Sunday, December 14, 2008

Elbow Room by Daniel C. Dennett

(This was a re-read for me and though I’ve previously posted some comments and excerpts in four entries, I hadn’t quite done a decent review.)

Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting is a near exemplar of intellectual investigation. I say this because Dennett is honest and communicative about his project, consistent throughout, thoroughly analytical and provides practical advice regarding the problem or future complications one might encounter. Even if one does not agree with Dennett, as long as he is read carefully, his stance is clear and can be challenged at various points. Ending on a prescriptive note regarding free will debates was refreshing and I wish more authors/books did the same. Of course, it is not a flawless work as greater elucidation would have been appreciated in several sections.

Basically, Dennett offers a compatibilist argument, that free will is compatible with a universe in which everything is determined, and it probably one of the best ones you’ll read. The more I progressed through the book, the utility of the title as a representation of the book’s contents seemed more and more apt.

Dennett believes that we have free will but it is to be understood as the result of mechanistic processes (in a likely determined world). As usual, he challenges popular intuition pumps and attempts to replace them with some of his own. I appreciated his distinction between determinism and fatalism, the former is that things just end up causally happening a certain way, while the latter indicates purposefulness and intentional organization. Additionally, deliberation, even in a determined universe, does matter, as it is part of the process that causes things to happen. It was interesting to think about this personally, regarding the inner thoughts I have, and how those relate to belief and action outcomes. Further, even if determinism is true, people do still avoid things and can prevent things, but not the actual future, just those things and events that are anticipated. Lastly, people do have opportunities if things/situations appear as opportunities to them (I understand how this could be dissatisfying to some).

I see the validity of his technique and I find his dissection of the free will issue/problem appropriate. Yet, I think I still disagree with terminology. Let us say that we can deliberate, that we can prevent, that we can avoid, that we have opportunities to us, but let us not call it free will. Dennett repeatedly acknowledges that the idea of a Kantian will, idealized or exempt from the causal fabric of the universe, is obviously a fiction and is unattainable. Consequently, he argues for a variety that we should want (which is pretty much what we have). I say keep the argument for wanting what we have, but let go of the term ‘free will’ for I think it is too connotatively loaded and unnecessarily complicates discussions about choice and responsibility. Dennett feels a similar notion of triage regarding the term ‘qualia,’ among others, but he prefers to persist with the term free will (as he more explicitly acknowledges in Freedom Evolves, p.224-225 ).

I guess that choice is his.


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