Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
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Book: Freedom Evolves

Author: Daniel C Dennett

Details: (c) Daniel C Dennett 2003; Pub Penguin Books 2004; ISBN 0-140-28389-7

Verdict: Freedom Evolves is thought-provoking and engaging, but probably skippable unless you're really into this kind of thing.

Reasons for reading it: The issue of whether physics as we know it allows any possibility of free will is one that interests me very much. I've always taken it as a matter of faith that people have free will, but I've always been a bit uncomfortable with holding this, because everything I know about the way this universe works is either deterministic or random, not free. I'm not absolutist about materialism, but I come fairly close to it; evoking anything outside physical laws to explain any part of human experience is something I do extremely reluctantly and with great suspicion. Dennett's thesis is that, philosophically, it is possible to imagine free will in a purely deterministic (and non-theistic) system; of course, if it's logically possible it may also be physically possible in some way we haven't yet imagined.

Then, Dennett is very much part of an intellectual landscape where I like to play. I've heard him speak on one occasion, and a lot of the stuff I've read about – I think it can best be classified as philosophy of biology – refers to Dennett. So there were several factors pointing to my reading this book.

How it came into my hands: pseudomonas lent it to me (and brought it to my attention in the first place, thank you pseudomonas!)

Dennett is a very good communicator. He has a kind of jovial style, and makes abstruse concepts seem interesting and accessible, without sacrificing rigour. And he's open-minded about opposing views, providing serious discussion of theories which contradict his own rather than dismissing them, which I find most appealing. There are a lot of very cute and vivid images in Freedom Evolves, such as the role of randomness portrayed as a probability landscape inside a shaken snow-globe. For such dense material, FE is exceptionally readable.

About two thirds of FE is an overview of evolutionary biology and the ways you can and can't apply it to human society. This is extremely familiar to me; Dennett quotes at length from Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, both of which I've read, and makes a lot of references to Ridley, Jones, Penrose, Hofstadter and the rest of that crowd. This is not at all a problem, and the presentation is not at all bad; skimpy on the molecular side, but the molecular side is not really the point of the book. I wouldn't recommend this particular book to someone who wants an overview, though; such a person could do a lot worse than the two books I've cited.

The rest is philosophy; I get the feeling the book is really written for amateur philosophers who happen to want to apply philosophy to biology, rather than for biologists like me who want to dabble in philosophy. It seems to assume more knowledge of philosophy than I really have (though maybe that's just because I know so much less about the philosophical aspects of this book than the biological ones). I'm not entirely sure I understand all Dennett's arguments, and there are some cases where I'm pretty sure I disagree with him. But he provides a lot of interesting material to think about; even disagreeing with him is quite educational.

The overall thrust of FE is plausible even if I'm not sure of some of the details. One thing that does come across very clearly is that relying on quantum randomness to explain free will is philosophically no better than relying on Special Creation or other divine interference. In general, FE is very good at conveying the idea that complex living systems can arise out of simple inorganic components without any sort of departure from a materialist world view. That doesn't necessarily prove that life and human intelligence did arise in this way, just that theism or violation of physics are not philosophically necessary to explain them. I do like the fact that Dennett is clear about the distinction; he very nicely demolishes Dawkins' anti-religion rant by pointing out that just because religion is a meme is not any kind of justification to assume religion is bad or incorrect.

I think rho would probably get on rather well with this book. And in general I'd recommend it to people who like to think about this kind of thing, but it's not something that everybody should rush out and read unless they're basically already interested.
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