The Evolution of Freedom in the Universe

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Human Freedom and Freewill15 Comments

I am inspired by all of your thoughtful and provocative comments to my last post and captivated by this idea that what we experience as freewill is not actually a quality of a human being, but a characteristic of the universe itself as embodied in a human being. As we explore what we know about evolution it seems clear that evolution has generally occurred in a direction that has led to the general increase in the range of freedom that can be expressed by the evolving forms of the universe.

Energy, atoms and molecules have very narrow ranges through which they can express creative freedom in response to circumstance. Energy and atoms can combine to form molecules and then molecules can form substances like water and minerals. These substances can in turn combine to form something as complex and varied as a planet.

When molecules advance to the point of forming living cells, the amount of creative freedom that can be expressed increases dramatically. Cells can combine into organisms, both plant and animal, that exhibit a much greater range of freedom to respond to circumstance and environment than any non-living combination of molecules or atoms. The development of the animal kingdom in particular demonstrates the tendency towards greater and greater creative freedom – dogs express a greater range of response than do tadpoles for instance. When Organisms develop nervous systems complex enough to create an abstract concept of self the potential for freedom of choice explodes.

Individuals who can recognize themselves as a “separate something” in the universe become capable of a degree of individuation and specialization that dramatically increases the efficiency through which they can organize into social structures. As societies of human beings become more efficient at meeting the basic needs of the individuals within them they create more freedom in the individuals to choose to act outside of the dictates of personal survival. Individuals liberated from survival necessity begin to pursue higher forms of cognition and understanding of themselves and the universe in which they exist. This higher understanding leads to increased freedom to respond to circumstance and environment.

So it seems that on the whole the relative degree of freedom that can be expressed through evolving forms in the universe tends to increase over time. I would like to propose a definition of Conscious Evolution based on this conception.

“Conscious Evolution is the deliberate development of: our understanding of the universe, our concept of ourselves, and the workings of the society in which we live, for the purpose of increasing the range of freedom of choice that can be expressed by the individuals in society.”

This is a conception of Conscious Evolution very much aligned with the philosophy of John Dewey who wrote extensively about Education, Democracy and Ethics all with the basic assumption that increase the opportunity for freedom of growth was the essential direction of goodness in the universe.

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Carl
11 years ago

Reading your excellent summation of some key ideas, it occurs to me that the word “freedom” is superfluous. We are talking about increasing range of choice, period. Evolution seems to expand choice among alternatives that increase in breadth as the functionality and ultimately the awareness of the choosing universe expands. What does the word “freedom” add to this, other than a certain emotional “hit” for we humans, conditioned to think of freedom as good because we have learned it as the escape from or avoidance of punishing alternatives?

Carl
11 years ago

One other thought: Some (including the late Teacher Adi Da) have defined responsibility as the ability to respond. Aren’t we talking in some important sense about evolution as the increasing ability to respond? With increased choice comes increased responsibility.

Eb
Eb
11 years ago

I love the direction you are taking this, Jeff. I am most intrigued by the concept that takes the whole question beyond the human being in the way that something much bigger is happening. We human beings are obviously part of it, and a very important part of it, but we are not the end point. And conscious evolution in the way you are describing it is trying to understand the universe, and ourselves and recognizing that we are not separate from the whole process and that whatever we are doing is impacting its evolution. And it that sense wouldn’t… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

The question about “freedom” being really just choice is interesting. I was defining freedom as the range over which choice can be made. As you understand yourself and the world more carefully you increase the range of choice – the degrees of freedom – available to your choosing. I suppose in the end, it is true that the word freedom is unnessesary – although it does carry culture cache that might mike it valuable – and I realize cultural bagage that might make it detrimental.

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Do you ever wonder if “the relative degree of freedom that can be expressed through evolving forms in the universe tends to increase over time” is a given? Or is it just the current circumstance? Maybe conscious evolution will be our attempt to make it so, even if we face threatening life conditions in generations to come.

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Certainly it could be only the current circumstance and I would like to hear more of your thoughts about how conscious evolution could be our attempt to make it so.

Carl
11 years ago

I think that the distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to” is relevant. Freedom from is really the traditional issue in most revolutions of the political, social, and cultural kind. That is, freedom from oppression, from punishment, from constraint — what Skinner would analyze as escape from or avoidance of aversive consequences. Freedom “to” is more related to what we are talking about here — the freedom to choose and become more creative, based on our expanded awareness of the options and on our expanding repertoire of capabilities. I’m inclined to think that there must be a better word for… Read more »

Imants
Imants
11 years ago

Your writing hits me hard with the realisation that going deeper into the concept, nature and significance of free will appears to be pivotal to the next stage of the evolution of the universe through the human form. When viewed in a evolutionary context I begin to experience how contingent it is on what has gone before over the 13.7 B years and the morality that freely comes with that awareness. In that sense and following Dewey, the necessary glue for the next leap in increasing awareness of the universe through the human form is ethics. What happens to free… Read more »

Julia
Julia
11 years ago

In this way of describing free will as bound by a process but unlimited in potential it seems the range of freedom of choice for any organism is directly the result of combination and relatedness. (Physical/mental structures and social organization.) The tendency toward the increasing expression of creative freedom reflects more complex forms of relationships enacted by increasingly related individuals who can then express more complex forms of Self-awareness.

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

Thank you Julia ,awsome comment

Then I wonder “chicken & egg” question?

The more complex form of Self-awaereness lead to increased freedom to respond to the universe(the circumstance and envilonment) and this more complex forms of relationships to the universe lead to more complex form of Self-awareness….infinite?

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Evolution seems to proceed towards greater complexity. While this may be true during life on earth so far, there are no guarantees going forward. Evolution can also unwind, falling into entropy either by natural causes or by are own hands (i.e. consumption, pollution, global warming, antagonism, war). Conscious evolution is to take action to increase complexity (where complexity = differentiation + integration), improve our fitness and ability to adapt to life conditions, and stave off entropy. After all, extinction and evolution don’t mix. So the question is what conscious evolution actions should each of us take? And which should we… Read more »

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

While freedom definitely seems to point to degrees of our “response ability,” I think there is another component in it that we haven’t explored much here. In my opinion freedom has to do with the possibility of something new and unknown entering the picture. There seems to be two macro movements in the Universe, (maybe this is what Peirce meant), continuity and spontaneity. By continuity, i.e. cause and effect, evolution has molded greater and greater degrees of freedom from matter and energy. But equally as important is the constant yet mysterious effect of spontaneity. If you believe that the Universe… Read more »

Carl
11 years ago

Here is a not very artful summary of how I think it works. It seems like the universe is always doing things spontaneously. I’m a behavior scientist by training, not a physicist, so I’m not sure if this applies to physics. But certainly the science of behavior makes clear that behavioral repertoires — of groups and well as of individuals — are continuous, dynamic arrays of probabilities of response. The interaction between the so-called individual (organism, whether human or non-human) and its so-called environment (which in the end is part of the same, and not separate) is best represented as… Read more »

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

Carl, thanks for your very full response. I think your beautiful description is what I’m calling the force of “continuity” in evolution, where new things, new ideas, and new actions emerge through the explosively generative power of a continuous recombination of the inner and outer stuff of the Universe. But it’s very interesting to put this kind of development in the context of a continuous emergence of EVERYTHING spontaneously coming from nothing. It makes me think of our experience of language. Sounds and written words emerge spontaneously from our response to the world and each other. (because how fully formed… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
9 years ago

Hi Carl, re: “With increased choice comes increased responsibility.”

What seems to result with more than 3 choices is confusion. If we can boil down numerous choices to say 3 viable ones after mulling the options, the decision making becomes less confusing.

Our decisions should always be responsible. Being confused often results in confused decisions.