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Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett - A review

Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett (Viking Adult, 2003; Penguin paperback,  2004)

The author of D. Dennett, Freedom Evolves (2003) follows the odd, but helpful, practice of summarizing the current and the anticipated next chapter in italics at the end of each chapter.  It is odd, initially annoying and then very beneficial for reviewing the serious argument he makes for the evolution of freedom.

For Dennett, the deeply traditional western idea of immaterial souls that are capable of defying the laws of physics has outlived its credibility in the face of expanded understanding of science.  He clearly addresses the widespread and hidden fear that this expanding scientific understanding will compromise traditional views of free will and that the moral basis of society will dissolve.  Those fears are, in Dennett’s view, wrong.  For Dennett, the newer scientific understanding enhances the moral basis for good behavior and social order.

For Dennett, freedom exists on a naturalistic foundation.  A naturalistic account supports the existence of individual freedom, free will.  Freedom has evolved over billions of years through a succession of living things that have avoided harm and reproduced themselves. In reality, these configurations of matter persist because they are able to avoid harm by anticipation and reproduce themselves.  Freedom, then, is a part within a deterministic world.  

Determinism needs clarification.  For Dennett, determinism and inevitability are not the same and are not connected.  Determinism is consistent with freedom.  Determinism is no threat to choices, possibilities and causes in our lives.

Further for the author, determinism is not genetic.  Evolution by natural selection provides for greater degrees of freedom as species evolve. The effort by libertarians to establish indeterminism as a basis for understanding freedom is a dead end. They fail to accomplish the connection either logically or experientially.

The notable spiritual idea in this book is that freedom started late in the history of the universe, has evolved, and is presently evolving. At the big bang 14 billion years ago there was no freedom.  There was no freedom even 4 billion years ago, because there was as yet, no life.  Since the advent of life, the building blocks of freedom have evolved.  The practical elements of freedom developed in the form of human rights, including private property, civil and political rights of free speech, assembly, religion, voting, and due process, rights evolving for employment, education, housing, health care, collective self-determination in democracy, natural resource access, cultural heritage, peace, clean air and water, health (separate from health care), privacy, happiness (separate from right of pursuit of happiness), animals, and children.  All of these shades of freedom are evolving now and into the future.

Culture is a big factor in the evolution of freedom.  Culture is a major innovation in evolutionary history.  It provides new topics for thinking, new tools for thinking, and, due to expanding communication media, we have a variety of new perspectives from which to think.

For Dennett, this culture development across the globe and through history enhances individual morality and social cooperation. Evolution of cultures supports morality.  The stability of cultural conditions recognizes that culture itself obeys the constraints of evolution by natural selection.  Complex culture generates successful actors (including humans) with moral components for success (reproduction) that extend beyond self-interest. The complexities of social life generate human agents who exhibit key components of human morality, who thrive under specifiable conditions that co-evolve with them.  This morality includes sensitivity to punishments and threats, concern for reputation, self-control in the face of temptation, ability to make commitments appreciable by others, and discovery of improved conditions for strengthening the cooperative behaviors of others.  These values and behaviors supplant the myopic self-interest of simpler organisms inhabiting simpler niches in the world.

The emerging picture of human agents in a swarm of competing interests shaped by evolutionary forces appears, superficially, hard to reconcile with traditions of free will.  The scientific view, and specifically the evolutionary view, has appeared hard, to many writers, to reconcile with freedom, but, according to Dennett, the scientific view actually helps and supports (augments) our freedom. The potential for moral responsibility is rightly founded on recognition of the duties distributed in space and time in the brain.  We are imperfect reasoners.  We are not perfectly rational agents.  But, the cultures we inhabit sustain processes that require and permit the renewal and endorsement of our reason and moral behavior.  This depends primarily on the integrity of the processes of education and mutual sharing of knowledge.  Culture makes us better humans.

Threats to freedom are not metaphysical, but they are political and social.  We devise and agree upon systems of government and law to structure the freedom we have.  We are freer than we want to be and we need cultural norms to protect and extend our freedom.  Culture protects freedom and supports our exercise of freedom.

For Dennett, the bottom line is that human freedom is younger than the human species.  Freedom has only existed for several thousand years, which is but a moment in the 4 billion years of life on this planet and an instant in the history of our universe.  But, in that short term of years, freedom has effectively transformed this planet in ways comparable to the advent of our oxygen-rich atmosphere and the creation of multi-cellular animals.  The introduction of fire, language, and writing pale in significance in comparison to the advent and evolution of freedom.  

Freedom had to evolve like all other features of nature in fits and starts.  Freedom exists, but not yet universally, but it is encroaching in more parts of the globe.  Freedom is yet not inevitable and not universal.  Freedom depends on the cultures we structure and the decisions we make for its stability, flexibility, and further evolution.

It is only an imagined conflict between determinism and freedom.  This apparent conflict is due to the residual effects of older, partial and false understandings of determinism and freedom.  

Freedom has evolved through time.  A realistic, naturalistic, unified vision of our human place in nature provides a basis for assessing our human uniqueness in this world as reflective communicating animals.  Our human freedom is greater than that of other creatures, which carries moral implications for our treatment of other creatures.

This book offers 310 pages of text, with a bibliography, a fair index (some of the page references do not correspond well to the index categories), and annotated Endnotes on Sources and Further Reading at the end of each chapter.  It appears that the author genuinely wants the reader to understand the argument presented.

A conclusion from reading this book is that free will is real in a deterministic universe. Freedom came to be at a point in time.  It was not a preexisting feature of existence, like gravity was preexisting.  It has evolved through human activity, choices and beliefs and is as real as other human creations like music and money, and more valuable.  Freedom can evolve and expand or contract in geographical scope, depth, and diversity.  Freedom can contract in particular kinds.  Freedom can change.  Freedom cannot remain constant.  The future of freedom depends on humans.  Human rights are the practical fruits of the freedom exercised in world culture.

Quakers:  The implications of the recent evolution of freedom in culture are substantial.  For Quakers, we testify that there is that of God in all persons and that this God aspect includes freedom and individual and social free will as part of the intrinsic nature of humans today.  But, Quakers face the realization that this freedom has not been part of the makeup of humans since the beginning of time.  Freedom is recent.  Is freedom intrinsic to, or separable (by violence, coercion, donation, trickery or bribery) from, each person?  The answer is important for both our understanding of reality (faith) and practice.

Also, Quakers recognize the importance of culture and public infrastructure for structuring freedom.  Can we extinguish or abandon freedom through the evolution of our social governing system?


  • Is the Dennett story consistent with the Quaker testimonies?
  • Is freedom a quantity that can be extended, expanded in scope and increased or is it a static quantity or a diminishing resource?  
  • Do we want more or less freedom for ourselves and our children?


Freedom Evolves, Daniel C. Dennett (Viking Adult, 2003; Penguin paperback,  2004)

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