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Determinism and inevitability

By H. Steward


In Freedom Evolves, Dan Dennett embarks on his second book-length attempt to lay to rest the deep metaphysical concerns that many philosophers have expressed about the possibility of human freedom.One of his main objectives in the earlier chapters of the book is to make determinism appear less threatening to our prospects for free agency than it has sometimes seemed, by attempting to show that a deterministic universe would not necessarily be a universe of which it could truly be said that everything that occurs in it is inevitable. In this paper, I want to consider Dennett’s striking argument for this conclusion in some detail. I shall begin by suggesting that on its most natural interpretation, the argument is vulnerable to a serious objection. I shall then develop a second interpretation which is more promising than the first, but will argue that without placing more weight on etymological considerations than they can really bear, it can deliver, at best, only a significantly qualified version of the conclusion that Dennett is seeking. However, although I shall be arguing that his central argument fails, it is also part of the purpose of this paper to build on what I regard as some rather insightful and suggestive material which is developed by Dennett in the course of elaborating his views. His own development of these ideas is hampered, so I shall argue, by a framework for thinking about possibility that is too crude to accommodate the immense subtlety and complexity which is exhibited by the workings of the modal verb ‘can’ and its past tense form, ‘could’; and also, I believe, by the mistaken conviction, on Dennett’s part, that any naturalistically respectable solution to the problem of free will would have to be of a compatibilist stripe. I shall attempt, in the second half of the paper, to explain what seems to me to be wrong with the framework, and to make some points about the functioning of ‘can’ and ‘could’, which I believe any adequate replacement for Dennett’s framework must respect. Ironically, though, I shall argue that it is the rejection of Dennett’s own framework which holds the key to understanding how to defend the spirit (if not the letter) of his thoughts about the invulnerability of our ordinary modal thinking to alleged threats from determinism

Publisher: Springer Netherlands
Year: 2006
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