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Freedom Evolves

Daniel C. Dennett - Author

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ISBN 9780142003848 | 368 pages | 27 Jan 2004 | Penguin | 5.39 x 8.03in | 18 - AND UP
Summary of Freedom Evolves Summary of Freedom Evolves Reviews for Freedom Evolves An Excerpt from Freedom Evolves

An "intellectually liberating" (San Francisco Chronicle) exploration of free will and morality—from the acclaimed author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? Renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett emphatically answers “yes!” Using an array of provocative formulations, Dennett sets out to show how we alone among the animals have evolved minds that give us free will and morality. Weaving a richly detailed narrative, Dennett explains in a series of strikingly original arguments—drawing upon evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics, and philosophy—that far from being an enemy of traditional explorations of freedom, morality, and meaning, the evolutionary perspective can be an indispensable ally. In Freedom Evolves, Dennett seeks to place ethics on the foundation it deserves: a realistic, naturalistic, potentially unified vision of our place in nature.

One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers. It is our souls that are the source of all meaning, and the locus of all our suffering, our joy, our glory and shame. But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don't really have "free will" and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.

Learning What We Are

Sì, abbiamo un anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot.
Yes, we have a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots.
—Giulio Giorelli

We don't have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation, and once we understand what our freedom consists in, we will be much better prepared to protect it against the genuine threats that are so regularly misidentified.

A student of mine who went into the Peace Corps to avoid serving in the Vietnam War later told me about his efforts on behalf of a tribe living deep in the Brazilian forest. I asked him if he had been required to tell them about the conflict between the USA and the USSR. Not at all, he replied. There would have been no point in it. They had never heard of either America or the Soviet Union. In fact, they had never even heard of Brazil! It was still possible in the 1960s for a human being to live in a nation, and be subject to its laws, without the slightest knowledge of that fact. If we find this astonishing, it is because we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.

These quite recent discoveries about who we are and how we got here are unnerving, to say the least. What you are is an assemblage of roughly a hundred trillion cells, of thousands of different sorts. The bulk of these cells are "daughters" of the egg cell and sperm cell whose union started you, but they are actually outnumbered by the trillions of bacterial hitchhikers from thousands of different lineages stowed away in your body (Hooper et al. 1998). Each of your host cells is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous micro-robot. It is no more conscious than your bacterial guests are. Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

Each trillion-robot team is gathered together in a breathtakingly efficient regime that has no dictator but manages to keep itself organized to repel outsiders, banish the weak, enforce iron rules of discipline—and serve as the headquarters of one conscious self, one mind. These communities of cells are fascistic in the extreme, but your interests and values have little or nothing to do with the limited goals of the cells that compose you—fortunately. Some people are gentle and generous, others are ruthless; some are pornographers and others devote their lives to the service of God. It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that these striking differences must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somehow in the bodily headquarters. We now know that tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we have evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all. The differences among people are all due to the way their particular robotic teams are put together, over a lifetime of growth and experience. The difference between speaking French and speaking Chinese is a difference in the organization of the working parts, and so are all the other differences of knowledge and personality.

Since I am conscious and you are conscious, we must have conscious selves that are somehow composed of these strange little parts. How can this be? To see how such an extraordinary composition job could be accomplished, we need to look at the history of the design processes that did all the work, the evolution of human consciousness. We also need to see how these souls made of cellular robots actually do endow us with the important powers and resultant obligations that traditional immaterial souls were supposed to endow us with (by unspecified magic). Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul— is this a good bargain? What do we give up and what do we gain? People jump to fearful conclusions about this that are hugely mistaken. I propose to prove this by tracing the growth of freedom on our planet from its earliest beginnings at the dawn of life. What kinds of freedom? Different kinds will emerge as the story unfolds.

Four and a half billion years ago, the planet Earth was formed, and it was utterly without life. And so it stayed for perhaps half a billion years, until the first simple life-forms emerged, and then for the next three billion years or so, the planet's oceans teemed with life, but it was all blind and deaf. Simple cells multiplied, engulfing each other, exploiting each other in a thousand ways, but oblivious to the world beyond their membranes. Then finally much larger, more complex cells evolved—eukaryotes—still clueless and robotic, but with enough internal machinery to begin to specialize. So it continued for a few hundred million more years, the time it took for the algorithms of evolution to stumble upon good ways for these cells and their daughters and granddaughters to band together into multicellular organisms composed of millions, billions, and (eventually) trillions of cells, each doing its particular mechanical routine, but now yoked into specialized service, as part of an eye or an ear or a lung or a kidney. These organisms (not the individual team members composing them) had become long-distance knowers, able to spy supper trying to appear inconspicuous in the middle distance, able to hear danger threatening from afar. But still, even these whole organisms knew not what they were. Their instincts guaranteed that they tried to mate with the right sorts, and flock with the right sorts, but just as those Brazilians didn't know they were Brazilians, no bison has ever known it's a bison.

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute. No matter how different from one another we people are, scattered around the globe, we can explore our differences and communicate about them. No matter how similar to one another bison are, standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd, they cannot know much of anything about their similarities, let alone their differences, because they can't compare notes. They can have similar experiences, side by side, but they really can't share experiences the way we do.

Even in our species, it has taken thousands of years of communication for us to begin to find the keys to our own identities. It has been only a few hundred years that we've known that we are mammals, and only a few decades that we've understood in considerable detail how we have evolved, along with all other living things, from those simple beginnings. We are outnumbered on this planet by our distant cousins, the ants, and outweighed by yet more distant relatives, the bacteria. Though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future—a comet on a collision course, or global warming—and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
 
We may not be up to the job. We may destroy the planet instead of saving it, largely because we are such free-thinking, creative, unruly explorers and adventurers, so unlike the trillions of slavish workers that compose us. Brains are for anticipating the future, so that timely steps can be taken in better directions, but even the smartest of beasts have very limited time horizons, and little if any ability to imagine alternative worlds. We human beings, in contrast, have discovered the mixed blessing of being able to think even about our own deaths and beyond. A huge portion of our energy expenditure over the last ten thousand years has been devoted to assuaging the concerns provoked by this unsettling new vista that we alone have.

If you burn more calories than you take in, you soon die. If you find some tricks that provide you a surplus of calories, what might you spend them on? You might devote person-centuries of labor to building temples and tombs and sacrificial pyres on which you destroy some of your most precious possessions—and even some of your very own children. Why on earth would you want to do that? These strange and awful expenditures give us clues about some of the hidden costs of our heightened powers of imagination. We did not come by our knowledge painlessly.

Now what will we do with our knowledge? The birth pangs of our discoveries have not subsided. Many are afraid that learning too much about what we are—trading in mystery for mechanisms—will impoverish our vision of human possibility. This fear is understandable, but if we really were in danger of learning too much, wouldn't those on the cutting edge be showing signs of discomfort? Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society. In fact, if you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look to the recently fashionable tribe of post-modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accoutrements of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self-knowledge. The postmodernists are right that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been a major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it should still be obvious that the innovations of science—not just its microscopes and telescopes and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidence—are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach.

The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the "self-made man," but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what's about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it's the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it's much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.

One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers. It is our souls that are the source of all meaning, and the locus of all our suffering, our joy, our glory and shame. But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don't really have "free will" and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.

Learning What We Are

Sì, abbiamo un anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot.
Yes, we have a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots.
—Giulio Giorelli

We don't have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation, and once we understand what our freedom consists in, we will be much better prepared to protect it against the genuine threats that are so regularly misidentified.

A student of mine who went into the Peace Corps to avoid serving in the Vietnam War later told me about his efforts on behalf of a tribe living deep in the Brazilian forest. I asked him if he had been required to tell them about the conflict between the USA and the USSR. Not at all, he replied. There would have been no point in it. They had never heard of either America or the Soviet Union. In fact, they had never even heard of Brazil! It was still possible in the 1960s for a human being to live in a nation, and be subject to its laws, without the slightest knowledge of that fact. If we find this astonishing, it is because we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.

These quite recent discoveries about who we are and how we got here are unnerving, to say the least. What you are is an assemblage of roughly a hundred trillion cells, of thousands of different sorts. The bulk of these cells are "daughters" of the egg cell and sperm cell whose union started you, but they are actually outnumbered by the trillions of bacterial hitchhikers from thousands of different lineages stowed away in your body (Hooper et al. 1998). Each of your host cells is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous micro-robot. It is no more conscious than your bacterial guests are. Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

Each trillion-robot team is gathered together in a breathtakingly efficient regime that has no dictator but manages to keep itself organized to repel outsiders, banish the weak, enforce iron rules of discipline—and serve as the headquarters of one conscious self, one mind. These communities of cells are fascistic in the extreme, but your interests and values have little or nothing to do with the limited goals of the cells that compose you—fortunately. Some people are gentle and generous, others are ruthless; some are pornographers and others devote their lives to the service of God. It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that these striking differences must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somehow in the bodily headquarters. We now know that tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we have evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all. The differences among people are all due to the way their particular robotic teams are put together, over a lifetime of growth and experience. The difference between speaking French and speaking Chinese is a difference in the organization of the working parts, and so are all the other differences of knowledge and personality.

Since I am conscious and you are conscious, we must have conscious selves that are somehow composed of these strange little parts. How can this be? To see how such an extraordinary composition job could be accomplished, we need to look at the history of the design processes that did all the work, the evolution of human consciousness. We also need to see how these souls made of cellular robots actually do endow us with the important powers and resultant obligations that traditional immaterial souls were supposed to endow us with (by unspecified magic). Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul— is this a good bargain? What do we give up and what do we gain? People jump to fearful conclusions about this that are hugely mistaken. I propose to prove this by tracing the growth of freedom on our planet from its earliest beginnings at the dawn of life. What kinds of freedom? Different kinds will emerge as the story unfolds.

Four and a half billion years ago, the planet Earth was formed, and it was utterly without life. And so it stayed for perhaps half a billion years, until the first simple life-forms emerged, and then for the next three billion years or so, the planet's oceans teemed with life, but it was all blind and deaf. Simple cells multiplied, engulfing each other, exploiting each other in a thousand ways, but oblivious to the world beyond their membranes. Then finally much larger, more complex cells evolved—eukaryotes—still clueless and robotic, but with enough internal machinery to begin to specialize. So it continued for a few hundred million more years, the time it took for the algorithms of evolution to stumble upon good ways for these cells and their daughters and granddaughters to band together into multicellular organisms composed of millions, billions, and (eventually) trillions of cells, each doing its particular mechanical routine, but now yoked into specialized service, as part of an eye or an ear or a lung or a kidney. These organisms (not the individual team members composing them) had become long-distance knowers, able to spy supper trying to appear inconspicuous in the middle distance, able to hear danger threatening from afar. But still, even these whole organisms knew not what they were. Their instincts guaranteed that they tried to mate with the right sorts, and flock with the right sorts, but just as those Brazilians didn't know they were Brazilians, no bison has ever known it's a bison.

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute. No matter how different from one another we people are, scattered around the globe, we can explore our differences and communicate about them. No matter how similar to one another bison are, standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd, they cannot know much of anything about their similarities, let alone their differences, because they can't compare notes. They can have similar experiences, side by side, but they really can't share experiences the way we do.

Even in our species, it has taken thousands of years of communication for us to begin to find the keys to our own identities. It has been only a few hundred years that we've known that we are mammals, and only a few decades that we've understood in considerable detail how we have evolved, along with all other living things, from those simple beginnings. We are outnumbered on this planet by our distant cousins, the ants, and outweighed by yet more distant relatives, the bacteria. Though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future—a comet on a collision course, or global warming—and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
 
We may not be up to the job. We may destroy the planet instead of saving it, largely because we are such free-thinking, creative, unruly explorers and adventurers, so unlike the trillions of slavish workers that compose us. Brains are for anticipating the future, so that timely steps can be taken in better directions, but even the smartest of beasts have very limited time horizons, and little if any ability to imagine alternative worlds. We human beings, in contrast, have discovered the mixed blessing of being able to think even about our own deaths and beyond. A huge portion of our energy expenditure over the last ten thousand years has been devoted to assuaging the concerns provoked by this unsettling new vista that we alone have.

If you burn more calories than you take in, you soon die. If you find some tricks that provide you a surplus of calories, what might you spend them on? You might devote person-centuries of labor to building temples and tombs and sacrificial pyres on which you destroy some of your most precious possessions—and even some of your very own children. Why on earth would you want to do that? These strange and awful expenditures give us clues about some of the hidden costs of our heightened powers of imagination. We did not come by our knowledge painlessly.

Now what will we do with our knowledge? The birth pangs of our discoveries have not subsided. Many are afraid that learning too much about what we are—trading in mystery for mechanisms—will impoverish our vision of human possibility. This fear is understandable, but if we really were in danger of learning too much, wouldn't those on the cutting edge be showing signs of discomfort? Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society. In fact, if you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look to the recently fashionable tribe of post-modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accoutrements of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self-knowledge. The postmodernists are right that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been a major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it should still be obvious that the innovations of science—not just its microscopes and telescopes and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidence—are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach.

The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the "self-made man," but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what's about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it's the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it's much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.

Daniel C. Dennett is a brilliant polemicist, famous for challenging unexamined orthodoxies. Over the last thirty years, he has played a major role in expanding our understanding of consciousness, developmental psychology, and evolutionary theory. And with such groundbreaking, critically acclaimed books as Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea  (a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist), he has reached a huge general and professional audience.
 
In this new book, Dennett shows that evolution is the key to resolving the ancient problems of moral and political freedom. Like the planet's atmosphere on which life depends, the conditions on which our freedom depends had to evolve, and like the atmosphere, they continue to evolve—and could be extinguished. According to Dennett, biology provides the perspective from which we can distinguish the varieties of freedom that matter.  Throughout the history of life on this planet, an interacting web and internal and external conditions have provided the frameworks for the design of agents that are more free than their parts—from the unwitting gropings of the simplest life forms to the more informed activities of animals to the moral dilemmas that confront human beings living in societies.

As in his previous books, Dennett weaves a richly detailed narrative enlivened by analogies as entertaining as they are challenging. Here is the story of how we came to be different from all other creatures, how our early ancestors mindlessly created human culture, and then, how culture gave us our minds, our visions, our moral problems—in a nutshell, our freedom.

One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers. It is our souls that are the source of all meaning, and the locus of all our suffering, our joy, our glory and shame. But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don't really have "free will" and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.

Learning What We Are

Sì, abbiamo un anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot.
Yes, we have a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots.
—Giulio Giorelli

We don't have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation, and once we understand what our freedom consists in, we will be much better prepared to protect it against the genuine threats that are so regularly misidentified.

A student of mine who went into the Peace Corps to avoid serving in the Vietnam War later told me about his efforts on behalf of a tribe living deep in the Brazilian forest. I asked him if he had been required to tell them about the conflict between the USA and the USSR. Not at all, he replied. There would have been no point in it. They had never heard of either America or the Soviet Union. In fact, they had never even heard of Brazil! It was still possible in the 1960s for a human being to live in a nation, and be subject to its laws, without the slightest knowledge of that fact. If we find this astonishing, it is because we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.

These quite recent discoveries about who we are and how we got here are unnerving, to say the least. What you are is an assemblage of roughly a hundred trillion cells, of thousands of different sorts. The bulk of these cells are "daughters" of the egg cell and sperm cell whose union started you, but they are actually outnumbered by the trillions of bacterial hitchhikers from thousands of different lineages stowed away in your body (Hooper et al. 1998). Each of your host cells is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous micro-robot. It is no more conscious than your bacterial guests are. Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

Each trillion-robot team is gathered together in a breathtakingly efficient regime that has no dictator but manages to keep itself organized to repel outsiders, banish the weak, enforce iron rules of discipline—and serve as the headquarters of one conscious self, one mind. These communities of cells are fascistic in the extreme, but your interests and values have little or nothing to do with the limited goals of the cells that compose you—fortunately. Some people are gentle and generous, others are ruthless; some are pornographers and others devote their lives to the service of God. It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that these striking differences must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somehow in the bodily headquarters. We now know that tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we have evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all. The differences among people are all due to the way their particular robotic teams are put together, over a lifetime of growth and experience. The difference between speaking French and speaking Chinese is a difference in the organization of the working parts, and so are all the other differences of knowledge and personality.

Since I am conscious and you are conscious, we must have conscious selves that are somehow composed of these strange little parts. How can this be? To see how such an extraordinary composition job could be accomplished, we need to look at the history of the design processes that did all the work, the evolution of human consciousness. We also need to see how these souls made of cellular robots actually do endow us with the important powers and resultant obligations that traditional immaterial souls were supposed to endow us with (by unspecified magic). Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul— is this a good bargain? What do we give up and what do we gain? People jump to fearful conclusions about this that are hugely mistaken. I propose to prove this by tracing the growth of freedom on our planet from its earliest beginnings at the dawn of life. What kinds of freedom? Different kinds will emerge as the story unfolds.

Four and a half billion years ago, the planet Earth was formed, and it was utterly without life. And so it stayed for perhaps half a billion years, until the first simple life-forms emerged, and then for the next three billion years or so, the planet's oceans teemed with life, but it was all blind and deaf. Simple cells multiplied, engulfing each other, exploiting each other in a thousand ways, but oblivious to the world beyond their membranes. Then finally much larger, more complex cells evolved—eukaryotes—still clueless and robotic, but with enough internal machinery to begin to specialize. So it continued for a few hundred million more years, the time it took for the algorithms of evolution to stumble upon good ways for these cells and their daughters and granddaughters to band together into multicellular organisms composed of millions, billions, and (eventually) trillions of cells, each doing its particular mechanical routine, but now yoked into specialized service, as part of an eye or an ear or a lung or a kidney. These organisms (not the individual team members composing them) had become long-distance knowers, able to spy supper trying to appear inconspicuous in the middle distance, able to hear danger threatening from afar. But still, even these whole organisms knew not what they were. Their instincts guaranteed that they tried to mate with the right sorts, and flock with the right sorts, but just as those Brazilians didn't know they were Brazilians, no bison has ever known it's a bison.

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute. No matter how different from one another we people are, scattered around the globe, we can explore our differences and communicate about them. No matter how similar to one another bison are, standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd, they cannot know much of anything about their similarities, let alone their differences, because they can't compare notes. They can have similar experiences, side by side, but they really can't share experiences the way we do.

Even in our species, it has taken thousands of years of communication for us to begin to find the keys to our own identities. It has been only a few hundred years that we've known that we are mammals, and only a few decades that we've understood in considerable detail how we have evolved, along with all other living things, from those simple beginnings. We are outnumbered on this planet by our distant cousins, the ants, and outweighed by yet more distant relatives, the bacteria. Though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future—a comet on a collision course, or global warming—and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
 
We may not be up to the job. We may destroy the planet instead of saving it, largely because we are such free-thinking, creative, unruly explorers and adventurers, so unlike the trillions of slavish workers that compose us. Brains are for anticipating the future, so that timely steps can be taken in better directions, but even the smartest of beasts have very limited time horizons, and little if any ability to imagine alternative worlds. We human beings, in contrast, have discovered the mixed blessing of being able to think even about our own deaths and beyond. A huge portion of our energy expenditure over the last ten thousand years has been devoted to assuaging the concerns provoked by this unsettling new vista that we alone have.

If you burn more calories than you take in, you soon die. If you find some tricks that provide you a surplus of calories, what might you spend them on? You might devote person-centuries of labor to building temples and tombs and sacrificial pyres on which you destroy some of your most precious possessions—and even some of your very own children. Why on earth would you want to do that? These strange and awful expenditures give us clues about some of the hidden costs of our heightened powers of imagination. We did not come by our knowledge painlessly.

Now what will we do with our knowledge? The birth pangs of our discoveries have not subsided. Many are afraid that learning too much about what we are—trading in mystery for mechanisms—will impoverish our vision of human possibility. This fear is understandable, but if we really were in danger of learning too much, wouldn't those on the cutting edge be showing signs of discomfort? Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society. In fact, if you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look to the recently fashionable tribe of post-modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accoutrements of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self-knowledge. The postmodernists are right that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been a major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it should still be obvious that the innovations of science—not just its microscopes and telescopes and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidence—are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach.

The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the "self-made man," but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what's about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it's the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it's much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.

Daniel C. Dennett is a brilliant polemicist, famous for challenging unexamined orthodoxies. Over the last thirty years, he has played a major role in expanding our understanding of consciousness, developmental psychology, and evolutionary theory. And with such groundbreaking, critically acclaimed books as Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea  (a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist), he has reached a huge general and professional audience.
 
In this new book, Dennett shows that evolution is the key to resolving the ancient problems of moral and political freedom. Like the planet's atmosphere on which life depends, the conditions on which our freedom depends had to evolve, and like the atmosphere, they continue to evolve—and could be extinguished. According to Dennett, biology provides the perspective from which we can distinguish the varieties of freedom that matter.  Throughout the history of life on this planet, an interacting web and internal and external conditions have provided the frameworks for the design of agents that are more free than their parts—from the unwitting gropings of the simplest life forms to the more informed activities of animals to the moral dilemmas that confront human beings living in societies.

As in his previous books, Dennett weaves a richly detailed narrative enlivened by analogies as entertaining as they are challenging. Here is the story of how we came to be different from all other creatures, how our early ancestors mindlessly created human culture, and then, how culture gave us our minds, our visions, our moral problems—in a nutshell, our freedom.

One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers. It is our souls that are the source of all meaning, and the locus of all our suffering, our joy, our glory and shame. But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don't really have "free will" and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.

Learning What We Are

Sì, abbiamo un anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot.
Yes, we have a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots.
—Giulio Giorelli

We don't have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation, and once we understand what our freedom consists in, we will be much better prepared to protect it against the genuine threats that are so regularly misidentified.

A student of mine who went into the Peace Corps to avoid serving in the Vietnam War later told me about his efforts on behalf of a tribe living deep in the Brazilian forest. I asked him if he had been required to tell them about the conflict between the USA and the USSR. Not at all, he replied. There would have been no point in it. They had never heard of either America or the Soviet Union. In fact, they had never even heard of Brazil! It was still possible in the 1960s for a human being to live in a nation, and be subject to its laws, without the slightest knowledge of that fact. If we find this astonishing, it is because we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.

These quite recent discoveries about who we are and how we got here are unnerving, to say the least. What you are is an assemblage of roughly a hundred trillion cells, of thousands of different sorts. The bulk of these cells are "daughters" of the egg cell and sperm cell whose union started you, but they are actually outnumbered by the trillions of bacterial hitchhikers from thousands of different lineages stowed away in your body (Hooper et al. 1998). Each of your host cells is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous micro-robot. It is no more conscious than your bacterial guests are. Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.

Each trillion-robot team is gathered together in a breathtakingly efficient regime that has no dictator but manages to keep itself organized to repel outsiders, banish the weak, enforce iron rules of discipline—and serve as the headquarters of one conscious self, one mind. These communities of cells are fascistic in the extreme, but your interests and values have little or nothing to do with the limited goals of the cells that compose you—fortunately. Some people are gentle and generous, others are ruthless; some are pornographers and others devote their lives to the service of God. It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that these striking differences must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somehow in the bodily headquarters. We now know that tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we have evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all. The differences among people are all due to the way their particular robotic teams are put together, over a lifetime of growth and experience. The difference between speaking French and speaking Chinese is a difference in the organization of the working parts, and so are all the other differences of knowledge and personality.

Since I am conscious and you are conscious, we must have conscious selves that are somehow composed of these strange little parts. How can this be? To see how such an extraordinary composition job could be accomplished, we need to look at the history of the design processes that did all the work, the evolution of human consciousness. We also need to see how these souls made of cellular robots actually do endow us with the important powers and resultant obligations that traditional immaterial souls were supposed to endow us with (by unspecified magic). Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul— is this a good bargain? What do we give up and what do we gain? People jump to fearful conclusions about this that are hugely mistaken. I propose to prove this by tracing the growth of freedom on our planet from its earliest beginnings at the dawn of life. What kinds of freedom? Different kinds will emerge as the story unfolds.

Four and a half billion years ago, the planet Earth was formed, and it was utterly without life. And so it stayed for perhaps half a billion years, until the first simple life-forms emerged, and then for the next three billion years or so, the planet's oceans teemed with life, but it was all blind and deaf. Simple cells multiplied, engulfing each other, exploiting each other in a thousand ways, but oblivious to the world beyond their membranes. Then finally much larger, more complex cells evolved—eukaryotes—still clueless and robotic, but with enough internal machinery to begin to specialize. So it continued for a few hundred million more years, the time it took for the algorithms of evolution to stumble upon good ways for these cells and their daughters and granddaughters to band together into multicellular organisms composed of millions, billions, and (eventually) trillions of cells, each doing its particular mechanical routine, but now yoked into specialized service, as part of an eye or an ear or a lung or a kidney. These organisms (not the individual team members composing them) had become long-distance knowers, able to spy supper trying to appear inconspicuous in the middle distance, able to hear danger threatening from afar. But still, even these whole organisms knew not what they were. Their instincts guaranteed that they tried to mate with the right sorts, and flock with the right sorts, but just as those Brazilians didn't know they were Brazilians, no bison has ever known it's a bison.

In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year-old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute. No matter how different from one another we people are, scattered around the globe, we can explore our differences and communicate about them. No matter how similar to one another bison are, standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd, they cannot know much of anything about their similarities, let alone their differences, because they can't compare notes. They can have similar experiences, side by side, but they really can't share experiences the way we do.

Even in our species, it has taken thousands of years of communication for us to begin to find the keys to our own identities. It has been only a few hundred years that we've known that we are mammals, and only a few decades that we've understood in considerable detail how we have evolved, along with all other living things, from those simple beginnings. We are outnumbered on this planet by our distant cousins, the ants, and outweighed by yet more distant relatives, the bacteria. Though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future—a comet on a collision course, or global warming—and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
 
We may not be up to the job. We may destroy the planet instead of saving it, largely because we are such free-thinking, creative, unruly explorers and adventurers, so unlike the trillions of slavish workers that compose us. Brains are for anticipating the future, so that timely steps can be taken in better directions, but even the smartest of beasts have very limited time horizons, and little if any ability to imagine alternative worlds. We human beings, in contrast, have discovered the mixed blessing of being able to think even about our own deaths and beyond. A huge portion of our energy expenditure over the last ten thousand years has been devoted to assuaging the concerns provoked by this unsettling new vista that we alone have.

If you burn more calories than you take in, you soon die. If you find some tricks that provide you a surplus of calories, what might you spend them on? You might devote person-centuries of labor to building temples and tombs and sacrificial pyres on which you destroy some of your most precious possessions—and even some of your very own children. Why on earth would you want to do that? These strange and awful expenditures give us clues about some of the hidden costs of our heightened powers of imagination. We did not come by our knowledge painlessly.

Now what will we do with our knowledge? The birth pangs of our discoveries have not subsided. Many are afraid that learning too much about what we are—trading in mystery for mechanisms—will impoverish our vision of human possibility. This fear is understandable, but if we really were in danger of learning too much, wouldn't those on the cutting edge be showing signs of discomfort? Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society. In fact, if you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look to the recently fashionable tribe of post-modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accoutrements of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self-knowledge. The postmodernists are right that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been a major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it should still be obvious that the innovations of science—not just its microscopes and telescopes and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidence—are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach.

The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the "self-made man," but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what's about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it's the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it's much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.

freedom evolves Preface

Chapter 1: Natural Freedom
Learning What We Are
I Am Who I Am
The Air We Breathe
Dumbo's Magic Feather and the Peril of Paulina

Chapter 2: A Tool For Thinking About Determinism
Some Useful Oversimplifications
From Physics to Design in Conway's Life World
Can We Get The Deus ex Machina?
From Slow-motion Avoidance to Star Wars
The Birth of Evitability

Chapter 3: Thinking About Determinism
Possible Worlds
Causation
Austin's Putt
A Computer Chess Marathon
Events without Causes in a Deterministic Universe
Will the Future Be Like the Past?

Chapter 4: A Hearing For Libertarianism
The Appeal of Libertarianism
Where Should We Put the Much-needed Gap?
Kane's Model of Indeterministic Decision-making
"If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything"
Beware of Prime Mammals
How Can It Be "Up to Me"?

Chapter 5: Where Does All The Design Come From?
Early Days
The Prisoner's Dilemma
E Pluribus Unum?
Digression: The Threat of Genetic Determinism
Degrees of Freedom and the Search for Truth

Chapter 6: The Evolution Of Open Minds
How Cultural Symbionts Turn Primates into Persons
The Diversity of Darwinian Explanations
Nice Tools, but You Still Have to Use Them

Chapter 7: The Evolution Of Moral Agency
Benselfishness
Being Good in Order to Seem Good
Learning to Deal with Yourself
Our Costly Merit Badges

Chapter 8: Are You Out Of The Loop?
Drawing the Wrong Moral
Whenever the Spirit Moves You
A Mind-writer's View
A Self of One's Own

Chapter 9: Bootstrapping Ourselves Free
How We Captured Reasons and Made Them Our Own
Psychic Engineering and the Arms Race of Rationality
With a Little Help from My Friends
Autonomy, Brainwashing, and Education

Chapter 10: The Future Of Human Freedom
Holding the Line against Creeping Exculpation
"Thanks, I Needed That"
Are We Freer Than We Want to Be?
Human Freedom Is Fragile

Bibliography
Index
“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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