Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett

Well-grounded insights from Daniel Dennett affirm that Yes, we can exercise free will

Friday, July 13

Focusing once more on the question of free will, our book club read Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett in July. Most of the group seemed to think we don’t possess free will. But that was not how I understood Dennett’s conclusions. Building his reasoning thoroughly, he started with an analysis of how our brain generates consciousness. The human mind is more aware than that of other animals, partly because of our ability to communicate. We have to tell ourselves and others, in spoken language, our reasons for doing things. This means we develop a facility in our brains for monitoring our reasons, our agendas. Once we develop this facility, we can tell ourselves and other people what is going on in our thoughts. We have developed a greater awareness of our thoughts because of language—this ability to communicate.

We humans have become moral agents, as we place our strivings and our agendas, and those of others, under scrutiny.

Sometimes we have contending wants and desires. We want one thing, but we want to want something different. We sometimes let that second-order desire win out. The mind has become the tool that lets us revise our natural instincts. Reasons for and against a course of action can be weighed, negotiated. On page 302: Nicholas Maxwell (1984) defines freedom as “the capacity to achieve what is of value in a range of circumstances.”

The more we have conscious access to our thoughts, the more we can weigh threads of different thoughts. If you want to be free, you must take responsibility for which wants and desires win out, even though other people can talk to us and thereby have input to our decision. We can have profound effect on each others’ thoughts, thanks to language.

In the case of alcoholism, and of crime, some of us do better than others at exercising our free will. Political freedom requires the exercise of free will. Human freedom is fragile. Free will is not always exercised, as in cases when we submit too much to the desires of others. Human freedom is real—as real as language, music, money. Its persistence is affected by what we believe about it. Those of us who believe in free will are more likely to exercise it well. The exercise of free will is advanced when we are inspired to act courageously. That’s what motivational speakers are really doing. They are loudly telling us, “You have free will. Use it”

Freedom had to evolve to help us build up to the best and deepest human thoughts. We ought to continue to nurture it.

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