Friday, October 10, 2008

Daniel Dennett: Elbow Room

Daniel Dennett
Elbow Room
The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting

The following is a short summary of my impressions after reading Daniel Dennett's thought-provoking Elbow Room, a medium-length (172 pages) philosophical inquiry into the perennial problem of free will.

What I have always appreciated about Dennett's methodology is that he takes the findings of science seriously, using it to fuel much of his philosophical speculation. As he says:

"[The fear of science] survives on ignorance. It is fostered by oversimplified visions of what science has to tell us about ourselves and the rest of the universe, about causation, about time, about possibility. So long as we refuse to look closely at the details of what the scientific image of humanity might be—for fear of what we might find—the suspicion will always persist that abstract philosophical arguments purporting to prove the compatibility of freedom and science are just so much whistling in the dark." (p. 170)


"I know that the naturalistic attitude I have espoused, the attitude that encourages us to think of ourselves, imaginatively, as organic robots, as designed portions of the material universe, is odious to many humanists. I have tried to show them that in shunning it, they turn their back on a fruitful source of philosophical ideas." (p. 171)

Dennett's argument is that while "we are afraid of not having free will" (p. 5), when we examine the "bogeymen" (The Invisible Jailer, The Nefarious Neurosurgeon, The Cosmic Child Whose Dolls We Are, The Malevolent Mindreader, The Disappearing Self, The Dread Secret, as he calls them) a world devoid of free will is purported to entail, there is not as much cause for concern as we may think. Dennett urges us to think of the issue in the following way:

"Ask yourself: can I even conceive of beings whose wills are freer than our own? What regrettable feature of our lot as physical organisms is not a feature of their lot? If the ideal of freedom we hold out for is simply self-contradictory, we should hardly feel bereft when we learn we cannot have it. There's no sense wringing our hands because we can't undo the past, and can't prevent an event that actually happens, and can't create ourselves ex nihilo, and can't choose both alternatives at a decision point, and can't be perfect." (p. 172)

Another section I found interesting was Dennett's discussion of the issues of agency, deliberation, and the limits of self-knowledge. Micro-knowledge of how these processes occur within ourselves is likely impossible—indeed, these are areas to which we have "underprivileged access." Because of this, we are prone to attributing a center of agency (a self) to our mental processes:

"Faced with our inability to 'see' (by 'introspection') where the center or source of our free actions is, and loath to abandon our conviction that we really do things (for which we are responsible), we exploit the cognitive vacuum, the gaps in our self-knowledge, by filling it with a rather magical and mysterious entity, the unmoved mover, the active self." (p. 79)


"...there is something like an illusion of scale caused by magnification of effects by the nervous system. Whatever else we are, we are information-processing systems, and all information-processing systems rely on amplifiers of a sort. Relatively small causes are made to yield relatively large effects." (p. 76)

With regard to the mental activity of deliberation, which could be described as running various scenarios in our heads to determine optimal ways of acting (the "inner game of tennis" in which conflicting options compete in our heads), Dennett has some interesting things to say about why such a strategy may have arisen during the course of the brain's evolution:

"Under what conditions would the activity of asking oneself questions be useful? All one needs to suppose is that there is some compartmentalization and imperfect internal communication between components of a creature's cognitive system, so that one component can need the output of another component but be unable to address that component directly. Suppose the only way of getting component A to do its job is to provoke it into action by a certain sort of stimulus that normally comes from the outside, from another creature. If one day one discovers that one can play the role of this other and achieve a good result by autostimulation, the practice will blaze a valuable new communicative trail between one's internal components, a trail that happens to wander out into the public space of airwaves and acoustics." (p. 40)

Maybe this explains why our heads are filled with so many (often superfluous) thoughts!

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