The Evolution of Free Will

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by Neil Godfrey

After having posted sympathetically about the possibility of our lacking free will (so much so that I am not even sure I know what “thinking” entails at the most fundamental level) — I’m pleased to imagine that I am freely choosing to post a link to an argument for us having free will:

by Kevin Mitchell, a scholar of genetics and neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin.

The processes of cognition are thus mediated by the activities of neurons in the brain, but are not reducible to those activities or driven by them in a mechanical way. What matters in settling how things go is what the patterns mean – the low-level details are often arbitrary and incidental. Organisms with these capacities are thereby doing things for reasons – reasons of the whole organism, not their parts.


A common claim of free will skeptics is that we, ourselves, had no hand in determining what that configuration is. It is simply a product of our evolved human nature, our individual genetic make-up and neurodevelopmental history, and the accumulated effects of all our experiences. Note, however, that this views our experiences as events thathave happened to us. It thus assumes the point it is trying to make – that we have no agency because we never have had any.

If, instead, we take a more active view of the way we interact with the world, we can see that many of our experiences were either directly chosen by us or indirectly result from the actions we ourselves have taken. Not only do we make choices about what to do at any moment, we manage our behaviour in sustained ways through time. We adopt long-term plans and commitments – goals that require sustained effort to attain and that thereby constrain behavior in the moment. We develop habits and heuristics based on past experience – efficiently offloading to subconscious processes decisions we’ve made dozens or hundreds of times before. And we devise policies and meta-policies – overarching principles that can guide behaviour in new situations. We thus absolutely do play an active role in the accumulation of the attitudes, dispositions, habits, projects, and policies that collectively comprise our character.

More at his blog — http://www.wiringthebrain.com/

He also has a book titled Free Agents, subtitled How Evolution Gave Us Free Will.

The experience of one friend of mine many years ago still haunts me. He had enormous emotional, mental and behavioural problems, having come from a brutal family upbringing. There was one period when he seemed to have completely changed, to have become “whole” even, and positive. It turned out that he had had a good sleep and a healthy meal for once. I was religious at the time and could not help wondering how God would judge someone whose behaviour depended so critically on a healthy salad sandwich and 8 hours sleep.


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3 thoughts on “The Evolution of Free Will”

  1. Before I go on my position is that our behavior is subject to free will and determinism. That we would be limited to just one or the other is ludicrous in my opinion.

    This discussion is clouded by a lack of clarity on whether free will is conscious and or unconscious. If restricted to just conscious free will, it would be relegated to a tiny minority of our decisions as we rarely think consciously about decisions we have to make. Consider the act of buying a car. What determines which cars you will consider (nobody considers them all)? I suggest that previous prejudices plays a big role. Then, what are the criteria for making the selection? How many points are given to air conditioning and four-wheel drive? Are those two a good tradeoff one way or the other? How do we determine a “winner” in our deliberation? What are the rules?

    And when it comes down to actually making the decisions, what do we think are the tipping points? Apparently “I liked the silver color” is typical as if the color had any role at all in the car’s performance. Just what are the physical determinants of that decision? What free will got exercised? Lots of luck parsing that one.

  2. Roger Sperry (1913–1994) was a neuropsychologist, neurobiologist and Nobel laureate who, together with two others , won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work with split-brain research. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Sperry as the 44th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

    Sperryʼs writings on emergence in nature, as well as what he had to say on free will versus determinism are fascinating to read:

    “Recall that a molecule in many respects is the master of its inner atoms and electrons. The latter are hauled and forced about in chemical interactions by the over-all configurational properties of the whole molecule. At the same time, if our given molecule is itself part of a single-celled organism such as a paramecium, it in turn is obliged, with all its parts and its partners, to follow along a trail of events in time and space determined largely by the extrinsic over-all dynamics of that paramecium. When it comes to brains, remember that the simpler electric,atomic, molecular, and cellular forces and laws, though still present and operating, have been superseded by the configurational forces of higher-level mechanisms. At the top, in the human brain, these include the powers of perception, cognition, reason, judgment, and the like, the operational, causal effects and forces of which are equally or more potent in brain dynamics than are the outclassed inner chemical forces…”

    “We deal instead with a sequence of conscious or subconscious processes that have their own higher laws and dynamics…that move their neuronal details in much the way different program images on a TV receiver determine the pattern of electron flow on the screen…”

    “And the molecules of higher living things are… flown… galloped… swung… propelled… mostly by specific holistic, and also mental properties—aims, wants, needs—possessed by the organisms in question. Once evolved, the higher laws and forces exert a downward control over the lower.”

    “Evolution keeps complicating the universe by adding new phenomena that have new properties and new forces that are regulated by new scientific principles and new scientific laws—all for future scientists in their respective disciplines to discover and formulate. Note also that the old simple laws and primeval forces of the hydrogen age never get lost or canceled in the process of compounding the compounds. They do, however, get superseded, overwhelmed, and outclassed by the higher-level forces as these successively appear at the atomic, the molecular and the cellular and higher levels.”

    “This does not mean these (higher forces) are supernatural. Those who conceived of vital forces in supernatural terms were just as wrong as those who denied the existence of such forces. In any living of nonliving thing, the spacing and timing of the material elements of which it is composed make all the difference in determining what a thing is.”

    “As an example, take a population of copper molecules. You can shape them into a sphere, a pyramid, a long wire, a statue, whatever. All these very different things still reduce to the same material elements, the same identical population of copper molecules. Science has specific laws for the molecules by no such laws for all the differential spacing and timing factors, the nonmaterial pattern or form factors that are crucial in determining what things are and what laws they obey. These nonmaterial space-time components tend to be thrown out and lost in the reduction process as science aims toward ever more elementary levels of explanation.”

    One might add that taking simple elements found in rocks and arranging them into just the right configurations can lead to the production of not just another rock, but a computer (perhaps even a ‘quantum computer’ one day).

    “In determinism, humans are not free from the higher forces in his own decision-making machinery. In particular, our model does not free a person from the combined effects of his own thought, his own impulses, his own reasoning, feeling, beliefs, ideals, and hopes, nor does it free him from his inherited makeup or his lifetime memories. All these and more, including unconscious desires, exert their due causal influence upon any mental decision, and the combined resultant determines an inevitable but nevertheless self-determined, highly special, and highly personal outcome. Thus the question: Do we really want free will, in the indeterministic sense, if it means gaining freedom from our own minds? There may be worse fates, perhaps, than causal determinism. Maybe after all it is better to be an integral part of the causal flow of cosmic forces than to be out of contact with these—free-floating, as it were, with behavioral possibilities that have no antecedent cause, and hence no reason nor any reliability relative to future plans, predictions, or promises. If one were assigned the task of trying to design and build the perfect free-will model, consider the possibility that the aim might be not so much to free the machinery from causal contact as the opposite, that is, to try to incorporate into the model the potential value of universal causal contact. In other words, contact with all related information in proper proportion—past, present, and future.”

    “At any rate it is clear that the human brain has come a long way in evolution in exactly this direction [from determinism to free will], when you consider the amount and the kind of causal factors that this multidimensional, intracranial vortex draws into itself, scans, and brings to bear in turning out one of its preordained decisions; potentially included, through memory, are the events and wisdom of most of a human lifetime. Potentially included, also, with a visit to the library, is the accumulated knowledge of all recorded history. And we can add, thanks to reason and logic, much of the forecast and predictive value extractable from all these data as well as creative insights newly conceived. Maybe the total falls a bit short of universal causal contact; maybe it is not even up to the kind of thing evolution has going for it over on galaxy nine; and maybe, in spite of all, any decision that comes out is still predetermined. Nevertheless it certainly represents a very long jump in the direction of freedom from the primeval slime mold, the Pleistocene sand dollar, or even the latest model orangutan.”

    1. At the risk of bypassing the main point here — I am reminded of how we have evolved so that each new generation reaches a point where it wants to question and create anew the world that it has been given. We are programmed to be obedient and learn up to adolescence, then by become “rebels” we try to remake the world to our own liking… all this being the essence of ongoing adaptability.

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