Neil's Reviews > Freedom Evolves

Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett
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Jul 08, 10

Read in July, 2010

I tend to defer to authors when reading a book by someone, you know, smarter than me, but I'm fairly certain that this is one of the worst books I've ever read. If you read and liked this book, email me or message me on this website or something. I never bother to write reviews, but I've trudged through this book for a month now, and I hated it, so I feel compelled to write my feelings somewhere, and I'd love to hear from someone who tells me I misunderstood.

Here's the book's central concern, and it's one of those things that I used to think about and worry about and then just stopped caring about because it's an insoluble waste of time: we all make decisions, or whatever, but who is "we?" I am a product of genes and environment and I have nothing to do with those, and even those have nothing to do with themselves, and in fact the circumstances which allow a situation to happen are unbelievably complicated and may have nothing at all to do with "us." In fact maybe when you know like when whatever subatomic particles collided all the way back when, the future was already determined; they rebounded according to whatever path physical laws forced them to, and then we decided on chicken for dinner tonight. But we didn't decide. The decision was made the second the universe started. Our consciousness is an illusion.

I don't care to retype a lot of passages from Dennett's book, but here's what I think are a couple of key ones. From "Will the Future be like the Past?" in ch. 3 (p. 94 in my edition), in response to a straw-man critic insisting (as I assume many people will, since I did over and over again throughout the margins) that Dennett is not answering the question we picked up the books for:

"...Very well, if you insist. Maybe there is a sense of possible in which Austin could not possibly have made that very putt, if determinism is true. Now why on earth should we care about your question?"

Why wouldn't people care about this question? I mean, I long since threw up my hands because who cares, but -- after reading, in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, an account of Dennett's interesting "skyhook v. crane" argument re: something from nothing and the idea of God -- I thought this book could interestingly consider another spiraling, hope-nobody-mentions-it-when-you're-high-or-you're-all-going-to-freak-the-fuck-out philosophical riddle. The reason people wonder about all that is because people like to envision that we all know what good and bad is and that we make the choices ourselves, that we can blame Osama bin Laden for September 11 in a way we couldn't blame a comet falling through both towers. Your insistence that you could answer is why I, and presumably anyone, picked up this book.

Here is a piece of his conclusion (from "'Thanks, I needed that'" in the last chapter, on p. 302 in my edition):

"Yes, luck figures heavily in our lives, all the time, but since we know this, we take the precautions we deem appropriate to minimize the untoward effects of luck, and then take responsibility for whatever happens... [guy who did something bad:] can...face the much more demanding task of constructing a future self that has this terrible act of omission in its biography... This is indeed an opportunity for a Self-Forming Action of the sort Kane draws to our attention, and we human beings are the only species that is capable of making them, but there is no need for them to be undetermined."

Why, Dennett, is this a self-forming action? If someone wants to pick themselves up by the bootstraps, whence that? Was it not in their genes, maybe roused in them by inspiring speeches from their father or encouraging notes from a teacher? Would they not likely have turned out differently if they'd been starved in a basement and beaten all their lives?

I just don't get it. So many things he wrote seemed so obtuse that I wondered if I was simply stupid to not understand them. The whole "Life World" thing? I mean, just because it appears to us, in taking a large-scale view, that things are happening differently on this large scale, does not mean that it isn't simply happening according to the laws we impose, in the same way that us feeling consciousness does not mean we are somehow disobeying the law of physics.

And then there's the whole quantum indeterminacy thing. I can't say anything about this, but neither, it seems to me, does Dennett. Dennett doesn't ally with the libertarians who just use this as a way to say "see we're totally free because scientists can't pinpoint electrons" but it still hangs there as his only possible exception to physical laws governing the universe.

I guess I could go on, but it'd just be a random jumble of thoughts on the various claims he makes throughout the book. Perhaps you can claim that my random jumble shows I didn't understand the book, but I'd say my thoughts are like that because the book's in such disarray.

Seriously, if anyone out there really liked this book or wishes to tell me how I'm wrong, I'd be eager to hear from you.

(I gave the book two stars because Dennett is obviously deeply intelligent and widely-read and thoughtful and it's not a useless read like an awful novel; though I disliked like the book itself, I don't think it was a complete waste of time, per se.)
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Craig A Hi Neil, sorry I'm so late to your request. You are right, I tend to think, that Dan avoids the question, or at least a direct answer to it. But then, how would you fill a whole book with; "Sure it's all determined. That or random - perhaps a bit of both, but even pure randomness, in whatever measure, won't get you what you're wanting either."

Compatibilists at least try to give you something, even if it ain't quite what you're wanting. They couldn't besides! As Dan asks in the book; "free from what exactly?" Don't be so hard on the man - he is a brilliant thinker and communicator.


Neil Hey, thanks for responding! (And for being so civil, too, in an Internet comment.)

As for how one would fill a whole book with things about determinism, I haven't a clue; but if thats the truth and it takes one sentence, then, alas, book sales/publishing industry be damned. It's true he doesn't give me what I want, but I'm left to scratch my head about how he thinks any judgment -- moral, etc -- means anything. What I want to be free from, in whatever nebulous way, is deterministic physical laws that mean I am nothing but atoms. He only convinced me that I am nothing at all, and then he leaves to again disdain religious folk when his beliefs, too, are simply taken on religious faith.

That last sentence has a lot of philosophical stuff behind it I can't speak to philosophically, only common sensically. But if you're reading books like this you're probably better informed than me. Let me know your response!

Ps the better the thinker the harder on him we should be, I say!


Liam "I just don't get it. So many things he wrote seemed so obtuse that I wondered if I was simply stupid to not understand them. The whole "Life World" thing? I mean, just because it appears to us, in taking a large-scale view, that things are happening differently on this large scale, does not mean that it isn't simply happening according to the laws we impose, in the same way that us feeling consciousness does not mean we are somehow disobeying the law of physics. "

I read the chapter in question this afternoon but still I have trouble with your account of it (I thought that it was a little hard to accept you accusing Dennett of being obtuse when he is an exceptionally engaging popularizer). "Differently" - differently to what? Well in Dennett's view the "difference" is a matter of scale, and neither the human or the atomic scale contradict one another...

Re: the "Life" game - At one level there are the pixels switching OFF or ON according to the rules of "Life"'s physics, but at the level of perception there are 2d patterns, and interactions between entities with properties. Dennett uses "Life" as an analogy for how, in the universe, chaotic yet rule-governed shufflings of atoms under the laws of physics can give rise to systems that operate within it, playing by their "own rules." It is a reiteration of his analogy of complex range of available software, all build upon the simple Von Neumann design.

You say "simply happening according to the laws we impose," so I think you may not have much luck with Dennett. Dennett doesn't think that we "impose" much on the world - rather our minds are computer-like machines which receive PHYSICAL neural information from PHYSICAL energy (sound, light, vibration, smell). If you can bear to sit through another Dennett book, read Consciousness Explained and you will have a better idea of where Freedom Evolves is coming from. Put simply, Dennett thinks that most philosophy on consciousness mistakenly grants the realm of thought a level of reality of its own. But I'll stop wittering on now. I encourage you to read it, as it's one of the books that changed my thinking about the subject of the mind quite profoundly! :)


Neil Liam you son of a bitch! Thanks for responding! This has proven to be by far my most enduring and popular review; two people have commented on it.

I'll read that chapter again if you'll respond to my response, but I'll say what I can say now because almost certainly it will be what I'll say later. Preface: I think plenty of popularizers can be obtuse, right? Even the most engaging ones! Maybe especially the most engaging ones, by necessity! If you're a fan of Daniel Dennett, there must be plenty of engaging popularizers -- Stephen Jay Gould, Malcolm Gladwell, Sam Harris maybe, even Hitchens at times when he wrote about Iraq -- you find obtuse. Maybe not though; I'm only speculating, here. (In fact, I'm not speculating; I'm totally baselessly assuming you have the exact same views as me.)

But otherwise: when I say "laws we impose," I meant on the "Life World" -- capital L/W -- where, undoubtedly (I think?), we impose the rules. I'm not saying large scale patterns don't emerge, non-contradictory with the initial micro-rules; sure they do, just like in real life! But what I'm talking about are moral judgments; this is what drives me to read books like this, you know? I'm not looking for some assurance of conservation of energy or anything.

So, like, what I want is, I want to hate Osama bin Laden. So here's the necessary criteria for hatred, I'd guess: it is necessary that we all have a moral sense -- the SAME moral sense -- and a person like Osama bin Laden chose to betray it, and that's evil. And that moral sense is analogous to the patterns that emerge in the capital LG Life Game.

But, what if Osama bin Laden had an aberrant moral sense, still emerging according to the physical laws, right? Like, as an analogy: what if, according to the large scale patterns whoever made up the Life Game noted, what if something happened that didn't fit that pattern? Could we say that that event was "wrong" to happen? No -- it happened according to the "rules." And according to the "rules" of lower case l life, physical laws and nothing else lead to this formation of a moral sense in bin Laden's frontal cortex (or wherever the heck). So, how can I blame Osama bin Laden for this? He's responding to his cerebral imperatives as I am, but, for whatever reason, mine more closely resemble the emergent patterns of the other life forms I interact with.

But, you know, I want that to MATTER. I want it to be WRONG. But I can't see how, in Dennett's life philosophy, it can be anything other than an unfortunate circumstance. And not even "objectively" unfortunate, just unfortunate in my eyes.

If you vow to me, though, that Consciousness Explained will assuage these existential anxieties, then, alas, I will be forced to read it.


Liam Hm... Of course these are questions worth asking, but unfortunately Dennett doesn't discuss morality at all in Consciousness Explained. He talks about perception, but not "emotion" and "morality", although this is probably because there is so little empirical evidence for what those words mean.

In Consciousness Explained, Dennett says that the more we learn about our senses through science, the less common sense definitions hold their meaning. So for example, part of the common sense notion "taste" actually involves the olfactory nerve, and part of the common sense notion "hearing" actually involves our sense of touch. So Dennnett leaves morality as a black box, because it probably does no good to talk about them as if they exist - they will probably have to be broken down as concepts if we ever learn more about them.

Regarding the idea of "imposition", Dennett does not believe we are imposing our ideas even in the Life world. People who are experts at manipulating the physics of that game deliberately choose to combine distinct "entities" (called "eaters", "flyers" etc.) to see what the effects of their interaction is. If you have no problem with the analogy between pixels and atoms, then the problem of "imposition" melts away, even in the real world: if you recognize patterns of atoms called "dogs" and recognize them well enough to know that they can breed, you will deliberately cause a new bundle of atoms, the offspring of those dogs. You don't know everything about how a dog works, but you are not mistaken in your ability MANIPULATE the "patterns" of atoms, even if you can do nothing to affect how those atoms behave.

This is not to say that our perceptions are faultless - Dennett discusses many exciting optical illusions in Consciousness Explained - but he uses cognitive science as a bludgeon against hard-edged Idealism. For Dennett, the ideas we "impose" on reality are either successful or unsuccessful, and evidence-based hypothesizing is the way that we check our success. I sympathise with this view, as it seems bizarre to me that we are necessarily DOOMED to be eternally incorrect by the handicap of our particularly-wired brains. This common philosophical viewpoint seems to once again put humans at the centre of the universe, being laughed at by Descarte's deceiving demon.

That said, I believe that this book (Freedom Evolves) does address your worries about whether Bin Laden is "determined" to be evil, therefore without blame. I'm still reading it, but in essence I think that Dennett sees free will as like a coin toss - even if a coin is determined to be heads or tails, for all human purposes it is a precisely random process. If the coin was tossed again with EVERY ATOM in the same place and THE EXACT MOTION OF ATOMS again enacted, then the same result would entail... but here it gets ridiculous. If we live in a deterministic universe, then that is a property as INEVITABLE as gravity is. It would be a physical property of the universe; like 3-dimensionality, the space-time continuum, laws of thermodynamics etc. But to say that your ACTIONS are INEVITABLE is not the necessary conclusion. Inevitable to whom? Not inevitable to you, or to others. Humans can plan and do things, but atoms cannot. These are two worlds that are actually part of one and the same, and different rules emerge out of the smaller, because patterns create systems - like how ecologies grow out of an environment. I'm not well read in philosophy generally, so take this summary for what it's worth.


Liam re "obtuse," I should have called him a "thoughtful popularizer": he anticipates objections and gives them a fair voice, even at the cost of including chapter-long digressions into technical discussions that won't interest everyone.


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