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Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting

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Anyone who has wondered if free will is just an illusion or has asked 'could I have chosen otherwise?' after performing some rash deed will find this book an absorbing discussion of an endlessly fascinating subject. Daniel Dennett, whose previous books include "Brainstorms "and (with Douglas Hofstadter) "The Mind's I, " tackles the free will problem in a highly original and witty manner, drawing on the theories and concepts of several fields usually ignored by philosophers; not just physics and evolutionary biology, but engineering, automata theory, and artificial intelligence.

In "Elbow Room," Dennett shows how the classical formulations of the problem in philosophy depend on misuses of imagination, and he disentangles the philosophical problems of real interest from the "family of anxieties' they get enmeshed in - imaginary agents, bogeymen, and dire prospects that seem to threaten our freedom. Putting sociobiology in its rightful place, he concludes that we can have free will and science too. "Elbow Room" begins by showing how we can be "moved by reasons" without being exempt from physical causation. It goes on to analyze concepts of control and self-control-concepts often skimped by philosophers but which are central to the questions of free will and determinism. A chapter on "self-made selves" discusses the idea of self or agent to see how it can be kept from disappearing under the onslaught of science. Dennett then sees what can be made of the notion of acting under the idea of freedomdoes the elbow room we think we have really exist? What is an opportunity, and how can anything in our futures be "up to us"? He investigates the meaning of "can" and "could have done otherwise," and asks why we want free will in the first place.We are wise, Dennett notes, to want free will, but that in itself raises a host of questions about responsibility. In a final chapter, he takes up the problem of how anyone can ever be guilty, and what the rationale is for holding people responsible and even, on occasion, punishing them.

"Elbow Room "is an expanded version of the John Locke Lectures which Dennett gave at Oxford University in 1983.

212 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1984

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About the author

Daniel C. Dennett

65 books2,623 followers
Daniel Clement Dennett III is a prominent philosopher whose research centers on philosophy of mind, science, and biology, particularly as they relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Dennett is a noted atheist, avid sailor, and advocate of the Brights movement.

Dennett received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963, where he was a student of W.V.O. Quine. In 1965, he received his D.Phil. from Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied under the ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

Dennett gave the John Locke lectures at the University of Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. In 2001 he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize, giving the Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. He was the co-founder (1985) and co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts University, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 54 reviews
Profile Image for Kevin.
463 reviews68 followers
July 31, 2021
Brain yoga.

Keeping up with Daniel Dennett's train of thought is a bit like herding cats. Just when you think you've got a handle on one postulate, he launches another, often in a totally opposite direction. Even with his exquisite analogies [see: frog in a beer mug] I couldn't always wrap my brain around his concepts on the first pass. There were many paragraphs, and at least one entire chapter, that I had to read twice.

That's not to say this book isn't fantastic (it is!). Dennett tackles the question of free will with surgical precision. He examines arguments, both pro and con, with such absence of malice that I really wasn't sure until the last few pages exactly what side of the debate he was on.

Not to be overtly deterministic, but I knew I was going to enjoy this book before I read it. After all, it's Daniel f-ing Dennett! My only criticism, and it's a small one, is the title. 'Elbow Room' doesn't exactly jump out at you and scream "buy me!" or "read me!" ...and yet I did and I did.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
Author 5 books199 followers
May 4, 2011
Determinism does not mean that our fate was determined before we were born. But much of what happens to us in a lifetime is certainly influenced by that. Determinism is not fatalism. For someone to say, "It does not matter what I do, whatever is meant to happen will happen," is quite absurd. And yet to say we have free will and that I can do whatever I want to do, is also absurd.

For me understanding determinism, I think of this instant of my life on a straight line. The straight line is my past. It cannot be changed, as much as I would give anything to change some things. I ache to change them. But they are frozen in time. It is the next instant in my life line that is determined by all that went before. Those instants pile up.

Soren Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." I learn from my past and behave based on that learning. I am affected by environment, heredity, and chance.

I "feel" like I have free will, just like everyone else. In fact, I understand that I am wrong, that in reality I have no free will. But I cannot shake that "feeling" that I am a free person.
Profile Image for Keith Swenson.
Author 15 books49 followers
December 10, 2018
I am a big fan of Dan Dennett. Free will is a very difficult topic to explain and this is a very careful, thoughtful treatment of the subject. I started to write a detailed summary of the book, but decided cut to the basics: This was an early book of his on the topic of consciousness and free will, and his later books are much better. You can see in this book the seeds of ideas that he will later present in "Consciousness Explained." Most everything in this book is explained better in that one.

The age old question of free will. Dennett approach the problem as a sculptor would a piece of granite. He wants to work all our the edges, get a very rough idea, before adding detail and ultimately polishing the theory.

He start with an entire chapter on why we don't want to think about free will. It seems clear that the idea of free will is a very dear to us. We simply can't be disinterested, there is some nagging feeling that makes us want to avoid the subject like a really bad smell. He outlines a set of bugbears:

(1) Invisible Jailer: If we have not free will, then we might be in jail
(2) Nefarious Neurosurgeon: or someone might be able to control us
(3) Cosmic Child Toys: or we might be toys to gods
(4) Malevolent Mindreader: or we might be predicable and therefor unable to win
(5) Sphexishness: we might be just acting according to program
(6) Disappear self: if we look to hard we might find there is no one home
(7) Dread Secret: finding out the truth might ruin your life

The "problem" with free will, is all of the fears embodied above.

There is an interesting part about body english -- those movements that you do that can't possibly have effect, but you do them anyway, as if superstitiously. Launching the bowling ball and then dancing or wheeling as if to control the ball down the alley. However there is an alternative: don't loop up too soon after hitting a golf ball. The practive of keeping your head down AFTER hitting the ball still can have an effect how you behave before hitting it. Which is it: pointless or important?

He lists a number of intuition pumps:

(1) Plato's cave
(2) Quine's Gavagai
(3) Goodman's grue-bleen puzzle
(4) Rawl's original position
(5) Farrell's bat
(6) Putnam's twin earth
(7) Searle's chinese room

What we are left with is the "Compatiblist" view of free will, which always feels like merely shifting the definition of the terms. The compatiblist believe that we make all the choices that we want to make, and that those choices are determined by our history. You might say: your actions are determined by your needs and desires, but your needs and desires are determined by your experience, and therefor your actions are determined. But STILL you exercise free will because that IS your free will to follow your needs and desires.

This argument leaves most traditionalists unsatisfied. "I don't FEEL like my actions are determined. I can decide what I want to do any moment." Of course you can, but you always decide what you think is the best or most appropriate thing to do, which at the end of the day is determined for you.

The most important part of this discussion is really exposing the "libertarian free will" as unrealistic illusive fantasy. You would never want to live a life where you could arbitrarily make any choice at any moment without regard to your needs and desires. You really don't want to ride in a taxi where the driver had the free will to just drive off a cliff or into a wall at any moment. We would never want the kind of free will that allow you to suddenly decide to put arsenic into the dinner you are making, or to arbitrarily decide to throw your child from a building. we most certainly do not want to make completely arbitrary and capricious actions.

It turns out that free will means simply that your actions are guided by YOUR needs and desires, and they are NOT guided by someone else's desired. Free will is denied when you are locked up and prevented from some external reason to do what you desire. What we really mean by free will is not that we can take any ARBITRARY action at any moment, but that we are not FORCED to take an action different than what we want. It really has nothing to do with determinism.

Thus, having your own actions determined by your own needs and desires is actually the kind of free will that you want. That is the point of this book. I assure you, if you are not already acquainted with these ideas, you will on first reading reject them. As most people will reject the superficial description of the book. But further study is warranted, and Dennett has adequately organized this concept. However, as I said earlier, I would recommend his later, larger book: Consciousness Explained as it covers many of these same topics.

Profile Image for Mattia.
10 reviews3 followers
December 3, 2020
"There's no sense wringing our hands because we can't undo the past, and can't prevent an event that actually happens, and can't create ourselves ex nihilo, and can't choose both alternatives at a decision point, and can't be perfect."
Profile Image for Chris.
20 reviews1 follower
Currently reading
January 4, 2008
Read it in college. Reading it again. He has a terrific beard.
Profile Image for Rob, the Monk.
21 reviews4 followers
June 8, 2008
Interesting read, but difficult: Dennett writes for the student of Philosophy. Eminently accessible to a person willing to commit, but, as all philosophical writing, commitment it requires. He explores Free Will in terms of Determinism, that is, the proposal that Free Will as we think of it, is an illusion and that human beings as rational agents are as subject to causation as dominoes. It's an extremely uncomfortable idea for many people, and Dennett doesn't spend a great deal of time acclimating one. Best to get comfortable with the idea before Dennett sweeps you up in all the subsequent implications.
Profile Image for Mike.
187 reviews16 followers
May 6, 2014
This is an excellent little series of essays on free will which only occasionally gets bogged down in "philosophese". Dennett very deftly takes on the fears based on the sneaking suspicion that we don't actually have "free will" by first asserting that we should buck up and not scare ourselves too much with deterministic bugbears. Then he makes the case that determinism could very much feel similar to free will. Then he points out that when many people talk about having even "free-er" will than we already seemingly have, they are talking about the ability to make contradictory choices or disobey other physical laws. He also considers the asymptotic case of using free will to make the best possible choices based on the most (and most relevant) information, and points out that we - tragically - don't have time for all of that nonsense in making our day to day choices.

In the end, his conclusion seems to be that of course we have free will, in that we seem to have free will in all of the ways that matter, and even if we don't we wouldn't know it, so quit worrying about it. A thoroughly humanistic and useful conclusion, and an enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Gendou.
574 reviews255 followers
May 17, 2016
This is Dennett's earlier attempt to clarify philosophical thinking on the topic of free will. His thinking has evolved since it was written, and the newest edition has some qualifiers in the preface. But it remains a masterpiece complete with many important thought experiments which help demystify this question that has plagued philosophers of the past for a long time.

He takes a so-called "compatibilist" approach in this books, that free will and determinism are compatible ideas. He defines free will by showing what it would mean for free will, as we know it, to be taken away. In the end free will isn't some fundamental magical stuff that we have happen to uniquely posses, but a sort of meta-phenomenon that, like the intentional stance, is a useful description of part of the human experience.

This book is written in a fairly airy style, a little less down to Earth than his later writing.
78 reviews15 followers
August 5, 2020
I had to go and google "compatibilism" after finishing it lmao. sometimes an argument is too nuanced that you don't see the forest for the trees. It was an interesting dissection of the different false metaphors, "bug-bears", that philosophers use to make the notion of free will more scary/dramatic, but I feel like it could have had a bit more synthesis/construction rather than deconstruction. in general his view can be summarized by saying that free will is an emergent phenomenological aspect of how we experience the human condition and not an essential/structural property of our biology/metaphysics.
Profile Image for Dave Peticolas.
1,376 reviews38 followers
October 8, 2014

What does it mean to have free will? Is free will incompatible with determinism? With indeterminism? What does it mean to control oneself? What does it mean to make a choice? Why do we want free will at all and what do we want when we want it?

Dennett examines these perennial philosophical problems and disposes of many of the "bugbears" which plague the often fear-riddled investigations into these topics. Dennett also develops answers, or at least the start of some answers, that embrace the possibility of determinism and evolution. Good as usual.

11 reviews
January 14, 2021
A nice presentation of the contemporary compatibilist position on free will (ie even though determinism may be how our physical world works, that's no reason to think we don't have free will)
Profile Image for Nick de Vera.
152 reviews7 followers
October 20, 2022
clarifying, much food for thought, and oddly motivating, like self-help from an unusual angle
Profile Image for Kate.
1,175 reviews
April 13, 2016
On the pitfalls of premature verdicts of stupidity in the wasp, see Dawkins 1982, pp. 48-50.

True, much of these causes occur 'inside' us--is it better to be a hand puppet than a marionette?

Note that this "can" is Austin's frog at the bottom of the beer mug.

Now it is open for some genius of pessimism to discover for us some sort of contra-Darwinian patterns of motiveless malignancy which would permit us to reconceptualize our view of nature as a sort of Manichaean struggle between Mother Nature and the Evil One, but so far as I know, no such patterns have been seriously entertained.

"Les choses sont contre nous"--that is the aphoristic heart of Resistentialism.

An act in equilibrium withstands knowledge of its own causes.

See Dawkins 1976, pp. 82-83, on the conditions under which a poker face is an evolutionarily stable strategy.

They give you an answer every time you ask, and who cares if it's "right"?

Designing a wise and workable method of ignoring things has proven to be one of the deepest and most intractable problems in Artificial Intelligence.

Nobody can do. Things only happen.

"How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?"

The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.

"After the temptation has been yielded to, the desiring 'I' will come to an end, but the conscience-stricken 'I' may endure to the end of life."

"Some souls one will never discover, unless one invents them first."

What it means to say a dog can bark is that one may not rely on its silence. These same deliberators, to whom barks are so important, may not care much just how a dog barks when it does. So such deliberators will for these purposes partition dogs as systems with a two-state degree of freedom: the barker is either ON or OFF.

Which direction gravity works in is never up to me.

Sartre sees the importance of this, and with his customary cool understatement defines a free agent as "a being who can realize a nihilating rupture with the world and with himself."

There is a difference between being optimally designed and being infallible.
16 reviews5 followers
July 5, 2008
I take the debate about free will very seriously. It's one of the few areas where I think a common-sense understanding (that we all have it) is wrong, and a philosophical dissection of the concept will do a lot of good. Many books on the subject, though, are unbearably dry and bog down in technical discussions that eventually bore even tech-y philosophers like myself. This one doesn't. It reaches a conclusion that I am in total agreement with, and it does so without "cheating" by avoiding any of the complex issues along the way. At the same time, the book remains readable throughout, Dennett consistently favoring the use of examples and analogies that are as catchy and memorable as they are illuminating. I think it is no accident that Dennett is one of the most celebrated philosophers of our time, and this book makes clear why. An oldie (from the mid 80's), but a goodie.
Profile Image for John.
164 reviews3 followers
October 18, 2007
This book should be called Varieties of Determinism Worth Wanting, or Varieties of Determinism Worth Having the Illusion that We Want, But are Incapable of Because Everything is Pre-ordained, Anyway.

Whatever the title, this book doesn't describe any credable model of freedom.
Profile Image for Mari Stroud.
Author 4 books71 followers
July 16, 2011
Dennett spends half his time making the case for determinism, and the other half laying out the argument for why it's really not that scary. He uses very clear language to keep the book accessible even to people without backgrounds in philosophy, which is good. Philosophers are weird, y'all.
Profile Image for Sarah.
133 reviews15 followers
January 13, 2016
"The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either." pg. 87

Profile Image for Daniel Hageman.
318 reviews38 followers
January 24, 2019
Much more clear and focused than his later 'Freedom Evolves'. Probably recommend this to those new to the free will discussion who haven't yet familiarized themselves with compatibilism.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,821 reviews42 followers
September 2, 2021
It was really hard to rate this book. I have no use for most philosophy. I appreciate the premise but cannot abide so many self-important godless people hypothesizing themselves into oblivion. If that isn't enough, the rest of us are invited along with them. The book is really well written (other than some incorrectly conjugated verbs, but I'll blame the editor), and it is comprehensive in that it considers - or at least mentions - opposing points of view. The arguments are very thorough, if equally useless. The really compelling part to me was the clergy experiment mentioned in the epilogue. Wow! THAT was fascinating! The group is a bunch of anonymous clergy who struggle with their conscience about the vast dichotomy between their actual beliefs and what their liturgy says. This was really gripping information (though hardly astonishing), and I took time to reflect once again on the incredible conflict of interest that exists any time someone is "paid to preach the gospel". If that is your career, then it obviously behooves you to tell people what they want to hear, lest they quit your church and take financial support elsewhere. It is really sad to me that these people are living such a self-troubling double-standard, and see no way out. They report to a body who prescribes what is to be preached, and perhaps they believe the congregations are not ready for the truth or perhaps not be so amenable to a call to repentance. The only other interesting thing to me in the book was the debate of free will - whether or not it exists. Mostly this is a book full of philosophies of men. So interesting that people make a career out of studying such mind-numbing and useless conundrums. They're useful as an intellectual exercise, but I can't imagine spending a lifetime investing in or actually subscribing to such godless drivel.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Asad Zaman.
Author 3 books5 followers
April 27, 2021
The book came highly recommended, so I was deeply disappointed. The non-problem that Dennett wants to solve comes from 19th Century physics, which led to the belief that the world is deterministic. How can we reconcile this with our experienced perception of free will? While the whole book is meant to provide an answer to this question, I could not find them. To the best of my knowledge, after reading this book, I believe that Dennett has no answers.
First, note that 20th Century physics, based on quantum theory, is not deterministic. Even Newtonian mechanics leads to chaos theory, which allows the minutest perturbations to lead to greatest of changes - this creates elbow room for free will if you look at the equations carefully. But never mind. Let us give it all up: assume, contrary to fact, that the best theories of physics show us a deterministic world today. What makes you think that the laws of physics are etched in stone until eternity? Just a little while ago, there was excitement over a fundamental discovery of new particles, new principles of physics. The search for a unified theory is still on. As Karl Popper noted, and no one has refuted, law of science can never be proven, they can only be disproven. Why should we believe in a deterministic universe?
NEXT, consider what this determinism has to trump. Every moment of my life, I am making decisions, big and small. Whether I should go out for dinner, or just order in? We all feel, intuitively, that the decisions we make matter, and determine our future. Dennet wants us to believe that ALL of mankind is deluded, and only he, and a handful of philosophers, have exclusive grasp of a terrible truth - we are, none of us, free to choose. He is free to believe that, but you and I are also free not to.
300 reviews22 followers
October 10, 2020
Reading this, I was struck by how similar Dennett’s so-called compatiblist position is to the so-called incompatibilist positions of Sam Harris and Galen Strawson (the other authors I’ve read on free will recently). The best I can tell, though they put it differently, they all agree that it doesn’t make sense to punish people who have done wrong merely for the sake of punishing them, but it does often make sense to punish people for the sake of deterring them or similar people from continuing to do wrong. The main disagreement seems to be whether the decision making capability humans inarguably do have should be called free will or not!

I found the style of the book somewhat annoying. Dennett spends a lot of time attacking what he calls “bugbears” - analogies for lack of free will that are designed to present it as concerning. These analogies include things like being a puppet controlled by a puppeteer, or being locked in a room while incorrectly thinking you are free to leave at any time. In each case, he points out dissimilarities between the analogy and our actual situation and argues that the dissimilarities, and not the similarities, are what cause us concerns in the case of the bugbears. I did find it helpful to think through these analogies and how they are similar to and different from reality. The overall tone, though, seemed condescending and a bit strawman-ish.
Profile Image for Josh Maddox.
100 reviews3 followers
June 15, 2022
I did it! I finished the Dan Dennett book!

Elbow Room is a strong argument for compatibalism. Dennett argues that yes, we mostly live in a deterministic universe (quantum indeterminism isn’t that important for the purpose of agency), but we still have “a type of free will worth wanting”, where we can talk reasonably about agency, self-control, and deliberation.

Recommended for people who are already thinking about free will, people who heard a neuroscientist point out that you are your brain and think that ends the idea of the self, people who want to over-think things in general.
Profile Image for Caitlin.
180 reviews
May 2, 2020
This book is a good place to start if you (like me) are unfamiliar with the terms of philosophy and have some questions about free will vs. determinism. My favorite parts of the book were the quotes by other authors (it gave me ideas for what to read next). I did not like that the basis of Dennett's argument for free will was based on the assumption that God does not exist. In many respects, this book swayed me toward the opposing arguments the author was trying to debunk.
Profile Image for Chuy Ruiz.
388 reviews1 follower
November 8, 2021
I had been meaning to read some Daniel Dennet books for a while. Saw this one at the library and decided to read it. Or maybe "I" didn't, who's to say. Maybe I can't actually "decide" anything. I'm kidding, but also, who knows haha. I don't think the audiobook version was the way to go for me on this one. I think I needed to read the physical book and spend more time with this, because I either couldn't really follow it, or I'm dense. I'll be re-reading this at another time.
Profile Image for Ryan Young.
694 reviews9 followers
December 22, 2021
do we have free will? what does that mean? is one state of the world always determined by the previous state, all the way back to the 'beginning?' what would it mean for our free will if it were?

dennett reminds me that there are reasonable people out there, thinking brilliant thoughts about tough subjects. i'm pleased to recommend his little book on free will: go read it unless you think you can do otherwise.
5 reviews
January 30, 2020
This is simply one of the best approaches to the topic of free will that I have ever read. Dennett is impressive in articulating and flushing out the nuances of the varieties of free will and is even better at convincingly marrying the groundwork of scientific deterministic principles with a compatible variant of free will. Libertarians should read this book.
Profile Image for Jason.
221 reviews8 followers
January 20, 2023
What an absolute bore. He tackles non problems with great gusto and pishes away real challenges as if they were nothing and never actually addresses them. He comes across like the sort of man who never let's anyone else get a word in at a party. Heck, the author he most often references is himself.
Profile Image for Joe.
448 reviews
May 25, 2021
More formal philosophy in background would have helped. Everything he said was well argued and made sense, but he was generally reacting to and responding to quesions in contemporary and historical philosophy.
Profile Image for James West.
56 reviews7 followers
August 25, 2019
A real slog that only a technical and philosophy nerd could love. Great topic, but not an engaging read for most people, I would wager.
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