Daniel C. Dennet
Keywords: free will - soul - We don't have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation - we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here. - conscious selves - In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages.- Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future - a comet on a collision course, or global warming - and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
One widespread tradition has it that we human beings are responsible agents, captains of our fate, because what we really are are souls, immaterial and immortal clumps of Godstuff that inhabit and control our material bodies rather like spectral puppeteers. It is our souls that are the source of all meaning, and the locus of all our suffering, our joy, our glory and shame. But this idea of immaterial souls, capable of defying the laws of physics, has outlived its credibility thanks to the advance of the natural sciences. Many people think the implications of this are dreadful: We don't really have "free will" and nothing really matters. The aim of this book is to show why they are wrong.
Learning What We Are
Si, abbiamo un anima. Ma e fatta di tanti piccoli robot. / Yes, we have a soul. But it's made of lots of tiny robots. Giulio Giorelli
We don't have to have immaterial souls of the old-fashioned sort in order to live up to our hopes; our aspirations as moral beings whose acts and lives matter do not depend at all on our having minds that obey a different physics from the rest of nature. The self-understanding we can gain from science can help us put our moral lives on a new and better foundation, and once we understand what our freedom consists in, we will be much better prepared to protect it against the genuine threats that are so regularly misidentified.
A student of mine who went into the Peace Corps to avoid serving in the Vietnam War later told me about his efforts on behalf of a tribe living deep in the Brazilian forest. I asked him if he had been required to tell them about the conflict between the USA and the USSR. Not at all, he replied. There would have been no point in it. They had never heard of either America or the Soviet Union. In fact, they had never even heard of Brazil! It was still possible in the l960s for a human being to live in a nation, and be subject to its laws, without the slightest knowledge of that fact. If we find this astonishing, it is because we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.
These quite recent discoveries about who we are and how we got here are unnerving, to say the least. What you are is an assemblage of roughly a hundred trillion cells, of thousands of different sorts. The bulk of these cells are "daughters" of the egg cell and sperm cell whose union started you, but they are actually outnumbered by the trillions of bacterial hitchhikers from thousands of different lineages stowed away in your body (Hooper et al. 1998). Each of your host cells is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous micro-robot. It is no more conscious than your bacterial guests are. Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares.
Each trillion-robot team is gathered together in a breathtakingly efficient regime that has no dictator but manages to keep itself organized to repel outsiders, banish the weak, enforce iron rules of disciplineand serve as the headquarters of one conscious self, one mind. These communities of cells are fascistic in the extreme, but your interests and values have little or nothing to do with the limited goals of the cells that compose youfortunately. Some people are gentle and generous, others are ruthless; some are pornographers and others devote their lives to the service of God. It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that these striking differences must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somehow in the bodily headquarters. We now know that tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we have evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, nonrobotic ingredients at all. The differences among people are all due to the way their particular robotic teams are put together, over a lifetime of growth and experience. The difference between speaking French and speaking Chinese is a difference in the organization of the working parts, and so are all the other differences of knowledge and personality.
Since I am conscious and you are conscious, we must have conscious selves that are somehow composed of these strange little parts. How can this be? To see how such an extraordinary composition job could be accomplished, we need to look at the history of the design processes that did all the work, the evolution of human consciousness. We also need to see how these souls made of cellular robots actually do endow us with the important powers and resultant obligations that traditional immaterial souls were supposed to endow us with (by unspecified magic). Trading in a supernatural soul for a natural soul is this a good bargain? What do we give up and what do we gain? People jump to fearful conclusions about this that are hugely mistaken. I propose to prove this by tracing the growth of freedom on our planet from its earliest beginnings at the dawn of life. What kinds of freedom? Different kinds will emerge as the story unfolds.
Four and a half billion years ago, the planet Earth was formed, and it was utterly without life. And so it stayed for perhaps half a billion years, until the first simple life-forms emerged, and then for the next three billion years or so, the planet's oceans teemed with life, but it was all blind and deaf. Simple cells multiplied, engulfing each other, exploiting each other in a thousand ways, but oblivious to the world beyond their membranes. Then finally much larger, more complex cells evolvedeukaryotesstill clueless and robotic, but with enough internal machinery to begin to specialize. So it continued for a few hundred million more years, the time it took for the algorithms of evolution to stumble upon good ways for these cells and their daughters and granddaughters to band together into multicellular organisms composed of millions, billions, and (eventually) trillions of cells, each doing its particular mechanical routine, but now yoked into specialized service, as part of an eye or an ear or a lung or a kidney. These organisms (not the individual team members composing them) had become long distance knowers, able to spy supper trying to appear inconspicuous in the middle distance, able to hear danger threatening from afar. But still, even these whole organisms knew not what they were. Their instincts guaranteed that they tried to mate with the right sorts, and flock with the right sorts, but just as those Brazilians didn't know they were Brazilians, no bison has ever known it's a bison (In general, nature operates on a version of the Need to Know Principle made famous in the world of espionage: Bison don't need to know that they are ungulates within the class Mammaliathere is nothing they could do with that information, being bison; the Brazilians didn't (yet) need to know much about the larger environment of which their intimately known jungle environment formed a part, but the Brazilians, being human beings, could almost effortlessly extend their epistemic horizons as soon as they needed to know. I am sure they know it now).
In just one species, our species, a new trick evolved: language. It has provided us a broad highway of knowledge-sharing, on every topic. Conversation unites us, in spite of our different languages. We can all know quite a lot about what it is like to be a Vietnamese fisherman or a Bulgarian taxi driver, an eighty-year-old nun or a five-year old boy blind from birth, a chess master or a prostitute. No matter how different from one another we people are, scattered around the globe, we can explore our differences and communicate about them. No matter how similar to one another bison are, standing shoulder to shoulder in a herd, they cannot know much of anything about their similarities, let alone their differences, because they can't compare notes. They can have similar experiences, side by side, but they really can't share experiences the way we do.
Even in our species, it has taken thousands of years of communication for us to begin to find the keys to our own identities. It has been only a few hundred years that we've known that we are mammals, and only a few decades that we've understood in considerable detail how we have evolved, along with all other living things, from those simple beginnings. We are outnumbered on this planet by our distant cousins, the ants, and outweighed by yet more distant relatives, the bacteria. Though we are in the minority, our capacity for long distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant futurea comet on a collision course, or global warmingand devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
We may not be up to the job. We may destroy the planet instead of saving it, largely because we are such free-thinking, creative, unruly explorers and adventurers, so unlike the trillions of slavish workers that compose us. Brains are for anticipating the future, so that timely steps can be taken in better directions, but even the smartest of beasts have very limited time horizons, and little if any ability to imagine alternative worlds. We human beings, in contrast, have discovered the mixed blessing of being able to think even about our own deaths and beyond. A huge portion of our energy expenditure over the last ten thousand years has been devoted to assuaging the concerns provoked by this unsettling new vista that we alone have.
If you burn more calories than you take in, you soon die. If you find some tricks that provide you a surplus of calories, what might you spend them on? You might devote person-centuries of labor to building temples and tombs and sacrificial pyres on which you destroy some of your most precious possessions and even some of your very own children. Why on earth would you want to do that? These strange and awful expenditures give us clues about some of the hidden costs of our heightened powers of imagination. We did not come by our knowledge painlessly.
Now what will we do with our knowledge? The birth pangs of our discoveries have not subsided. Many are afraid that learning too much about what we are-trading in mystery for mechanisms-will impoverish our vision of human possibility. This fear is understandable, but if we really were in danger of learning too much, wouldn't those on the cutting edge be showing signs of discomfort? Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society. In fact, if you want to find anxiety, despair, and anomie among intellectuals today, look to the recently fashionable tribe of post modernists, who like to claim that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accoutrements of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self-knowledge. The postmodernists are right that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been a major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it should still be obvious that the innovations of sciencenot just its microscopes and telescopes and computers, but its commitment to reason and evidenceare the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach.
The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the "selfmade man," but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what's about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it's the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it's much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.
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