Freedom Evolves

Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett

Reviewed June 5, 2004

This book veers off onto a number of topics in addition to free will and determinism, most of which material is well worth reading even if you’ve read Dennett’s other work. The argument with regard to free will is a somewhat original take on compatibilism – which is a longstanding position, all of Dennett’s bluster about his groundbreaking scandalbraving notwithstanding.

Our point of view as living acting human beings is not the point of view of atoms or of gods and cannot be, need not be, and cannot even coherently be imagined to be. If you want to get that point across to an intelligent, scientifically inclined clinger to metaphysics, mysticism, or their lord Jesus Christ, this might be an ideal book to give them.

That said, I have some quibbles with Dennett’s approach. He argues that an event can be determined but not inevitable, meaning not unavoidable (from the point of view of the agent involved), and he develops this point as something more than just a clever play on etymologies. But he goes on throughout the book to discuss free will in solely negative terms as the ability to avoid things. Why is there not one word on free will as the ability to create the new and unexpected? Why is there not even a comment on avoiding failing to be brilliant or heroic? In fact, Dennett uses forced confinement (as in a US prison cell) as an analogy for free will (we avoid child molestation by locking up people convicted of child molestation). Further, Dennett focuses part of his discussion of “intuitions” regarding free will on anger and resentment. Where in all of this is admiration, appreciation, self-satisfaction, gratification, or friendship?

Dennett leaves out much of what is valuable about free will. Those who object to his compatibilism may use this fact against him. I find compatibilism completely convincing but Dennett’s view of life depressing.

Dennett clearly supports our habit of locking many people up in prisons, although he offers castration as a possible alternative for pedophiles. But, while protecting children from pedophiles may have something to do with the will power of former pedophiles trying to change, it ought to be seen as a separate issue from retribution for guilt grounded in freely willed criminal behavior.

If we are going to be advanced enough to drop metaphysics, we should also be advanced enough to make our handling of crime forward looking, focused on reconciliation and restitution. Dennett’s fantasy about guilty individuals adopting a “Thanks I needed that” attitude toward punishment does not advance this project at all.