Conscious Evolution and Free Will?

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Human Freedom and Freewill 14 Comments

Part of the controversy over Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has always been its deterministic tone. Darwin saw evolution as happening through the combination of chance variation and natural selection. The theory goes something like this. Individual organisms of any species are born with variations that occur randomly. Some of these variations are inheritable, meaning that they can be passed on genetically from parent to offspring. Of those variations that can be passed along to offspring, some have survival advantages. Over time more and more individuals with this new beneficial trait will be born until having that trait becomes the norm. Over time change of this type results in the evolution of one species into another.

With this explanation for evolution, Darwin had no need of God. He had no need to postulate some guiding force outside of “chance variation” and “natural selection.” His thinking is deterministic in the sense that there is no intelligence required to guide the process. The guidance system is inherent in the need to survive in order to produce offspring.

When this line of thinking is applied to the development of our intellects it can lead to the conclusion that every choice we make is determined by conditioning resulting from past choices that we have made. Essentially the idea is that if you have a choice between A and B and choosing A results in pain, then the next time you face the same choice you will choose B. Taken to its extreme it is possible to imagine that all of our choices are “determined” by what we have been conditioned to do because of all of our past choices.

Those of us interested in what is known as conscious evolution believe that our newly emerging understanding of the evolutionary process (from which we have been produced) puts us in a position to consciously participate in guiding the future development of evolution. To my mind that immediately raises the question of the existence of human freewill. It would seem that if human beings were going to be in a position to guide the evolutionary process they would need to have free will in order to make choices outside of the bounds of “chance variation” and “natural selection.”

Certainly William James and John Dewey put the fact of human choice at the forefront of their thinking about what it would mean to consciously participate in the evolution of consciousness. James in his essay “Are We Automatons?” concludes the function of consciousness is to act as a selecting organ for choosing what part of our experience to give our attention to. He refers to consciousness as an “organ of selection' and in this he is following the same line of thinking that led Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Spiritual Laws” to define man as “a selecting principle.” Dewey in his book “Human Nature and Conduct” states that the question of morality and ethics only arises in situations in which it is possible to make a choice between two or more alternatives. The fact that this choice is “free” is implied.

But I wonder if “free will” in the personal sense is truly required for a possibility of conscious evolution to be there. Certainly “freedom” is required. No one would argue that in order for there to be any evolution at all it would have to be possible for something “new” to emerge. If there was no freedom for something new to emerge in the universe, nothing could ever change. So freedom, or as Charles Sanders Peirce would call it “spontaneity” has to exist in order for evolution to be possible. The question is, “Does the necessity of spontaneity in an evolving universe require the existence of personal free will for the human being?” This is a question that I would like to think about and respond to in future posts – and I would appreciate any insights from my readers.

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Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Jeff, You keep bringing up my favorite subjects. Now I’m determined to comment. The roots of scientific determinism grew into (and then from) Newton’s seemingly iron-clad laws of motion which Laplace parlayed into a “present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future.” It seems to me that classical mechanics are the underpinnings even for today’s determinists. But let’s continue to follow the progression of scientific thinking to see if our philosophies can keep up. Before Darwin, naturalists were busy with taxonomy — the fixed classification of life forms into kingdom, phylum,… Read more »

Christiana Briddell
11 years ago

This is a very interesting point, especially since my first response is “of course you need freewill.” But then when I think about it it isn’t so clear. A few things come up as I think about it. 1. One thing that occurs to me is that the statement “of my own freewill” is equally an expression of free choice as it is of responsibility. Without freewill, how can responsibility be established? 2. I’m not really clear on what your distinction between freewill and freedom/possibility of newness/spontaneity is? Are you suggesting that new things can emerge in consciousness without our… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
11 years ago

It is a great discussion! I think about this subject sometimes, and I like to ask how we differ from mashines/computers after all… do we have some kind of free will that they couldn’ t ever have? I always have to leave it open, but if we start the other way around, then what would it mean to conclude that we are like mashines? Without free will (as we normally understand it)? Could we then ever choose freely, or are we changing by “programming” only, wich could mean experience? And what would “the choosing faculty” actually mean then? I still… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Thank you all for these fantastic and extremely thoughtful posts. To address Christiana’s question – i do think that there is a difference between “newness” and “free will.” To use a Darwinian example, the radom mutations that occur in individuals are “new,” but no one made any choice in the matter. So what exactly is free will is the question.

Ted Howard
11 years ago

My understanding seems very closely aligned with Brian’s. The ideas that Christiana introduces have intrigued me for many decades. It seems that ultimately it comes down to either we are automata following rules (even though we can never quite know the starting conditions, so can never predict outcomes with 100% certainty); or at some level we actually have free will, and the concepts of “morality”, and “responsibility” actually have some meaning (and are not simply myths). I choose to subscribe to the latter theory. If I am wrong, then I was predestined fromt he time of the big bang to… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

I have a few thoughts related to the free will vs. determinism discussion. First, it seems to me that this is a matter of perspective or vantage point. From the “inside” experience of being the self, we make choices. When the choices are between two or more POSITIVE options, we feel free. When one or more of the options is negative – when we choose to avoid or escape NEGATIVE outcomes – then we do not feel free, and we say that we are being “coerced.” A good current-day example of this is confession under torture. Such confessions are coerced,… Read more »

Ted Howard
11 years ago

I agree with almost everything Carl says. The point that is open to serious debate on interpretation is the claim that science “has identified laws that predict choice”. To the best of my knowledge that is not so. What science has done is develop probability functions that can be used with large populations with very high probabilities. But at the level of any specific individual the probability degrades, and with some individuals approaches zero. This science is not determining what governs choice, it is predicting the outcomes of choice across large groups – a very different thing. I agree with… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Just to be clear in response to Ted, at the level of the individual subject, the work begun by R. J. Herrnstein on what is called “The Matching Law” during the late 1960’s has spawned an entire field of work in the science of the experimental analysis of behavior. It demonstrates that the relative rate of response among choices matches the relative rate of reinforcement. All kinds of work involving variations in quality, quantity, delay, etc. have been factored into equations and contributed to a field now known as behavioral economics. This is at the level of the individual, and… Read more »

Ted Howard
11 years ago

I wasn’t talking about pigeons, I was talking about people. So far as I am aware Herrnstein’s work has not been reliably repeated with human subjects. I would be prepared to guarantee that if tried on my wife the correlation would be less than .2 (ie worse than a random .5). I’m a little more easy going in most areas, so you might get a .8 out of me most of the time, dropping to 0 in some subject areas. This is one of the key differences between humans and animals. Humans keep shifting the domains of preference – we… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Ted, the results are, indeed, somewhat mixed. But in a variety of areas including drug self-administration, time allocation in various situations, and gambling, the equations of the matching law have been shown to apply to human behavior. Having done some lab work in this area myself 40 years ago, I know how hard it is to control the motivational variables in humans compared to lab animals — you can’t starve them to 80% body weight and then use food as a reinforcer! But the data, are in general, orderly, and my only point is that human behavior is certainly not… Read more »

Ted Howard
11 years ago

Hi Carl I think we’re back on the same page now. It is well over 30 years since I worked in behavioural and biochem labs. I understand many levels of process underlying human awareness. Those processes are entirely lawful in the sense you express. Within myself, I would describe my behaviour as lawful 99.99999% of the time. Yet I am also aware that while lawful, because of the levels of recursion involved, it is also unpredictable. At another level, there do appear to be occasional instants when “something else” happens, and the unexpected is produced. I believe I understand the… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Ted, Yes, I think we are in agreement. Certainly lawfulness doesn’t imply predictability in any given moment in real life. One of the interesting things that comes out of the work of my teacher, B.F. Skinner, is an account of creativity or novel behavior that relies on two principles: variability and selection (same principles as account for evolution). There are many sources of variability in behavior, including “turning off the reward” (called extinction) which leads to increasingly wide variation in behavior; one’s individual history which makes various responses more probable, and so on. Selection occurs by consequences, which either increase… Read more »

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[…] from the exciting discussion on the existence of human free will, (Take a look at the string of excellent comments by Carl and Ted Howard here.) but for me it was a chance to regroup and think about this challenging […]

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