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Evolution of Freedom

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

The piano is an amazing instrument. The play of masterful fingers over ivory keys produces everything from jazz to Tchaikovsky, and a great musician coaxes from the otherwise silent vessel unimaginable beauty. It is for this reason I resent being called a piano key.

As Fyodor Dotoevsky said in his Notes From Underground, “ science itself will teach man... that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ... so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature.” I would argue that there is much more to self determination, agency, and free will than the laws of nature, but I have many opponents. Yes, our past influences us, be it personal history or evolutionary history, but can it really set the path for our future as well?

In a 2003 New York Times article, Galen Strawson reviews Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett, which deals with very similar ideas. Strawson early on states that Dennett proves free will—Dennettian free will, that is. As a “compatibilist”, Dennett does not find determinism and free will at odds, but rather that they coexist quite happily. Dennett had begun to set up this stream of ideas in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, but this book, with a clearly stated agenda right in the title, fleshes it out. The book concludes that you can make choices, and be totally free and morally responsible, even if those choices were predetermined.

A discussion on whether believing you are freely deciding to do something is freedom enough was included in Strawson’s review, similar in nature to one held in Professor Dalke’s discussion group. Kant and Sarte are cited as individuals who believe that, yes, this is true, and I am inclined to agree, at least on a certain level. Who has not encountered someone who was more willing to go along with a plan or idea that they thought was their idea (or were convinced by others it was)? I think that at least in certain situations, a belief that one has made a choice is enough to satisfy a person’s need for free will.

I do not, however, think that that is always enough. For example, what happens when the aforementioned manipulated person discovers that they were tricked into the belief of  free will and choice? Dennett’s book spends time convincing the reader that this “compatibilist-free will” is all we need—a pure consequence of biological and cultural evolution. Strawson summarizes these ideas well, saying “it’s simply that we have evolved into self-conscious, self-monitoring agents, language users, with all that that entails.” He goes on to say that because we live in complex societies, have consciences, morals, empathy, sympathy and other traits that have helped our species developed through evolution, we deliberate and weigh possibilities. To us, this looks like we take complete responsibility for our choices—free will.

Culturally, personal responsibility has become the basis for our complex societies. Punishments, attaining goals, etc. all have their roots in a belief that we are in charge of our selves. It would be hard to punish someone for something we believed was his or her many times removed ancestors’ fault. I have a hard time believing all of this.

I cannot wrap my head around a pre-determined biological quirk in my system dictating my academic preferences, for example. A favorite food, maybe, but my love of music? Harder to see a connection. At the same time, when I try and work out an answer, or even just a consistent opinion on free will, I come up with nothing but more questions.

I can understand how self-agency, or at least the belief that it exists, to give Dennett the brief benefit of the doubt, came to be important in our societies. I can see how biologically, it makes sense for our minds to work the way that they do. And I suppose I can see how the forces (for lack of a better word) at work on this “free will” would not stop once we were able to make the informed decisions necessary to our survival, but yet, when I try and fit everything together, I still come up short.

Does it matter to my species survival if I go into the arts or the sciences? (Well, maybe in this economy.) When confronted with these questions about free will, it seems unusual to turn to evolution for answers, but as this class has taught me, everything is more interconnected than I had previously thought. Dennett is, however, very good at twisting arguments in his favor that, looked at through a different lens, would argue against his thesis. This is a trait carried over from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and picked up on by the author of the review who also finds fault with Dennett’s self-assured stance he is the only one holding these opinions and must single-handedly show his readers the correct way to believe. Strawson finds this tedious and Dennett himself too excessively wordy to be the charming author of the previous books.

I can see Dennett being all right with a position as a piano key. In fact, it seems like an analogy he would especially appreciate. I am still very uncomfortable with the idea of being played and playing exactly what the pianist intended me to no matter how convinced I am I chose to do it. I want to be self responsible. When I make a decision, I want to know that I made it, not Great Uncle Homo Habilis. While I have come up with many new ways to contemplate such questions, a definitive answer is still missing.

Works Cited

Strawson, Galen. Evolution Explains of all For You. In New York Times. March 2, 2003. <>


Anne Dalke's picture

ethic of risk?

I see a connection between this paper and your last, which fretted about the consequences of teaching to the test. As in that paper, which advocated for more freedom for students to explore and create than the current educational system allows, you are here holding out the desirability of self-determination, agency and free will--

…but you don’t quite know how to go about arguing for its existence. You should be including @ least three outside sources when writing your papers (and these sources should be more substantial than a review). Doing so might well give you a hand up in finding—if not the “definitive answer that is still missing”—at least more direction than you’ve found here so far.

A text that I have found very useful in this context is a book by Sharon Welch called The Feminist Ethic of Risk (it’s also frequently used in education classes here, so might well speak to the concerns you raised in your earlier paper, as well). Arguing that “moral and political imagination” of middle-class Americans “is shaped by an ethic of control, a construction of agency, responsibility and goodness which assumes that it is possible to guarantee the efficacy of one's actions,” Welch criticizes this “particular construction of responsibility, the ethic of control,” and argues “for an alternative construction of responsible action, the ethic of risk.” The idea, basically, is that we can be responsible without feeling that we have to control outcomes. Her initial example has to do with stockpiling nuclear weapons, but she supports her argument with lots of test cases from novels written by contemporary African American women, who tell stories of people who act responsibly in the world, knowing that the outcomes of their actions are always in doubt.