Monday, July 20, 2009

Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett

Freedom Evolves Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We live in a deterministic universe.

Drop an apple and it will reliably fall to the ground, knock a snooker ball (or an atom) into another one at a particular speed and angle and you can predict the paths of both of them. Even the strange sub-atomic quantum realm operates within areas of probability that average out to give us the predictable effects that we can measure on larger scales.

As Douglas Hofstadter argues in 'Godel, Escher, Bach' our brains are composed of neurons with the simple function of switching off and on in response to the inputs from their neighbours and thus can be considered as formal systems acting in a deterministic fashion. Determinism implies that given a particular configuration of particles in the universe (including the states of the neurons in our brains) there is only one possible state that the system can advance at the next tick of the cosmic clock. How can the absolute inevitability of all things be reconciled with the sense of free will that we all experience?

It's a tricky question, and one that Dennett does not shy away from confronting in this book. It's a question that makes some people very nervous - if we don't have free will then what is the point of anything? Dennett likens this to Dumbo the elephant who believes that he can only fly when holding his magic feather until a pesky crow points out that the feather is not needed - stop that crow! Needless to say, Dennett sees himself in the role of the crow questioning the magic feathers that we insist on clinging onto.

He squares the circle by first explaining exactly what determinism is and what it implies, beginning with simple mathematical models such as Conway's Life game and chess playing computers, and then shown how rational agents can develop 'evitability' within such systems. He then argues that natural selection of both our brains and the cultural memes that govern our lives have given rise to consciousness and free will, as well as concepts such as morality and altruism that initially seem at odds with 'red in tooth and claw' style Darwinism.

If the book has any faults, it is that Dennett spends quite a lot of the time trying to anticipate the arguments that will be raised in objection to his thesis, thus making some of the early chapters somewhat convoluted in their presentation as he defines what determinism and free will are not before moving on to give his own ideas.

Absolutely fascinating, and full of optimism for our ability to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps of our own consciousness.

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