Why Waste a Perfectly Good Horse’s Head ?

I mentioned earlier I had started reading Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves” and it seemed promising then. I actually think it’s his best yet. Convincing common-sense and hugely entertaining, with some great laugh-out loud gags for good measure.

He’s working up to the evolution of morality and values, via the arms race and economics of mental evolution. Not quite there yet. 80% through, just reached a section where he is about to explain at length the 300 millisecond “moral void” – the Libet experiment where motor action seems to pre-empt any conscious decision making. Why do I know I’m going to identify with Dennett’s version of events, even though I’ve not read it yet ?

After laying the ground with distinctions around determinism and the very concept of free will, and some basic re-capping of earlier work on how complexity and life can be explained by evolution from the simple and dead, a good part of the book is about evolution of strategies that involve cooperation and enlightened-far-sighted-self-interest, in contrast to “tooth and claw” competition. ie Given that we have free-will what kinds of thing to intelligent entities actually do as “rational agents”. There is a good deal of game-theoretic stuff with variations on the prisoners’ dilemma. Again not new for anyone already interested, just so well written and explained, synthesising the work of others, and with non-intrusive references to other good sources of detail.

Two favourites so far.

In describing how deferred gratification, or resistance of temptation to short-term personal gain, at the expense of longer term interest of yourself and other co-operators, cements greater trust and greater cooperation amongst actual and potential collaborators, he also describes the view from the side of the party doing the tempting. If the Mafia, making you the offer you can’t refuse, but do, recognises your reliability in resisting such temptation, it won’t need to waste a perfectly good horse’s head in any futile future attempt. Win-win.

Quoting “Brain Storm” from Richard Dooling, written 20 years after his own “Brainstorms”, he describes a pang of guilt preventing a husband’s otherwise inevitable act in a steamy clinch with another scientist on the lab floor, when she pipes up (as you would) with a description of how Dennett has proven that free-will doesn’t exists (which he never has of course), and there is no reason to feel such guilt for our actions. Dooling and Dennett tell it much better. As Dennett says, it’s hard enough to explain that fully clothed, standing behind a lecture stand, let alone rolling naked on the floor.

Of course there are plenty of side-swipes at believers in sky-hooks, which will either amuse or annoy, but there’s no denying the good-natured wit, and compared to Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, this aspect of his thinking is more gently understated here. Dennett is more concerned with quality of explanation, than the particular names of the more intangible things that people do or don’t believe exist, so he has learned that people sometimes have misunderstood what he has said about their existence. Reading “Freedom Evolves” can leave little doubt.

[Post Note – More hypocrisy and horses heads. Sorry couldn’t resist this – the current talk of “bungs” (bribes) in UK Soccer dealings has thrown up some quotes that just fit the story so well. Gerry Francis said “Agents soon found out those people who would take inducements and those people who wouldn’t.” and Graham Kelly said ” Clubs generally are hypocritical about this, because they condemn agents and then they work with them.”]

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