Monday, January 06, 2014

dennett and the darwinizing of free-will

human-nature |  It has ruefully been noted that we have lots of philosophy professors, but precious few genuine philosophers. But at least, we also have Daniel Dennett. He wrote the best book on evolution by a non-biologist (Dennett, 1995), and has been a tireless, effective, and creative advocate for incorporating natural selection into the purview of philosophers and thinkers generally. Dennett is not just a philosophy professor, but a genuine philosopher, much to our benefit. In Freedom Evolves, he takes on the question of free will and determinism, one of the oldest and most intransigent of conundrums, transporting the discussion where it belongs, into the realm of Darwinian thought.

And conundrum it is. Thus, to my mind (and I believe I write this of my own free will!), there can be no such thing as free will for the committed scientist, in his or her professional life. Thus, science itself presupposes that every phenomenon has a cause. We may speak of “spontaneous combustion” or a “spontaneous abortion” or even “spontaneous applause,” but in each of these cases, some cause is more than likely… it is essential to a sober, naturalistic worldview. “Spontaneous” is simply another way of saying: “cause unknown,” not “uncaused.” Similarly, we are unlikely to describe a stone as moving “spontaneously,” not only because it lacks any possible organs of volition, but because it is entirely subject to the laws of physics. What, then, about a jellyfish that moves “spontaneously”? A rhinoceros? A person?

At the same time, I suspect that we all - even the most hard-headed materialists - live with an unspoken hypocrisy: even as we assume determinism in our intellectual pursuits and professional lives, we actually experience our subjective lives as though free will reigns supreme. In our heart of hearts, we know that in most ways that really count (and many that don’t), we have plenty of free will, and so do those around us. Inconsistent? Yes, indeed. But like the denial of death, it is a useful inconsistency, and perhaps even one that is essential. (Nor is the free will/determinism debate unique in this regard. We might add Hume’s demonstration of the impossibility of proving causation itself, and Berkeley’s questioning of the existence of an objective world. In many ways, we are all forced to live with a degree of absurdity, if only because to acknowledge it in our daily lives is to admit yet more absurdity!)

Some philosophers and neurobiologists have sought to rescue free will - as a scientific prospect, not merely an emotional necessity - by enlisting quantum indeterminism, arguing that the physics of very small particles (or waves, or whatever) introduces room for “genuine” spontaneity. I’m not in the least persuaded by such sleight of hand, and neither, it seems, is Dennett. By what logic could free will derive from genuinely random emanations, or chaotic functions, any more than from the most rigid billiard-ball expectations of rigid determinism? As the monarch of Siam noted in The King and I, “it’s a puzzlement.” 

The difficulty goes deeper yet, penetrating the realm of personal responsibility, punishment, and praise. If, for example, to do something “of our own free will” means that it was utterly uncaused, then how can we be blamed, or praised, for it? But if caused, by previous events, neurochemical necessities, ionic perturbations of voltage differentials across cell membranes, then the same question applies.