By Daniel C Dennett
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Do you have free will? Or is everything you do the predetermined outcome of natural laws, rendering false your belief that you decide, choose and act in ways that are - or could be if you shrug off social constraints and the effects of your upbringing - truly free?
This question raises one of the most vexed and persistent of all philosophical problems. On the one hand, science shows that the world (of which we are fully part) is governed by laws, and that what happens in it is the automatic result of their operation. On the other hand, our whole way of thinking about ourselves as conscious social beings is premised on the assumption that we have free will, and that we therefore occupy a moral realm in which we can be held responsible for what we do, praised or blamed for it, expected to make considered choices, to restrain our worst instincts - and the like.
The conflict between belief in free will and acceptance of natural determinism is simply illustrated. When a pebble on a hillside is dislodged by rain and slides down until arrested by other pebbles, it is not a doer but a sufferer; it did not elect to slide downhill, but is being acted upon by blind forces obeying blind laws. When a person walks up a hill to see the view, we assume he could just as well have decided not to, the existence of a choice being the mark of his free will. But here is the problem: as part of the natural world a human being is as subject to nature's laws as a pebble is. This implies that if he walks up a hill he does not freely choose to do so; rather, his doing so was an outcome of the universe's evolution, just as necessitated by the action of its blind laws as the pebble's slide. Both the walk up and the slide down were already implicit in the universe's earliest history.
If anyone might be expected to provide arguments to show that human beings can both fully be part of the scheme of nature's laws while at the same time having free will, it is Daniel Dennett, the sage of Boston, from within whose luxuriantly white patriarch's beard have issued many interesting and important contributions to two of the hardest puzzles facing human thought: this one, and the question of the nature of consciousness. This is his second book about free will, coming nearly 20 years after the first. He has not changed his answers, but has found new ways of arguing for them. The result is a richly stimulating, instructive, and remarkably accessible read.
Dennett's fundamental idea is that nature is genuinely deterministic, in being governed by natural laws, but that free will has evolved in human beings on good Darwinian principles. The determinism is a feature of the material constituents of human bodies; the freedom is a functional feature of human beings as conscious, language-using, socially-interacting creatures who therefore need to be agents whose reasons for doing what they do are their own. …