February 10, 2003
Four billion years ago, there was no freedom on our planet, because there was no life. What kinds of freedom have evolved since the origin of life? Can there be freedom and free will in a deterministic world? If you’re free, are you responsible for being free, or just lucky?
In Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained, sets out to answer these questions, showing how we, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and morality. In a series of strikingly original arguments drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics, and philosophy, he demonstrates that if we accept Darwin’s reasoning, we can build from the simplest life forms all the way up to the best and deepest human thoughts and questions of morality and meaning, ethics and freedom.
Many people assume that determine this implies inevitability. Dennett shows that it doesn’t. Many think indeterminism can give us agents some freedom, some elbow room, that we just couldn’t have in a deterministic universe. Dennett shows that it can’t. Many think that in a deterministic world, there are no real options, only apparent options. This is false, according to Dennett. He investigates the way human culture has made possible the evolution of cooperation and ethical norms, and shows how our problems of self-control create self-deception and lead us to bargaining with our future selves, creating in the process the mature self that can take responsibility for its actions.
As in his previous books, Dennett weaves a richly detailed narrative enlivened by an array of provocative formulations and analogies as entertaining as they are challenging. Freedom Evolves does not seek to replace traditional work on ethics with some Darwinian alternative, but rather to place ethics on the foundation it deserves: a realistic, naturalistic, potentially unified vision of our place in nature.
Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His books include Brainstorms, Elbow Room, Consciousness Explained, and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in North Andover, Massachusetts.