Book Review: Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett

In this book from 2003, philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) tries to reconcile free will and Darwinian theory.

[Originally posted October 2004 at; re-posted on February 3, 2008 at]

Does free will exist? It’s a thorny issue that philosophers have tangled with for millennia. And despite the occasional claim of victory, the jury’s still out. Are we human beings fully in charge of our consciousness and decision-making? Or are we nothing more than evolutionary automatons, merely cogs in the great machine of existence, destined to do whatever Newtonian inevitability moves us to do? 

Debate can get pretty hot, with determinists accusing “free-willists” of blinding themselves to the incontrovertibility of cause-and-effect, while the free-willists accuse the determinists of de-humanizing consciousness to nothing more than another biological phenomenon that can be examined under a microscope. (There is, of course, a third alternative – that the debate is inherently unwinnable, the issue of free will being something akin to proving the existence of God.)

Of course, the rise of quantum physics introduced the idea of statistical uncertainty in the very fabric of the cosmos, which puts a kink in the idea of Newtonian inevitability – but, of course, this ultimately won’t solve the problem: randomness is problematic, but it doesn’t debunk determinism, nor does it provide the ah-ha element for free-willists to bring the debate to a definitive end. Randomness doesn’t equal freedom.

But other fields of science do have something to say. Advances in neuroscience, primate research, and the controversial discipline of evolutionary psychology have all discovered or proposed things that could swing the pendulum one way or another.

One of the most recent expeditions into the fray is Freedom Evolves, by long-time consciousness gadfly Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking the SpellConsciousness ExplainedDarwin’s Dangerous Idea), in which he attempts (more or less) to reconcile free will with evolutionary doctrine.

Dennett uses up an inordinate amount of time early in the book trying to debunk traditional notions of free will. He spends several pages throwing darts at “Laplace’s Demon” (the idea, posited by the 18th and 19th century mathematician/philosopher, that if you know all the rules of the universe and if you know the state of the universe at any given instant, you could effectively predict the future. Had Laplace lived in more recent times his proposition would have been called “Laplace’s Computer.”). Nonetheless, Dennett sidesteps the fact that Laplace never argued that such a thing was practical, and points out instead how difficult such an immense calculation would be! 

Next, Dennett tries to poleax the discussion by counter-defining determinism as “perfectly compatible with the notion that some events have no cause at all.” If determinism is inextricably linked to any axiom, it’s cause-and-effect! Even if one allows for the statistical uncertainties of quantum physics, determinists still would never agree with the proposition that something could happen for no reason. Dennett uses the rather lame example of the coin-toss as a binary outcome (heads or tails) with such an infinitude of influences (the weight of the coin, force of the toss, rotational momentum, direction of the breeze, phase of the moon, etc.) as to effectively have no cause. Sorry, but just because something has a complexity of inputs beyond human sensory limitation does not mean it happens for no cause. (Dennett also seems to confuse culpability with causation, citing the famous riddle of the man whose canteen water is successively poisoned by one enemy, then replaced with sand by another, then emptied when yet a third surreptitiously pokes a hole in the bottom.  Who “caused” the man’s death? Well, the cause of the man’s death was lack of water – who’s culpable is another issue entirely.)

Dennett does better in the second half of the book, reviewing some of the theories of how blind evolution could have produced something as amazing as human consciousness. He also refers to some fairly solid research that indicates conscious decision-making is preceded by a unconscious rise in brain activity. What exactly is going on? The ramifications for how we define and understand ourselves are profound.

Perhaps Dennett’s most intriguing contribution here is the contorted (but elegant) idea that free will exists for those who believe in it – sort of a self-esteem-building prop rather like Dumbo’s magic feather. Had one of the nearby crows revealed the inefficacy of the feather, Dumbo (who doesn’t think he can fly on his own) would have never gotten off ground. And make no mistake – Dennett revels in styling himself as the maverick crow!

In the end, Freedom Evolves comes across as an extended appendix, referring to or shamelessly rehashing material found in Dennett’s earlier books. And while a resolution to the problem of free will is too much to hope for (indeed, beyond anyone’s ability to deliver), Dennett’s conclusions are more a shrug than an affirmative nod. Do we have free will? According to Dennett, the answer is, essentially, “Yes, no, maybe, and it depends.”

Dennett’s ruminations are worth reading, but armchair researchers are better off absorbing his previous and subsequent books, preferably in chronological order, before tackling this latest effort. Freedom Evolves is a good snack, but Dennett has provided better meals.

More on Daniel Dennett is available at his official website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *