Breaking the Spell

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How to Philosophise with a Hammer

Daniel Dennett is not a man to shy from grand philosophical pronouncements. Having declared the book closed on the Mind debate in Consciousness Explained (others are still offering odds) and having found beyond reasonable doubt for the Botanist in the case of Darwin vs. God in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea", he now purports to settle the third of the great metaphysical questions: Do we have free will? Not only that, indeed, but he purports — I think — to have found a method for achieving moral objectivity while he was at it.

For the most part, I’m a buyer: Dennett’s books are certainly fascinating and, in large part, compelling, and this one is no exception.

Just as there are similar strands between Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, there are some very familiar concepts here — old hands will recognise Conway's life world, the Prisoner's Dilemma, and Benjamin Libet's experiment which (seemed to) describe a “missing 300ms” between neural activity and consciousness of it — to the point where you might think to skip a few pages altogether.

This would be a mistake, however, for a reason which nicely complements Dennett's own “multiple drafts” theory of consciousness: repeated examination of the same ideas, in a new context, and with the benefit of a refined explanation, affords the reader new perspectives, and enhances comprehension of this book, but also the earlier ones. In the case of Libet's experiment, Dennett is much more compelling in his counterarguments than in Consciousness Explained - the revised draft gives a better view of the point.

What is so pleasing about all three books are the consistency of thoughts and ideas between them across what are at first glance disparate lines of inquiry - the unifying meta-theory here is Darwin's - applied in quite different (but clearly related) contexts. Dennett extends the application of his arguments to some economic and quasi-political situations - everyday life, to you and me, where these questions actually matter - and gets mostly the right results. (It never fails to amaze me how highly intelligent, extremely well educated, university professors in social sciences fail to grasp even the basic tenets of economic theory, so it is a welcome sign that one of their number might do, especially one who once publicly struggled with the Laffer curve)

I have two, related, complaints about Freedom Evolves. Of all the metaphysical conundrums, Free will is — and ought to be — the least interesting, and most prone to catcalls from those in the cheap seats who think philosophy is wishy-washy, head-up-posterior, nonsense.

Where consciousness has profound practical implications for our understanding of the world and how to live in it (not least in the field of AI); and whether God exists or not has profound implications for our sense of morality, the free will debate has neither feature: we all think we are free to choose; as a brute fact either we are or we're not: but either way, we can’t change it (if we're not free, then we aren’t free to change to be free; if we are free, we're not free to decide not to be). Whatever the answer is, it can’t make any difference to the way we live out our lives, since whether we're free to choose begs the very question we're asking.

That said, Dennett's Darwinian-influenced arguments are compelling in support of the case for free will.

What isn’t so compelling is the small part of the book in which he allows metaphysics to tip over into ethics. For the second book in a row, Dennett has made some unwelcome noises about sketching out some sort of theory of moral objectivity. He doesn’t dwell on it, as such, but it is definitely there: writing elliptically, I think Dennett attempts to make a case for a sort of Moral Objectivism to be derived from evolution. He says, as his book draws to a close:

“The philosopher's problem is to negotiate the transition from 'is' to 'ought', or more precisely to show how we might go beyond the 'merely historical' fact that certain customs and policies have had, as a matter of fact, widespread societal endorsement, and get all the way to norms that command assent in all rational agents. Successful instances of this move are known. Bootstrapping has worked in the past, and it can work here as well. We don’t need a skyhook.”

I find this paragraph utterly baffling. It arrives so unannounced, and is so totally at odds with the very spirit and sense of everything else in this Darwin-influenced meta-theory, I just can’t see what on earth possessed him to write it. What conceivable role could “norms commanding asset in all rational agents” in the gloriously unpredictable topography of the evolutionary journey possibly have?

Dennett compares this to the process of obtaining a (virtually) perfect straightedge over centuries by continually refining our technique for making straighter and straighter straightedges - apparently missing the point that in the case of the straightedge there is an immutable, single, unmistakable, universally understood abstract concept of a “perfectly straight line” which the manufactured straightedge is aiming to achieve; as such, it could scarcely be different to describing norms generally agreed amongst poorly defined (and constantly mutating) communities of individuals which have been developed unsystematically over time in reaction to drastically shifting environmental and societal factors to regulate the behaviour of a community which itself is moving randomly through design space (i.e., evolving).

Now, since when is transforming “is” to “ought” the philosopher's problem? Isn’t the philosopher's job done when we can look at this wonderful model derived from Darwin's work, and say: Look, mum, no homunculus! No intelligent designer! No rules!

Having knocked off the three main metaphysical conundrums, you wonder what might be next on the agenda - “Right and Wrong: Finally Sorted” perhaps?