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Elbow Room:

The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting

by Daniel Dennett

After finishing this book in March of 2023, I wrote,


"Dennett approaches the complex topic of free will from multiple angles, prompting profound contemplation. However, I do disagree with him and others who assert that belief in free will is a prerequisite for holding individuals accountable."


My clippings below collapse a 292-page book into 4 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word. 

See all my book recommendations.  

Here are the selections I made:


The CIA and MI5 have their famous “Need to Know” principle: explain as little as possible and tell one’s field operatives only what they absolutely need to know to perform their roles. Mother Nature is similarly stingy when she apportions comprehension, it appears. When larger “goals” can be achieved by cleverly organized armies of uncomprehending agents, such as ants, the “Need to Know” rule is ruthlessly invoked.


Their strategy is clear: flood the predators with more opportunities than they can handle. But unlike the all-too-knowing participants at Anzio, they surely have no inkling of the point of their well-synchronized march. Mother Nature abides by the “Need to Know” principle, but we appreciate a contrary principle: our ideal is to be completely savvy, to be able to notice all the reasons that concern us, to be in the dark about nothing of relevance to us, to be the completely and perfectly informed guardians of our own interests. That is what it would be to be able to choose one’s course of action always as reason dictated.


But as Hofstadter points out, the truly explosive advance in the escape from crude sphexishness comes when the capacity for pattern recognition is turned in upon itself. The creature who is not only sensitive to patterns in its environment, but also sensitive to patterns in its own reactions to patterns in its environment, has taken a major step.11 Unlike Sphex, it can notice that it is caught in a futile loop or rut, and leap out of it.


More generally, one “goes meta-” when one represents one’s representations, reflects on one’s reflections, reacts to one’s reactions.


In the middle of a storm, only split-second, highly accurate reactions to circumstances will preserve the plane’s safe course; in clear air, there is a wider margin for error. The smaller the margin for error, the less freedom of choice the pilot has, the more constrained and limited he will be in pursuing his course to his destination. Recognizing this, the pilot not only strives to control the plane at all times; he also engages in meta-level control planning and activity—taking steps to improve his position for controlling the plane by avoiding circumstances where, he can foresee, he will be forced (given his goals) to thread the needle between some Scylla and Charybdis.


This is just a particularly clear case of what we all always want: lots of elbow room. We want a margin for error; we want to keep our options open, so that our chances of maintaining control over our operations, come what may, are enhanced.20 When we look ahead to see what obstacles we are apt to encounter, we should of course include any obstacles we carry with us—such as a craving for sweets, for instance, which might inspire us to adopt the higher-order strategy of not having sweets around the house, where the temptation would be too great.


Higher-order strategies designed to maximize elbow room can in this way depend critically on the self-knowledge of the strategist.


When calculating the likely future constraints on our options, the presence or absence of a competitive agent makes all the difference, just because when there is an information-gathering, feedback-loop-closing agent out there, one’s activities may be predicted by this agent, and hence foreseen and systematically thwarted.21 It is important that the airline pilot, in evading the thunderstorm, doesn’t have to worry about hiding his true intentions from the storm, which might, if it knew, switch its own course and come after him!


If agent A is to control object B, A must solve the epistemic problem of identifying the parameters of B’s operation. When two agents compete, each trying to control the other, there is thus competition for information, with each trying to conceal as much as possible about its own plans, its knowledge of the other’s plans, and so forth, while obtaining as much “intelligence” as possible about the other.


Not any self-control or self-limitation for the sake of specific ends, but rather a carefree letting go of oneself: not caution, but rather a wise blindness; not working to acquire silent, slowly increasing possessions, but rather a continuous squandering of all perishable values. —Rilke,


We never choose a course of action as the best course all things considered; it would be insane to try to consider all things.


There are no feedback signals from the present to the past for the past to exploit. Moreover there is nothing in the past to foresee and plan for our particular acts, even if it is true that Mother Nature—gambling on our general needs and predicaments—did, in effect, design us to fend quite well for ourselves. Far from it being the case that we are completely under the control of our ancestors or our evolutionary past, it is rather the case that that heritage has tended to set us up as self-controllers—lucky us.


This implies that we would also like the world to be a certain way: full of variety, certainly, and with lots of sustenance and delight—but more important in this context: not so savagely demanding (given our needs and abilities) as to constrain our options to a bare minimum. If we must live on a desert island, make it fertile and rich with opportunity, not so barren and unyielding that all our moves would be like forced moves in chess.


If we are responsible … then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.


As Locke noted, such an agent has “a power to suspend the execution and satisfaction of any of its desires” and hence is “at liberty to consider the objects of them, examine them on all sides, and weigh them with others”


The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the overexamined life is nothing to write home about either.19 Moreover, there is almost certainly no “book” answer to the question of how much moderation is the right amount of moderation.


After all, a mugger might leap out of an alley and brain me tomorrow. I would then be unlucky enough to lose my status as a responsible citizen through no fault or error of my own. But if that would be most unlucky, my not having met with a mugger to date is not just a matter of luck; I am quite good at staying out of trouble. The fact is that all of us responsible agents are well enough designed so that we tend to avoid circumstances where the odds are high that we will lose our prowess and hence our status as responsible citizens. We take care of ourselves. We are systematic status-preservers, but of course sometimes we fall on hard times. Sometimes the unexpectable and unavoidable happens. Then we are unlucky. 


Time does not really exist without unrest; it does not exist for dumb animals who are absolutely without anxiety. —Kierkegaard


Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. —Kierkegaard


I’m an old man, and I’ve seen many troubles, but most of them never happened. —Mark Twain


We categorize some of those projected things as things that will happen unless we take certain steps, and others as things that will happen because we will take certain steps, and some of them as things that will happen no matter what steps we take. We call the latter “inevitable,” because nothing we do makes any difference to them, and hence it is pointless to deliberate about them.18


As Hobart19 says, “the past cannot determine the event, except through the present. And no past moment determined it any more truly than does the present moment”


In the midst of all the discord and disagreement among philosophers about free will, there are a few calm islands of near unanimity. As van Inwagen notes: Almost all philosophers agree that a necessary condition for holding an agent responsible for an act is believing that the agent could have refrained from performing that act. (van Inwagen 1975, p. 189) But if this is so, then whatever else I may have done in the preceding chapters, I have not yet touched the central issue of free will, for I have not yet declared a position on the “could have done otherwise” principle: the principle that holds that one has acted freely (and responsibly) only if one could have done otherwise. It is time, at last, to turn to this central, stable area in the logical geography of the free will problem. First I will show that this widely accepted principle is simply false.


There are cases where the claim “I can do no other” is an avowal of frailty: suppose what I ought to do is get on the plane and fly to safety, but I stand rooted on the ground and confess I can do no other—because of my irrational and debilitating fear of flying. In such a case I can do no other, I claim, because my rational control faculty is impaired. But in other cases, like Luther’s, when I say I cannot do otherwise I mean I cannot because I see so clearly what the situation is and because my rational control faculty is not impaired. It is too obvious what to do; reason dictates it; I would have to be mad to do otherwise, and since I happen not to be mad, I cannot do otherwise. (Notice, by the way, that we say it was “up to” Luther whether or not to recant, and we do not feel tempted to rescind that judgment when we learn that he claimed he could do no other. Notice, too, that we often say things like this: “If it were up to me, I know for certain what I would do.”)

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