Thursday, 7 December 2006

Freedom evolves

Listening to:

Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel.

Just read:

Daniel Dennett, Freedom evolves.

This is not an easy read, but it’s a valuable one. The topic is “free will”, one of the core philosophical concepts if ever there was one. I think the best part of the book comes quite soon, where the implications of living in a deterministic world are explored. In particular, Dennett convincingly argues that

Our everyday thinking about possibility, necessity, and causation seems to conflict with determinism, but this is an illusion. Determinism doesn’t imply that whatever we do, we could not have done otherwise, that every event has a cause, or that our natures are fixed.

The “could have” argument is fascinating in itself. Some say that the very fact that we can meaningfully claim “I could have done X differently” proves that the world can not be deterministic. Alternatively, the claim is that if the world were deterministic, then it would be meaningless to say “I could have done it differently”. But in the real world, how do we determine whether such a claim is reasonable, leaving aside the determinism issue entirely? To make the example concrete, say that X is making the right (non-losing, say) move in a game of chess.

So the claim I make is “At move 23, I could have figured out that I had to castle (and thereby save the game).” How do we assess this claim? We look at my chess-playing history, and we get me to play a whole bunch of games to provide more data. We might ask if I had at least considered the move in question, and how I came to reject it. Then, if it all the evidence seems to support the view that I had it in me to make the right move, we agree that yes, I could have made the move.

Importantly, this assessment makes sense and conveys information regardless of whether or not the world is deterministic. It’s a statement about my capabilities as a chess player, a statement that it is or is not plausible that in the particular situation that arose I might have made the right move. It is thus an examination of possible worlds and my possible behaviours in them. In this way, and with a rich set of examples and thought experiments, Dennett is convincing that determinism is actually irrelevant.

Later Dennett is also good on the question of free will and morality, the question as to how the sense of how we can also be free to make moral decisions, how this may have come about, and why it is a specially human characteristic. It’s all very good, and re-reading chunks of it for the purpose of writing this review has only made me want to return to it again.