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Freedom Evolves

Freedom Evolves

4.4 5
by Daniel C. Dennett

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Four Billion Years Ago, there was no freedom on our planet, because there was no life. What kinds of freedom have evolved since the origin of life? Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? If you are free, are you responsible for being free, or just lucky? In Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and


Four Billion Years Ago, there was no freedom on our planet, because there was no life. What kinds of freedom have evolved since the origin of life? Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? If you are free, are you responsible for being free, or just lucky? In Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained, sets out to answer these questions, showing how we, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and morality. In a series of strikingly original arguments drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics, and philosophy, he demonstrates that if we accept Darwin's reasoning, we can build from the simplest life forms all the way up to the best and deepest human thoughts on questions of morality and meaning, ethics and freedom.

Many people assume that determinism implies inevitability. Dennett shows that it doesn't. Many think indeterminism can give us agents some freedom, some elbow room, that we just couldn't have in a deterministic universe. Dennett shows that it can't. Many think that in a deterministic world, there are no real options, only apparent options. This is false, according to Dennett. He investigates the way human culture has made possible the evolution of cooperation and ethical norms, and shows how our problems of self-control create self-deception and lead us into bargaining with our future selves, creating in the process the mature self that can take responsibility for its actions. As in his previous books, Dennett weaves a richly detailed narrative enlivened by an array of provocative formulations and analogies as entertaining as they are challenging. Freedom Evolves does not seek to replace traditional work on ethics with some Darwinian alternative, but rather to place ethics on the foundation it deserves: a realistic, naturalistic, potentially unified vision of our place in nature.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Readers who have come to expect Daniel Dennett's books to be rigorous, witty, opinionated, and brilliant will not be disappointed by Freedom Evolves. Fresh on the heels of Stephen Pinker's bestselling The Blank Slate, Dennett likewise takes issue with those who argue that Darwinian theories inevitably remove moral choice from human society. In this closely argued work, Dennett takes the ideas put forward in his highly acclaimed Darwin's Dangerous Idea to their logical endpoint -- the problem of human agency. "There is no more potent source of anxiety about free will," he writes, "than the image of the physical sciences engulfing our every deed, good or bad, in the acid broth of causal explanation, nibbling away at the soul until there is nothing left to praise or blame, to honor, respect or love." But even for a proponent of naturalism, Dennett argues, this is simply not so. While Dennett stresses that as individuals we are made up of millions of "mindless robotic ingredients" that have evolved out of our own growth and experience, the development of larger human culture has been accompanied by a sensitivity to social and political dilemmas that trumps determinacy. Through a process of "negotiated thresholds," a greater understanding of who we are has continually been matched by a growing understanding of what we ought to do. "Free will is real," he argues, "but it is not a pre-existing feature of our existence, like the law of gravity. It is an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs." A provocative work that draws on computer models, evolutionary theory, economics, meme theory, and many other fields to bolster its arguments, Freedom Evolves is an essential work from one of our leading philosophers. Deirdre Mullane
The Washington Post
As always when Dennett is writing, there is much of great interest along the way. This is a man who truly loves science and enjoys reporting on it and trying to relate it to the philosophical points he is making. He is particularly good when dealing with the work of those social psychologists who are, both in theory and in practice, trying to relate our biological needs to our behaviors in groups, showing how basic norms of moral behavior might have emerged naturally rather than on stone tablets carried down from on high. Dennett is crisp and critically insightful on all sorts of flabby presuppositions, such as those about the inevitability of genetic determinism, those claiming the supposed self-interest of all actions, and assumptions about the essential value of being natural or of cherishing what Mother Nature has done for us. — Michael Ruse
Publishers Weekly
"Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul-is this a fair bargain?" Dennett, seeking to fend off "caricatures of Darwinian thinking" that plague his philosophical camp, argues in this incendiary, brilliant, even dangerous book that it is. Picking up where he left off in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist), he zeroes in on free will, a sticking point to the opposing camp. Dennett calls his perspective "naturalism," a synthesis of philosophy and the natural sciences; his critics have called it determinism, reductionism, bioprophecy, Lamarckianism. Drawing on evolutionary biology, neuroscience, economic game theory, philosophy and Richard Dawkins's meme, the author argues that there is indeed such a thing as free will, but it "is not a preexisting feature of our existence, like the law of gravity." Dennett seeks to counter scientific caricature with precision, empiricism and philosophical outcomes derived from rigorous logic. This book comprises a kind of toolbox of intellectual exercises favoring cultural evolution, the idea that culture, morality and freedom are as much a result of evolution by natural selection as our physical and genetic attributes. Yet genetic determinism, he argues, does not imply inevitability, as his critics may claim, nor does it cancel out the soul. Rather, he says, it bolsters the ideals of morality and choice, and illustrates why those ideals must be nurtured and guarded. Dennett clearly relishes pushing other scientists' buttons. Though natural selection itself is still a subject of controversy, the author, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, most certainly is in the vanguard of the philosophy of science. (On sale Feb. 10)
Library Journal
In different ways, these two books are concerned with understanding human consciousness and consider the theory of evolution as key to explaining it. Both are written in engaging, largely jargon-free prose that will be accessible, and of interest, to the educated reader. Damasio (Descartes' Error; The Feeling of What Happens) is the more strictly "scientific" of the two authors, using his experience and experiments as a neurologist in trying to show that there is no split between mind and body-that, as Spinoza has argued, they are really unified and codependent. In the process, he investigates the phenomena of emotion and feeling and correlates them with happenings in the brain. An interesting portion of the book details his visit to Spinoza's home in Amsterdam. Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Consciousness Explained) is the more strictly "philosophical" of the two, using "thought experiments" and analogies to argue in detail how Darwin's theory can be extrapolated to account for consciousness. Unfortunately, both authors have somewhat missed the mark in their approach, which is primarily empirical and materialistic. Another way of looking at things can be seen in one of Shakespeare's plays, where Caesar, having been forewarned of trouble, has decided not to go to the senate that morning, and explains thus: "That I cannot come is false, and that I dare not ser the cause is in my will-I will not come." He does not attribute his decision to his hormones or to the activity of his brain (as our two authors presumably would)-his response is a dynamic one, in terms indicative of human agency. And it is this element that both books do not sufficiently recognize. This aside, both authors have a deservedly large readership, and librarians in most academic and public libraries will want both [Damasio's book was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/02, and Dennett's was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/02.]-Leon H. Brody, U.S. Office of Personnel Management Lib., Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
National Book Award–winner Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995, etc.) seeks to account for free will in a world determined by inflexible scientific laws. His answer lies in evolution. The author embraces a materialist position. The advance of science has made obsolete the notion of an immaterial soul, he notes, but if the physical universe is all, why do we believe ourselves to be free agents with independent wills? The answer, for Dennett (Center for Cognitive Studies/Tufts Univ.), lies in the gradual development from simpler to more complex life forms. A primordial cell has little to do beyond absorbing nourishment and avoiding being absorbed in turn by its larger neighbors. Yet such completely determined phenomena as the computer game Life, in which two-dimensional shapes follow rigid rules, can give rise to startling complexity, even the illusion of conscious action. Complex living creatures, such as the proverbial free bird, have more options. But moral choice remains the crux of the matter. Dennett takes as a test case Martin Luther's dictum "Here I stand; I can do no other." In what sense was Luther incapable of acting differently? Certainly not in the same way as a primitive organism with only one response to a given stimulus; if that were so, it would display neither virtue nor courage to take such a stand. The "Prisoner's Dilemma" of game theory seems to prove that betrayal is the most rational choice: how, then, has cooperation arisen in the real world? Much of the answer lies in social evolution. Language allows communities to perpetuate their beliefs and customs, enabling the like-minded to protect themselves against predatory outsiders. Dennett spends much of the textdebating his professional rivals, but he is always ready to offer real-world examples of his points and rarely ducks tough questions. Difficult but nonetheless stimulating look into the roots of freedom and responsibility. Author tour
From the Publisher
“Dennett has taken on really big issues, made them clear, dealt with them seriously and given us much on which to reflect. . . . Crisp and critically insightful.” —The Washington Post Book World

“One of the most original thinkers of our time.” —Science

"Dennett stands as the sharpest, cleverest, most stylish prober of how issues of human consciousness interconnect today with evolutionary theory." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A serious book with a brilliant message." —Matt Ridley, The Sunday Telegraph

Product Details

Viking Adult
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6.50(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.21(d)

Read an Excerpt

Freedom Evolves

By Daniel Clement Dennett

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2004 Daniel Clement Dennett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0142003840

Chapter One

One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers. It is our souls that are the source of all meaning, and the locus of all our suffering, our joy, our glory and shame. But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don't really have "free will" and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.

Learning What We Are

Sl, abbiamo un anima. Ma h fatta di tanti piccoli robot. Yes, we have a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots. -Giulio Giorelli

We don't have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation, and once we understand what our freedom consists in, we will be much better prepared to protect it against the genuine threats that are so regularly misidentified.

A student of mine who went into the Peace Corps to avoid serving in the Vietnam War later told me about his efforts on behalf of a tribe living deep in the Brazilian forest. I asked him if he had been required to tell them about the conflict between the USA and the USSR. Not at all, he replied. There would have been no point in it. They had never heard of either America or the Soviet Union. In fact, they had never even heard of Brazil! It was still possible in the 1960s for a human being to live in a nation, and be subject to its laws, without the slightest knowledge of that fact. If we find this astonishing, it is because we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.

These quite recent discoveries about who we are and how we got here are unnerving, to say the least. 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 (Hooper et al. 1998). Each of your host cells is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous micro- robot. It is no more conscious than your bacterial guests are. Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

Each trillion-robot team is gathered together in a breathtakingly efficient regime that has no dictator but manages to keep itself organized to repel outsiders, banish the weak, enforce iron rules of discipline-and serve as the headquarters of one conscious self, one mind. These communities of cells are fascistic in the extreme, but your interests and values have little or nothing to do with the limited goals of the cells that compose you-fortunately. Some people are gentle and generous, others are ruthless; some are pornographers and others devote their lives to the service of God. It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that these striking differences must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somehow in the bodily headquarters. We now know that tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we have evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all. The differences among people are all due to the way their particular robotic teams are put together, over a lifetime of growth and experience. The difference between speaking French and speaking Chinese is a difference in the organization of the working parts, and so are all the other differences of knowledge and personality.

Since I am conscious and you are conscious, we must have conscious selves that are somehow composed of these strange little parts. How can this be? To see how such an extraordinary composition job could be accomplished, we need to look at the history of the design processes that did all the work, the evolution of human consciousness. We also need to see how these souls made of cellular robots actually do endow us with the important powers and resultant obligations that traditional immaterial souls were supposed to endow us with (by unspecified magic). Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul-is this a good bargain? What do we give up and what do we gain? People jump to fearful conclusions about this that are hugely mistaken. I propose to prove this by tracing the growth of freedom on our planet from its earliest beginnings at the dawn of life. What kinds of freedom? Different kinds will emerge as the story unfolds.

Four and a half billion years ago, the planet Earth was formed, and it was utterly without life. And so it stayed for perhaps half a billion years, until the first simple life-forms emerged, and then for the next three billion years or so, the planet's oceans teemed with life, but it was all blind and deaf. Simple cells multiplied, engulfing each other, exploiting each other in a thousand ways, but oblivious to the world beyond their membranes. Then finally much larger, more complex cells evolved-eukaryotes-still clueless and robotic, but with enough internal machinery to begin to specialize. So it continued for a few hundred million more years, the time it took for the algorithms of evolution to stumble upon good ways for these cells and their daughters and granddaughters to band together into multicellular organisms composed of millions, billions, and (eventually) trillions of cells, each doing its particular mechanical routine, but now yoked into specialized service, as part of an eye or an ear or a lung or a kidney. These organisms (not the individual team members composing them) had become long-distance knowers, able to spy supper trying to appear inconspicuous in the middle distance, able to hear danger threatening from afar. But still, even these whole organisms knew not what they were. Their instincts guaranteed that they tried to mate with the right sorts, and flock with the right sorts, but just as those Brazilians didn't know they were Brazilians, no bison has ever known it's a bison.

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute. No matter how different from one another we people are, scattered around the globe, we can explore our differences and communicate about them. No matter how similar to one another bison are, standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd, they cannot know much of anything about their similarities, let alone their differences, because they can't compare notes. They can have similar experiences, side by side, but they really can't share experiences the way we do.

Even in our species, it has taken thousands of years of communication for us to begin to find the keys to our own identities. It has been only a few hundred years that we've known that we are mammals, and only a few decades that we've understood in considerable detail how we have evolved, along with all other living things, from those simple beginnings. We are outnumbered on this planet by our distant cousins, the ants, and outweighed by yet more distant relatives, the bacteria. Though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future-a comet on a collision course, or global warming-and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us. We may not be up to the job. We may destroy the planet instead of saving it, largely because we are such free-thinking, creative, unruly explorers and adventurers, so unlike the trillions of slavish workers that compose us. Brains are for anticipating the future, so that timely steps can be taken in better directions, but even the smartest of beasts have very limited time horizons, and little if any ability to imagine alternative worlds. We human beings, in contrast, have discovered the mixed blessing of being able to think even about our own deaths and beyond. A huge portion of our energy expenditure over the last ten thousand years has been devoted to assuaging the concerns provoked by this unsettling new vista that we alone have.

If you burn more calories than you take in, you soon die. If you find some tricks that provide you a surplus of calories, what might you spend them on? You might devote person-centuries of labor to building temples and tombs and sacrificial pyres on which you destroy some of your most precious possessions- and even some of your very own children. Why on earth would you want to do that? These strange and awful expenditures give us clues about some of the hidden costs of our heightened powers of imagination. We did not come by our knowledge painlessly.

Now what will we do with our knowledge? The birth pangs of our discoveries have not subsided. Many are afraid that learning too much about what we are-trading in mystery for mechanisms-will impoverish our vision of human possibility. This fear is understandable, but if we really were in danger of learning too much, wouldn't those on the cutting edge be showing signs of discomfort? Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society. In fact, if you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look to the recently fashionable tribe of post-modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accoutrements of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self- knowledge. The postmodernists are right that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been a major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it should still be obvious that the innovations of science-not just its microscopes and telescopes and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidence-are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach.

The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the "self-made man," but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what's about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it's the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it's much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.


Excerpted from Freedom Evolves by Daniel Clement Dennett Copyright © 2004 by Daniel Clement Dennett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Daniel C. Dennett is a professor and the director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His books include Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

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Freedom Evolves 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book contains the same perplexing amount of information as Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Those who take interest in learning how agents could be equipped with the ability to make 'moral' descisions(in the real sense of the word), will enjoy this breathtaking journey. If you possess a broad scope of vocabulary and enjoy following Dennett's process of logic that he uses to reach his assumption then the purchase of this book will not be reflected upon as being a bad descision. Two roads diverged in the wood, Dennett chose to take them all and then write a book about the journey.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The problem with all of Dennett's books, including this one, is that this author has no training whatsoever in, and no understanding at all of, Quantum Physics. Whereas the only really rigorously scientific approach to an in-depth understanding of consciousness absolutely requires a Quantum Physical treatment. All else is but anecdotal fluff, and Dennett's books - including this one and 'Consciousness explained' - are hugely disappointing. A sum of anecdotes does not by far amount to a theory, and it may just be that Dennett, despite his dogged and oft-repeated claims to the contrary, is actually missing the bigger picture by miles, just like Newton did 300 years ago for want of a more universal theory. A very good place to start could be Harry Walker's book on consciouness, then a good understanding of current leading-edge physics would not be amiss, because it is entirely within the confines of this wider physics that consciousness arises.