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Freedom Evolves

Daniel C. Dennett

Dennett, Daniel C.;

Freedom Evolves

Penguin, 2004, 368 pages

ISBN 0142003840, 9780142003848

topics: |  philosophy | free-will

Do we have freedom of choice? If the mind is just the brain and there is nothing else, then our behaviours can be reduced to interactions of molecules in the brain, and appear to be deterministic. If this is the case, then where is the place for free will?

There are two ways of handling this situation.

a. We are deterministic, and free will is a myth. Hard-headed scientific types sometimes proclaim their acceptance of this position, even declaring it a no-brainer. Many of them would add: And if determinism is false, we still don't have free will—we don't have free will in any case; it's an incoherent concept. But then, how come they hold onto this position with such vigour? Or, why do they let strongly held moral convictions to guide their actions in daily life?

b. Libertarianism: We do have free will, so determinism must be false.

Fortunately, thanks to quantum physicists, the received view among scientists today is that indeterminism is true (at the subatomic level and, by implication, at higher levels under various specifiable conditions)... but can the indeterminism of quantum physics be related to human decision making? [p.97-98]

This book considers the problem of free will (and eventually moral decision making/ ethics) in a post-cartesian mechanistic world.

If everything is deterministic, we don't have free will [ch.4]. So where does choice come from? Consider intelligence as a result of a number of autonomous processes. The point is that a number of autonomous processes acting together (he uses the game of Life, by Conway, to great effect p.36-41) create a nondeterminism where systems exhibit chaotic behaviours. Details Benjamin Libet's experiment on the onset of consciousness, who shows that certain brain patterns can reliably predict this conscious awareness - presents some of Libet's original figures (p.227-230). [The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will by Benjamin Libet, Anthony Freeman, Keith Sutherland [books?id=GygmUh51_AcC]

Thus, Dennett is essentially arguing that freedom is a result of increasing complexity. Thus, higher-level structures (categories) were not present in ancient organisms, but have arisen as organisms have become more complex. One of the results is the emergence of free will, and Dennett argues that this free will can exist even in a deterministic world.

While he does consider game theoretic notions of equilibrium, I am surprised that Dennett does not consider the complexities arising from nonlinear system behaviour, such as chaos, which implies that even though the system is deterministic, this is true only if the input is measured with infinite precision. Hence, since our sensory inputs are finite, things for most agents in the world are far from deterministic. Hence, in God's mind (with infinite precision) all our actions, including my typing this word here now, may be pre-determined, but for me it is an act of free will.

The thrust of the argument is to support the case for humans being in some way distinct from other animals, and to tie in this argument with earlier positions in western philosophy linking human uniqueness with free will. As John Gray points out in his review (below) in The Independent, this is ultimately an attempt to defend what is essentially a Judaeo-Christian stance:

	If natural selection had been discovered in India, China or Japan, it
	is hard to imagine it making much of a stir. Darwin's discovery
	signalled a major advance in human knowledge, but its cultural impact
	came from the fact that it was made in a milieu permeated by the
	Judaeo-Christian belief in human uniqueness.

Gray argues that ideas don't propagate via memes alone, they also propagate
by the sword.  Making your opponents extinct may be a more successful
approach than convincing them.


DETERMINISM is the thesis that "There is at any instant exactly one physically
possible future." (van Inwagen 1983, p.3 An essay on free will, Oxford) p.25

Laplace's Demon:

  An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate
  Nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, if this
  intellect were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, could condense
  into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe
  and that of the lightest atom: for such an intellect nothing would be
  uncertain; and the future just like the past would be present before its
  eyes. (Laplace 1814)

Conway's game of life

In this game, pixels are either turned on or off on a grid.  The rules are
strictly deterministic - some cells are turned on to start with, and then at
each step, a cell dies if it has <2 or >3 neighbours.  At the same time, an
empty cell with exactly three live neighbours is turned on.

Note: You can explore the game at 
   * (requires Java], or 
   * (change from "seeds" to "life") 

Although the rules are deterministic, the overall effect is often
described using a higher-level ontology than that of pixels.  For
example, the pattern "glider", replenishes cells and moves one step
diagonally downwards every four iterations.

--- Notes:
Most configurations do not change at all (e.g. a 2x2 square), or may
change for a finite (sometimes quite long) time before stabilizing.  Other 
configurations can be "oscillators" (e.g. three cells in a row,
flip 90 degrees each iteration).  Here are two oscillators - 
a "beacon", and the more complex "toad").  

   beacon              toad              glider             lightweight
   <---  OSCILLATORS   --->		   <---     SPACESHIPS     --->

The other two are Spaceships, which voyage across the universe of  Life. 
The "glider" is the most famous of this class. It is a diagonal spaceship.
The other spaceship shown, lightweight spaceship, moves laterally. 

Other structures include "glider guns" which emit
gliders periodically: 

	glider gun [wikipedia]

This gun was discovered by Bill Gosper against a $50 bet posed by 
Jon Conway, to anyone who could violate his conjecture that "no pattern can
grow without limit".  There are many such "spaceship guns".

--- back to Dennett:

Here is a possible description:

   An eater can eat a glider in four generations.  Whatever is being
   consumed, the basic process is the same.  A bridge forms between
   the eater and its prey.  In the next generation, the bridge region
   dies from overpopulation, taking a bite out of both eather and
   prey.  The eater then repairs itself.  The prey usually cannot.  If
   the remainder of the prey dies out as with the glider the prey is
   consumed. (Poundstone 1985, p.38).

[The above description relates to this process:

Clearly the use of terms like "prey", "predator", "bridge reason", "repairs
itself" attribute certain models of behaviour to these cell complexes, that
were not part of the initial intent of the designers.  These
are typically known as emergent behaviours.

Where did these behavioural abstractions come from?  Are they real?  At
least most humans can immediately recognize them.  Is there an
information-theoretic basis due to which everyone (including other forms of
intelligence) may agree that these phenomenon exist and are real?

[NOTE: Coding theory - makes it more compact to talk thus of repetitive

[Note 2: The creatures that inhabit this space can be humongously complex.
Certain patterns can be configured as logic gates; one can build a pattern
that replicates an FSM - the system is an universal Turing machine.

Another pattern, the Gemini, replicates itself in 34 million generations,
and destroys the parent copy.  ]

Creating categories

Plato speaks in the famous image of carving nature at its joints... literally,
where one thing leaves off and the next thing starts - patterns that are
salient and stable enough for us to identify.  As we saw in the Life world,
whereas the microscopic deterministic "physics" dictates every aspect of
behaviour, it is natural to leap above the atomic level and describe the
... "connected hypersolids" ... that constitute macroscopic (not microscopic)
regularities, and we use these to anchor our imagination when we think about
causes and possibilities. 65

[possibly, these arise out of STATISTICAL REGULARITY - e.g. the MINIMUM
ENTROPY PRINCIPLE, rather than any "natural to leap above" tendencies]

We can describe such middle-sized patterns of atoms using the familiar
system of informal predicates that apply to these entities, such as "has a
length of 1 meter," "is red," "is human," and "believes that snow is
white." - these informal predicates unleash a horde of problems concerning
- vagueness - subjectivity - intentionality that fueled Quine's skepticism
about possibility and necessity.  [Quine created the DEMOCRITEAN universe -
a set of point-atoms each specified by silver:(x,y,z,t), etc. to talk about
possible worlds].

Proceeding gingerly, then, we may form sentences such as
  "There is something that is human."
and determine if they apply to different possible worlds. 66

DETERMINISM: "There is at any instant exactly one physically
possible future." - no two worlds start out exactly the same (if they did they
would stay the same
forever and be the same PW) - if any two worlds share the same state
decription exactly, subsequently they all have the same state description.
it is deterministic in only ONE direction - cannot tell the past. e.g. in
Life, a 2x2 square can arise from 4x L-shapes, or the square itself.

1. we must know the laws of physics perfectly (a la Laplace's demon)

2. we must have perfect and complete knowledge of the state description -
   otherwise we will not be able to tell which of Vastly many microscopically
   different possible worlds in the set Phi is the actual world.


6. if Greenspan had sobbed in Congress, the market would have crashed.
   (if A then B)

--> some set of worlds X, similar to our worlds, has the regularity that if A
    then C. thus the counterfactual can be interpreted as:

9. In the set of worlds X, A ==> C  (70:9)

How to choose the set X?  It consists of worlds where A holds (or doesn't) as
well as C (holds as well as doesn't)... it must be similar to actual world, so
that the same laws hold, etc.


A sentence such as 6 is seen as making a claim more like:
10. Greenspan's sobbing caused the market to crash. (similar to p.71)

Based on some factors:

Unless A happened, C would not have happened.  If X includes those in which A,
and not-A etc, and if all worlds in which C holds are also those in which A
holds, then the statement may be causally necessary.

We believe C to be the inevitable outcome of A; In any world where A occurs,
C would ensue. THe agents cannot avert this consequent of their action.
anecdote abt BSO temp conductor, who tried to make a point by inserting a
false note on a music score, but the player played the correct note.  When
he appeared to hear the wrong note, and challenged the player, the riposte
was: "I had played B-natural. Some idiot had written in a B-flat").  

Institutions as organisms

A young conductor, debuting with the formidable Boston Symphony Orchestra,
wanted to impress them quickly.  He was scheduled to conduct the premiere of
an unhearably discordant contemporary piece, and as he reviewed the score a
brilliant stratagem occurred to him. He found an early crescendo in which the
entire orchestra was screaming away on more than a dozen different quarreling
notes and noted that the second oboe, one of the softest voices in the
orchestra, was scheduled to play a B-natural. He picked up the part score for
the second oboe, and carefully inserted the sign for a flat—the oboe would
now be instructed to play B-flat. At the first rehearsal, he briskly led the
orchestra up through that doctored crescendo. "No!" he hollered, stopping the
orchestra abruptly. Then, with furrowed brow and deep concentration, he said,
"Somebody, let's see, yes, it must be . . . second oboe. You were supposed to
play B-natural and you played B-flat." "Hell, no," said the second oboe, "I
played B-natural. Some idiot had written in a B-flat!"

[What is the nature of BSO that gives it such a character?  It is a set of
individuals, and this group is constantly in flux, coming and going, finances
changing etc.  Analogy to biological organism.  Yet it has "character". ]

Look at the violin section.  Twenty talented individuals, but all
different. Some are brilliant but lazy while others are obsessive
perfectionists; one is bored but conscientious, another is enraptured by the
music, yet another is daydreaming about making love to that adorable cellist
over there, but all of them are drawing their bows across their strings in
perfect unison, a pattern robustly superimposed on a kaleidoscope of
different human consciousnesses.  What makes this concerted action possible
is a massive complex of cultural products, deeply shared by the musicians,
the audience, the composer, the conservatories, the banks, the municipal
authorities, the violin-makers, the ticket agencies, and so on.

[All this is going fine, but then he moves onto a difference with animals -
pet peeve of western philosophy - which seems quite irrelevant, and is may
even turn out to be false - like all other animal analogies in history.]

Nothing in the animal world is a close counterpart to this complexity. Human
minds are furnished — and beset — by thousands of anticipations, evaluations,
projects, schemes, hopes, fears, and memories that are entirely inaccessible
to the minds of even our closest relatives, the great apes.

Are decisions voluntary? Or are they things that happen to us?

Sit very still for a while, trying not to think of anything at all, and then,
for no reason at all except that you want to, flick your right wrist once. A
single flick, please, whenever, as we say, the spirit moves you. Call that
voluntary, intentional act of yours Flick! If we monitor your brain with an
array of surface electrodes (on the scalp will do fine—we needn't insert them
in your brain), we will find that the brain activity leading up to Flick! has
a definite and repeatable time course, and a shape. It lasts the better part
of a second—between 500 and 1,000 milliseconds—ending when your wrist
actually moves...

The motion of the wrist is preceded by less than 50 milliseconds by activity
in the motor nerves descending from the motor cortex of your brain to the
muscles in your forearm, but it is preceded by as much as 800
milliseconds—almost a second— by a clearly detectable wave of activity in
your brain known as the readiness potential, or RP (Kornhuber and Deecke

Somewhere among those thousand milliseconds is the notorious "time t" the
time when you consciously decide to flick your wrist.  Benjamin Libet set
out to determine just when it is.

He showed the users a clock with a ticking dot (second hand) : 

Libet asked his subjects to take note (mentally) of the position of the dot
on the clock face at the instant they decided to flick or were first aware
of the urge or wish to flick.  This conscious decision
time was reported later, and correlated with their EEGs.	

The amazing result was that although conscious awareness of the decision
preceded the subject's finger motion by only 200 milliseconds (the red
arrow), the rise in the readiness potential was clearly visible at about 550
milliseconds before the flex of the wrist (blue arrow). The subject showed
unconscious activity to flex about 350 milliseconds before reporting
conscious awareness of the decision to flex. Indeed an earlier slow and very
slight rise in the readiness potential can be seen as early as 1.5 seconds
before the action.   

This is a very large (dennett uses the wor "whopping") gap by neuroscience

As the sophisticated neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has put it: 

	Libet determined that brain potentials are firing three hundred and
	fifty milliseconds before you have the conscious intention to act. So
	before you are aware that you're thinking about moving your arm, your
	brain is at work preparing to make that movement!" (Gazzaniga 1998,
	p. 73).

[So is our conscious decision to act the result of subconscious neural
activity that we are not aware of?  Is consciousness then epiphenomenal? ]

Libet himself: 

	The initiation of the freely voluntary act appears to begin in the
	brain unconsciously, well before the person consciously knows he
	wants to act! Is there, then, any role for conscious will in the
	performance of a voluntary act? (see Libet 1985) 

	To answer this it must be recognized that conscious will (W)Aloes
	appear about 150 msec, before the muscle is activated, even though it
	follows the onset of the RP. An interval of 150 msec, would allow
	enough time in which the conscious function might affect the final
	outcome of the volitional process. (Actually, only 100 msec, is
	available for any such effect. The final 50 msec, before the muscle
	is activated is the time for the primary motor cortex to activate the
	spinal motor nerve cells. During this time the act goes to completion
	with no possibility of stopping it by the rest of the cerebral
	cortex.)  (Libet 1999, p. 49)

This position has been paraphrased by Ramachandran, who quipped - "This
suggests that our conscious minds may not have free will, but rather 'free
won't'!"  p.230

I certainly want more free will than that.

Review by John Gray


If natural selection had been discovered in India, China or Japan, it is hard
to imagine it making much of a stir. Darwin's discovery signalled a major
advance in human knowledge, but its cultural impact came from the fact that it
was made in a milieu permeated by the Judaeo-Christian belief in human
uniqueness. If – along with hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists – you
have never believed that humans differ from everything else in the natural
world in having an immortal soul, you will find it hard to get worked up by a
theory that shows how much we have in common with other animals.

Among us, in contrast, it has triggered savage and unending controversy. In
the 19th century, the conflict was waged between Darwinists and
Christians. Now, the controversy is played out between Darwinism and
humanists, who seek to defend a revised version of Western ideas about the
special nature of humans.

The ringing tone of Dennett's declaration of human uniqueness provokes a
certain suspicion regarding the scientific character of his argument. After
all, the notion that humans are free in a way that other animals are not does
not come from science. Its origins are in religion – above all, in Christianity....

In fact, despite all his impassioned protestations to the contrary, Dennett is
seeking to salvage a view of humankind derived from Western religion. To be
sure, he wants to demolish the metaphysical belief in freedom of the will that
has been the foundation of this view in the past – but only in order to give
it another, more solid foundation in contemporary science. Like many others
over the past 100 years or so, Dennett looks to evolution for the moral uplift
that used to be afforded by religion.

In developing his conception of evolving freedom, Dennett relies heavily on
Richard Dawkins' theory of memes: ideas that compete with one another in a way
analogous to natural selection in biology. The trouble with this unhappy
metaphor is that there is no known mechanism for the spread of ideas akin to
the transmission of genes. The history of ideas is made largely by political
power and human folly – not through the workings of natural selection.

Dennett is vastly more sophisticated a thinker than Huxley [who viewed
evolution as a form of progress, and evolutionary change as a form of good],
but like him he seems to derive a curious comfort from the belief that human
culture is an evolving process. Perhaps, like Huxley, he cannot help
identifying himself with the evolutionary process and imagining that it is
working obscurely to replicate his own values; but if there is such a thing
as cultural evolution, it is no less blind, purposeless and value-free than
biological evolution.

Dennett describes human history as a "communal process of memetic engineering"
– a saga that includes, he tells us, his own book. He seems not to have
digested the fact that the world is full of memetic engineers who do not share
his values, some of them using methods rather more effective than
philosophical argument, and who are as much a part of cultural evolution as he
is himself. [ John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the LSE]

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This article last updated on : 2014 Jul 31