Before continuing with my thoughts about free will, I thought it would be good to take a step back and take a wide angle look at what evolution and more specifically conscious evolution is all about.
From one point of view American Philosophy – at least Pragmatism – has always been about conscious evolution in the sense that it was aimed at understanding the mechanisms through which evolution happens and then applying those mechanisms consciously to generate evolution in human life. And one of the foundations of that philosophy is the identification of the two most fundamental characteristics that the universe must have if it is going to evolve – continuity and spontaneity.
Continuity is required in a universe if there is any chance of evolution. The fact that a universe is continuous means that it is fundamentally one thing. There are no breaks in it. In terms of time it means that each moment has some connection to the one before – they don't happen in random order. In terms of space it means that if I stand in one spot it remains the same spot. Without continuity the universe would degenerate into a chaotic succession of unrelated phenomena.
Another criterion of continuity in American Philosophy is that there cannot be a break between mind and matter. Mind and matter must be directly connected; they must be fundamentally made up of the same thing without a discontinuous break separating them. The brilliant American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce used the term synechism to represent the continuity of the universe.
A universe certainly needs continuity if anything recognizable is ever going to evolve out of its chaos, but it needs more than that. It also needs spontaneity. Spontaneity gives the universe the possibility that something new can emerge. It means that there is also the possibility that something can happen that is not pre-determined by what has come before. It gives the universe the potential for novelty. If there is no spontaneity in the universe there is no chance for anything new to appear and therefore no possibility of change or evolution. A universe without spontaneity is reduced to a never changing, static continuous block. Peirce used the word Tychism to represent spontaneity in the universe.
With these two characteristics in place the universe can evolve, because new things can appear and once they appear they will continue. In Peirce's conception of evolutionary philosophy he saw the universe as beginning at some infinite time in the past as pure Tychism, pure possibility – or as he referred to it, “absolute being.” The universe then has a tendency toward continuity; toward order so that once something new happens it is easier for that same thing to happen again. If the same happens yet again it is easier still for it to happen a fourth time. So in this way things “solidify” in the universe through a process of universal habit forming. In our infinite future through the process of universal habit, the universe is heading toward a pinnacle of pure continuity, total order and absolute law.
This brings us back to the question of conscious evolution. So far in this description there is only the requirements of continuity, spontaneity, and tendency toward habit that make it possible for evolution to occur. But, when we are speaking about conscious evolution we are implying that human beings could guide the process of evolution. That means that we would need to become the conscious source of spontaneity. We would be the creative element of the universe providing the novelty which would then solidify through the process of habit.
As someone who is dedicated to conscious evolution then, it is critical to understand the nature of human free will, which means discovering if human beings can actually make choices that are not conditioned by the past? Can we do something that is truly unique and new? Can we be the source of universal creation?