Philosopher discusses the evolution of free will

L.A. Cicero Dennett

The day after delivering a Presidential Lecture, philosopher Daniel Dennett participated in a discussion session at the Humanities Center, where he showed one questioner that he had nothing up his sleeve.

How could evolutionary processes ever generate something as complex as the human mind or as elevated as free will?

Professor Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University posed this question while presenting a Presidential Lecture in the Humanities and Arts last week to a packed audience in Braun Hall.

"Mind creationists" is what the philosopher and author of the best-selling Darwin's Dangerous Idea called those who believe that the human mind is beyond the generative abilities of natural selection.

"You might say that they think of the mind as a skyhook, as a near miraculous device that is an original fount of intelligence and creativity," Dennett said. Instead, he argued that the human mind should be viewed as "the product of a process which fundamentally consists of a bunch of biologically engineered gadgets."

Dennett showed a picture of motor proteins as an example of one of these tiny, insensate gadgets. Motor proteins transport proteins and vesicles within cells.

"We're made, in fact, of trillions of mindless little robots, and they don't have free will. Not one of them knows or cares who we are," he said. "But we know, and we care. And the question is: How come? How can that happen?"

Dennett drew an analogy with another, difficult-to-define characteristic: "We can explain why things are alive even though their smallest parts aren't alive," he said. "Why couldn't we explain why something's free even though their parts aren't free?"

Philosophers and theologians have been struggling to explain free will for ages. Although Dennett is a vocal proponent of evolution, he disagrees with the evolutionists who claim that "human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along their genetic code." He calls this opinion the "standard mistake."

There is something special about the human mind that has allowed humans to outcompete all other animals, Dennett said. He claimed that the unique attribute that sets humans apart is our ability to ask why.

"This word 'why' introduces a very important practice: the practice of sharing reasons, comparing reasons, criticizing reasons, rebutting reasons, [the] give-and-take of reasoning together," Dennett said.

Our ability to represent our reasons is "what gives us the freedom that matters," he added.

Dennett did not directly address the question of exactly how, when or why humans developed the ability to represent reasons. During a brief question-and-answer session following his lecture, Dennett mentioned that his theories—difficult to fully describe in just one hour—were more clearly explained in two of his 14 books, Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves.

A professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, Dennett was introduced as a "rock star" in the world of philosophy.

Indeed, the event's organizer, Sonja Sulcer of the Stanford Humanities Center, estimates that 300 people attended the lecture. Many observers had to sit in the aisles and around the stage, while others stood in the back and even at the entrances—hoping for a glimpse of the outspoken critic of creationism. Eager for an autograph, some clutched copies of Dennett's books.

The noted atheist could not resist concluding the evening by presenting a twist on the "Jesus fish" symbol. First, he displayed the well-known symbol, which contains the letters I-C-T-H-U-S (the Greek word for fish) and, as an acrostic, represents the ancient Greek words "Jesus Christ, God's Son and Savior."

Then, his last slide showed a nonbeliever's version: the same fish, except with legs and the letters D-A-R-W-I-N inside. Each of those letters was at the start of a line of a poem in Latin that Dennett said he composed when challenged once by a colleague. When translated into English, the poem reads, "Destroy the Author of Things in order to Understand the Infinite Universe."

The Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts are endowed by the Office of the President and administered by the Stanford Humanities Center.

Chelsea Young is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.