I’ve just read Dan Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, and am very convinced of his naturalistic take on evolution, the freedom it gives life, and how that freedom eventually became the most important kind of freedom, the kind that humans deal with. And deal with we do.
My re-telling of Dennett’s evolutionary account of freedom will do no justice to his laymen friendly book, but the gist of it is that the evolution of life allowed for an ever changing and increasing array of freedoms: the ability to do something given a set of circumstances. single celled algae can collect sunlight and increase in numbers by division. Plants do complex version of that. Herbivores let the plants do the work of energy collection for them. Carnivores let herbivores do the work of collecting solar collectors for them. Omnivores get to eat it all. All forms of life evolved from an empty world (devoid of life) to fill it degrees of freedom. Part of this involved all forms of life developing ways of danger avoidance. This is where life gets interesting.
Immediate examples of danger avoidance that come to mind include climbing, flying, and running really fast. Very cozy co-evolution also works very well. These abilities exist materially, as in the form of arms, wings, and legs. Birds can fly up, down, left, and right, forward, roll, pitch, and yaw and we can marvel at their abilities to do so. And while most forms of life do not have much of a choice in this, at least not in the way humans do, it is still a degree of freedom, something they can do given a set of circumstances.
Another set of danger avoidance does not exist materially as a thing, but interactively, as in social arrangements. Of course for humans, this means working in groups. Entirely selfish dispositions are more harmful than helpful if you cannot help yourself. While it may not lead to the best situational outcome for an individual, a person may still be better off by working with others. Bonds of kindness, generosity, reciprocity, altruism, and compassion help to bring the group together.
Dennett uses the example of a baseball batter who can choose to avoid an oncoming baseball aimed at him, or get hit by it. While danger avoidance instincts would have the batter sidestep the ball, his goal (and his team’s goal) of winning encourages him to “take one for the team.” The idea of winning has taken hold of his mind and supersedes the danger of the 70 mph ball aimed at his body, which to the batter’s analysis is less important than getting another score on the board. So in this situation, he can choose to get hit.
What situations are we currently in, how we can engage with it, and what degrees of freedom does it allow? I think its safe to say that Gautama and his followers-since have been taken by the idea of peace and freedom from the suffering rounds of life, and have engaged it with meditation, stillness, attention, and kindness, and allowed themselves ever more peace and freedom. Where do the Victorious Ones stand in the evolutionary kaleidoscope? How can we all get there?