(I wrote this review in 2010, but never got around to posting it here. He published a more recent edition in 2015 that I may review at some point; there were many issues I didn’t get to in this one.)
This book reminds me of the pre-Copernican astronomers who were saddled with a commitment to keep the Earth at the center of the universe no matter what. In order to explain the movement of the planets, they were forced to invent elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions to reconcile what they could see with what they were committed to believing.
Dennett seems embarked on a similar enterprise: he is committed to maintaining the idea of free will no matter what, and is willing to jump through any number of hoops to do it. Following his mental gymnastics can be quite a challenge.
Why is he compelled to sustain his belief in free will? “It has seemed very important to demonstrate that we are not just acting out our destinies but somehow choosing our own courses, making decisions–not just having `decisions’ occur in us.”(p. 1)
He says that if we are “hoodwinked” into believing that we don’t have free will, the “implications… are almost too grim to contemplate,” which he demonstrates with a number of grim metaphors: We would be like “a dog on a leash being pulled behind a wagon,” “a mere domino in a chain,” “disabled as a chooser.” “Small wonder then that we should be highly motivated to look on the bright side and find the case for free will compelling if we possibly can.”(p. 168)
Dennett’s contention that you have to believe in free will or be “disabled as a chooser,” should be empirically testable since the entry for “free will” in Wikipedia lists several major religions and scientific disciplines that consider the idea of free will untenable. There are at least several million people on this planet who don’t believe in free will and seem to be living happy lives; billions of choices must “occur in” them every day without causing any major distress. Dennett’s dread descriptions of life without free will seem patently false, and should at least require testing rather than being accepted as true by proclamation.
If we skip to the end for a peek at where Dennett is trying to lead us, we find this: “What we want when we want free will is the power to decide our courses of action, and to decide them wisely, in the light of our expectations and desires. We want to be in control of ourselves, and not under the control of others. We want to be agents, capable of initiating and taking responsibility for, projects and deeds.”(p. 169)
The curious thing about this statement is that if we take the words “free will” out of it, all the things he says we want are available to us, even if we are fully determined parts of the natural world. Even we “hard determinists” have brains that make plans and carry them out, etc., so why do we need the idea of free will? What would free will give us that we don’t already have in a determined world?
Dennett doesn’t answer these questions in Elbow Room, but in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea we find his concern clearly stated: “How could I be held accountable for my misdeeds, or honored for my triumphs, if I am not the captain of my vessel?” (Page 366) I’m confident that Dennett has been socialized well enough that his misdeeds are misdemeanors at worst, and that being held accountable for them is not his major concern. What seems most important to him is that he be honored for his triumphs. He is intent on finding a way to justify pride in his accomplishments, and without free will, pride is nonsensical.
If you read Elbow Room with Dennett’s end goal in mind, you might be more alert for the kinds of restrictions he wants us to put on our thinking in order to maintain the idea of free will.
He cautions us about looking “`too closely’ at our mental activities,” or we might find that we have no selves! Even if we don’t look too closely, science might, “…and the inner, detailed view of our brains that science provides is not likely to reveal to us any recognizable version of what Descartes call the res cogitans or thinking thing we know so well `by introspection.’ But if we lose our view of our selves as we gain in scientific objectivity, what will happen to love and gratitude (and hate and resentment)?”(p. 13)
Love and gratitude seem to be built into us as part of our evolutionary heritage as social animals; they are part of the cement that holds groups together and are products of determinism rather than possible casualties. Hate and resentment have evolutionary components as well, no doubt, but belief in free will reinforces them by ascribing arbitrariness to those “enemies” who elicit them: granted free will, they are seen as deliberately choosing those actions that arouse our passions.
In his quest for justifiable pride, the idea of “skill” is a crucial element: skill gives one the right to take credit for one’s accomplishments. But in order for skill to serve his purpose, it must be uncontaminated by luck: if one person is more skillful than another because of luck, then the more skillful one doesn’t deserve any special credit.
Dennett uses a rhetorical device to make his point, beginning with an enumeration of several lucky breaks that might account for one person’s developing a skill: born with talent; or if not with talent, then the gumption and drive to practice; or if lacking the temperament to practice, learning it from a wise teacher, etc. After naming a number of quite reasonable possibilities, he veers off into the whimsical: “…lucky not to have been born blind, and lucky not to have been struck by lightning on their way to school… lucky to have ever been born at all!”
This sets the stage for calling this a “petulant little dialogue,” turning a discussion that started out quite reasonably into an object of ridicule. Put in this light, he disparages the view that would give luck such weight. “On this view nothing in principle could count as skill or the result of skill. This is a mistake.”(p. 96) Perhaps it would be a mistake if this view did in fact lead to the conclusion that “nothing could count as skill or the result of skill,” but skill acquired by luck is still skill, and a skillful violinist sounds much different than one who has not been lucky enough to develop to the same level. We can express appreciation and gratitude for our good fortune in hearing a virtuoso performance without granting the performer free will.
Dennett’s dismissal of “luck” and his embrace of “skill” as something we can take credit for is brought in to anchor the idea of the “self-made self.” If I tried to unravel that whole discussion I’d be writing another book, but if you stay alert for “`heuristic’ decision procedures, in which a risky, limited amount of analysis is terminated in some arbitrary way”(p. 71) and similar devices, you will find much reason for concern. The entire section hangs on luck: “Is it `just luck’ that some of us were born with enough artistic talent, in effect, to have developed `good’ characters while some of us have turned out less well?” (p. 92)
We hard determinists would say, “Yes,” to which Dennett would respond with his “petulant little dialogue.”
Dennett takes a jab at determinists in this curious statement: “…those who have written books and articles denying the reality of free will… are left advising (pretending to advise? seeming to advise?) the reader that advising is pointless.”(p. 155) Advising about anything would only be pointless if brains were incapable of making use of advice, but that is far from the case. Brains are constantly looking for ways to improve their models of the world and themselves, because evolution selected for brains that were capable of such improvement. People who write books advising their fellows of possible ways to improve their models do so because social animals that aid their fellows have better survival rates. We have evolved to be helpful, and those who understand the disadvantages of belief in free will–and there are many–are acting in a rational, determined way.
Near the end, Dennett offers some advice to his colleagues: “You say you cannot imagine that p, and therefore declare that p is impossible? Mightn’t that be hubris? One of my tactics has been to respond to traditional philosophical claims about what is imaginable by urging: try harder.”(p. 170)
Dennett seems unable to imagine a happy life without free will, and though I doubt he is capable, I would hope he might take his own advice: try harder.