Why would Mother Nature bother?
- Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett
Allen Lane, 347 pp, £20.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 7139 9339 1
Been feeling bad about being a thing? Been feeling that the laws of nature are pushing you around? Here’s a book-length dose of Daniel Dennett’s Cold Comfort Cure. According to Dennett, ‘naturalism is no enemy of free will; it provides a positive account of free will.’ Sound too good to be true? Well, so it is. Proposals for ‘compatibilist’ resolutions of the problem of determinism aren’t new to philosophy, of course. But they always turn out to be a sort of Chinese lunch: there’s the lurking sense that what you got isn’t quite what you ordered, and half an hour later you’re hungry again.
So, for example, the treatment Dennett has on offer won’t work unless you’re prepared to break ‘your bad habit of yoking determinism with inevitability . . . determinism is the friend, not the foe, of those who dislike inevitability.’ And what you get if you swallow this pill is only the ‘proper concept’ of freedom; which is to say, not quite the concept of freedom you’d thought you wanted, but something prosthetic that the doctor says you’d better learn to live with. In a crucial (but parenthetical) passage, Dennett sort of ‘fesses up to this: ‘hard determinists . . . may find in subsequent chapters that [their] considered view is that whereas free will – as [they] understand the term – truly doesn’t exist, something rather like free will does exist, and it’s just what the doctor ordered for shoring up your moral convictions . . . [This] is perhaps only terminologically different from . . . the view that I am defending in this book.’ But surely that gives the game away right at the start. Being ‘only terminologically different from’ is the kind of relation that cuts both ways. If what I call being determined is only terminologically different from what you call being free, then what I call being free is only terminologically different from what you call being determined. That’s what I meant about the comfort being cold.
Dennett’s main polemical tactic in Freedom Evolves is what he describes elsewhere as ‘bait and switch’: advertise one thing but sell something else. ‘Bait and switch’ combines what philosophers call ‘paradigm case arguments’ with a soupçon of changing the topic. Thus we might imagine Bishop Berkeley: ‘But my dear Dr Johnson of course stones are real. What you just kicked was a paradigm; do feel free to kick another. It’s just that stones aren’t quite what you probably thought they were. Actually, they’re Ideas.’ Likewise Dennett: ‘My view is that free will is indeed real, but just not quite what you probably thought it was.’ Dennett’s way of getting agents into a deterministic world depends on selling you an instrumentalist account of agency. Roughly, instrumentalism is the view that theories and explanations are (just) devices for making predictions; their predictions are the only claim they make to correspondence with the world. Accordingly, their predictions exhaust their content. I think Dennett’s (usually tacit) instrumentalism is close to the heart of his philosophy. It is ubiquitous in the present book, and it takes a variety of forms. Consider, before we turn to the main business, a sketch of his explanation of why a ‘meme’ (read ‘idea’ in English-language editions) can become widely accepted in a culture:
It’s because the meme is beneficial.
And to whom does the benefit accrue?
Why, to the meme. ‘In the domain of memes, the ultimate beneficiary . . . is: the meme itself.’
And what is the benefit that the meme bestows on itself?
Why, that it becomes widely accepted in the culture.
The vacuity of this parody of Darwinism doesn’t need remarking on; if you’ve been following the literature, you’re probably inured to it. But what’s striking is Dennett’s completely ignoring the possibility that, now and then at least, or maybe here or there, an idea becomes widely accepted because it is true. Likewise, mutatis mutandis, when Dennett discusses moral issues: he simply doesn’t consider the (after all, not vastly implausible) view that the reason so many people think it’s wrong to rape and pillage is that, as a matter of fact, it is wrong to rape and pillage. All that is Dennett’s instrumentalism at work; it doesn’t allow him the robust notion of truth (of correspondence to fact) that such suggestions require.