25 March 2011

On Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves

Dennett on free will

I just finished reading Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves. It's about free will and freedom. His overall point is that over time, over evolution, we have acquired more or more powerful free choices.


"Stop that crow!"

Thruout the book, Dennett seems to worry that his ideas on free will will dispel some useful illusion. He often uses the phrase "Stop that crow!", which he borrows from the Dumbo movie, where the elephant can fly as long as he's holding what he thinks is a magic feather.

Free will

Now, I consider "free will" to be a chimerical concept in its common usage. The term bundles several very different things together:

  • Subjectively making choices
  • Lack of physical determinability. As opposed to observing a person's brain in complete detail and predicting the "free" choice he makes later that day.
  • Status as automaton or not.
  • Moral responsibility, as opposed to "you can't blame me because somebody or something `made' me do it"

Dennett never dissects the strands of meaning in this way. But in chapters 2 and 3, he demonstrates that there is no essential connection between free will and lack of physical determinability. He also refutes the (silly IMO) position that quantum indeterminability somehow makes for free will.

From Physics to Design in Conway's Life World

He motivates the non-connection between choices and physical determinability with the example of Conway's game of Life.

Although Life is "really" a pixelated rectangle with every pixel on equal footing, Life experimenters distinguish and name higher-level patterns - "entities" within the game, one might say. Experimenters also make design choices that often include avoiding harm to their creations, eg by placing blocks where gliders might smash into them. Avoiding is fundamentally a choice. Entities within the game itself could theoretically be designed to react to incoming disruptions by making avoidance choices,

Now, Life is actually Turing Complete - given a large space, you can actually build a Universal Turing Machine in it. And so Life entities avoidance choices could theoretically reach any specified standard of intelligence.

And of course Life is fully pre-determined. So entities in Life could make real choices in a fully pre-determined world.

I blogged about chapter 3 without knowing it

Chapter 3 (Thinking about Determinism) basically repeats Who's Still Afraid of Determinism? Rethinking Causes and Possibilities, a paper by him and Christopher Taylor on causality. By co-incidence, I blogged about it earlier1.

The Evolution of Moral Agency

The chapter I liked best was chapter 7, the Evolution of Moral Agency. In it he advances a theory, new to me but pulled variously from Robert Frank and George Ainsley, that we have moral emotions in order to resist temptation. And why resist temptation? It's actually in our long term interests (Frank). And why not just directly act on our long-term interests? Because temptation increases hyperbolically as it gets nearer (Ainsley), and we can counter it best with a competing stimulus, that being moral emotions (Frank), and that works best if it's not under conscious control (Dennett himself).

This theory has the ring of truth to it.

The Future of Human Freedom

I found his final chapter weak (as Dennett goes). He's concerned with "Holding the line against creeping exculpation". Ie, as we learn more and more about why people make the choices they do, must that mean we can less and less

Given Dennett's past writings, I was surprised that he didn't bring his previous ideas to bear more. Instead, he writes a woolly final chapter, littered with poorly chosen real world examples that he distances himself from.

What I would have said

Rather than merely criticize, I will offer my own answer. I would have said, leaning on Dennett's own earlier ideas on design, that we are blameworthy or praiseworthy exactly for occurences that we designed.

Important points:

  • I did not say "declaratively designed". Don't imagine an inventor with a blueprint and a contraption run amuck, or anything of the like. I mean "design" in the sense that Dennett has used it previously, the sense in which design permeates life. In particular:
    • Lack of declarative faculty is no bar to responsibility. My dog can't describe or reflect on her choices, but she can properly be praised or blamed. A little. To a doggy standard of responsibility, not a human one.
    • Self-deception is no bar to responsibility.
  • An important but subtle distinction: we are responsible for the design that was realized, not for the realized outcome. That means that "wiggle room" between design and realized outcome is no bar to responsibility. In particular, I contemplate:
    • Probabilistic tradeoffs, regardless which outcome is realized. A drunk driver, even thought she happened not to hit anyone, has done a blameworthy thing.
    • Contingent outcomes. So bureaucrats, when one says "I just recommended X" and the other "I just followed the recommendation", don't avoid responsibility. They each partly designed the outcome, contingent on the another's action.

The virtues of this definition:

  • It defeats the creeping exculpation that concerns Dennett.
  • It doesn't bar exculpation where there's really no mens rea.
  • It's fuzzy on just the right things:
    • When it's fuzzy whether an occurence is the realization of some design.
    • (The flip side of the previous) When it's fuzzy whether a design was realized. (again, distinct from whether an outcome was realized)
  • It allows multiple responsibility for the same occurence in situations, like the example that Dennett gives on page 74.
  • It gives the right answer when a designer is a surprising entity such as a group, an organization, or a system.
  • We don't have to know the responsible person or group's inner workings in order to assign responsibility, we can treat him/her/it as a black box that effectuations of designs come out of. Black-boxing generally makes analysis easier.
  • We can understand "attempts" and "incitement" and similar qualified sins in this framework.
  • We can understand lack of responsibility due to being deceived in this framework.
  • It distinguishes our responsibility from that of non-choosers (fire) and weak choosers (animals) in a principled, non-question-begging way.


1 Short summary of my position: When trying to define causality, we should really be looking at quality of explanation.

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