Daniel C Dennett, Freedom Evolves
In many regards (plural because his style is a facet) I am a fan of the Dennett project: to marry the rigour and range of the modern sciences with our use and conception of traditional philosophical concepts like Will, the Self and the supposed Cartesian Theatre where they reside. On the one hand debunking, but on the other building on the soundest possible foundations and ever-willing to reconceive, reconsider their structure when significant progress is made elsewhere in related fields.
Like much of science writing, this is a concerted review of the sidereal literature related to the evolution of freedom as condition and modern value, scientifically interpreted. Since DCD has a peculiar weight in pop-science/philosophy, a very ‘pugnacious’ weight considering his style and humour, this allows him to solidify the strains of reason and researchers he considers most relevant to the DCD project. Like any father-figure discourse-setter. And yet he also quotes himself extensively.
The neatest summary of the book comes near the end:
Human freedom is real — as real as language, music and money — so it can be studied objectively from a no-nonsense point of view. But like language, music, money, and other products of society, its persistence is affected by what we believe about it. So it is not surprising that our attempts to study it dispassionately are distorted by anxiety that we will clumsily kill the specimen under the microscope. (p 305)
That specimen being freedom, free will. So DCD, using his bio-friendly Determinism (at any one precise moment, only one future can follow) fleshes a nicely Darwinian account of the tangled will-complexity of the (moral) decision faculty. Arguing that it’s just as evolved as our other faculties. That by becoming moral agents we take on reflective responsibility, by virtue of language, education and the memes that form our culture/society. [To be honest here, I hadn’t fully considered the thought-power of a Darwinian reading of memes in culture.] The stress falls on language and reflection as the cornerstones of consciousness, and hence responsibility.
What you are is that agent whose life you can tell about. You can tell us, and you can tell yourself. The process of self-description begins in earliest childhood, and involves a good deal of fantasy from the outset. (p 255)
Which I think ties in neatly with what artists have been banging on about (and self-promoting) for years. [Bellow: ‘The challenge of modern freedom… is to make yourself up.’ — which, although this ain’t Modern, is nonetheless timeless]. Self-creation is the truth of self.
In terms of method, the book progresses nicely from the fine cellular-automata scale where Determinism (or Naturalism
) can be rendered most acutely, like in the basic-rule complexity of the Game of Life, to the broader design level where we as conscious animals tend to operate, think and make moral decisions. Gradual deductive arguments; good science. Thought experiments and strategies abound, ranging from the action and speed of decision-making and the lag of consciousness, the significance of faking it, the castration of paedophiles and more. Inevitably, it all points to some emerging congruence of science and ethics, the gradual discussion of values about the world we choose to live in (which fine ethics DCD wisely avoids).
I’m not going to go point for point, but I was left a bit quizzical over the ultimate place of determinism in this moral-responsibility sphere. It works superbly as a framework on the smallest scale like computer processors. But DCD’s narrowed causal definition operates on the tightest timeframe, and theories which depend on finely-split time tend to go the way of Zeno’s paradoxes I suppose. Or maybe this is all brass tacks, background stuff unrelated to reflection/education/responsibility and hence unmappable on these plains. Or maybe this is why DCD calls it Naturalism
, which sounds more Darwinianly winning. He definitely seems to head to the pragmatism of Rorty.
But at least he’s given the idea of freedom-responsibility a shot in the arm of soundness. And if something is philosophically indefensible, DCD will dismiss it pugnaciously. That’s good labna.
Rather annoyingly, in two respects, I’ve noticed that the UK edition of Oblivion
has a quote-blurb by Zadie Smith plastered on the cover, smack-bang top billing. I mean, talk about getting your literary credentials/seniority ass-backwards. Also, this edition has a bit of cartoonish simplicity about its design, as though designed by the same amateurish team that did White Teeth in paperback. The US edition
has a much rawer simplicity of plainest typeset, Obliv/ion in a broken line. Clean and simple, no second-rate guff.
Also, on loan from a German pal: Harmonia 76: Tracks & Traces
. Interesting for its personnel and timeperiod: Roedelius, Eno, Moebius and Michael Rother. It seems to drift away from itself on occasion, and ambient is the operative mode, but Eno gets some spare paranoid vocals. Not as consistently sure-fire as Music for Films, say, but an interesting look at simplicity of musical/listener engagement and drum machines and tone. A genuine sense of ‘arty’ that doesn’t yet depend on some wider legitimising context.
Mild if dry run through the Hitchcock mode in Ozon’s Swimming Pool
. Good play on cross-channel clichés: the loose French chick and the starchy stuckup English matron. One of the better films about writing and narrative exploitation (vis. twists). The parallelogram of the pool v. the rectangular spread of the laptop keyboard. Nicely paced and pitched.
Also, I have a neat trinity of Neu!
records. And a Popmatters column in the works.