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March 23, 2005

I must make this entry - I have no choice

I have been very absorbed in the work of Daniel Dennett as of late. An athiest and a strict materialist through and through, Dennett nevertheless believes we have free will. His most recent book, "Freedom Evolves," outlines a case for soft determinism that I find quite persuasive. In many ways it is a continuation of his sweeping discussions in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" about strong AI and the ability to incorporate free will into machines using evolutionary considerations.

Dennett argues that the usual discussion of "free will" is trapped in predictable ruts due to determinism/indeterminism debates (he thinks them irrelevant to the question) or monism/dualism debates (he finds no merit in dualism). His argument follows a different form: there are several ways we could define free will, and only some of them are "varieties of free will worth wanting." Say you were lining up for a golf putt, and you missed. If determinism is true, there really wasn't a way you could have made the putt. But from Dennett's perspective, because we have the ability to, say, choose to practice our golf game, there exists a set of circumstances in which we can make future putts. Indeed, evolutionary forces have brought us to this level of sophistication -- and morality (consider the ant, thou sluggard) -- by allowing our brains to communicate with our "future selves" in such a way that we can plan out remedial golf work to improve our putting "fitness." That we can improve our fitness for something so mundane is a happy by-product of evolution. (And I suppose members of the PGA tour wouldn't have trophy wives without such a "mundane" skill.) Incidentally, his definition of consciousness falls neatly out of that picture. Dennett's consciousness is like a micro-version of those goal setting worksheets they used to make us do in high school: "How do I see myself in five minutes? I see myself making a sandwich, because I'm hungry."

Some would rightly say that this is not what we mean when we say we have free will. Dennett rather brazenly sidesteps thousands of years of philosophy by taking this course. But is this notion really so new? Having free-will-from-our-perspective, if not free-will-from-an-outsider's-perspective (which is what we usually mean), doesn't seem that different from Calvinism to me. Moreover, because it doesn't require determinism to be true or false, this view allows for miracles without changing the central thrust of the theory. Perversely, Dennett's work contains the etchings of a monist Christian theology -- just don't expect him to flesh it out!

Posted by The Greatness at March 23, 2005 10:49 AM