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The Demon of Determinism

April 2003
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A review of Daniel C. Dennett’s Freedom Evolves.

Next to the question of God’s existence there is arguably no greater conundrum in Western thought than the problem of free will and determinism, and the two are inextricably interdigitated. God’s omniscience and omnipotence means that the future is foreordained and predetermined, which precludes free will. If we are volitional beings then God is limited in knowledge, power, or both.

The French philosopher René Descartes suggested this way out: “We will be free from these embarrassments if we recollect that our mind is limited while the power of God, by which he not only knew from all eternity what is or can be, but also willed and preordained it, is infinite. It thus happens that we possess sufficient intelligence to know clearly and distinctly that this power is in God, but not enough to comprehend how he leaves the free actions of men indeterminate.”

The English author C.S. Lewis simply placed God outside of time: “All the days are ‘Now’ for Him. He doesn’t remember you doing things yesterday; he simply sees you doing them, because, though you’ve lost yesterday, He has not. He doesn’t foresee you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing.”

Removing God does not produce a resolution. By the nineteenth century the Newtonian/Cartesian mechanistic world-view was codified by the French mathematician Marquis de Laplace and has since become known as Laplace’s demon: “Let us imagine an Intelligence who would know at a given instant of time all forces acting in nature and the position of all things of which the world consists; let us assume, further, that this Intelligence would be capable of subjecting all these data to mathematical analysis. Then it could derive a result that would embrace in one and the same formula the motion of the largest bodies in the universe and of the lightest atoms. Nothing would be uncertain for this Intelligence. The past and the future would be present to its eyes.” By the twentieth century science undertook to become that demon, casting a wide “causal net” linking causes to effects throughout the past and into the future and encompassing all phenomena throughout the cosmos from atoms to galaxies. God and nature are deterministically indistinguishable.

Why, then, do we feel free? What non-theological solutions have been proposed to slay the demon of determinism? The simplest is also the most subjectively appealing: I have free will and you don’t. This useful fiction serves us well in daily life and most of us act as if it is true, but it is philosophically unsatisfying. At the other extreme is the claim that the problem is an unsoluble one — a “mysterian” mystery — where we are smart enough to conceive of the problem but not smart enough to solve it. Science writer and mysterian philosopher Martin Gardner, for example, says that asking Is there free will? is like asking What is time? “Like time, with which it is linked, free will is best left — indeed, I believe we cannot do otherwise — an impenetrable mystery. Ask not how it works because no one on earth can tell you.” For such mysteries pragmatist philosophers like William James and Charles Peirce argue that (1) in issues of extreme importance to human existence, (2) when the evidence is inconclusive one way or the other, and (3) you must make a choice, it is acceptable to take a leap of faith (for example, that there is a God or there is free will). But here we are back to free will as a useful fiction.

A popular solution of late appeals to quantum indeterminacy. Perhaps the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the various indeterminant effects associated with quantum mechanics provide a crack in the deterministic armor for free will to emerge. It doesn’t, for two reasons: (1) quantum effects cancel each other out at the macro level in which everyday phenomena (including free will) occur, and (2) even if it could be established that quantum uncertainties lead to random neuronal firings this does not spawn free will; it just adds another deterministic causal factor, only this one is random instead of nonrandom.

This second critique was brilliantly outlined by the Tuft’s University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his highly-regarded 1984 book on the subject entitled Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Dennett correctly notes that neither too much free will nor too much determinism works. If our actions are completely determined or completely random then we are not responsible for them. Where is the balance to be found? In evolutionary theory, argues Dennett in his new book Freedom Evolves. The author of the materialistic defense of consciousness as a product of nothing more than neuronal activity in Consciousness Explained, and of undiluted Darwinian theory in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has now turned his methodological naturalism to extrapolating free will out of neural complexity and evolutionary theory.

Dennett strives, with some success, at being the scientist’s philosopher, an embodiment of the consilient approach promulgated by evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, through a “jumping together” of data and theory from disperate fields. Thus, although he leans heavily on the philosopher’s stock in trade of logic, linguistics, and thought experiments (that, while cleverly presented occasionally bogs down in convoluted reasoning), Dennett’s quiver includes evolutionary biology, game theory, the computer game of life, cognitive neuroscience, genetic engineering, meme theory, and more. Dennett’s thesis can be summarized as follows: (1) humans are evolved animals without a soul but with free will; (2) we are the only species with free will because we have a “self,” a sense of being self-aware, and even aware that others are self-aware, because (3) we have symbolic language that allows us to communicate the fact that we are aware and self-aware, and (4) we have extremely complex neural circuitry and many degrees of behavioral freedom (a jellyfish, like a hot-air balloon, for example, has one degree of freedom: up and down; we have many more), and (5) we have a theory of mind about other selves who are also (6) moral animals in the sense of having evolved moral sentiments, or feelings of making right or wrong choices as members of a social species, and with symbolic language we have the representational power to reason with each other about what we ought to do, therefore (7) free will emerges out of our deterministic world from the fact that we can weigh the consequences of the many courses of action available to us, that we are aware that we (and others) make these choices, and we hold ourselves and them accountable.

In Dennett’s materialistic philosophy free will is located in the brain, of course, but where? In the “self,” a metaphor for an adaptation our brains evolved for monitoring what is happening in our own and others’ brains. But where is the self located? The answer is not clear and Dennett’s brilliant summary of the neuroscience in trying to further clarify the neurophysiology of selfhood shows that wherever it is, it is not in one location. Reaction-time experiments that monitor different parts of the brain indicate that there is no “Self-contained You.” Instead, “all the work done by the imagined homunculus in the Cartesian Theater has to be broken up and distributed in space and time in the brain” (238).

Neuroscience research shows that we have a functional “layer” of decision-making power that no other species has (this is not a brain layer, but what Dennett calls “a virtual layer” found “in the micro-details of the brain’s anatomy”). For example, “a male baboon can ‘ask’ a nearby female for some grooming, but neither of them can discuss the likely outcome of compliance with this request, which might have serious consequences for both of them, especially if the male is not the alpha male of the troop. We human beings not only can do things when requested to do them; we can answer inquires about what we are doing and why. It is this kind of asking, which we can also direct to ourselves, that creates the special category of voluntary actions that sets us apart” (251).

Dan Dennett is one of the most original thinkers of our time, and this book brings a fresh perspective to an ancient problem. But is it true? Will future commentaries on free will be mere footnotes to Dennett? I doubt it. First, many general readers will not embrace Dennett’s tenets, especially humans as soulless evolved animals and consciousness as nothing more than neuronal activity. Second, many philosophers prefer a free will that is either a form of indeterminism or a cognitive illusion because although it is hard to deny its subjective reality it is equally hard to prove its existence. Finally, although I accept the first six of Dennett’s points (above) and agree that he has thoroughly debunked the indeterminism argument, I remain unconvinced that free will can ever be derived from determinism. I think the best we can do is pseudo-freedom. In the complex world of human beings and social systems the causes are so numerous and interconnected that it is difficult — nigh impossible — to get our minds around the causal net in its entirety. The enormity of this complexity leads us to feel and act free, even if we are actually determined. Since no cause or set of causes we select as the determiners of human action can be complete, freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes.

(The Penguin Group, 2003, ISBN 0142003840)
This review was originally published in Science.

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8 Comments to “The Demon of Determinism”

  1. Charles Braslow Says:

    Doesn’t the Heisenberg Principle at least slay Laplace’s Demon insofar as it removes the theoretical possibility of knowing both the precise position and momentum of any particle, much less all particles in the universe?

  2. Tuffgong Says:

    Free will from what I can determine from reading the first three chapters of a Sociology textbook in my sophomore year of high school for pleasure: free will is the existence of our capability to differentiate choices and act on those choices with self-awareness that his shared amongst ourselves in a social system in which we can hold ourselves accountable for the choices we make.

    As it turns out this fits with behavior studies in animals. Behavior is a mix of genetics and environmental factors. The more advanced and social the species, the more environmental factors play a role in our behavior. Environmental factors are enormous in our behavior, which includes our system of language, social interaction, and learned thought. As we see apes develop basic primate characteristics including moral choice, they are moving along from less genetic to more environmental factors. Biologically speaking determinism is genetic influence that has been determined through natural selection. Environmental factors makes behavior much more fluid. There is an area in evolution in which true free will by means of conscious thought and communication through language and such.

    Incidentally the system of environmental influence creates within it situations in which there is no choice. However those are particular and the lack of choice comes from the difference in authority in culture that we established anyway.

    It is through a mix of occurrences in which we mostly do and sometimes can’t make a choice in a social environment is what we have now as our free will as humans.

    Determinism as it is now to us is nothing but the easy way out. We created the concept with the idea that our actions are determined and we don’t have to “worry about it”. It automatically creates a grand purpose that our psychology can suck on like a lollipop. Under that thinking we “think” we have free will when we don’t and our existence is blah blah blah… A bunch of bunkum.

  3. skeptic griggsy Says:

    Don’t we have compatabilist freedom- causal free will as contrary to contra-causal free will? We can change our causes as I did with therapy and medicine. The cause of depression and other matters caused me to seek help.Now I aam freer. We give cause to others to behave better. That is my take on the whole matter.
    By the way, to change the subject,as philosopher Paul Draper in an email to me notes, the weight of evidence is against cosmic teleology, so God need not apply to be Super Boss of natural causes and explanations, which are the sufficient reason. We see patterns ,not designs and no designer; to so see is to use pareidolia like seeing Yeshua in a tortilla. It is the mere feelling that some caring, super mind has to be behind and beyond Existence,[ which as everything[ Lee Smolin] such that there can be no such entity.]Any dvinity would have to be immanent and contingent!

  4. sitbytheriver Says:

    Well said, skeptic griggsy.
    Visual artists are acutely aware of the natural propensity to see and identify patterns. Many viewers of contemporary paintings ask “what is it supposed to be?” They search for identifiable images (created by recognizable patterns) and then extract meaning from the symbolism of those images. And what becomes very clear is that every viewer perceives it differently.

    An artist friend was in the process of drawing a figure, and a viewer pointed at the drawing and said “that arm is wrong”. My friend said “you believe that is an arm? That is not an arm. that is a drawing.” he was right.

  5. J. D. Draeger Says:

    Anyone who knows about the existence of mirror neurons in other animals besides humans should question the validity of the second point of Dennett’s summarized thesis: we are the only species with free will because we have a “self,” a sense of being self-aware, and even aware that others are self-aware. It’s a good thing science involves actually doing experiments to determine objective reality, rather than relying on long-winded thought experiments by philosophers.

  6. Trev Says:

    I think Dennett has a tendency to just redefine the term which he says he is explaining. In “Consciousness Explained” and “Elbow Room”, he follows the same strategy. He begins by saying “Let’s start by being neutral about what consciousness/free will is, and then look at the evidence”. He then goes on to look at various scientific accounts of brain/cognitive activity and then, late in the piece, he declares “There, that is what consciousness/free will is.” This isn’t actually an empirical investigation of a phenomenon, it’s just a way of defining a term. It’s like saying “I can show scientifically that Santa Claus exists”, then describing how parents bring the presents and fill the stockings, and then saying “See? Santa exists as the actions of the parents”. It’s actually no different from just flat-out declaring that Santa doesn’t exist. In the same way, Dennett’s eventual definitions of consciousness and free will are indistinguishable from behaviourism and determinism.

  7. Scott Says:

    Mr. Shermer’s solution to free will’s origin is complexity induced ignorance? That is not very helpful. He, on the one hand, eschews Dennett’s conclusion that freedom originates in determinism, and on the other basically states that ultra complex deterministic causes can spawn freedom. Undoubtedly the key ingredient is complexity.

  8. skeptic griggsy Says:

    The teleonomic argument alone eviscerates all notions of divine intent and the atelic one notes that supernaturalists beg the question of planned outcomes.

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