Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fault vs. Responsibility: Dangerous Ideas for Our Time

Review: Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennet


Daniel Dennett is my favorite philosopher, for many reasons. One trivial reason: he writes to communicate, not obfuscate. On second thought, that's not trivial at all. His works on paper include web links, for another, and he chooses accessible illustrations to make his points. 

In the first section of Freedom Evolves, Dennett is discussing whether determinism—the idea that all outcomes/choices/decisions are set by the initial conditions, that "everything's fixed, and you can't change it," as 
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Judas complains to Jesusmeans that no one is responsible for their choices in life. 

To illustrate that 
whether or not you believe in it, determinism cannot affect guilt, Dennett tells the story of the French Foreign Legionnaire who is hated by all at the fort. Tom, knowing that he will be sent on patrol the next morning, poisons the water in his canteen. Dick, unaware of Tom's actions, empties the Legionnaire's canteen and fills it with dry sand. Harry, also unaware of the previous interventions, pokes a small hole in the canteen so its contents will trickle away as the hated fellow marches out in the morning. When the Legionnaire does march off into the desert with his adulterated canteen, and eventually perishes of the lack of potable water, which man is responsible for his death? 

Dennett has said of Freedom Evolves, "If I accomplish one thing in this book, I want to break the bad habit of putting determinism and inevitability together. Inevitability means unavoidability, and if you think about what avoiding means, then you realize that in a deterministic world there’s lots of avoidance. The capacity to avoid has been evolving for billions of years. There are very good avoiders now. There’s no conflict between being an avoider and living in a deterministic world. There’s been a veritable explosion of evitability on this planet, and it’s all independent of determinism." [Emphasis mine, Dennet quote from a 2004 interview in ReasonOnline

Exercise for the reader: Was the Legionnaire's death by dehydration avoidable?*

This review is a brief visit because this is not a book to be grasped in a quick scan; that's the main reason I like Dennett's work. I read several pages, then sit back, stunned by the light of reason. Aha! And I must go reread this article, or that book, or even turn back to reread a few pages in Dennett, in the light of that new understanding. 

"Inevitable" is a word I'm hearing a lot these days. So is "guilt," and "blame." Dennet helps put them all into perspective for me.


Liner Notes:

My involvement with Dennett pre-dates this blog by decades; Darwin's Dangerous Idea was the my first encounter. I enjoyed the philosophical exploration of this scientific revolution, with its the pro-and-con arguments from Darwin's time and ours so much that I went Dennett-hunting. Consciousness Explained was next. I found this the toughest to read, because I was also reading Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works at the time, and many of Dennett's thoughts on Thought run counter to Pinker's. Then I got Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, and had to reread both of those books in the light of what I learned. All, including Freedom Evolves, are now available on Kindle.

Other writings by Dennett are available on the Web: The Bright Stuff and Two Brights Side-by-Side are on The Brights web site. Kelby Mason does a good job of boiling down the naturalistic world view in Thoughts as Tools: The Meme in Daniel Dennett's Work
Google "naturalistic" or "determinist" plus "Daniel Dennett" for more. You may also be interested in the TED Talk: Dangerous Memes.

*And the Legionnaire's "inevitable" death? There was a fourth man involved with his canteen, the only one who ultimately needed to rely on its contents, whose responsibility it was to make sure the canteen was functional, and filled with clean water. A fourth man, who might, had he thought about it, suspected that the canteen might have been tampered with. So while his death in the desert was not his fault—I'm not blaming the victimit certainly was avoidable.