Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Daniel C. Dennett


The free will paradox is at the very heart of the most basic questions about human nature. Its ramifications are crucial not only to philosophy but also to religion and jurisprudence. Either our choices are determined by what has gone on before (our heredity and environment) or they are not; but if they are not determined then the only alternative appears to be that they are random, and that hardly seems like a freedom worth having. So perhaps the freedom to choose is an illusion; yet, if so, it is a powerful one, for most of us feel free to choose our actions. Some people think it is materialism that is the villain in the piece, and so they seek a solution to the paradox in dualism—in the view that there is a separate mind that somehow influences the functioning of the physical brain—yet this does not seem to work either, for even the choices of this non-physical mind would presumably still be determined by its psychological antecedents.

Writers on the free will paradox always leave me, at least, with a sense of dissatisfaction. Those who favour the view that free will is real generally come to this conclusion with something of the air of a conjuror producing a rabbit out of a hat, while their opponents, who insist that free will is a illusion and that determinism rules, often commit the logical absurdity of exhorting legislators to recognize the true state of affairs and cease to punish criminals for actions they could not help, thus ignoring the obvious fact that if determinism is true the legislators' choices in the matter are as determined as everyone else's.

Daniel Dennett is a naturalistic philosopher of renown who has tackled the free will issue more than once before. In this new book he gives us his latest thoughts on the matter. Has he solved the conundrum? Well, as usual, yes and no. But whether or not you fully agree with his view, you will certainly want to read his book if, like me, you are fascinated by the problem. Dennett is an excellent writer, always clear and often amusing. As in much of his work, he is writing for a general audience, not for professional philosophers, but at the same time he does not shirk from confronting the real difficulties that exist. There is a convenient summary at the end of each chapter, together with a short preview of the next chapter. This makes the steps of the argument easier to follow.

As the title implies, Dennett's view of free will is shaped by the central role he assigns to Darwinism; this will not come as any surprise to readers of his earlier book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Some of the arguments in the present book are also to be found in his Consciousness Explained, though they are updated and clarified here. The most essential part of his discussion probably comes in his second chapter, where he claims that determinism does not imply inevitability. He uses the analogy of Conway's computer game of Life to illustrate this. He coins the word 'evitability' to mean the opposite of 'inevitability' and says that "'evitability' can be achieved in a deterministic world, and hence the common association between determinism and inevitability is a mistake." Unless you accept this apparently paradoxical idea you will not agree with the rest of his discussion, but Dennett claims that if the question is considered in the light of Darwinian evolution the paradox disappears. The remainder of the book is largely concerned with showing how this works and what the implications are for morality and society.

Chapter 8 contains a really excellent discussion of the famous research by Benjamin Libet on the brain events accompanying choosing. In these experiments Libet showed that, when people were asked to move their wrist whenever they felt like it, the onset of the preceding electrical events in their brains occurred before the subjects were consciously aware of having made the decision to move. Some commentators have taken this to mean that the subjective perception of "choice" is really an epiphenomenon, an irrelevant feeling that occurs after the brain has already made the crucial decision, though Libet does not himself like this conclusion. But Dennett unpicks the matter to show that all such ideas are really a consequence of adherence to what he calls the notion of the Cartesian Theatre. That is, they presuppose that there is some central coordinating agency, some "place" where conscious decision-making takes place. Dennett takes this to be an illusion, and the same applies to the assumption that there is some "time t" at which a decision occurs. I should say that this section by itself makes the book well worth reading, whether or not you are fully persuaded by Dennett's account of free will.

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).

4 July 2003

%T Freedom Evolves
%A Dennett, Daniel C.
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-71399-339-1
%P ix + 347 pp
%K philosophy

Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects