Bought this in a bookstore in New York in January 2011, I believe, preparing for a bus trip back to Boston after an overnight jaunt marred by misplacing my phone’s charger. With a dying battery, I couldn’t read any of my beloved ebooks, so I huffed and scowled and bought one of these neanderthal bound-pulp bricks to entertain myself on the road. I put it away as soon as I returned home, and there it sat until my recent efforts to read more books, contemporary with my starting this blog last December. While I worked through my self-assigned reading list, I also turned my attention back to my own small library, particularly the titles I hadn’t read yet.
I find myself dragging my feet on the last unread item in that list, Exercises in Programming Style, because frankly I find myself not at all looking forward to a book whose topic binds so closely to my day job — especially when I already own a backlog of books that journey much further afield. And so Freedom Evolves came down from from the shelf instead. (I have promised the friend who initially recommended it to me that I’d read Style before adding another book to my non-fiction stack, which, um, currently has two other books on it after Freedom.)
Why did I choose this book, from that whole New York bookstore? I like Dennett’s personal style, for one thing. Of the various famously vociferous atheist thinkers of the 20th century who have operated in the 21st with varying degrees of success (c.f. Twitter repeatedly exploding in poor old Dawkins’ face), I find Dennett wholly unabrasive in his presentation. For years, my primary mental image of him comes from his 2006 “Thank goodness!” editorial, reaffirming a denial of the supernatural while displaying gratitude for earthly human kindness in the face of personal crisis. Also, his 1991 masterwork Consciousness Explained has dwelled in my library for a long time, and though I doubt I’ve managed to get through it cover-to-cover, I do recall feeling an affinity for what it did offer, so picking up something newer by the same author seemed advisable.
Freedom Evolves promises in its first pages to assure the reader that human free will can meaningfully exist in an entirely physical universe. I didn’t finish the book feeling enlightened in exactly this way, though I very much did enjoy following the book through all its (sometimes quite challenging) explorations of thought, freedom, and morality in the wholly natural, materialist, rules-based universe which I agree we all live in.
The book begins with Dennett beaming over his students’ shoulders as they mess around with Conway’s Game of Life, and he begins to construct a simile about how amazingly complex structures exhibiting abstract behaviors can begin with something so simple as the famous life construct known as the “glider”. (And, yes, this does jibe pleasantly with a plot point from Schild’s Ladder. In retrospect, my enjoying that novel a couple of months ago probably reignited by interest in Freedom Evolves, since I did at least get as far as its discussion about Conway’s Life during that bus trip years ago.)
From there, the book generally expands outwards in scope, chapter by chapter, and by the time it addresses the compatibility of morality with a materialist philosophy I felt like I’d come to the end of Katamari Damacy’s latter levels, rolling through city skylines with little memory of my particle-scoped past, caroming off individual motes in the dust. I enjoyed reading the chapters more as a thematically linked series of essays than an attempt to present a single, coherent argument.
I found noteworthy the book’s cogent refutation of arguments I’ve read elsewhere that the neural firing which measurably preceds conscious muscular action indicates a “300-millisecond moral void” that somehow challenges the notion of free will. Dennett argues to the contrary, mapping a reality where a person’s low-level brain hardware is as much a part of their self, and their informed decision-making faculties, as their higher-level, conscious, reasoning mind.
Dennett also spends a lot of time on a hypothesis — which, I gathered from footnotes, he introduced primarily in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea — that consciousness and interpersonal communication are linked, that the development of the former in humans depended on the natural evolution of the latter. That, by extension, we can view consciousness as nothing more complicated than communication within oneself. He relates this to a more general concept of how the human species continues to evolve, and more rapidly than ever, through the “horizontal” communication of memes rather than the “vertical” inheritance of genes. Many higher animals can demonstrably learn new, beneficial things and teach them to others of their species, but humans alone, our planet’s sole known possessors of language and language-bound consciousness, do it so well that successive generations of the human species continue to enjoy ever-greater amounts of freedom (in the philosophical sense).
In contrast to foundational works like Consciousness Explained, this book seems to serve a more reactive purpose, with the bulk of it focused on responding to arguments advanced by other philosophers in the years shortly before its own 2003 publication. Many chapters recapitulate arguments put forward in Consciousness Explained or Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, often to counter-argue criticism published against concepts presented within those books. I had encountered this pattern before, back when I read a lot of Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach or (the lesser-known but quite excellent) Le Ton Beau de Marot represent one kind of book, while I am a Strange Loop — which I recall largely as whole chaptersful of exasperation with John Searle — is quite another thing.
(By the way, a recent episode of the always-wonderful Radiolab recently featured Hofstadter speaking about the translation project at the heart Le Ton Beau, and you should listen to it.)
I should try reading Consciousness Explained again sometime. I feel fairly certain I haven’t opened it since before 9/11. But, it’ll have to wait, at least until after I manage to finally read a certain book of recreational code-poetry…