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Danielle Dennett and Free Will – Is Free Will an Evolutionary Gift?

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Text Message Conversation:

“…I hope you come out of the cold and are showered and warm and writing an awesome paper, and that you know you won’t be broken forever.”

“Forever is right now babe, but thank you”

“for-ev-er” adverb: 1) for all future time; for always 2) a very long time (used hyperbolically)

“alright, so tell me this – when you’re really happy, or have a minute to complete a homework assignment, or have just connected with something, or are experiencing your first kiss, or when you’re talking to someone you care about – all those times, are you thinking about ‘forever’? or are you just  thinking about that one moment – and how much that moment means to you, and how it feels like forever? Don’t let definitions tell you how things feel or work kid”



That was a text message conversation I had with a friend of mine a while ago. It was after we had had a long talk which had left us both a little more wounded but a little stronger. And as I sat there that night looking through my texts, I saw what I had told her – don’t let definitions tell you how things feel or work – and I couldn’t help but wonder, how much of our lives do we spend following definitions that other people have written? How many of our decisions are made based on a plan of action or a manner of doing things that was devised by someone else?

Let me elaborate on this. In class we have been having countless arguments about agency and free will and about whether or not we have any agency or free will – and well, do we? What qualifies as free will? How must we prove that we have done something or chosen something completely independent of any influences, acting outside or inside us? Can we prove something like that?

In his book ‘Reconciling Science and Our Self Conception’ Matthew Elton talks about Dennett’s views on free will – according to Dennett he says, there is no question that human beings have free will, it comes hand in hand with the idea that we are far more evolved than any other species on earth. It is this argument that I would like to tease out and view more critically.

In his book ‘Freedom Evolves’ Dennett states that his stance on free will is compatibilism (the agent is free to act without restraint on any motive, despite the fact that the nature of the motive may be determined). In other words, he believes that while our actions, in the physical sense may be pre determined, we can still be free because of the skills that we have developed with evolution. In this sense, he talks about free will as the capacity to make decisions – so, in simpler words, our hunger is predetermined, but we still have the power to decide whether or not we want to eat.

And this is primarily where I disagree with Dennett. In class, we have spoken countless times about free will, and whether or not it is something we possess. And while I agree that motives are predetermined, I also think that the manner in which we act on a motive is pre determined only because of the culture and society we grow up in – so much of who we are is influenced by the environment we were raised in, and a lot of that is the influence it has on the manner in which we view the world, view the motives we are presented with and consequently, the manner in which we act on those motives.

So, in other words, we do not have the power to decide whether or not we want to eat, while we think we do, that decision is influenced heavily by the culture we were raised in – do we wait to eat until it is time for a meal? are we going to just go grab a snack – will we eat something healthy or not? Or are we image conscious? The environment in which we were raised plays a role in determining these actions, these so called decisions that we make every day.

Let me give you an example, having been raised in India, I grew up with a certain understanding of the difference between the manner in which girls and boys acted in society – at home, my parents didn’t care that I was dressed in basket ball shorts and my dad’s t-shirt, but when I stepped outside, they wanted me to look like a girl and act like one. It also meant that my reaction to hunger was to eat – as much as I wanted, as many times a day as I desired (Indians love to feed people). There was a lot more more obvious hard wiring going on – like the manner in which I spoke to and interacted with people’s parents or anyone older than me (always be polite, extremely respectful and help out in any way possible), or the manner in which I acted in public (from the way I dressed to the way I walked and how I interacted with strangers), and the amount of attention I was taught to pay to what society thinks of me (a lot).

Growing up, I began to look at these things more critically and either act in accordance or against them. But whether it was me struggling to be myself regardless of what people thought, or dressing against the norm – I realized that I was only reacting to my hard wiring. And it could be argued that the fact that I went against it shows my choice in the matter, but I would argue that it does not. Had I been raised with absolutely no qualms about what I wear and how I act, I would probably be very different. For all I know, I could have outgrown this androgynous stage, I might have never felt the need to go against something - my reactions could have been entirely different.

In the same manner, despite the fact that I am now in America, I cannot help but stand up when I meet a professor off campus or when I meet a friend’s parents for the first time – this is no longer beneficial to me – no one here thinks its normal, I sometimes make them uncomfortable – and sometimes, I do not want to stand up, but the act has been embedded so deep into my character that I cannot help but do so – it eliminates the choice factor.

So I would like to argue against Dennett’s proposition. I think that we as human beings want to believe that we are more evolved than any other species, and so we tell ourselves that we have free will, we tell ourselves that we are capable of making decisions independent of the forces acting upon us – but in reality, all I think we have is the illusion of free will – we make believe that we dress the way we want, talk the way we want, eat what we want etc. But all those actions, like the motives that cause them to come back are, in a sense pre determined, and even our decision to go against them is but a reaction to our hard wiring.