What if in your entire life, you never avoided anything? Everything that was ever going to happen to you, did happen. Well, you might imagine that you did not last long; you came to a quick demise.
But what if you did last for a while, in fact you lasted as long as you lasted, and that—yes—everything that was going to happen to you, did happen to you. How could it not?
And all that is OK, I will contend, following the lead of my favorite philosopher, Dan Dennett, more from his John Locke Lectures delivered in 1983 in Oxford, England and published as Elbow Room, The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984). And this is A Revised and Greatly Improved version of An Earlier Post!
I must admit, “not avoiding” seems rather bizarre. It seems like we human beings wouldn’t be as powerful as we think we are. As if, we are not in as much control as we often think. It’s rather humbling!
On ‘Avoiding’ Things
So, consider the very idea of “avoiding.” It is a peculiar idea. Maybe it is a misperception or a semantic confusion. After all, we can easily reframe many events—all events?—to be an act of avoiding one thing or another.
This very moment, my heartbeat allows me to avoid death. Gravity helps me avoid the problem of my coffee floating out of my cup and drifting about this room. Sitting here avoids additional wear on my shoes. In conclusion, it seems that anything that happens avoids all the things that possibly could have happened in its place. “To avoid” something presumes that real alternatives exist. These alternatives are “real possibilities,” we might say; but how real can the possible be?
Philosopher Dennett cites Mark Twain’s musings on these matters: “I am an old man, and I’ve seen many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Dennett contends that there are confusions in the way we think we “avoid.” Imagine that, confusions among some of our basic ideas. Maybe they need a little rearranging.
“To avoid” is one of the “preeminent verbs of agency,” contends Dennett, doing some philosophical analysis of everyday language. Verbs like “help”, “avert”. “protect,” “bring about,” “thwart,” are all used to describe us as “actors,” “initiators.” “doers,” as opposed to simple receivers. We are not merely passive creatures, the mere site of occurrences that happen “to us.” We can “make a difference;” we like to believe. We can “change the course of things” by avoiding, protecting, bringing about, helping, starting…, at least we often contend so, he says.
Here are some examples of some prominent events that we have recently successfully “avoided”: Donald Trump’s Presidential Coup of January 6, 2022 (narrowly avoided), The 2018 North Korean Nuclear Missile Attack on Los Angeles (avoided by a much wider margin), The Great Comet Strike of 2019 in which millions of people in China died (avoided by a very large margin, I was unaware of any such “real” possibility—but none the less, Avoided!). We can, of course, think of many other important events that did not occur; “avoided,” we might think, and some avoided due to our efforts.
So, what are “the possibilities?” If we are going to avoid things, what are the events we can possibly “avoid” and what can we possibly put in their place? Can we even remotely reign in this idea?
The noted philosopher Willard Quine, one of Dennett’s mentors, was famously skeptical of meaningful talk about “the possible.” He would ask you something like the following: “How many imaginary fat men can stand in that doorway? Surely fewer imaginary fat men than imaginary thin men. How many imaginary thin men could fit? Remember, imaginary thin men can be pretty thin, and imaginary fat men can be very fat!”
But Dennett draws our attention to a very ordinary case of possibility and avoidance, much more realistic than imaginary men in doorways or North Korean missile strikes.
You are at a baseball game and sitting along the third-base line. A foul ball comes off the bat and it is a line drive right at you. “Luckily,” you say, “it missed me; I ducked; I was going to get hit right in the face!” In what sense were you “going to?”
Now this is an especially interesting case of avoidance because “ducking” is a human reflex. It is a mechanism designed and evolved right into us. Biologists call it “a situation-action mechanism” and animals have many of them, like a clam closing its shell at the least disturbance. It’s automatic, considering ample stimulus input.
So, not only did the ball not hit you, it was never going to hit you because you were always going to duck (given the situation as it was). The “Duck!” response is automatic. We can say it is part of the great causal chain of nature, that long sequence of events that started quite a while ago and is like billiard balls through time ricocheting on the universe’s cosmic billiard table.
SPOILER ALERT: In the end, this reflex idea of ‘avoiding’ will turn out to be pretty much correct.
Dennett then makes a shocking claim: All acts of avoidance are (“merely”) cases of faulty human anticipation (Freedom Evolves, p.59). If you were smarter—if you had known ‘The Bigger Picture’—you would have known better! You expected the ball to hit you, but it didn’t. Your impending injury was (“merely”) a product of your limited knowledge. From a “wider context,” a perspective now provided to us by our philosopher or by the science of physics or biology, you can now see what was always going to really happen, happened; not only did you escape the peril, there never was any! It was automatic, you were made to “Duck!” and so you did.
What should we make of these contentions? Dennett allows that maybe we should consider the above case “pseudo-avoidance.” This level of reflexive avoidance is not “genuine avoidance.” After all, even the simplest amoeba ‘avoid’ some of “the bad” and are ‘attracted’ to “the good;” it’s that primitive and that mechanical.
Maybe we need to up-grade the quality of our avoidance, from “simple ‘hard-wired’ avoidance [to] fancier varieties,” Dennett contends. And so in the history of living things—in Evolution— we have done that; we have progressed and maybe now we have “genuine avoidance.”
For example, Polio. In 1988 the World Health Organization reported 350,000 cases world wide, and launched a prevention/avoidance campaign. By 2012, they reported merely 175 confirmed severe cases. Polio has been ‘truly’ avoided and prevented by extensive scientific research, mass public education and vaccination. Clearly, the course of history was changed; a difference was made: polio has been avoided, we commonly conclude and not by some simple reflex action.
ANOTHER SHOCKING CLAIM
“If we want to change the course of history we are in for a big disappointment,’ says Dennett. “We cannot point to any real event that was ever avoided...No event that actually has happened, is happening, or will happen is an event that was, is being, or will be avoided.” If we think we have “replaced one future event with another” —lots of polio for very little polio—we are wrong. In fact, that idea is, “in this undoctored form, incoherent,” he argues, because “future events” are not real events and are as slippery as imaginary thin men in doorways.
But surely, we should reply, “Something was changed! We went form polio to no polio; the future was changed!” Well, at least “apparently,“ says Dennett: “All of the verbs of ‘making a difference’ involve a tacit comparison between the way the world was apparently going to go, and the way it turned out to go.” Dennett is arguing that it is not that history was changed, but that our anticipations about history—“the future”—were wrong.
Maybe, we were never going to have polio for any longer than we had it. Maybe “the universe” and “our wishes” are not so far out of line. We may be luckier than we tend to think!
It’s an epistemic issue, the philosophers would say. More polio in the future, and the baseball smashing your face, they were never “in the cards” (the real course of history) in the first place! It just seemed to you that they were, contends Dennett; it was a matter of your knowledge and perspective.
That is an interesting contention! It was us and our expectations that were faulty, not that we had the power to reach out ahead of ourselves in time (into the future) and switch things around.
But don’t we have that ability? Isn’t the future “open” and being determined by us “now?” We “deliberate;“ we “think things through” and then “decide,” and “act.” This is where we started this little essay, with “the verbs of action”: avoiding, protecting, creating, doing…and thus “making a difference.” We are reaching out into the future!
IS THE FUTURE “OPEN”?
This “open future” needs careful consideration. We will find out that it is not as open as we thought. Maybe everything we thought we avoided, was never going to happen in the first place. We should think about our thinking and deciding and ‘doing’ in a different way! Our ‘doing’ may be just what we needed to do, to align ourselves with what is to happen! And that is just what Dennett and I will argue!
We Deliberate and Decide to keep up with What is Really Going to Happen: “We Act Under The Idea of Freedom.”
Dennett comments that we often acknowledge that we cannot change the past, but we should equally acknowledge that we cannot change the future! It is the event that will actually happen, and “happen to happen—in the fulness of time,” he insists. “The future” is not some collection of events from which some will actually occur.
Once again, we are confusing what we anticipated might be the future with what the future really was. The future did not change and we did not change it only our anticipations of it are often misguided. It seemed open, but it wasn’t.
All this confusion about “the future” is common in our everyday lives. It is how we talk about it, and it is not consistent. In many situations, what will happen is supposedly very much up to us; in other situations it is not up to us at all. In the middle, lay a huge number of situations that are an indeterminate mess of “up to us” and “a product of forces beyond us.” I guess that is why people write novels and read them. They want examples of how this works out.
But, we have other strong evidence (beyond Dennett’s analysis of our ordinary language) that “the real course of history” is already determined. Modern physicists believe that, in principle, the equation that predicts the movements of all the particles that compose our everyday world has already been discovered; it is called “the path-integral formulation of Quantum mechanics.” But chemists. neurologist and biologists have their own “determinants” of our lives now, and in the future.
So where does this leave us? Should we stop “trying to make a difference” because the future is already set?
Dennett does not recommend that course. Instead, we should regard our fancier varieties of action—scientific research, religious faith and ritual, ethical behavior, and human planning in general—as on par with our more reflexive forms of action. All our behaviors are caused by the past and by our current environment, that they are determined in this way, does not diminish their stature.
“Genuine avoidance” is a confusion, and even as such it offers us no better than “determined” or “reflexive avoidance.” In each case, the peril is avoided. A thunderstorm is a real thing, and now that we know they are determined by natural causes, that does not diminish their status. They are still “a thunderstorm,” as powerful and full of lightning and rain as ever, even now when we can fairly accurately predict when and where they will occur. “Genuine Avoidance,” like a “genuine decision,” is supposedly when you simply decide and do something without physical causes, you do “what has been decided upon” and, like “God,” there was no mechanism to it; it is simply a decision out of nowhere, divine fiat: “Let their be light!” “I HAVE DECIDED!” we tend to think and say.
The same is true for “deliberation,” contends Dennett. It may seem paradoxical to think that “to deliberate,” “to think things through,” makes sense even from a mechanistic, deterministic, perspective. Deliberation is Not important because the outcome of that deliberation is open. It is not. To physics and to Laplace’s Demon, the outcome of your thinking (all those brain waves and molecular jumblings) are as historically set as anything else. But this is not paradoxical in the following way.
From the perspective as an actor—as the doer of the thinking, we do not know the outcome of our own deliberations! We must carry them out. That a particular future seems open to us, just as does the future in general, is our perspective. We must “Act Under the Idea of Freedom,” the title to the fifth essay in Dennett’s Elbow Room. “The course of history” is out of our control; we have very good reasons to believe that; but from the perspective of an actor inside that grand scheme of things, we cannot “see” it in its totality nor its outcomes. We should “keep our shoulder to the grind stone,” says Dennett, we must “keep our head down” and concentrate to do the best we can with the situation we have.
It’s like “follow-through” in a golfer’s or baseball player’s swing. “The trajectory of the ball [or even contact itself] is already determined before the follow-through commences;” yet “follow-through” is a wise and rational policy, argues Dennett. We continue our swing and keep our eyes down and focused on the area of potential contact, even after the contact has or hasn’t occurred. It allows for the smoothest swing, a swing that is “most effective” and seems to give us the best results. Follow-through tends “to ensure that the right, desirable sorts of things happen at the crucial time in the swing,” even though it occurs after the outcome (the ball was already hit, or not hit) has already been determined.
And so in life, we have done pretty well acting as if we are free, and responsible, and efficacious. History has often rewarded us with a beneficial outcome, beneficial from our point of view of course. For a creature with limited abilities, it is possible to see much progress.
This above realignment of ideas is part of that progress itself, believes Dennett. We ‘only’ act as if we are free and responsible! Understanding this makes science more compatible with our everyday ideas of ourselves as actors. I believe it even allows a quasi-religious sense of awe and participation. History is one of those Big Things that give us a part to play but is outside us and our ability to control. History is our destiny. It is beyond us, and yet still us, at the same time. Maybe we should try to regard it with a sense of awe, a sense of humility and even reverence. And then just ‘keep our head down’ and our ‘shoulder to the wheel’ and do the best we can!