Study Guide

Freedom Evolves

by Daniel C. Dennett

Freedom Evolves Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

One of the greatest philosophical dilemmas posed by the development of the modern scientific view of the world concerns the place of human beings in this view. Scientific thinking is based on determinism, an understanding of all things as material objects linked in chains of causes and effects. Anything that happens must happen because something has caused it to happen. If human beings live inside such a chain, though, then all the things that people do are consequences of other events, such as environmental or biological occurrences. To many thinkers, such a perspective implies that humans cannot choose to do anything because both their actions and the apparent choices behind these actions are determined.

One answer to the dilemma of free will is to argue that people are in some way outside of any chain of causation. This was the strategy of René Descartes (1596-1650), who presented the nonhuman world in terms of the interactions of material objects but who argued that human consciousness was a special kind of spiritual entity, influencing the objects but existing outside of them. Another answer is simply to accept that freedom is nothing but an illusion and that one’s actions are nothing but results of one’s influences.

Both answers have problems. The response of Descartes is not supported by any evidence on the working of the brain, and it is hard to see how a spiritual being could move a physical body. The antifreedom response raises the question of how people can be held responsible for anything; it also seems to refute itself, because one would not be free to come to any meaningful conclusions about oneself, including one’s own lack of freedom, if one were not the agent of one’s own thoughts.

Both answers have been criticized in previous books by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. In Consciousness Explained (1990), he offered a detailed criticism of the Cartesian view of human consciousness. In Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984) and The Intentional Stance (1987), he defended ideas of choosing and goal-seeking. Dennett is a scientific materialist, though, and one who bases much of his own philosophical work on Darwinian evolution. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995), he described evolution as fundamental to the modern scientific perspective.Freedom Evolves is an attempt to bring together the ideas in these earlier works. It argues that determinism is entirely consistent with the concept of free will and that free will is a result of evolutionary determinism.

Dennett maintains that determinism is often confused with inevitability. However, few events are inevitable in a complex world. Any present state of affairs may result in a variety of future states. Some natural entities, moreover, can obtain information from the environment to anticipate futures and to act in a way that is likely to lead to one future, rather than to others. According to Dennett, this proves that there can be such a thing as “evitability” in an entirely deterministic world. There are also random and therefore uncaused events, such as the results of the flipping of coins, that are still determined.

Some philosophers have argued that freedom requires philosophical libertarianism, a point within the decision maker at which the decision is undetermined. Dennett responds that one cannot identify this point and that freedom can be more readily identified as intentional responses to imperfectly predictable occurrences outside the decision maker. He then moves on to the subject of evolution and argues that being able to foresee possible outcomes and to respond to these can provide an evolutionary advantage to organisms. Further, beings that can respond by cooperating with one another have special advantages. Human culture, then, should be understood as a product of evolution. Because culture consists of communication, the evolution of human culture gives rise to the emergence of pieces of communication that pass from person to person and survive or go extinct as genes survive or go extinct. Drawing on evolutionary speculation about culture, Dennett refers to these pieces of communication as “memes.” The moral ideas that guide choices about behavior are memes, patterns of thought that have been selected by environmental pressures.

The use of communication by human beings as a way of surviving together makes humans a...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)