Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer

daniel dennett


Chapter Five




      Because it is full of reversals, life takes on an essentially dramatic character. Its presiding quality is change of fortune. But dramas and changes of fortune, we will see, have no  meaning if we lack freedom of choice and action in them. Without freedom, moral choice is empty. Aristotle called this reversal in tragic drama its peripetia .
      “Reversal of the Situation,” he explained, “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite…” Or as Plato wrote: “In the seasons, in plants, in the body and above all in civil society, excessive action results in violent transformation into its opposite.” (The Republic)
      This same veering dynamic, flung up from deeper physiological venues where the chemical rotors of the organism turn, (described in # 13, 26, 32) finds its way into the drama of love. And it makes wisdom tentative and thrilling. Desire and satiation, belonging and estrangement, attraction and repulsion spiral round and round. greek tragedyThough we repress our awareness of it from fear of our own and each other’s inconstancy, life inclines us to understand our changes of fortune dramatically, which puts the problems of  freedom and determinacy onto center stage. Theatrical representation, ritual, dance and dramatic performances in every culture exemplify this. They have from the beginning.              
     According to Aristotle, the reversal in a tragic drama can provoke recognition. “Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune.” The recognition in classical drama echoes the transformational moments inhering in real-life turning points. Character is tested in Aristoteli
an tragedy by this crisis of recogixionnition. At its best, it simultaneously changes not only what the central character knows, but also the action of the drama swirling around him. That’s why Aristotle adds: “The best form of recognition is coincident with the Reversal of the Situation.”1   When they happen together, a sudden influx of knowledge can change the course of the action. In this moment of discovery, Oedipus plucks out his eyes.
          In Greek tragic drama, a flaw in character, a blind spot, marked by deficiency or excess, by overweening pride, hubris, chained the protagonists to the wheel of their fates. A peripetia occurs that the hero can neither resist nor use for the sake of freedom. He spins in the clutches of nemesis, chained, as w
as Ixion, to his wheel. That’s the tragedy.                            
Interestingly, the gods punished Ixion for resisting the opportunity to improve his life when given the chance at a turning point. That was his hubris. Don’t block the way to your turning points.                                   


The Signal Events

      Life does not toss peripetieas promiscuously across our paths. The transformational opportunities come only when we meet three boundary conditions. When:

1)    Our biological systems are stressed out to the max,
2)    Our life situation teeters on the edge of chaos, near a tipping point.
3)    Love and wisdom are at stake.

     These conditions produce the crucial turning point dramas in life. They give us the chance to change, and to get free, but only if we energetically engage them. I call these built-in peripetieas the signal events of life. Each generates a destiny-shaping turning point. They come at critical developmental stages, not unlike those described by Erik Erikson.
     Among the signal events I include the trauma of birth itself, the first separation from the mother, weaning, leaving home, first love, marriage, childbirth, encounters with life threatening illnesses, creative accomplishment, discovery, making a home, experiencing combat, up-rootedness, divorce, finding one’s calling, change of profession, loss of friends, death of parents, death of a spouse, confrontation with evil, retirement, and finally the way we face our own dying moments.
     Each developmental drama presents us with a crisis that only love or wisdom, as we now understand them dynamically, can resolve.


    The signal events rarely run smoothly. Typically, family, cultural and environmental factors disrupt them, hasten, retard, re-schedule, or give them unexpected twists.
    Even though the transformational opportunities may have been building for years, when they actually arrive they come on us urgently and pass quickly. In seconds, we must decide what to do.
     We decohere, then we come together again. But the only repatterning forces that take hold are those we have earned by living on the long legs coming into the turning. And they only come to us if we endure the legs authentically. Our own perseverance, our habits of life, gives us the moral energy to carry ourselves through our turning moments. Moral energy, and the courage that sustains it, form the core elements around which the repatterning builds.
     Deep biological alterations mark the life-stage changes made in the signal events. During the turning process, clashing personality parts struggle for dominance in the body. Each fights for its own style of access, contesting the use of organ systems. These struggles later etch themselves on the face as character. They live in the body as posture, movement and gesture. They shape bearing and attitude. They present themselves in action as the character of our deeds, and in basic vitality as health or illness.



     When Holmes and Rahe studied the triggers for illness in more than 5000 patients admitted to Veterans Administration hospitals, they discovered events in the previous year that correlated with subsequent illness. The top ten correlations:

Death of a spouse
Marital separation
Jail term
Death of a close family member
Personal injury or illness
Fired from work
Marital reconciliation

   Notice first that meaning and health are associated, and second that the events provoking illness all came from the turning dramas in the signal events of love and wisdom — marriage, death, work, abandonment, change of status (though the manifest illnesses were more likely to surface later in life when long-term chronic stresses had taken their toll.)
     In every item on the Holmes-Rahe scale, a person suffers a rough break to the rhythms of life. Each interruption centers on a crisis in love or wisdom or both.
However, not everyone dealing with these challenges got sick. What made the healthy people different? Did they negotiate their crises differently? Did they live a different drama, comic rather than tragic? Were their rhythms resilient enough to favor resolution over nemesis? Did they more successfully navigate their turning dramas? Did they achieve “Recognition coincident with the reversal,” as Aristotle recommended? Did this inflow enable them to direct their new knowledge to beneficial ends? Did freedom manifest?



How can we have freedom? You may may make the following objections:

-If the environment entrains the body, if the effort to live is enmeshed from beginning to end in causal webs, if frequencies pull on each other, and biological systems run on cascading information flows, the turning points must spin into life as a vast summing of antecedent causes. We are driven creatures, behaving under compulsion even in what we take to be our most significant, changeful moments.

You're right.  Love and wisdom have no moral force without freedom of choice and freedom of action. If we are not free agents at crucial moments, our choices ride on the changes in our bodies brought on by the causal texture of the environment. The world moves the body.
     Without freedom, our turning points become self-indulgent flights of fancy. Why care, why swing into action, why be brave in the midst of fear, if our hopes and fears, and the choices and decisions that come from them, are caused before we ever get to them and then pass on through on their way somewhere else predetermined?
     Emerson wrestled with this problem when he wrote in his essay On Fate: “Man is not order of nature, sack and sack, belly and members, link in a chain, nor any ignominious baggage; but a stupendous an-tagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe… the light-ning which explodes and fashions planets, maker of planets and suns, is in him…Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free.”2
    But freedom of thought is not the same as free will or freedom of action. It may lead to them, but not necessarily. As we experience it, freedom falls into a hierarchical arrangement. In each, a higher freedom depends on one lower down. Free to fancy is one thing, free to dream another, free to conceptualize, free to intend to do something, free to choose it, decide it, or free to do it are further marches still. They do not all have the same force in the world and they are not always accessible or lined up. A break at any point terminates the effort. Only the full array brings intention cleanly into the world.
     Emerson does not distinguish between grades of freedom or the occasions on which one rises to another. He suggests that sheer strength of will makes the difference. But strong men bang their heads against stone walls too. What we need are not strong skulls, but doors in the walls.


Scientists have found these doors. They tell us that at least on some occasions indeterminacy exists in the world. Can we use indeterminacy to bolster our argument for freedom, when the indeterminacies are so small, so closely linked to quantum events?
      To know whether we had freedom on a particular occasion, and to gauge our levels of responsibility in it, we’d have to figure out whether there was a through-line of indeterminacies leading  from quantum biochemical to membrane related and intercellular functions, to neural pulsing, to muscle movements and thence to fully intended behaviors.
    If the passage of energy rides on the interactions of many oscillators, it may be that a narrow window for freedom opens up only when the system moves into specific temporary alignments.
     Love becomes love, according to this line of reasoning, because freedom blossoms in its turning points as an emergent property of their complexity. Entrainment, interference, resonance and dissonance between the oscillators and their perturbing forces come together to create this complexity. Likewise, wisdom becomes wisdom from the indeterminacy in its turning points. I'll say more later (see #115.)


     Sounds good to me. But not to Daniel Dennett. In Freedom Evolves, he maintains that the determinacy-indeterminacy controversy makes no practical difference to choice. He tells us that

“An indeterminate spark occurring at the mo
ment we make our most important decisions couldn’t make us more flexible, give us more opportunities, make us more self-made or autonomous, in any way that could be discerned from inside or outside, so why should it matter to us.”

“…the issue is not about determinism, either genetic or environmental or both together; the issue is about what we can change whether or not our world is deterministic.”4

Dennett advises us to act in such a way as to improve our odds.

“If you have the gene for phenlyketonuria,” he explains, “all you have to do to avoid its undesirable effects is stop eating food containing phenylalanine. As we have seen, what is inevitable doesn’t depend on whether or not determinism reigns, but on whether or not there are steps we can take, based on information we can get in time to take those steps, to avoid the foreseen harm. There are two requirements for a meaningful choice: information and a path for the information to guide.”5

     Of course, you have to want to take these steps, and according to h
m, that is what we do “if we are normal.”6   If you don’t, you’re abnormal. You may be in denial. So at least part of Dennett’s argument rests on culturally relative standards of normality. But how “normal” are his standards? When Dennett argues that a normal person falling down an elevator shaft should act in such a way as to increase his odds, is that normal? “Perhaps in some of the worlds in which he lands, he survives… There is some elbow room…he may at least improve the odds by taking whatever actions are necessary, and thereby, with some luck, find himself in one of the vastly many possible worlds in which he lives.”7


     elevatorThe happy insouciance with which he puts the case starkly contradicts the horrifying story he tells. What a view of life he offers us! – Hurtling down an elevator shaft, encased in a machine, out of touch with nature, we are hapless victims crashing to our deaths. We have only seconds left to think. How are we to come to terms with our situation? Though Dennett would have us roll up into a fetal position to improve our survival chances from one in a million to one in a hundred thousand, mightn’t a thoughtful person choose instead to relax, not bother to calculate the odds, let the odds play out while he spent his moments coming to peace with himself? Which is the saner choice?
     Where do we find Dennett in his example? Is he in the elevator with us, using his last breath to advise us? Is he dealing with his own mortality, sharing his insights as Socrates did in the prison house? No way. From the breezy tenor of the language, you can tell he is standing outside watching the elevator fall. We’re the poor saps inside. How can he offer us advice as the steel car hurtles by? He must be talking to the graduate students by his side. No wonder he’s so light hearted. He’s an outside consultant.


     It’s the same in the game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a curious way, it mirrors real-life circumstances. The story behind the game is that two prisoners are being interrogated. The interrogator offers each a deal separately: if you rat on the other guy, you go free and the other guy gets ten years in jail, but only if he hasn’t ratted on you. If you both rat on each other, you both serve three years. Tough choices. The prisoners are supposed to sit there in the interrogation room and consider the options. A whole generation of American scholars has modeled altruism on this game.
     All kinds of troubled thoughts must go through the prisoners’ heads. “Why should I stay quiet? If my partner squeals on me, I go away for ten years, if I squeal on him the most that I can serve is three years. And if he hasn’t squealed, I might go free. Of course, if neither of us squeals, we both go free. How can I take the chance of his not squealing? I’d be risking ten years.” The researchers consider these options in their scholarly papers. They use computer simulations to play the game thousands of times over trying to determine the best strategies.
     They never consider what prisoners would really be thinking in those circumstances. Wouldn’t they think, “Who are these interrogators? How can I trust anyone who offers such a crazy deal to follow through on it? Will they tell my partner what I really said? What will they want from me next?”
     Computer simulated play of Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that the winning strategy ove
gladiatorsr many iterations is to start out altruistic and stay that way until the other prisoner betrays you, then betray back once and return to altruism. That’s how to win in the prison world. That’s what the experts have given us as a model of our lives. But don’t forget: the prisoners may not even be guilty. For all I know they may be confessing under duress like the detainees in Guantanamo.
    prisoners In its basic mythos the game envisions a world of prisoners in which only
 certain privileged researchers are free. They either conduct the interrogations or watch them from behind the one-way mirrors. Who are the prisoners? Us. The great bulk of the population (who we take as the “us”) the tiny elite “us” of the experts considers the “them”. We don’t even get to be an “us” in prison. We’re kept in solitary confinement. In ancient Rome, in the gladiatorial combats that provided their version of Prisoner’s Dilemma, Dennett and his students would be watching the entertainment from the Emperor’s box.



    Spinoza dealt with the problem of freedom in his Ethics. He maintained, “Men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined…”8   If we became conscious of those causes, he argued, we would know we were not free.
However, he still found freedom in the world, because nature as a whole was free. There was nothing outside to determine it to be other than it was.
     By viewing our actions in the context of the freedom of Nature as a whole, Spinoza believed that we would be happy. And he thought we were capable of it because ours was a rational universe and, once we understood it, we would acquiesce in its order. “Our understanding or inteligence, that is, the best part in us,” he insisted, “will entirely acquiesce in this, and will strive to persist in this acquiescence. For in so far as we understand, we can desire nothing other than what is necessary, and we cannot entirely acquiesce in anything other than the truth.”9   To do so is to live life “sub specie eternitas”, under the aspect of eternity.
     By participating in God’s plenitude (for Spinoza God and Nature were coterminous), our acquiescence would be meaningful. It would make us happy. Moreover, our happiness, as he saw it, would give us energy to become active rather than passive participants in the freedom of the whole. That would be our freedom.
     Stuart Hampshire, a philosopher who has written extensively on Spinoza, recognized that the power of what you could call positive acquiescence “by itself converted an external cause into an inner ground of affirmation or action.”10   Nevertheless, its relationship to freedom still puzzled him. “Perhaps this picture of the free man as self directing, as an integrated mind with a continuous controlling reason, is so far a clear one. But the notion of freedom itself is still unclarified…”11


The Third Attribute of the One Substance

     Spinoza saw the universe as one, single and whole. It was composed of one unified substance. That single substance manifested under an infinite number of attributes. But we knew of only two of them, thought and extension. God knew all of them. As Spinoza put it: “… mind and body are one and the same thing, conceived first under the attribute of thought, secondly under the attribute of extension.”12
     Interpreters disagree whether Spinoza believed we were capable of knowing more than the two attributes. I would say we are: we have already taken on a third in the space/time continuum. Time itself has a place alongside thought and extension. In our chronobiological inquiry, we have seen it at work in the unfolding of our turning points.
     With time as the third attribute, the wonder of life and its beauty and truth come to us in the deep synchronicities we experience. These occur across all scales of being in ways Spinoza overlooked, for though he aimed for “vital choice of action” he did not locate action in a temporal flow. He disregarded the special qualities of time because he viewed time like space, as uniform, infinite and eternal, with a consistent texture everywhere and no special “spots of time” in it. By viewing time as a manifestation of change in extension he relieved himself of concern over finding the special moments of accessibility to change, (events would be scheduled if his determinism was consistent). But our relativistic physics helps us see the world differently. We have come to conceive of time itself as malleable and grainy. Space we understand as curved and bumpy. Even the pure vacuum bustles with energetic particles twinkling in and out of existence.