and Consciousness (1969)

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