Thursday, January 04, 2007

Book: Freedom Evolves (1)

Chapter 1: Natural Freedom

This Dilbert comic strip by Scott Adams expresses one of the problems that many people have with the philosophy of metaphysical naturalism (or materialism). If we do not have souls, as materialism preaches, and human consciousness is simply a product of material atoms bouncing off each other according to the laws of physics, then can we really claim to have free will? If we don’t have free will, can we truly accept praise for accomplishments that we achieve, or be held responsible for acts of evil that we perpetrate?

In his book, Freedom Evolves, contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett tackles these questions, and argues that materialism does not pose a problem for free will; in fact, it can provide a positive account of free will that is better than traditional views.

In chapter one, Dennett outlines his belief that humans don’t have immaterial souls, and that many people feel uncomfortable with this view:

“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.” pg 1

Dennett argues that the main driving force behind most of the resistance to materialism, and to neo-Darwinism in particular, is concern about free will. These fears have led many to misunderstand and misinterpret current philosophical and scientific discoveries in this field.

This is the first book of Dennett’s that I’m reading, so I’m going to take it slow, and I will provide a summary of each chapter as I go along. I’m very interested to discover the finer details of his argument. I keep you all updated.


CyberKitten said...

'Freedom Evolves' is one of my bedtime reading books ATM. Good luck with it... [grin].

You are wise to take it slowly.....

Allison said...

Glad to see you post again, Kevin. As someone who's just finally (officially) declared as ex-Christian, I'm finding all kinds of books making their way onto my wish list, including Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon It looks like a sociological approach -- something that appeals to me.

More than anything, thanks for putting yourself out there. Knowing that folks like you exist made it much more accessible for me to grasp that perhaps my inherited religion wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

Best to you,

Lui said...

"Breaking the Spell" is an all right book but it's not as brilliant as I was hoping. Some of the concepts intrigued and captivated me, like that of the "free-floating rationale" and the possibility of applying evolutionary models on the spread and refinement of religious beliefs. But it felt a bit like a light meal: tasty, but ultimately not all that filling. This is coming from my atheist perspective, however; what seems somewhat light and rudimentary to me would no doubt seem, to a more religiously inclined person, more shocking, perhaps even blasphemous (though it should be noted that Dennett bends over backwards on numerous occasions to avoid causing offence to his readers, even if he "dares" them to read on further, which some might find patronising). The book wasn't meant for atheists like me, but rather was aimed at a largely religious audience, and secondarily for those who have doubts about their faith. Dennett's intention isn't to "break the spell" of religion per se but to get people to question the unthinking protection and automatic privilege that religion enjoys simply by virtue of being religion. He argues (justly, in my opinion) that religion shouldn't be exempt from the same type of scrutiny as other social institutions, and that the claims of religion should be verified and examined based upon their merits, not upon the prejudices that have coexisted with, and many cases helped, the proliferation of those claims. Overall, Breaking The Spell is a good repository of memetic theories of religion, but it should be complemented with further reading on the topic. I've heard that "Darwin's Cathedral" by David Sloan Wilson is a goodie.

The other Dennett book I've read is "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", and I richly recommend it to anyone. Really, it's chocablock full of mind-bending ideas that really nail the message home. I look forward to reading Freedom Evolves. A note here though: Dennett may well be right that our concept of free will survives largely intact in light of the Darwinian revolution, but whether it does so or not is a fact about the world, and is independent of our wanting it to be a fact. Of course we want to think that we have free will, but saying that something has to be true because we would rather that it were true is to commit a glaring logical fallacy. Free will most emphatically does NOT have to exist simply because without it "no one would be responsible for their actions". That's no reason AT ALL to suppose that free will must be true, any more than the perceived ethical dilemmas raised by our kinship to the apes are any reason to suppose that evolution isn't true. It's merely a statement about our desire for stability and adherence to ethical rules. I think this is what the Gilbert cartoon was getting at: that in this case, the desire for something to be the case overpowers and outlasts our willingness to investigate whether it actually is true, partly because we envisage that the consequences of acknowledging a lack of free will are so dreadful that it's best not looked at in case we open Pandora's Box.

Tom Clark said...

Hi folks,

Noticed you're interested in free will, etc. When we open Pandora's box, what we actually discover is pretty liberating, even though we might not find the freedom we thought we needed.

best regards,

Tom Clark
Center for Naturalism

Jason Hughes said...

Looking forward to your thoughts and feelings on this book, Kevin...

I actually just picked it up myself at the used book store down the street. :D

Lui said...

You might all find this interesting: Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t

Lui said...

And this: The mystery of consciousness, by Steven Pinker.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Lui

Thank you for the links. Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” is also on my “books to get” list, and so is “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. In fact, when I decided that I would get my first book by Daniel Dennett, I originally planned to get “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. However, before I had the opportunity to buy the book, a friend of Cori’s lent us a copy of “Freedom Evolves” – so I’ve started with that!

All the best