Daniel Dennett's latest book Freedom Evolves
continues the themes that have become his trademark in previous titles such as Consciousness Explained
and Darwin's Dangerous Idea
. His task is to give a thorough account of how we--and our minds--evolved and to calm fears that such an account presents a threat to the concept of free will.
In one of the most arresting and important chapters in the book, Dennett lays bare several common misconceptions about determinism and introduces a toy model which demonstrates how simple, mindlessly deterministic automata appear to make rational 'choices' to avoid harm in their limited environment. Dennett claims that misunderstanding of determinism is still prevalent among scientists and philosophers who subsequently misrepresent his views as they continue to resist a materialistic treatment of mind. Their fear is that if we should ever be revealed to be 'mere machines' this will bring with it a death sentence to consciousness and free-will. Such fears resist Dennett's argument as wrong and an insult to our sense of human dignity. After carefully addressing those fears, Dennett goes on to show how we humans can be both a creation of and a creator of culture; arguing that we are of course a species of animal but the emergence of human culture is a major innovation in evolutionary history providing our species with new tools to use, new topics to think about and new perspectives to think from.
What makes Dennett such an unforgettably stimulating philosopher is not just the breadth of his inter-disciplinary knowledge or his boldness and originality, it is that--knowing how difficult it is to get people to accept counter-intuitive ideas--he helps the reader visualise his materialistic/naturalistic world-view. There is undoubtedly still work to do to reconcile the philosophical implications of Darwinian materialism and what makes Dennett genuinely important is that he is set on trying to bring our precious values, including the notion of freedom, into line with Darwin and new found scientific discoveries.
He is encouraging us to drop the self-image we inherited from Christianity and the Western philosophical tradition with all its argument about a special extra added ingredient called consciousness that is unique to humans. Sure we have consciousness, but there's no magic in it, says Dennett. What we need, what Dennett is offering us, is a new improved self-image. Just because there isn't a self to be found sitting inside our brains looking out into the world and making decisions doesn't mean the self is an illusion.
There are other, better ways to think about the self, he stresses. He also argues that even though we are made of tiny mindless little robots that are oblivious to our hopes and needs, there's no shame in that and no reason for alarm. What we are made of and what we can hope and strive for are different things. Freedom Evolves is the culmination of three decades worth of research. --Larry Brown
?Dennett has taken on really big issues, made them clear, dealt with them seriously and given us much on which to reflect. . . . Crisp and critically insightful.? ("The Washington Post Book World") One of the most original thinkers of our time.? ("Science")
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