Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dennet's Determinism

Let me preface this post by reassuring you all of my extraordinary humility.  The primary goal of this endeavor is to clarify my own ideas to myself, and when they are wrong I hope you tell me where and why.

The other night I was having trouble getting to sleep, so I watched a lecture by Daniel Dennet on the topic of free will.  Dennet is an atheist philosopher who Richard Dawkins refers to several dozen times in his book "The God Delusion" -- by the by, I am halfway through another of Dawkins' books, this one on evolution, and I like it very much.

The overwhelming feeling that I got from Dennet's lecture was that he could have explained exactly what he meant in the span of five minutes, but instead took a confusing hour and a half.  For a man to say so little in the span of so much time is an accomplishment in the same sense that golf is a sport: both are just obnoxiously difficult.

Dennet's basic claim is that determinism does imply that everything is determined, but does not imply inevitability.  He shows (or declines to show) this in a roundabout way by refusing to define the sense in which he means inevitability, and to be quite honest I still don't know what he thinks the word is supposed to mean.  For a while he claims that evolutionary biology can explain free will, but he neither explains what he means by free will or what evolutionary biology has to say about it.  For a good five minutes he exchanges the word "avoidable" for the more esoteric "evitable" without explaining what it is that the former means that the latter doesn't.  For another while he goes into an extended analogy about computers playing chess, the purpose of which I cannot hope to divine.

I have come to the conclusion that either Dennet is extraordinarily confused or extraordinarily confusing.  This isn't to say that I do not understand what he meant, only that I did not understand why he meant it.  If strict determinism is true, there can be no escape from the hard narrow groove of our inevitable future.  There might be an overwhelming amount of chaos, which looks like randomness but isn't, or an underwhelming amount of genuine quantum randomness, which only seems like a way out if you prefer losing at roulette to losing at checkers.

I wish Dennet had something more to say, but then if you taken determinism as fact, there is nothing more to say.  There is no free will and there is no free thought, unless we redefine the terms cleverly enough to trick ourselves for a short while into pretending there might be.  It is the only answer to the only question.

The question is "why", and the answer is "because".