^z 9th June 2023 at 5:18pm

Daniel Dennett's Freedom Evolves is a wonderfully fun yet woefully frustrating book. The author's prose is delightful; he's a master musician-magician of metaphor. (I'm just an amateur alliterator.)

But many weeks after finishing DD's tome I'm still struggling to say something coherent about it. Maybe it's about "free will"? Maybe free will is intrinsically a complicated, messy, incoherent phenomenon? Maybe free will is the result of a large number of interacting factors, and for fundamental reasons can't be simplified into an easily synopsized argument? Maybe I'm just fuzzy-minded and need to drink more coffee?

In the spirit of my profound befuddlement, what follows is a basketful of pretty pebbles that have lodged under my mental mattress and kept me awake, or at least tossing (grenades) and turning (pages). Note that some are my own interpretative-impressionistic leaps inspired by Dennett, for which he obviously is not (much) responsible.

Toss into the stewpot:

  • It's wrong to think of mind as atomic, localized in spacetime:
    • Mind is not simply resident in the brain. Rather, mind is (at least somewhat) spread throughout the body, or even wider. (Remember the "Chinese Room" thought experiment, and the way that people can store and process information in their environments via arranging and manipulating objects and symbols. Think of the Wizard of Oz song, "If I only had a brain ... a heart ... the nerve"?!)
    • Mind is not simply a sequential process that moves forward moment by moment. Rather, there's a (short but nonzero) temporal gap between willing and doing. Simultaneity is slippery! "Deciding" is not an instantaneous phenomenon. (Perhaps of some relevance: the perceived feeling of conscious inevitability before certain ancient reflexive actions, e.g., some seconds before sneezing or some other delicate primal functions?!)
  • To summarize in DD's own words: "... our free will, like all our other mental powers, has to be smeared out over time, not measured at instants. Once you distribute the work done by the homunculus (in this case, decision-making, clock-watching, and decision-simultaneity-judging) in both space and time in the brain, you have to distribute the moral agency around as well. You are not out of the loop; you are the loop. You are that large. You are not an extensionless point. What you do and what you are incorporates all these things that happen and is not something separate from them."
  • Human nature: people have a strong propensity to find a cause for events. Sometimes there isn't a "cause" in particular cases, even in a deterministic universe ...
  • Is free will related to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics? (I'm highly skeptical, although I accept many-worlds in its physics context as a useful metaphor and technical tool.) Consider also Hilbert Space and the notion of running a thread back and forth through spacetime, thereby defining a timeline of perception and connected events ...
  • DD uses a wonderful word whose shape I love: obtunded. It means dulled, blunted, deadened, quelled ...
  • Consider the distinction between "real" and "artificial": what about identical chemicals (e.g., vanilla vs. vanillin?) or identical situations viewed from different perspectives? See also DD's witty discussion of what he terms "the nudist fallacy" and related arguments about naturalness ...
  • At the end of Chapter 9: "The self is a system that is given responsibility, over time, so that it can reliably be there to take responsibility, so that there is somebody home to answer when questions of accountability arise."
  • DD's wry sense of humor shines throughout Freedom Evolves. He has a particularly grand time discussing a scene in Brain Storm, a novel by Richard Dooling (1998), in which a pair of fictional neuroscientists writhe naked in passionate embrace on the laboratory floor, bereft of free will — or at least happily rationalizing their coupling by the argument that they are so. Consider also DD's hilarious "Strangle the Dentist" scenario ...
  • Some topics are extraordinarily difficult to think about because of their emotional charge and sensitive symbolic content. DD discusses one particularly delicate example, and invites "readers to reflect on how strong they find the urge to respond to such an 'unspeakable' proposal by turning off their minds and turning up the volume on their 'hearts.' This is part of the problem So sure are some people that they are being invited onto a buttered slide to perdition that they just can't let themselves think about such issues. Philosophers are supposed to be above such pressures, dispassionate contemplators of every conceivable option, insulated in their ivory towers, but that is a myth. In fact, philosophers rather relish the role of early warning scouts, heading off a dimly imagined catastrophe before it gets a chance to come into focus." (See also ^zhurnal TheUnspeakable (31 May 1999) ...)
  • "If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything" is a motif that DD develops and performs extensive intellectual riffs on. His footnote in Chapter 4 observes: "This was probably the most important sentence in Elbow Room (Dennett 1984, p. 143), and I made the stupid mistake of putting it in parentheses. I've been correcting that mistake in my work ever since, drawing out the many implications of abandoning the idea of a punctate self. Of course, what I meant to stress with my ironic formulation was the converse: You'd be surprised how much you can internalize, if you make yourself large."
  • A wondrous slogan DD quotes from Alcoholics Anonymous: "Fake it until you make it. ("See also ^zhurnal MissedManners (4 Oct 2001) ...)

Head swimming deep waters ...

(see also BitsPerLife (3 May 1999), MeanMeaners (3 Jul 1999), TheMysterians (2 Aug 1999), BitsOfConsciousness (21 Jan 2000), FreeAction (3 Apr 2000), ThoughtfulMetaphors (8 Nov 2000), ...)

TopicMind - TopicLiterature - TopicPhilosophy - 2003-07-03

(correlates: EsseQuamVideri, RemembranceDay, CaveThought, ...)