Sunday, September 28, 2003

Dennett was wrong

In 'Freedom Evolves' Daniel Dennett claims that we have free will - a free will created by natural selection.

His error is that he doesn't realise what he'd do with free will if he genuinely had it...

... an error arising because he hasn't spotted the mechanism by which his choices are controlled.

Our knowledge of science tells us that the behaviour of any atom or molecule is entirely automatic, dependent only on its physical properties and the laws of physics. So how can it be that when you put a billion entirely automatic atoms together to make a human, you create something that can do what it wants with its life?

It’s a question that has always baffled philosophers and scientists. How do 'we' get control of these automatic atoms of ours, if 'we' are nothing but atoms ourselves? For us to have free will, wouldn’t there have to be a part of us that isn't made of atoms; a part of us that’s free to tell all the atoms how to behave? But if so, then where is it - this non-atomic corner of our brains? And what kind of ‘stuff’ is it made of… if not atoms?

Equally, our knowledge of evolution tells us that, as Darwin put it, free will must be 'delusion'.

"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmedto
preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish

The idea that evolution could create an animal that has the free will to do what it wants is like suggesting that water could run uphill. Even if a ‘free will gene’ could have been created by the chance mutations that created our eyes and ears, this ‘free will gene’ would simply never have been ‘naturally selected’ for. Natural selection, by definition, can only select genes that improve their own survival chances. ‘Doing what you want with your life’ is the evolutionary equivalent of a blind lion triumphing over a sighted one: it’s like being born with an insatiable desire to drink poison and jump in front of freight trains. Which means that, somehow, evolution must be controlling our conscious choices so that we make decisions that maximise the survival chances of our genes. Otherwise we wouldn't have conquered the world.

Of course, the only evidence that we have free will at all comes from our personal experience. So rather than trying to rewrite the laws of phsyics (or indeed evolution), why don't we just take a closer look at those personal experiences of ours and try to work out how the delusion works?

To understand why we're so convinced that we're free (when in reality we're just following instructions) - and also to give us a chance at achieving freedom worth having - we can simply observe how we make a decision.

We soon see that every decision we make is an attempt to make ourselves feel good. To maximise our pleasurable feelings and minimise our unpleasant feelings.

Which is of course the mechanism by which natural selection controls our conscious choices. When the survival chances of our genes increase... we get to experience nice feelings. When the survival chances of our genes decrease... it hurts.

And suddenly everything is clear.

And we realise what we would do if we were genuinely free. We wouldn't be moral, or nice, or greedy or vicious... we'd just feel good. All day. Regardless of what happened in the world.

Currently, as Dawkins point out, we have the ability to defeat the tyranny of our selfish replicators whenever we use contraception. Although he doesn't put it quite like this, our conscious mind gets to feel good without the onerous pregnancy thing.

The next step to defeating the tyranny of the selfish replicators isn't, as Dawkins suggests, to start being nice to each other. It's to start being nice to ourselves. To feel good all the time. By getting direct control over our neural pathways so that our conscious minds can achieve their programmed purpose: to maximise the pleasure and minimise the pain.

Only by understanding that we are conscious robots will we be able to escape the tyranny of our selfish replicators and improve our lives to an extent that we can currently only dream of.

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Anonymous said...

You're just a hedonist trying to hide behind a lot of neo-Darwinian trash talk. Just keep masturbating and we'll continue to keep the world running.

Everyone else.

conscious robot said...

Reply to hedonist charge: You commented because it made you feel good. Your conscious mind was fulfilling its programmed task to maximise its pleasure. The reason your evolutionary-programmed non-conscious brain made you feel good for posting was because it calculated that such a succinct and witty post would make you more attractive to the ladies/gents. The reason you posted anonymously is a survival instinct in case i'm a psycho-nutter. 'Everyone else' was just wishful-thinking.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I think your thoery is very interesting and pieces together some of what Dawkins was not saying. That or I haven't read enough of his material. Reagardless, I still disagree with what you are saying. By saying we have no free will you open yourself up to the possibility of a logical implication that says something like this:

Something drives a decision to be made
We don't make the decision
therefore: Something else makes the decision

If you say that it is pure pleasure that drives a decision, then I may have to list only one decision that contradicts such a statement. You, by your rejection of the previous writer, I can see will attempt to put all decisions into the pleasure category. I can see one instance, namely altruism, where there is little pleasure to the giver and choices sould be made that would be more pleasurable to a person. In fact, with all the fantastic drugs now available why don't we all become junkies by your angle on evolution.

By pure logic your statement would be false because many people do not go this route and some of those who do reject this lifestyle.By choice.

So we now are at the point where we are unsure if a decision is made or not. I cannot deny pleasure is definitely one reason people do what they do but I contend there is more and that survival itself(even in this easy North American lifestyle we enjoy) still plays a role. Sometimes a CHOICE is made to just merely live as it is a better way to go than pleasure. This would require a decision making faculty to override pleasure. This, I contend, is the basis of choice and free will. I believe this simple mechanism is enough to derive a much more complicated system of choice.

If you disagree I can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

I think you (and Darwin) have pretty much got it right. Free will is a complete total illusion. Everything we know about the natural world is based on cause and effect, and by default so should we conclude about our own minds in the absence of evidence to the contrary And we have no evidence to the contrary (it is impossible to prove, or even support, the hypothesis of free will).

And as far as I can comprehend, the fact that we do nothing without at least the promise of some beneficial return on some level is an absolute no-brainer. Obviously that is not to say we must/should/can/do live lives of hedonistic unconstraint - because except for a few rare cases humans seem to find such behavior in themselves disgusting, parasitic or unbecoming, and guilt is not a pleasurable feeling.

Also I think, in the end, negation of free will is purely academic. However predetermined our actions are, they will always appear to ourselves to be dependent on free will - it is our perceived reality which is, after all, the only reality available to us...


Anonymous said...

In general I agree that our "free will" is an illusion. I would tend to phrase it differently and suggest that we are not as conscious or self-aware as we would like to think we are. Instead we unconsciously run "programs" or conditioning that determine how we think and respond to things, and genetics plays a far bigger role here than we would like to believe.

The question about the atoms ("how can it be that when you put a billion entirely automatic atoms together to make a human, you create something that can do what it wants with its life?") is in my view philosophically and scientifically misleading. We (and you) really know nothing about any of that stuff, and making assumptions doesn't help. Also, we know that when we build big things out of little things, the macroscopic construct can and does behave differently from the microscopic building blocks we used.

Your idea that we do everything for pleasure (assuming you mean consumption of pleasure)is an excellent example of this. As a creature who has been imprinted by our consumerist Western society - i.e. extreme Capitalism, you have been programmed to believe that the pursuit of pleasure is everything. Everything, that is, to the companies who will profit from that pursuit, even if it destroys you personally. After all, as you so succinctly point out, there are more where you - i.e. us - came from.

You see, you've forgotten that "survival" can sometimes mean making sacrifices for the common good - including giving one's life so that others may live. It could be argued that this is a type of twisted pleasure, but I'll leave you to do that ;-)

Also, I suggest that the "pursuit of pleasure", if by that you mean consumption of pleasure, is in fact self-destructive in the extreme, both for the individual as well as for "society" as a whole.

Pursuit of pleasure in the process of constructive, specifically creative pursuits is far healthier to the individual and to the human race as a whole. This includes such healthy attitudes as pride of accomplishment, especially after putting in years of hard work as in learning to play an instrument exceptionally well, finding a cure for a disease, or doing something that benefits the human race.

So, while I agree with your position in a general if somewhat vague way, I'd like to suggest that what you're thinking isn't the entire picture - I think it's too simplistic.

Dave T.

Anonymous said...

Wow nice input “everybody else.” I’d like to know where you obtained the authority to speak for the whole human race like that. Got to get me some of that! Anyway thanks for running world… you’re doing a great job too.
Not Everybody Else

David K. said...

Don't all suppose that free will cannot be reconciled with physics, in the light of quantum mechanics which does away with determinism at the quantum level. Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles and Friedrich Beck did some interesting work on quantum theory and free will in the early 90s.

Anonymous said...


Both the materialst Neodarwinists and the religionists come to conclusion from sets of flawed assumptions that they seldom investigate or are even aware. The Neodarwinists and most all life and human scientists still operate by an old Victorian materialist philosophy that is completely indefensible in modern philosophy of science and utterly at odds with the best of modern (quantum) physics -- where things such as consciousness (and i claim will) are fundamental. Were these groups to move out of ther realm of indoctrinated belief and actually investigate their starting assumptions, they would see how defective those assumptions are. Then from a new starting point they would be led logically to different conclusions.

There isn't room here for the full explanation of how matter is not fundamental (as the materialist keep claiming), how the universe is seen more rationally as being built up from levels of consciousness, will and other "universal attributes". If you're interested, please ask for the book Questioning Assumptions (it's free, just like our will), where about 14 major faulty assumptions used in modern materialist science are investigated and shown to be badly flawed. Please address the request to David Russell Garcia at I'm a mathematician currently working in the foundations of mathematics, with a good background in physics and a lot of recent study in biology (to write a second book A New View of Biological Evolution based on the revised assumptions.)

Warmest regards,
David Russell Garcia

Anonymous said...

since you are moderating your comments i doubt you will allow this up on your site since it contradicts you

Determinism has been absent from physics for a long time.

Mathematician John Conway proved recently that even particles have freewill.

you can find it online.

Anonymous said...

have you considered the possibility of free will being evolutionarily beneficial?

and you need to define what free will actually is. and why don't you differentiate between complete lack of free will, limited free will, and total free will?

also, why are you only addressing this on a 'pure science' level of genes, evolution, atoms and other biological what-have-yous? what about society, and our role within it? do you include that within the parameters of evolution?

questiony person.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid to say that this argument will never end.

Here are a few clues ->
memetics -> 2 competing process get into a symbiotic process

the meme and the gene

Think of this algorithm for meme evolution.

Take a piece of information - lets call this A

Change it through an operation

Lets call this the MUTATION operation.

Lets call this new piece of information B

Select between A and B through a new operation SELECT.

Continue for ever.

Ponder what MUTATE would be.

Ponder what SELECT would be

Ponder exponential combinational explosion, in the context of language, logic ( hint - syllogism as a meme combination device ) , general semantics.

For SELECT - ponder what the selection is based on.

Ponder the difference between
in the interest of the GENE
useful in the propagation of the MEME

TRUE and the illusion of the I ( this is MY MEME ) are the MEME's two main tricks to get control of the SELECT operation. There are many other tricks, some of which come from language itself.

What is MU.
What is the meaning of life.

Now look at the result for the organism.

A system that is continually fluctating between more stable and less states, and continually trying to rebalance itself, into a state of equilibrium

Desparation can set in.

please !

But eventually the result for the unfortunate host is..


Ben Hope said...

I clicked on your site via an advert stating "Daniel Dennett was wrong. Free will could not have evolved: we're still robots".

Have any of you actually read his "Freedom Evolves"? You either have and are stupid or you are simply making snap ill-judged comments having read the book by title only.

Dennett's brilliant insight is that all all the "varieties of free will worth wanting" are perfectly possible in a deterministic universe and are thus attainable to robots (like us!). Furthermore it is evolution that gives rise to it.

He doesn't believe in any magical free will that breaks physical laws, but that's just a gratuitous unnecessary desire anyway. You simply have to understand the difference between determinism and inevitability.

I suggest you read his book before you think you're saying anything particularly clever or original.

And in the meantime perhaps you should replace your ad with

"Oops Dennett was right, we just didn't understand him"

Ben Hope
Cambridge University

Anonymous said...

Just picking a choosing a few parts:
You wrote "So rather than trying to rewrite the laws of phsyics (or indeed evolution)," thus implying that there are laws of evolution. Last time I checked, it was called the Theory of Evolution. Yes, now you are probably thinking, great, this guy is back in the middle ages still believing in magical stuff. Alright. You can say that. Now, is my reaction really fulfilling any pleasure?
Also, another note that was slightly mentioned. Martyrs. I'm sure that they just think being burned at the stake is just dandy. Or take Giles Corey, in the Salem Witch trials. He was crushed by stones. Yessirree, the *pleasure* of being right is really going to take you farther than death.
There is something called a soul, a spirit, pick you name for it. It's God-given-not made up of atoms or anything. If we didn't have free will, could we really have that? And another thing, this is all assuming that nothing supernatural could happen. But if you automatically conclude that nothing supernatural can happen, are you really doing "science?"

Anonymous said...

So long as science purports to explain only natural phenomena, the answer to your (=the above anonymous poster) final question seems to be yes.

In other words, by definition science makes no claims about the existence (or non-existence) of phenomena outside of its self-imposed boundary.

"Supernatural" phenomena may "exist." Science, however, has nothing to say about them.

kurzweilninja said...

Something that I think is missing in this hypothesis is assuming that what we think of as free will isn't and - more importantly - can't be reconciled with a purely physical world. I do not believe that to be correct.

Ultimately, we are physical beings, we're made of chemicals which are made of molecules which are made of quarks, etc... We're made of pretty simple stuff when you get down to it, but the way that stuff is put together, ah, there's the interesting part. Like Ray Kurzweil says, the atoms that make you up today are not the same atoms you had when you were 5, but the "pattern" that is "you" remains.

Life is complex machinary of patterns and from from that complexity, many emergent properties arise that when considered individually, each of those atoms or molecules couldn't possibly possess themselves.

So while free will may ultimately be a deterministic process when you get down to the atomic and molecular level (and no amount of wanting that to not be true will change that), that doesn't mean that what we perceive as "free will" can't exist in the reactions and feedback loop pathways of our physical brains. The complexity of all those deterministic processes working together is "me". I don't think most people can't grasp the amount of complexity contained within our brains. Quantum theory may play a part in randomizing some of these deterministic processes, but I don't currently think it does in any significant way. We may find that to be incorrect. I find that the best way for me to think about free will specifically and consciousness more generally is to view it as a process, not a property to have.

An interesting thought experiment is to look at all the different forms of life. Start at, say, a bacteria. Or start even lower if you wish, maybe a virus (which strains the definition of living). You look at it and it seems to be just a collection of molecules all working together. Doesn't seem to be any free will there, it can all be explained pretty well through chemistry and physics. Now work your way up the chain of complexity of life, from one celled organisms to colonies to multicellular life to organisms with basic brains up to more complicated ones all the way up to us. Is there a spot where physical explanation begins to be insufficient? I imagine that with this gradual progression up the chain, it would be impossible to find a place where suddenly chemistry and physics are no longer sufficient and something else is needed. But before you go and hypothesize a spirit or soul, try showing that one exists first; don't beg the question. ;)

Anyway, just my little rant. A few great books to read that helped me in forming these thoughts are Kurzweil's two books, "Age Of Spiritual Machines" and "The Singularity Is Near", and Jeff Hawkins book "On Intelligence" for an interesting new working theory on the brain and consciousness/intelligence. It was new to me, at least. :)

Peter Williams said...

Nice post. "Everyone else" is a fool: explaining behavior in terms of an internal reward system is not the same as hedonism. The fundamental mistake here is confusing description with prescription. To describe what happens is in no way to prescribe or proscribe behavior. Confusion over this point is at the root of countless heated arguments; it is what puts science in the crosshairs of religion. Grant (above) makes a similar mistake.

Ben Hope, perhaps you can explain Dennett's point to the rest of us? I haven't read his book and I don't intend to. Can you, in a few paragraphs at most, explain Dennett's "brilliant insight" how free will is possible in a deterministic universe? As a physicist, I am deeply skeptical. There is no room for free will in the classical universe.

Any insight that can't be explained in a few paragraphs is a snow job, IMHO. I can explain quantum mechanics in one or two short paragraphs. So let's hear Dennett's idea, hmmm?

Until then, I will insist that the only room for free will is in the quantum. Free will may or may not exist, but if it does exist it's at the quantum level or beyond, not in the classical deterministic universe.

Peter Williams

Eirikr said...


I find this site interesting and the subject passionating. I do not have the background of some of the people writing here (biologist, physicist, Cambridge...) and have no background in science but I am interesting in it.

I used to be a roman catholic but after a couple of years of though, I realised that it was wrong. In fact, once you begin to "think", you have another sight of the world and science is the answer to life.

I am really attracted by materialism reductionism but I don't know if I really am a determinist because it seems that a part of us is controlled by our feelings which are controlled by our genes : love of money, love of easy life, love of being important... all that which seems very selfish for it is completely self oriented but which in fact is natural, part of us because it is what we are.

However, I find difficult to believe that everything is controlled by our genes up to every decisions we are making. for exemple, the purpose of those genes is self preservation in order to replicate into another person. So, they are protecting themselve and absolutly want to replicate. then, how can we explain these facts which seem completely against the self preservation and replication of those genes:
-in the catholic church, for exemple, many monks and sisters made a vow of chastity and never had any sexual intercourse or, might have before having been in the order but not any more. they won't have any children and the genes won't be replicating
-the life of ermit which was against an easy life and self replication
-the homosexuality which is once more against self replication

how can you explain the fact that by behaving that way, the genes will never replicate? It does seem that it is only by free will that those humans were leaving the life they believe was the best for them.

another point regarding the feelings of good and bad to which I agree quite a lot but how can we explain the fact that:
-we can be sad and feel bad not thinking of difficult situation in our life. It can be an internal though which brought a feeling and how this can have anything to do with the genes?
-in the same way, if we wake up with a bad feeling: to have to go to work. well, only by the strengh of our though, we can think of something completely nice (hollidays coming) and then, the bad feeling disappear. that seems to be free will, no?
-as well, is it very bad when we love our mother and she dies? It is a normal feeling for she gave birht and there is a particular link between her and ourselve. What have the genes to do with it?

So, those are the points that I would like to understand in the conscious robot and the false free will

Thank you for taking the time to read it and to provide some information


Anonymous said...

i would have thought that was obvious - the reason people make different choices is because their environment is different leading to them making different decisions. But it must all be predictable if you measure it in the right places.

Ben Hope said...

"perhaps you can explain Dennett's point to the rest of us? I haven't read his book and I don't intend to."

If you're too lazy to read some classic texts on free-will (which for someone interested in the subject I find a little surprising), this lecture might help:

as might this interview:

I'll do it in less than a paragraph: predeterminacy and inevitability are not the same thing.

though actually you really do have to read it in detail to grasp it. My main point though was to do with this site claiming Dennett to be wrong when in fact they were much closer to him than they thought.

Dennett doesn't believe in any magical free will but shows that all the kinds of free will worth wanting are possible in a deterministic universe.

Quantum indeterminacy certainly doesn't help or provide some foot in the door for the magical free will people unnecessarily tie themselves up in knots about.

Less than a year ago I was thinking along your lines Peter (I am a quantum physicist), but I think Dennet's made some serious progress.

Ben Hope

Anonymous said...

My thought is that science doesn't claim that there is no way we have free will, only that there is no reason to believe we do. (Although maybe some branches of science do have reasons to support free will, as some here have suggested, and I am unaware of it)
Even if we don't have free will, I definitely think the author is oversimplifying the ramifications of our robotic nature. Behavior that appears random still has a cause (which I'm sure the author agrees with), but when the causes are too complex for us to understand, modeling the behavior as random is useful.
I've seen some interesting posts here, a refreshing change from some other message boards I've seen.

I also feel like noting, since some may see this as a science vs. religion argument, that many theists doubt free will. The Christian principle of predestination was most famously argued for by John Calvin.

Matt E.

dan from said...

two points:

1) Quantum mechanics is only a theory.

2) Even altruistic acts are done for some form of pleasure. Mr. Conscious Robots explains this in one of his other posts very well.