Saving Freedom from Evolution: A Response to "Freedom Evolves" by Daniel Dennett

 This one is actually pretty good.  From my Intro to Philosophy class.  There are several passages that just devolve into word salad, but my argument structure is fairly solid.  I had a good time with this one.
Saving Freedom from Evolution:
a Response to Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett
That Daniel Dennett wishes to solve the free will debate is noble. That “Freedom”, like all human concepts, must “Evolve” is certainly true. Dennett cannot however disguise his intention to remind the reader of the sturdiness of science by banging our heads on it, then ask us to try to deny it. His basic point is that the discussion of free will is an issue of definition and wishful thinking; that if we choose to see it, we are in fact as free as we need or want to be. But by changing what humans mean when they say “free will”, Dennett effectively puts words in his readers' mouths. The nature of his argument necessarily involves an abandoning of the contemporary meanings of freedom and because of this Dan Dennett cannot claim success in his endeavor.
Dennett is a naturalist. He supports the view that human consciousness is a result of natural processes and no non-physical parts. He quite sensibly observes that the competitive organic processes of life have generated within humans the ability to link similar causes to similar effects. This motivates a discussion of whether a “choice” is an act of “free will” (whatever that is) or a necessary link in a causal chain precipitated by evolution. So, as is typical in philosophy, the discussion rests on the definition of terms.
We would like to think that freedom is reinvented every time we wish to express our autonomy. A totally free act should somehow emerge independent of the universe before its inception, giving us the unique power to transcend causation. Dennett goes to great lengths to show that this purest conception of free will is silly in several respects. He spends a lot of time reminding the reader of our essential physical nature and its necessary coherence within our universe. He also uses Conway's game of Life as a model for a naturalistic system that appears to contain within it free acts but which in fact obeys a finite set of inhibiting rules. He gives examples that motivate the concept of choice as a natural extension of physicality. However he shies away from the statement that (the grandest version of) free will is an illusion. He chooses instead to show that we do not need as pure a form of freedom as we think we do.
Conway's Life is perhaps the coolest application of computers to matters of the human condition. The possibility of the construction of a Turing Machine using Life denizens is not that surprising, given the brilliance and simplicity of the program; it is brilliant and simple in many ways similar to our world. But Dennett makes a mistake in choosing Life as a proving ground for his theories of essential determinism.
The difference between life and Life is not just a matter of scale. It is a matter of a "vastly expanding" (in his own terminology) scale that transcends our mathematical understanding. Dennett is of course hoping to deliver a point about apparent indeterminacy despite simple laws that govern everything. But his point glances. The numbers necessary to rescale any aspect of Life so that it resembles nature do not themselves have a place in nature. The game of Life can be intelligently utilized as an example of a deterministic system that will yield identical results from identical inputs. Fortunately for Dennett, his free will does not depend on determinacy; if it did, his theories would rest on his Life-theories, which do not suffice to imply our world.
Dennett's discussion of “high-level design” does intrigue, although the distinction between high- and low-level design cannot be anything other than choice (that's right, “choice”) of perception. In chapter two, he suggests that some uses of the term “free will” are comfortable “reconceptualizations” of cause-and-effect relationships by high-level observers like us. The inhabitants of Life have the ability to attack, defend, consume, grow, reproduce, and adapt, and from our high-level perspective we see life. And if we were to build a Universal Turing Machine out of the stuff of Life, our intuition asserts that life plus sentience equals consciousness, which is a necessary condition for freedom. Dennett claims this supports his hypothesis.
But even setting aside the mathematical concerns, these deterministic UTMs have no more free will than electrons do. As Freedom Evolves progresses, the reader observes this convention of “choice” being applied all the way down to the atomic or binary level. This suggests that Dennett is being forced to declare free will a non-anthro-specific concept, and this must strike the reader as robbery.
The fact is we expect more from free will, if it in fact exists. We need a free will that is endemic to human consciousness and unfettered by causality. Dennett does not realize that true freedom cannot be simulated with philosophical constructs because our arrogance demands that we define our choices as transcending rational thought: we wish to be free to perform irrational actions.
Of course, this kind of potency cannot be supported by discourse, and certainly not by modeling our universe with binary automata. The structures in Life do indeed function with remarkable similarity to the situation-action machines in our world, but only when viewed from the “high-level”. Since perspective is a choice, Dennett must assume such things as “choices” (free in this case, since I can choose to see only the (low-level) pixels) in order to make his readers see that life and sentience possible within a deterministic world.
Another of Dennett's key pillars is his disaffirmation of libertarianism as heralded by Robert Kane. Essentially, Kane is looking for a way to grant indeterminacy to human choice without directly arguing against determinism. So libertarians seek a place within human consciousness to set apart from determinism: an indeterministic kernel, a floodgate through which our free will can affect ourselves and the world. In order to keep his argument plausible, Kane must find a place for this morsel of indeterminism within a purely physical world, without resorting to the non-physical, as so many of his dualistic compatriots have. Dennett argues that Kane misuses the terms “free will” and “indeterminism”, and sets out to show that the Kanean model of decision-making is (alternately) incoherent and insufficient.
Regardless of its accuracy, Kane's solution is brilliant. Since the early years of the last century, scientists have been observing unpredictable fluctuations in physical systems that remain stable until a critical energy mass is achieved, at which point (and only around that point) particles cease to behave as they do at other energy levels (i.e., orderly). But within this boundary “chaos” exists a peculiar kind of harmony that seems to obey mathematical laws separate from those of the rest of the universe. These fluctuations were first observed in simple oscillators, no more than glorified pendulums, and it is this oscillation that Kane finds reminiscent of humans' thought processes at moments of decision. Give a human two choices and if one does not strongly attract his desire, his attention will bounce back and forth between his options. Kane claims that the human's anxiety causes chaotic behavior at the quantum level, which injects enough indeterminacy into the system to allow the human the “wiggle room” to produce a “self-forming action”.
Dennett's objection is that all of the support for chaos-producing “non-linear neural networks” comes from computer software that is inherently algorithm-based. According to Paul Churchland, our minds are nonalgorithmic, since “they do not consist in a series of discrete physical states serially traversed under the instructions of a stored set of symbol-manipulating rules.” (107) Thus, conditions for chaos are not met, and the system remains deterministic. Dennett does not consider that less linearity (such as exists in nonalgorithmic systems) produces more chaotic activity. So even if the algorithmic models of neural networks are wrong, it only serves to free up our minds even more.
Kane now uses his newly justified indeterminism in a model of human decision-making. It functions like a machine, taking sensory experiences and beliefs as input, and outputting a decision. Dennett's initial objections to this construct are well-founded and serve to refine the idea. For instance, his “clutch” concept allows the reader to examine contingencies of error within the system.
Dennett's key objection is, however, inconsistent. Dennett of course demands to know where the causal structure of a situation leaves a gap for indeterminate wiggle room. He claims that Kane's insistence on containing the indeterminacy within practical reasoning necessarily implies that the indeterminacy is caused by the input, and would thus be subject to the laws of determinism. This is a misperception. The input creates the necessary conditions for indeterminism, and sets the chaos-generators running by supplying possible outcomes as foci of oscillation. This is not causation. If I build a pendulum such that at the far end of its swing it will bounce off a metal wall, it cannot be said that I caused the bob of the pendulum to break a circle around the pendulum at any particular point. But it would mean that I would be responsible if the bob were to injure a child standing on the circle. Strictly speaking, the chaotic activity initiated by the particles of the wall caused the bob's movement, but nothing in our conception of the universe can be said to have caused the chaos. It is just the way the world is.
Both Kane and Dennett do not allow for a recursive aspect of decision-making. A decision between two possible courses of action is actually made up of a multitude of smaller decisions. Before we can think about a possible future, we must decide on the true nature of the present and on the truth of our memories of similar decisions in the past, down into first principles (if necessary). Each of these decisions is an output of Kane's decision machine and must be fed back into the machine as part of the input for the next layer of decisions. In this way Kane maintains his internal indeterminism and Dennett is partially granted his random-as-input, since a second-level decision would take inputs that were not entirely determined.
One very important choice we make is how hard we want to think about the choice with which we are now faced; how deep do we want to look into what we believe (at a presumably cursory level). This choice of “book depth” allows us the opportunity to make “impulsive, spur-of-the-moment, or snap decisions” as Kane desires (114). Dennett wishes to make snap judgments the products of practical reasoning that do not utilize indeterminism.
But the fact is that perception is a choice, and we can choose to accept the reality of our senses or not, without sacrifice of rationality ; we need only site past examples in a certain class of experiences where our perceptual faculties turned out to be malfunctional. We do not wish to remove snap judgments (or any other kind of judgments) from moral responsibility, but offering them up to the custody of causation as Dennett suggests would do just that. The morality that Kane and Dennett both wish to solidify cannot be applied to only select cases of apparent free will.
The point is, “Dennett's Will” is far from free. He would have had a more convincing argument if he had attempted to prove free will illusory, but his ambition to be a grand unifier led him to attempt reconciliation with semantics instead of science. When dealing with freedom, if we think we do not have it, we do not have it, and vice versa. Those who perceive the universe as wholly deterministic choose to perceive the bars of a prison cell, and those who see liberty as a birthright see only the spaces in between. Both are accurate perceptions of our world, but at the root of both is choice.

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