2004-02-16: Freedom Evolves

Freedom Evolves (2003)

by Daniel C. Dennett (1942-)

This seems to be the culmination of Dennett’s work, capping a thirty-year project to explain how Darwinian evolution, cognitive science, and the work of philosophers (himself and others) leads to a credible and coherent conception of the way the notions of consciousness and free will play well together.

I usually say “of course” to his arguments and conclusions, and realize that he is very unlikely to convince those who don’t already agree with his world view. But in large part he is trying to dissuade some of those who agree with his world view from leaping to unwarranted conclusions. So, although it is a grand project, Dennett’s own aims seem relatively modest. Perhaps others will follow the path he has blazed, and reveal it to those who currently don’t agree with him.

Dennett is trying to counter the tendency of people who should know better to shy away from the implications of two ideas:

  • Our minds are just what our brains non-miraculously do.
  • The talents of our brains had to evolve like every other marvel of nature.

The major milestones in the project have been Elbow Room (1984), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), and this work. Other works have helped prepare one or another ground, such as Brainstorms (1978), Kinds of Minds (1996), and The Intentional Stance (1987). His work seems to be accepted by cognitive scientists as helpful in the project to develop synthetic minds.

In this work he first defines several kinds of determinism, and shows that no reasonable such notion can be used to block his approach, a priori. He detours to deflect the objections from various philosophical schools, most of which I haven’t the background to assess. He introduces game theory (particularly the Prisoner’s Dilemma), and shows how it is applicable to understand the evolution of survival strategies. Then he shows the evolution of moral agency is sensible and predictable, given various pre-existing capabilities. He also describes the results of minds bootstrapping themselves into existence in the presence of other minds, and the ways that people with moral principles tend to interact with those of their kind, and to avoid those with no scruples (when those can be detected). Along the way he has a modest amount to say about memetics.

In the section “Learning to Deal with Yourself” he describes experiments in which people are asked whether they would rather have a dollar today or two dollars next month. Most people are revealed to have a “hyperbolic discount curve”, placing excessive value on smaller, short-term rewards, where the optimum or rational strategy to such questions would result in an “exponential discount curve”. This can be applied to questions such as deferring immediate reward for long-term satisfaction, as in the case of dieters, savers for retirement, etc., as well as to ethical questions.

In the section “A Self of One’s Own” he describes how adding a GUI to computers to mask the complexity below allowed users to raise their mental models of the computer to a higher (metaphoric) level, and do things that would have taken too long before. Now people who start with today’s computers don’t even realize the stages of R&D that led to the screens they see. Similarly the interface between people at one time consisted of gestures, facial expressions, and other crudely expressive activities. Once words were invented, the interface was raised to a higher level and people could do things with other people that were impossible before. One example is the conception of a self. By imagining what another person’s self was thinking, based on what they were saying, it became much easier to predict and explain their actions. At the same time, it became possible to predict and explain one’s own actions to one’s self, as well as to others; and not only one’s self in the here and now, but one’s future and past selves, and various hypothetical alternative selves in different circumstances. Referring to comments by Ray Jackendoff, Dennett says “when language came into existence, it brought into existence the kind of mind that can transform itself on a moment’s notice into a somewhat different virtual machine, taking on new projects, following new rules, adopting new policies. We are transformers. That’s what a mind is, as contrasted with a mere brain: the control system of a chameleonic transformer. A virtual machine for making more virtual machines. Non-human animals can engage in voluntary action of sorts. The bird that flies wherever it wants is voluntarily wheeling this way and that, voluntarily moving its wings, and it does this without benefit of language. … We have added a layer on top of the bird’s (and the ape’s and the dolphin’s) capacity to decide what to do next. It is not an anatomical layer of the brain, but a functional layer, a virtual layer composed somehow in the micro-details of the brain’s anatomy: We can ask each other to do things, and we can ask ourselves to do things. And at least sometimes we readily comply with these requests. Yes, your dog can be “asked” to do a variety of voluntary things, but it can’t ask why you make these requests. A male baboon can “ask” a nearby female for some grooming, but neither of them can discuss the likely outcome of compliance with this request, which might have serious consequences for both of them, especially if the male is not the alpha male of the troop. We human beings not only can do things when requested to do them; we can answer inquiries about what we are doing and why. We can engage in the practice of asking, and giving, reasons.”

In the section “How We Captured Reasons and Made Them Our Own”, Dennett leads with an epigram:

We are creatures who ask why, with norms as in other domains. We want to take morality not blindly as a set of taboos but as something with a point–or perhaps more than one point, but then we want to think about what those points might have to do with each other and how to reconcile them. – Allan Gibbard, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings

Dennett has often mentioned “free-floating rationales”: the evolutionary reasons that some things are as they are. He makes the point that minds allow humans to capture (at least some of) these free-floating rationales, and reason about them.

In the section “With a Little Help from My Friends” he summarizes the bootstrap process of creating a mind, in a suitable environment:

How, then, did you get here (moral agency) from there (the amoral unfreedom of an infant)? Not surprisingly, my answer will invoke the Darwinian themes of luck, environmental scaffolding, and gradualism. With a little bit of luck, and a little help from your friends, you put your considerable native talent to work, and bootstrapped your way to moral agency, inch by inch.

The basic process was outlined in Chapter 8: A proper human self is the largely unwitting creation of an interpersonal design process in which we encourage small children to become communicators and, in particular, to join our practice of asking for and giving reasons, and then reasoning about what to do and why. For this to work, you have to start with the right raw materials. You don’t succeed if you try it with your dog, for instance, or even a chimpanzee, as we know from a series of protracted and enthusiastic attempts over the years. Some human infants are also unable to rise to the occasion. The first threshold on the path to personhood, then, is simply whether or not one’s caregivers succeed in kindling a communicator. Those whose fires of reason just won’t light for one reason or another are consigned to a lower status, uncontroversially. It’s not their fault, it’s just their bad luck. …

Above the first threshold, people exhibit a wide diversity of further talents, for thinking and talking, and for self-control. Some of this difference is “genetic” – due manly to differences in the particular set of genes that compose their genomes – and some of it is congenital but not directly genetic (due to their mother’s malnutrition or drug addiction, or to fetal alcohol syndrome, for instance), and some of it has no cause at all, in the sense we discovered in Chapter 3: It is the result of chance.

In “Are We Freer Than We Want to Be?” he repeats a definition of freedom from Nicholas Maxwell: “the capacity to achieve what is of value in a range of circumstances.” He goes on:

I think this is about as good a short definition of freedom as could be. In particular, it appropriately leaves wide open the question of just what is of value. Our unique ability to reconsider our deepest convictions about what makes life worth living obliges us to take seriously the discovery that there is no palpable constraint on what we can consider. It is all up for grabs. To some people, this is a fearful prospect, opening the gates to nihilism and relativism, letting go of God’s commandments and risking a plunge into anarchy.

I think they should have more faith in their fellow human beings, and appreciate how amazingly subtle and adroit they are, how well equipped by nature and culture to formulate and participate in well-designed societal arrangements that maximize freedom for all. Far from being anarchic, such arrangements are – and must be – exquisitely tuned to strike a stable balance between shelter and elbow room. If we cannot achieve universality (Homo sapiens’ chauvinistic word for species-wide acceptance), we may at least be able to aspire to what Allan Gibbard calls “parochiality over the widest parish”.

Generally, I find Dennett’s views agreeable and optimistic.


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