A Letter to Reason Magazine on an Interview with Daniel Dennett, "Pulling Our Own Strings," May 2003


31 March 2003

Letters to the Editor
REASON Magazine
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letters@reason.com

re: Interview with Daniel Dennett, "Pulling Our Own Strings," May 2003

To the Editors:

How it is that a living philosopher can honestly take materialism seriously, after Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, let alone Heisenberg and Bohr, is bewildering to me. But, to be sure, it is determinism and free will, not materialism, that is the main point of Daniel Dennett's new book and his interview in Reason.

The idea that determinism is going to allow for free will does not hold up. A human being as a "choice machine" is said to make choices "on the basis of its values, and it's choosing its values on the basis of what it knows." Values, however, do not come out of nowhere, but "evolve over time." With the Darwinian evolution of naturally selected values, however, values are due to natural, deterministic forces (acting on random variations), not to our own resources. Similarly, "on the basis of what it knows" also leaves choice determined by the natural circumstances of what knowledge happens to be available to us. A source of novelty from within for value or for knowledge, which is substantially what free will must mean, is ruled out by Dennett, who thus can really speak of "freedom" only because of an ambiguity. A system of more alternative states has more "freedom" than one with fewer, but when all these states are delivered by natural and deterministic forces, we do not get free will in any sense in which this has been traditionally understood. It still leaves humans as machines.

"Morality is the cultural artifact for improving the circumstances under which we have to act" ignores Hume's observation that a moral imperative, an "ought," cannot be logically derived from some empirical matter of fact, like a "cultural artifact." In practical terms, this means that if someone doesn't care about "improving the circumstances under which we have to act," then no moral command or exhortation has any meaning for them and we cannot say why they should not be immoral. A reason like, "If you are not moral, men with guns will come after you," what Kant would have called a "hypothetical imperative," will not disturb the person who thinks that eventuality can be avoided, or who doesn't think it needs to be avoided. Kant's "categorical imperative" uses "it is wrong" as its answer, something familiar to any libertarian who believes in natural rights.

While Dennett is happy to appeal to some centuries of secular ethics in philosophy, he does not acknowledge that there has been no general agreement on how to resolve Hume's moral skepticism, even while 20th century philosophy was dominated by theories, from Logical Positivism to Existentialism, that reduced ethics to meaningless statements or to absolute creations of free will in which, in the very words used by Dennett, "everything's permitted." This has reduced philosophical ethics to a shambles. Indeed, much traditional morality was often accompanied by a rationalistic "secular" justification, so that laws against homosexuality, for instance, usually addressed it as a practice "contrary to nature," not as something outlawed by Deuteronomy. Indeed, practices that produce no offspring are those the most decisively eliminated by Darwinian natural selection -- "memes" may be more than genes, but they cannot exist on their own.

With all these problems, I cannot see that Dennett has made a productive contribution either to metaphysics (over materialism), or to an understanding of free will, or to an investigation of the foundations of ethics.

Yours truly,
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.
Instructor of Philosophy


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