HomeThe Dogmatic Determinism of Daniel DennettEducationAtlas University
No items found.
The Dogmatic Determinism of Daniel Dennett

The Dogmatic Determinism of Daniel Dennett

10 Mins
June 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves. (New York, Viking Press, 2003. 347 pp. $24.95.)

Daniel Dennett (pictured at left) is a philosopher known for advocating a reductionistic view of consciousness, and for promoting the theory of evolution as of central importance to understanding man and his place in the universe. His most recent book is devoted to the issue of whether free will can be integrated with evolution.

The idea of free will, as normally understood,means that man generally has more than one action possible to him, with his actual action the result, directly or indirectly, of his own choices. Man is in some cases free to choose between several alternatives, all of which are possible, with the choice between them directly under his control and his actions, directly or indirectly, the result of these choices.

Two hallmarks of Dennett's writing style are his condescending and supercilious tone and his incessant use of argument from intimidation.

Historically, free will has been opposed by two different kinds of ideas: divine fatalism, which holds that while there often is more than one possible action that man could take, the choice is not made by man himself but by God or the gods; and determinism, holding that at any time there is exactly one possible action that a person can take consistently with the operation of the laws of nature, so there is no choice among alternatives. In modern, scientifically informed discussion, divine fatalism is no longer taken seriously, and so determinism stands as the main alternative to free will. Determinism is usually held as part of a more general model of the universe, which involves two basic principles:

Mechanism is the idea that the universe is built out of physical particles whose movements are determined by their previous movements and their physical impact on each other. (Note that the term "mechanism" is sometimes used loosely as a synonym for determinism, but in this review I use it in its more precise sense to refer to this model of the basic constituents of the universe.)

Reductionism is the idea that human beings are complex systems of these physical particles, and that causal laws governing those particles completely determine the actions of the system.

The model of the universe based on these two principles was originated by the Greek atomists and is associated in modern times with the physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827). It is also the view accepted by Dennett.


Dennett defends a particular form of determinism known as compatibilism. This is the view that the concept of free will should be redefined so that it no longer involves a free choice among alternatives and can thus be made compatible with the mechanist/reductionist model of the universe.

Dennett makes the reality of free will depend on our need for morality rather than the other way around.

For Dennett, the significance of free will is that it is the basis of morality and moral responsibility, of engaging in moral judgment and holding people responsible for their actions. His thesis is that while free will in the ordinary sense is an illusion, these consequences of free will are real and compatible with his deterministic model of the universe, so free will should be redefined to refer to these consequences. Dennett suggests that calling an action "freely chosen" should not mean that the person had some other possible alternative action (which Dennett claims is never true), but rather should mean that we are justified in holding the person morally responsible for that action: "In other words, the fact that free will is worth wanting can be used to anchor our conception of free will in a way metaphysical myths fail to do" (p. 297).

Dennett has a history of giving his books titles that do not accurately reflect their theses. As several reviewers of his book Consciousness Explained have noted, it would have been more accurately titled Consciousness Ignored; similarly, Freedom Evolves would have been more accurately titled Morality Evolves without Freedom.

Dennett is inverting the correct logical hierarchy. The fundamental reason for accepting free will is that it is a self-evident, directly perceived fact about our own thinking and actions. Every reader of this review can directly perceive that the amount of mental effort he spends on considering and trying to understand it—and then whether he agrees with me or not—is under his own control. The same is true every time any one of us is engaged in any thought process of any difficulty, or makes a decision of any significance in his actions. It is because we observe the existence of freedom as a fact about ourselves that we can go on to accept responsibility and recognize moral praise and blame as deserved. Ignoring the introspective observation of choice, Dennett makes the reality of free will depend on our need for morality rather than the other way around.


Dennett continually exhorts the reader to question commonly held assumptions about determinism and freedom. He complains about "the complacency with which these theses are commonly granted without argument" (p. 25).

Yet his entire project depends on one assumption that he complacently accepts without argument and never thinks of questioning. Dennett assumes that causality is a relation between events: The motions of atoms or ions at one moment cause their motions at the next moment; the firing of a nerve in the brain causes a muscle to contract. In all his discussions of causality, he discusses it as a relation between events; analyzing causality, to Dennett, means analyzing precisely when one event can be said to be the cause of another. He states that he finds the ordinary concept of causality "informal, vague, often self-contradictory" (p. 71) and hard to analyze precisely, but it never occurs to him that this seeming difficulty is the result of an attempt to treat causality as the wrong kind of relationship.

The alternative view is that causality is a relationship, not between one event and another, but between an entity and its action: the way a thing acts (including the way it reacts to the actions of other entities) is a function of its nature. While it is often convenient to refer to some action as the "cause" of a subsequent action, such usage is derivative; primarily, an action's cause is the nature of the acting entity. For example, the motions of atoms or ions are caused by their mass, electric charge, etc., which determine how the forces operating on them affect their movement. If the nature of these entities were different, then they would act differently in response to the same external forces. In the case of living things, whose actions are self-generated (i.e., the action's direction and energy come from sources internal to the acting entity), entity causation becomes agent causation; the contraction of a muscle is caused by the nature of the animal's muscular and nervous systems. This understanding of causality makes it possible to see how human agents, whose nature includes the ability to weigh alternative courses of action and deliberate about them, and consequently the capacity for genuine choice, act in accordance with causality, not in any way in contradiction to it.

Dennett very briefly brings up the idea of agent causation—the idea that a human being exercising free will is the cause of his own actions—only to summarily dismiss it with the assertion:

How does an agent cause an effect without there being an event (in the agent, presumably) that is the cause of that effect (and is itself the effect of an earlier cause, and so forth)? Agent causation is a frankly mysterious doctrine, positing something unparalleled by anything we discover in the causal processes of chemical reactions, nuclear fission and fusion, magnetic attraction, hurricanes, volcanoes, or such biological processes as metabolism, growth, immune reactions, and photosynthesis (p. 100).

On the view of causality as a relation of an entity to its actions, all causation—including all the processes Dennett lists—involves as cause the entity rather than some earlier event. And all biological processes—including all the ones Dennett lists—are cases of self-generated action. Agent causation, therefore, far from being "mysterious" and "unparalleled by anything," is ubiquitous in nature; it is only Dennett's unquestioning acceptance of the event-event view of causality that makes him blind to this.


That the nature of causality is vitally important for the free will versus determinism issue is highlighted by Dennett's critique of what he regards as "the best attempt so far" to defend free will against determinism: that of Robert Kane in his book The Significance of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 1996). Kane recognizes that free will is relevant to action in those cases in which a person has to choose between two contradictory courses of action and has strong reasons for both. However, he shares Dennett's event-event view of causality and dogmatic rejection of agent causation. To avoid acknowledging agent causation while also avoiding determinism, Kane tries to base free will on quantum indeterminacies that may occur in the atoms of the brain during the process of deliberating on the reasons for alternative actions, which make the person's final choice of action undetermined. Dennett easily demolishes the theory, correctly demonstrating that such quantum indeterminacies do not in any way help give the person control of his actions or provide support for holding the person responsible for them.

Kane's account of free will begins on the right track, correctly identifying the type of situations in which free will is relevant to action. But his attempt is then derailed by sharing Dennett's basic unidentified bad premises. The crucial insight that Kane is missing is the one provided by Objectivism : recognizing the role of focus. In deliberating between strong reasons for contradictory courses of actions, the person's control over his final action comes, not from any random indeterminacies, but from his power to control his faculty of focus and therefore to choose whether he will focus on all the relevant reasons or on only some of them.


In chapters 2 and 3 of the book, Dennett goes into detail on his mechanistic model of the basic constituents of the universe. He devotes a long discussion to John Conway's "game of life," a set of simple rules for developing two-dimensional dot patterns. Dennett regards this as an accurate "toy model" of his view of the workings of the universe; he discusses how Conway's simple rules can give rise to very complex potential patterns, and claims that the relation of these complex two-dimensional dot patterns to the underlying simple rules is essentially the same as the relation of all processes in the universe, including human action, to the underlying mechanistic laws governing subatomic events.

Other than the great complexity of the patterns that can be produced, Dennett's central point about the game of life is that dot patterns can be designed so that two patterns will be moving closer to each other and look as if they are about to collide, but the presence of one of the patterns will cause the other one to move to the side, thus making it look as if the collision has been avoided. This, according to Dennett, demonstrates that determinism does not imply inevitability; "inevitable" means "can't be avoided," and while all events in the game-of-life dot patterns are determined some events can appear to an observer as if they were about to happen and have been avoided.

Dennett goes on to discuss how organisms that act in isolation can evolve, through the process of Darwinian evolution, into organisms that act cooperatively with each other; and then to claim that concepts of morality, responsibility, and blame (which is what he means by "free will") can be based on such evolved cooperation.

This evolutionary account of how concepts of responsibility and blame are compatible with determinism consists of five levels of description of the world, with Dennett claiming that each level can develop out of the previous one:

  1. Mechanistic events at the level of the atomic components of matter in the Laplacean model of the universe or in its game-of-life toy version.
  2. Complex patterns of events and events that appear to be avoided.
  3. Agents taking actions in isolation.
  4. Agents acting cooperatively.
  5. Morality, responsibility, and blame.

The strongest parts of Dennett's discussion are his explanations of the transitions from 1 to 2, and from 3 to 4. His explanation of the transition from 4 to 5 is weaker, mainly because he takes for granted a collectivistic view of the function of morality.

The really serious weakness in Dennett's theoretical structure, however, is the transition from 2 to 3. Dennett simply gives no explanation at all for that transition, which happens abruptly on page 88. In all of chapter 2 and in chapter 3 up to page 87, Dennett talks entirely in terms of events and patterns of events and relationships between them, mentioning organisms and persons and actions only in "promissory note" remarks about the sort of things that he would develop later. But on page 88 he suddenly discusses the example of a man falling down an elevator shaft and considers whether the man's death is avoidable and the sort of actions the man could take to try to avoid it. From that point forward, Dennett glibly talks about organisms and their actions, with no attempt to explain what the concept of "taking an action" can mean in terms of his basic model or how agents with the capacity to take an action could have originated from stages 1 or 2 of his theory.

The irony here is that stage 3 consists of introducing agent causation—precisely the agent causation that Dennett dismisses so dogmatically, as quoted above. All of Dennett's theoretical structure in stages 3, 4, and 5 relies on agent causation, and Dennett's central claim—that he can support concepts of morality and responsibility within his model of the universe—gets whatever seeming plausibility it has from his sneaking in this unexplained transition to agent causation.


In explaining the evolution of human culture, Dennett employs the concept of "meme," coined by Richard Dawkins. A meme is an idea viewed as an agent seeking to reproduce itself in people's minds and competing with other memes through a cultural version of Darwinian natural selection.

The idea of memes is an incoherent theory, and its adoption by writers such as Dennett and Dawkins demonstrates their desperation to avoid ascribing causal efficacy to the mind.

Dennett takes pains to state that he and other writers who use the concept of memes are not denying that people think. Rather, thinking is the process underlying natural selection among memes, in the same way that biological reproduction is the process underlying natural selection among genes. What this disclaimer neglects, however, is that the explanatory power of Darwinian natural selection comes precisely from the fact that it explains how traits apparently designed for a purpose can arise without a conscious, purposeful mind to design them; genetic traits that survive in the process of natural selection do so, not because a god made a conscious decision to create or accept them, but because these traits make an organism more fit for a given environment. If we recognize that people come up with ideas and accept or reject them through conscious, purposeful thought, then any analogy between ideas and genes, or between the spread of ideas and Darwinian natural selection, loses all meaning and all explanatory power; ideas and genetic traits are different precisely in the aspect that makes Darwinian natural selection the powerful explanatory theory it is.

The idea of memes is an incoherent theory, and its adoption by writers such as Dennett and Dawkins demonstrates their desperation to avoid ascribing causal efficacy to the mind. Faced with the fact that in reality ideas clearly do have consequences, they are then led to adopt a version of Hegelian idealism, granting causal efficacy and purposefulness, not to human beings and their thinking, but to disembodied ideas.


Two hallmarks of Dennett's writing style are his condescending and supercilious tone and his incessant use of argument from intimidation. In the first chapter, he suggests that many people would be afraid to consider the issues he discusses in the book, and may worry that a scientific understanding of these issues can be harmful (though Dennett does not specify what that harm would be). He relates the story of Dumbo the elephant, who was able to fly but to boost his confidence needed to believe that his ability depended on a magic feather; Dennett then compares himself, and his project in the book, to a crow who tries to tell Dumbo the truth, that the feather is not really magic. Throughout the book, at unpredictable intervals, Dennett interjects the phrase "stop that crow!" in parentheses, as a shorthand for "if you have any objections to what I'm saying here, it can't be because you've found any problems with my reasoning or evidence; it can only be because you're afraid of learning the truth and because you're worried that you, like Dumbo, can function only by clinging to illusions; so I will regard you as a grown-up only if you accept everything I say."

The main lesson we learn from his book, however, is the pervasiveness of unquestioned, unidentified philosophical premises, which result in Dennett's complete failure to illuminate the issues. Dennett represents a highly visible movement among some contemporary philosophers who seek a scientifically informed discussion of philosophical mind-body issues (a movement that includes some other well-known writers, such as Dawkins). Many bad ideas—especially materialism and determinism—are touted in such discussions as scientifically proven, or as ideas that we need to accept in order to be scientific, when in fact they are simply the dogmatic acceptance of certain philosophical premises.

Eyal Mozes
About the author:
Eyal Mozes