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on 14 July 2005
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", Daniel Dennett 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.

Yes, I'm being a little ironic. But, 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 Daniel Dennett's 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 metaphyiscal conundrums, you wonder what might be next on the agenda - "Right and Wrong: Finally Sorted" perhaps?

Olly Buxton
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HALL OF FAMEon 17 February 2004
Actually, that review title's false. This book is a tool kit aimed precisely at closed minds. Assuming that even closed minds have niches and clefts, Dennett's kit is for opening those nooks and crannies. Every tool is a tiny wedge, each labelled "natural selection." The closed ramparts he wants to breach are concepts most of us hold dear - "determinism," "free will" and "consciousness." He doesn't want to destroy those concepts. He wants to part the seams to insert new material. He wants his readers to "adjust their imaginations" to allow some redefinitions of these and other firmly held traditions. For that, he insists, is what evolution is all about for humans - that ideas are constantly in flux. Holding steadfastly to beliefs that new ideas challenge is our most grievous flaw. Dennett's wedges, so earnestly and skillfully inserted in our minds through this book, offer the promise of a more rational future.
Dennett argues that "determinism" has suffered bad press. We need to recognize that many things are "determined" - gravity, sunlight, the way our body's cells unite to keep you operating. Determinism is simply the rules of the game of life. That doesn't mean that the rules fix every aspect of life. Various choices appear at different times at many levels. Does the gazelle flee right or left? Does a bird seek food at this tree or that one? How many of these choices are "conscious" and how many innate? Humans, as part of their cultural heritage, have tended to see only themselves as possessors of "free will." Dennett argues that there are too many levels and too many variations to take such an absolutist stance.
A long evolutionary trail operating within the "determined" world environment has led to us. Humans, to a large extent, have overcome the barriers of what is "determined," but we must be cautious in celebrating that triumph. We are neither wholly free nor biologically driven. It's too easy to slip from "fixed" circumstances into "fixed" behaviour, which Dennett brands a false assumption. He scorns the frequently levied charge that evolutionary roots for our behaviour must deny our ability to think. He's equally disdainful of those who argue that memes obscure our will. His section on memes and memetics as a science is among the best in print.
No discussion on will can skirt the issues of ethics and morals. There will be readers who will skip to Chapter 7, yet those are the people who will pause at its title: "The Evolution of Moral Agency." Dennett's wedges are aimed at such, and it's to be hoped they will read carefully, as we all should. Many preconceived notions are held up for close scrutiny and assessment. Those notions are held by Dennett's readers and his critics and he addresses them ably. If we possess free will, then we must use it - but we must exercise it from a knowledgeable base. We must consider the impact of our choices before we apply them. Dennett offers some practical examples, some of them jarring in their import, for you to consider. The examples are those dealt with daily by law and government. They confront you directly and, in a "free" society, you must make choices you can live with. Dennett, far more than the rest of the philosopher's guild, confronts you with these choices in a clear and open manner. There are no mysteries or metaphysics to unravel. Read this and see if you are making choices in a rational manner. How rational your choices are will be up to you to assess. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 14 December 2009
The moment that a commentator introduces the notion of `Darwinian' into a discourse on a subject other than pure biology (and, in America, often that) the knives are out and there are immediate accusations of (genetic) determinism. Daniel Dennett follows on from his acclaimed `Darwin's Dangerous Idea' and dives into the shark-infested seas of free will versus determinism. However, any author who suggests that human behaviour and morality, or the mental faculties that control or influence them, may have evolved, tends to spend one book outlining his theory and the rest of his life answering his critics.
The author acknowledges that a naturalistic account of how our minds have evolved appears to threaten the traditional concept of free will, but feels that this fear has distorted philosophical and scientific investigations into the subject. He states his position at the outset: that the traditional link between determinism and inevitability is a mistaken one. He then sets about breaking that link and spends three chapters deriving his theory from first principals using models that demonstrate that inevitability is a design concept not a physical one. This is fundamental to his belief that evolution of the mind (whether or not it is a deterministic process) is not incompatible with free will.
Of course, contemplating the very organ that you are using to contemplate with is by definition difficult and ultimately limited. Dennett is an extremely lucid (and sometimes humorous) writer and there could be no clearer account of the ideas expressed in this book. But they are difficult. Knowledge of philosophy is not a prerequisite but it is more rewarding if the reader has a basic understanding of how philosophical principals work, and the author gives the reader the option of skipping the early chapters detailing the models used to uncouple determinism and inevitability. Freedom Evolves is a wide-ranging discourse (too detailed to discuss in any length in a brief review) encompassing many aspects of philosophy and evolutionary biology. The author addresses many of the criticisms to date and pre-empts some of those to come, making an important and truly original contribution to the discourse. It is not for the faint-hearted and if you find it too much of a struggle, the take home message is the author's own: that `The real threats to freedom are not metaphysical but political and social'
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on 15 May 2015
What this book is trying to say is a mystery in itself. A bit of a convoluted mess if you ask me. Maybe I'm not smart enough, but this book is annoyingly vacuous and up itself. Just says nothing and is without any real valuable or useful insight. Avoid this one, and try his others.
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on 17 April 2006
Dennet writes with so much wit and charm that even the sceptical determinist can become beguiled with his explainations of conciousness and the evolutionary shaping of free will.

Expertly written and very well paced for the lay-reader. This book left me with an optimistic feeling for the fate of humanity.
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on 20 August 2014
Well-argued but presented as the truth instead of what it really is: an hypothetical cosmology. In the way, it creates so many dogmas of things about which we know nothing about... It seems more a statement of faith, hidden behind a façade of scientific jargon, than a free exploration of the mysteries of life and all the different hypothetical cosmologies it brings about.

Whatever faith you choose (including this pseudo-scientific one), it may give you a high sense of security, but it will rob you of the immense pleasures of not-knowing what everything is about.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 August 2011
Natural Freedom
A Tool for Thinking About Determinism
Thinking About Determinism
A Hearing for Libertarianism
Where Does All The Design Come From?
Evolution of Open Minds
Evolution of Moral Agency
Are You Out of the Loop?
Bootstrapping Ourselves Free
The Future of Human Freedom

The chapter headings above show Dennett is never afraid to tackle the big questions, head on and with flair.

" ... we are each of us composed of trillions of robotic cells, each with its own complete set of genes and an impressive array of internal life-support machinery Why do these individual cells submit so selflessly to the good of the whole team?." (P 150) In this chapter, "E Pluribus Unum?", he looks at ways in which we have evolved by "trial and error" into the complex beings were have become; this leads him to genetic determinism and the ways in which early childhood experiences can affect our later life, quoting the Jesuits: "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man".

Dennett leaves few stones undisturbed in his wide-ranging investigation into human freedom and its future. Readers returning to Dennett will know what to expect; for others it will be a pleasant surprise but a challenging and demanding one in places.
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on 19 October 2012
To be honest I was expecting more than I got here,from a renowned author.Most of the book concerns theories,thought experiments and suppositions that should be familiar to most people with an interest in popular science and a beginners book in philosophy.He borrows heavily from Richard Dawkins/Matt Ridley and espouses Darwinian methods, by which conscious freedom evolves from the preconscious "situation action machines" that comprise more lowly creatures.
Most of the book seemed like an extended review of other books, but of particularly note was the hatchet job he does on Libet's famous experiment and the criticism of Daniel Wegner's' "The illusion of conscious will" in which he manages to both criticise and promote the authors work at the same time.In fact, he does a lot of direct quoting and never misses an opportunity to plug his own back catalogue as well.I started to get the impression that the whole project was cooked up at the annual faculty bun fight.
I found his writing style tiring at times,with sentences that where overly long and wandered off in other directions finally rejoining the initial starting point just as your attention had been subverted,requiring a reverse back to the start,to contextualise the middle.Too many of these occurrences tend to exhaust the concentration and I was beginning to begrudge spending the time and effort it took to read as I was page counting well before the mid-point.
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on 1 June 2007
This book left me with very mixed feelings. On the one hand I found it quite heavy going and that it didn't entirely live up to all the superlatives plastered over its covers. Not the cover with the goldfish which is shown here, incidentally. On the other hand there was one chapter which I found very useful indeed.

The chapter which I found useful included a discussion of Benjamin Libet's work. Libet describes how a 'readiness potential' can be detected prior to our getting the conscious intention that we are going to move. It starts to look as if our free will is under considerable threat from this finding. The only choice we are left with is a brief window of opportunity to veto the movement. As Ramachandran said, "... our conscious minds may not have free will, but rather 'free won't'"

Dennett tackles this in considerable detail and, if you are interested, you may find this one chapter justifies purchasing the book.

There is also a description of a highly unethical experiment which Dennett has named 'Grey Walter's pre-cognitive carousel.' Briefly, it was conducted on epilepsy patients who had electrodes implanted into their motor cortices. They were connected up to a slide projector and given a push button to advance the slides. The button was just a dummy - it wasn't connected to the slide projector. Whenever the patient decided to move to the next slide they found that the carousel had advanced before they had a chance to press the button. This gave rise to the very spooky feeling that the slide projector was reading their minds - which, in a sense, it was! Grey Walter never published this work but he described the experiment in a lecture which Dennett attended in 1963 or 1964.

All this detail is drawn from one chapter. I will allow this to colour the star-rating for this book. This probably makes it more generous than it should be. My interest levels in the remainder of the book were rather patchy. I wouldn't describe it as an easy read and whether it fully repays the effort is somewhat debatable.
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on 27 December 2014
Dennett basically argues that when we gained sapience (via evolution) we developed a "rational will" in addition to the "instinctual will" that sentience gives (though he doesnt use these terms). He ignores the fact that most religions see the soul as giving "free will" a will that is a god given loop hole to determinism (this is the elephant in the room, which if you will forgive the mixing of metaphors he is so desperately mudding the water to conceal).

Then he goes on to conflate the idea of "free will" and "rational will" (both ignoring and deliberately obscuring the elephant in the room).

Despite his best attempts to pass this rabbit off as a fish, that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that a fast-one-has-been-pulled, should not be ignored.
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