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Freedom and the Game of Life

by Bill Meacham on October 27th, 2014

No discussion of free will would be complete without mention of Daniel Dennett, a noted compatibilist, one who believes that free will is a reality even though the universe is wholly determined. Leaving aside the fact that the universe is not in fact wholly determined—because quantum indeterminacy is in effect at the subatomic level of reality—his account of free will is instructive, as it analyzes the practical effects of free will, effects that are real regardless of whether the universe is wholly determined or not.

Dennett writes in the tradition of Wittgenstein, who thought that the purpose of philosophy is to break bad habits of thought, which are typically brought about by the bewitchment of intelligence by language.(1) Dennett’s work on the topic is all about deflating exaggerated misconceptions of what free will really is. What do we really mean when we say we want our will to be free? His answer is that we cannot, upon rational reflection, mean that we want it to be uncaused.(2) Instead we want the following:(3)

  • We want our actions to be determined by good reasons, not by causes outside our control.
  • We want to control our own decisions and actions, not be controlled by someone or something else.
  • We want to be free from constraint.
  • We want our deliberations to be effective, to have a genuine ability to influence the course of affairs.
  • We want dignity and responsibility to be real, not illusory. And we want fatalism and nihilism to be illusory, not real.

All of these depend crucially on the notion of agency, that we are “capable of initiating, and taking responsibility for, projects and deeds.”(4) Dennett calls this view of human nature the “agency metaphor.”(5)


As I have described in detail elsewhere, Dennett sometimes uses a technical term in philosophy, the “intentional stance,” to refer to ascriptions of agency. Dennett observes that we ascribe to others an interiority (my word, not his) much like our own:

[The intentional stance] consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires and other mental states exhibiting what Brentano and others call intentionality.(6)

Since “intentional” has a perfectly good everyday usage, it is unfortunate that Dennett uses it to describe the stance we generally take toward other people, toward many animals and, figuratively at least, toward some non-living things such as computers. I prefer to call it an agential stance: we interpret others as agents. From that stance, beliefs and desires are quite as real as physical objects:

There are patterns in human affairs that impose themselves, not quite inexorably but with great vigor, absorbing physical perturbations and variations that might as well be considered random; these are the patterns we characterize in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions [in the everyday sense] of rational agents.(7)

How Agency Evolved

Dennett, being a materialist, has quite an elaborate account of how agency, with its concomitant notions of freedom and responsibility, has emerged through evolution from arrangements of lower-level physical elements. In his model of reality everything is determined at the lowest level, but higher-level agential patterns emerge from the interactions of low-level elements.

He reasons by analogy from the Game Of Life, a simple computer algorithm invented by mathematician John Conway.(8) The universe of the Game of Life is a two-dimensional grid of square cells, each of which is in one of two possible states, alive or dead. Every cell interacts with its eight neighbors, the cells that are horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent. At each step in time, the following transitions occur:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if caused by under-population.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overcrowding.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

The initial pattern constitutes the seed of the system. The first generation is created by applying the rules simultaneously to every cell in the seed. Births and deaths occur simultaneously at each tick of the programmed clock (in other words, each generation is a pure function of the preceding one). The rules continue to be applied repeatedly to create further generations. Here are two simple seeds:

Block, a still life, stays the same at each tick.
Game_of_life_blinker_1a Game_of_life_blinker_2a
Blinker, which oscillates between two patterns.

Given an initial configuration of elements, the rules determine unambiguously and invariably what happens at each iteration. At the lowest level, considered from the physical stance, everything is completely determined. But we, like gods from the imagined point of view of the world of the game, can change the initial configuration. As we do so, unexpected patterns emerge. We find gliders, configurations that move in a straight line through the two-dimensional space. We find eaters, configurations that destroy gliders that collide with them. We find puffer trains, space rakes and other oddly-named configurations.(9) When we detect such entities (and they are easy to see), we have adopted the design stance, interpreting what we see as a higher-level pattern that operates according to its own law (i.e., in its own regular way), even though all the patterns are governed by the same fundamental laws.

In a similar way, Dennett says, all the complexity that we know as agential has emerged via evolution from simpler physical forms. The blind trial-and-error of Darwinian selection creates organisms capable of learning and adopting better and better strategies for survival and reproduction.(10) And those strategies depend crucially on belief and desire, properties of agents.

According to Dennett, evolution of replicators by natural selection, combined with the usefulness of the agential stance to predict and explain behavior, is enough to account for what we know as freedom of will.

Philosophical Implications

Is Dennett right? He certainly makes a good case that all the concerns about free will listed at the beginning of this chapter can be explained (or explained away) by evolution, but the details are too many to summarize here. Instead I consider just a couple of points.

The first is self-awareness. The real power of human agency, says Dennett, is our capacity for what I call second-order thinking, the power to take ourselves as objects of observation and thought. He observes that evolution has provided us with practical reason, the ability to anticipate events and to take actions to enhance our chances for survival. Such reason is the result the development of an ever more elaborate ability to recognize patterns, and that ability culminates in second-order thought:

The truly explosive advance [in humans’ ability to go beyond unthinking reflex] comes when the capacity for pattern recognition is turned upon itself. The creature who is not only sensitive to patterns in its environment, but also to patterns in its own reactions to patterns in its environment has taken a major step.(11)

I have asserted elsewhere that our capacity for second-order thinking is the peculiarly human virtue, that which distinguishes us from other animals and the exercise of which can lead to a fulfilling life. Dennett’s assertion is that this capacity is the result of many thousands of years of evolution, a point with which I have no dispute.

Another interesting aspect of Dennett’s treatment of the issue of free will is how much his thinking is like that of American Pragmatists C.S. Peirce and, in particular, William James. James asks, “Grant an idea or belief to be true … what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?”(12) And “the possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action.”(13) This method of assessing truth is reflected in passages such as these by Dennett:

The answer [to whether someone could have done otherwise in exactly the same circumstances and internal state] could not conceivably make any noticeable difference to the way the world went.(14)

The useful notion of “can,” the notion that is relied upon not only in personal planning and deliberation, but also in science, is a concept of possibility.(15)

The main thing [in considering whether one could have done otherwise] is to see to it that I jolly well will do otherwise in similar situations in the future.(16)

… what philosophy is for.(17)

These passages all show quite a practical attitude toward philosophical questions and indeed toward philosophy itself. Instead of puzzling over abstract concepts, we look at what difference various answers would make in our dealings with the world. In this approach the pragmatists bear some resemblance to Wittgenstein. Both offer philosophical methods to clean up confusion.

Let’s take this attitude toward Dennett’s fundamental assertion, that all the things we ascribe to agency and to free will can be accounted for in a deterministic universe by the aggregation of lower-level patterns into higher. Compare it to the assertion that I have made, that in an indeterministic universe what matters is not the outcome of a single quantum event, but the overall pattern of many of them.(18) The assertions are basically identical: what matters is agency, which is usefully described and explained at a higher level than fundamental physical units, be they deterministic or not. Hence, whether the universe is deterministic or not doesn’t make any difference to the question!

(Of course, we have very good reasons from physics for believing in quantum indeterminacy. Dennett argues by appeal to analogy and intuition in Freedom Evolves that we do not need to postulate any quantum indeterminate effects on our thinking and decision making in order to have free will.(19) His argument, fascinating as it is, is irrelevant. Such effects do exist, so we might as well take them into account.)

We are again back at the thought that the question of free will is ridiculous. As Dennett says, “We cannot help acting under the idea of freedom, it seems; we are stuck deliberating as if our futures were open.”(20)

But Dennett also notes that it is quite crucial to recognize that our will is in fact free, because we will be much worse off if we think it is not:

Believing that one has free will is itself one of the necessary conditions for having free will: an agent who enjoyed the other necessary conditions for free will—rationality and the capacity for higher-order self-control and self-reflection—but who had been hoodwinked into believing he lacked free will would be almost as incapacitated for free, responsible choice by that belief as by the lack of any of the other necessary conditions. … If [a person] sinks into doubt, or worse, into the conviction that he lacks free will, he is certain to be right: his attitude toward his own opportunities for choice and action will be such that he is essentially disabled as a chooser.(21)

In our own game of life—the one in which each of us is the star player—it makes a lot more sense to assume that our will is free than not.


(1) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 18.

(2) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 13.

(3) These points are the topics of the various chapters of Dennett, Elbow Room.

(4) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 169.

(5) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 61.

(6) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(7) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 27.

(8) Wikipedia, “Conway’s Game of Life.” You can find several implementations of the game on the internet, should you wish to try it out yourself, for instance at as of 26 Ocrober 2014.

(9) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 39.

(10) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 30.

(11) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 29.

(12) James, Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth, p. 133.

(13) James, Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth, p. 135.

(14) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 138.

(15) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 148, emphasis added.

(16) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 143.

(17) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 18, emphasis in original.

(18) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 48-49.

(19) Dennett, Freedom Evolves, pp. 97-139.

(20) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 108.

(21) Dennett, Elbow Room, p. 168.


Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. 1984. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.

Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.

James, William. “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, pp. 131-153. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication as of 24 October 2014.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Wikipedia. “Conway’s Game of Life.” Online publication as of 22 September 2014.

From → Philosophy

  1. Guy J permalink

    Glad you’ve had a chance to explore Dennett’s take on free will and agency and Conway’s Game of Life. My takes were very similar.

    A similarly instructive little dialog was published by Raymond Smullyan in the 70s as “Is God a Taoist?”, from his book The Tao Is Silent. You can find a version of that dialog rendered for the web here:

    At the beginning of your post you mentioned that free will has the properties you described regardless of whether the universe is deterministic. That doesn’t need to be fuzzy either. This post deals with that pretty well, I think:

  2. Luke permalink

    We may not be able to determine all information from every quantum system – but no one is saying that the universe is not deterministic that’s just philosophical nonsense… no amount of order OR randomness has any effect on the hard question of free-will.

    The actual question of freewill which mathematicians and logicians ask is never reproduced or even captured in these philosophical type rants… thought provoking as they may be.

    We all know exactly how a nerve or two works – we even now know the properties of entire cortical columns – infact we understand entire layers of the (neo) brain – everything from perception (v1) to focus (l5) is now mechanically understood… the question remaining is simply how do we as engineers abstract and organize these conceptual understandings into physical mediums ( IE artifacts of some programming language ).

    I find it quite amusing that philosophers seem so often surprised to find that the rest of the world is talking from a pragmatic – practical point of view, maybe philosophy is just that way of doing science such that nothing results, no offense intended.

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