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1/8/04


Home______Daniel Dennett & Choice Machines

In his book Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett says we have more freedom if determinism is true. A determined world has less randomness, less unpredictability. It allows us to make informed judgements on reliably future events. If you are about to cross an open field in a deterministic lightning storm you can plan when lightning will next strike by measuring intervals and making your run to safety. If it strikes wholly randomly, you are at its mercy.

He says people confuse determinism with fatalism. They think JFK's assassination could not have been prevented, or that they can never avoid getting a disease.

Determinism holds every event as a result of earlier events. Cause begets effect; no event is purely accidental. "Choice" derives from antecedents.

Fatalism is determinism with you left out. It is the idea that something will happen no matter what you do. Determinism holds that an event depends on what you do, on what you know, or what you are caused to know. In short, determinism doesn't mean inevitability. (Even if the you is omitted, as in Advaita or Buddhism, fatalism is not necessarily implied. See My comments, appended to the 28 December Balsekar/Goswami/Libet article.)

Dennett distinguishes between situation-action machines and choice-machines. He calls humans choice-machines. Situation-action machines' rules say, "If in situation X, do A," "If in situation B, do Z." If the action is on the list, it is done. The rule says so. Choice machines see options, "If I did this, what would happen? Or, if I did that? If I did this other thing?" They don't have lists of rules to follow.

Where do we get our values to make these choices? They evolve over time. Of them, he says in an interview, "our responsibility for our values is not absolute and it’s not zero." You can’t choose your parents, your culture, nor even your kindergarten teacher. As you mature you can gradually assume responsibility for your own actions. We try to raise our children as moral agents, which means eventually letting go of them by saying, "I’ve done the best I can. . . . I’ve created this hopefully moral agent. . . ."

But some take responsibility; others don't. How do they differ? Dennett doesn't refer to irresponsibility, but to nonresponsibility. If you are simply unable to notice what you’re doing and its implications, you’re less responsible than somebody who can.

We learn morality much as we learn language. "We hear stories, or we watch how people get rewarded or punished, and what we see and hear shapes our characters over time." We are not born moral.

Memes. Ideas culturally evolve analogous to biological genes in evolution. Some ideas survive better than others, mutating, recombining into new ideas. Such units of cultural evolution have been called memes. Copyright and patent laws deal with some memes. Like genes, memes may be worth copying.

Genes "speak" the language of DNA and RNA. Memes are culturally more varied. Just as biology evolves, so does culture, and through memes. They don't transmit DNA information but cultural information. In fact, natural selection can favor memes over genes in that culturally well-equipped social groups can survive others. (See Richard Dawkins, Memes, genes, and God, 31 December below.)

The self is only a metaphor for our bodies and brains as they exist in time. Without social interactions, the self wouldn't exist. This contravenes Descartes' idea that the self does all the person's work. For Dennett, the self is functionality. It is not one thing, but little things, neurons wired together, so to say. This explains why when philosopher David Hume looked for the self he couldn't find it. It is not localized and is rather like the internet, existing as a whole but not traceable to a single node. Unlike Eastern thought, however, the self doesn't disappear. "It bottoms out with the neurons." (In practice, Eastern religions allow that ego never completely vanishes.)

To those who charge he has disenchanted the world, rendering it meaningless, he replies that he has disenchanted it but it retains meaning, which doesn't depend on magic. (See more on Daniel Dennett in the 15 December article below.)

It's reductionist Professor Arthur Deikman, University of California, San Francisco, would say. It reduces us to less than we are. Are we choice machines? Deikman has responded to points of view similar to Dennett's. "When mathematics and chemistry define your world, it has no meaning; the world dries up,. But, for you, as you walk the streets, engage others, live your ife, your world is charged with meaning, filled with purposes, conflicted or aligned at every level." In a context about the "realistic" perspectives of science, he asks do they "really fit what you feel, what you experience, moment by moment--or are they something you have been told, something you now think?" Personal Freedom, found in Spiritual/Mysticism here: More

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