It’s a matter of faith that people are categorically different from other animals. Not that we have spectacularly extended the skills given to us, but that we have acquired entirely new skills unavailable to the rest of the kingdom. This is not exclusively a religious faith; the social science have been very strict in admonishing people to not be anthropomorphic, to not extend human characteristics to other things, be they living or dead, which may be tautological with inanimate objects, but is much more debatable among living thing.
Free-will is a case in point. Only humans are clearly marked with the burden of free-will, or so we’re told. It is something thought to have developed during the last evolutionary spurt that humans have had (if we’re not going through one, now). Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a chimera.
The very concept of “free-will” implies—demands, really—at least two kinds of will, free and otherwise. The problem lies in disentangling the two. The closer one looks, the more the two kinds of will appear to be the same thing: the ability to choose. If one has an option to choose, all will is free. If one doesn’t have options, case closed. What the argument for free-will seems to be saying is that only humans are actually given choices; the rest of the kingdom has to follow innate instructions. We, on the other hand, are free, implying that we have no innate instructions, no internal behavior algorithms. In our evolution we have broken the bonds of rigid rules that one would be otherwise doomed to blindly follow because of one’s programming. We, for some reason have developed the possibility of endless choice; we’re free to do whatever we want.
But are we? And what does it mean, free-will? Isn’t the very act of wanting something a determining force and not one of free-will? One can, perhaps, ignore one’s desires, but one can hardly be said to create one’s own desires. And can one ignore a desire unless there’s a stronger desire present?
This is where we have to step back a little bit and look at what people and the other animals really are. We have to take a look at consciousness. A leg of the free-will table suggests that, while all living things might have an awareness of their surroundings, only humans are self-aware, are self-conscious. Since no one has yet devised a way to test this hypothesis, it remains a hypothesis, but it’s firmly planted in the body public. Quite how this self-consciousness would be different from the garden variety of consciousness is left to one’s imagination. A concomitant of that is the belief that only humans are conscious of their own mortality, another untested hypothesis. And, unfortunately, there’s no real reason to suspect that either of those assumptions is true other than pride: we want to think we’re different, that we’re special, that—well—we’re made in the image of god.
From a scientific standpoint, it’s more accurate to say we’ve been created in the image of bacteria, of which we’re primarily composed and from which our origins, apparently, come. The technical difficulties with that observation is that it’s hard to tease out our uniqueness. Maybe we don’t have any.
There are a million obstacles to understanding everything about evolution. The minimum requirements are eating and reproducing. Obviously, sex was a huge step forward in creating complex creatures, but most of the rules of life were figured out before then. At the very least, one has to have enough consciousness to pick out what’s edible.
Not surprisingly, given the small amount of material to work with and the random, scattered nature of mutations, it took billions of years (literally) for the single-celled original creatures to figure out how to clump together to make multi-celled organisms. They couldn’t do it until they’d evolved methods of communication; they had to make agreements on how to cooperate. As far as we can tell, those methods involve chemical behavior and electronic currents. Communication between cells—and by extension, ever-expanding clumps of cells—is chemical and electrical. And as far as we know, no other methods have been employed. And that’s true no matter how big or complex those clumps of cells become, even if they become human. In other words, all the internal communication in our bodies is done on chemical-electric pathways. All of it, including brain activity, especially brain activity. There is no meta-communications pathway; we all use the same simple methods employed by the original cells. All thought, all memory, is built up of those two elements.
Now, when cells get together to form a larger creature—us, say—do they have little garden parties to set out the rules of communication and responsibility? No, the rules are built into their DNA which packages the basic instructions. A copy of the DNA goes with each cell and directs how it is to perform. It’s all quite rigid and magical at the same time. So, when this clumped-being stumbles upon something edible, the cells don’t have a conference to decide whether or not to eat it. How to deal with something edible is built into its DNA, so when given a choice to eat or not eat something edible, it’s not really a choice at all. It has to eat it. What good would debate do the creature? None, so debate isn’t selected for in evolution.
Which brings us to “natural selection”; it helps to understand how it works. For one thing, it didn’t begin until after the invention of sex. It’s commonly thought that the selecting being talked about is the selecting that two members of a species do when they’re looking for mates. The theory being that the healthier, more successful members of a species will mate and thereby spread their genes to the rest of the population. Seems logical, but, unfortunately, is not the case. The selecting being done is not that done by the individuals but rather that done by the entire species; and the selecting is very simple: if people carrying gene X outlive and out-produce their neighbors, gene X will eventually spread to the entire population. It’s immaterial who those individuals are or their overall competence; what’s important is the success of the gene packages they leave behind.
Which leads us to an understanding of who’s running the show. It’s not us. It’s the successful gene packages. It’s the DNA. Effectively, the individual members of any species are only the hosts by which the DNA reproduces itself. The DNA is immortal, we are transient. Evolution is done at the DNA level, we have nothing to do with it. And it’s random. Those things are true of all species.
Meanwhile, the goals and operational methods remain the same: eat/divide; chemistry/electricity. And they never change; they’re a constant through all living things.
But as the organisms become more complicated, the controlling algorithms become more complicated; new features are periodically added. Empathy, for example. Bacteria probably don’t have much use for empathy, but by the time you get to big animals, empathy starts to become useful to the survival of a species; hence, it gets selected for by the DNA. Ditto love, which is very similar to empathy. Love is empathy with attachment. Many species, evidently, use love to protect and foster themselves. Humans, of course, are reluctant to attribute love to other animals, but it’s hard to see that other animals’ bonding mechanisms could be significantly different than ours. It’s more likely that we’ve employed an existing model rather than having invented the wheel all over again.
It’s the same with any other human characteristic that we don’t think of as DNA controlled: inquisitiveness, say. Obviously, inquisitive people were, in the long run, more successful than those willing to live with whatever showed up. Artists? Somehow as a society we valued them enough that we made sure they were well fed and prospered and hence DNA selected for art. (Where would theater and fiction be without empathy? Do theater and fiction foster empathy and that’s why they get selected?) Those skills, the skills of artist, tinkerer, explorer, weren’t ones people invented out of whole cloth; like everything else, they are an evolutionary adaptation to life. They are, you could say, accidental. Useful, but accidental. They got selected for because of their utility, but that they arose was the result of random mutation.
What’s important here is that no one chose the skills, these attributes. No one chose to be empathetic or in love. Likewise, no one chose to be an artist or a tinkerer, they were selected for by DNA, not the individual. No one chose to be born. No one chose when to take their first breath. No one chose when to utter their first word. And in the end, no one chose to become President of the United States. All those things happened because of evolution and the iron-clad laws of the Universe.
What confuses people, in my estimation, is a poor understanding of consciousness and self, we tend to conflate the two. We fail to see that consciousness is an organizational tool that evolved to allow cell clumps to operate in real time. In other words, the clumps had to find ways to operate as a unit rather than as individual cells, and one of these adaptations was to create a consciousness that unites the entire cluster. The consciousness, of course, wasn’t the cluster but was the tool by which the cluster functioned. Consciousness is a large component of food gathering. It enabled the organism to make rapid decisions when faced with options, which one constantly is. In order for consciousness to function in real time, it has to think, unequivocally, that it is in control, that it is making the decisions. If it truly had to think about the decisions it was making and how it was making those decisions, it would be paralyzed. It would starve. Hence it’s designed to function in real time as a single entity, though it’s nothing of the sort; it’s an agreement between billions of cells and DNA. The conscious self is, in truth, an illusion that enables the individual to function.
But that’s all it is, a tool, it doesn’t actually do anything. It’s merely a data input devise. It controls nothing. Neither your movements nor your thinking. One may think that their consciousness is telling them to run when they see the lion coming towards them; but, in truth, it’s the internal algorithms which are telling the person to run; but they doing it in real time so it looks like the consciousness is actually doing the thinking; but no, all thinking is done at the subconscious level. (Got that? All those “buts”?)
So free-will? Where in this mess of evolution would free-will come from and how would it be different from the existing choice model? What does free-will really mean? Does it mean than no algorithm was applied to make a decision? Or does it mean that a new algorithm was applied? And how was that algorithm created? Does free-will imply that people can create new algorithms out of nothing? And why would they make a new one versus using another if they didn’t have a preference which would override free-will?
This would be all well and good if the algorithms were accessible to the consciousness, but they’re not. There is no free-will in setting up the algorithms of love, empathy, lust, hunger, fear, pride, etc. Each of us is only what our combination of mutable instructions produces. None of us creates or directs those instructions. None of us creates our own algorithms, because the algorithms don’t belong to us, they belong to the DNA. Consciously, we do nothing. Consciousness is only a monitoring devise, it doesn’t have directive capacity, that’s done internally and subliminally; we don’t have access to it.
Therefore, to state that we have free-will ends up being meaningless. Our consciousness, it turns out, has no will of its own and all will is directed by internal algorithms. Who would have imagined? Not the average person, because they cling stubbornly to their self-identity. No one wants to be just R2-D2. No one wants to be Hal.
Yet there it is: how is free-will different from any other kind of will? And, even if you thought decisions were really a conscious act, would it be possible to perform any act that you hadn’t thought about in context of yourself, that you used no criteria to making a decision? Because, if you applied criteria, then the criteria ruled the decision; and if you overruled the decision to express your free-will, then another set of criteria will have been brought into play, no? In the end, either decisions are governed by algorithms (criteria, circumstances, etc.) or they’re random. Then the question becomes, is it really random or does it just look that way? But, seeing as thinking is subliminal, the debate is moot.
Mostly, though, it’s moot because of logical necessity. There is no will outside physical reality. Like the soul, there’s no mysterious force out there separate from the physical universe. Thinking, in the end, is the old communication by chemistry and electricity; there’s no room for any other force. There’s nothing like “will” floating around the Universe.
The trail goes:
Apparently, all intracellular communication is done by chemical-electrical means. This is true, apparently, for all living things, animal or vegetable. At the molecular level, all elements in a living body follow strictly the laws of chemistry and physics. As far as we know, all thought is generated out of the same chemical-electric matrix; meaning, inevitably, that anything that could be considered “will” comes out of it, as well. Any choice made has to be generated out of that matrix, following, strictly the laws of chemistry and physics. There is no provision in physics for a fifth force, that of free-will to be generated.
Free-will is always posited as something, if not unique to humans, then restricted to a very few animals. Presumably, the other animals have predetermined wills. But forming a new type of desire, implies a new force, a deus ex machina. Even though it’s hard to see how there can be two independent types of wills.
One wonders, for example if all choices are either free-will or innate? Could a person have within them both free and non-free will? The innate reaction to duck, for example, would seem mostly innate; although one can, though, stand one’s ground and get clobbered. Exactly when did free-will arise in the evolution of animals? Why was it selected for? How does free-will improve one’s survival rate? All those problems pile up until it becomes clear that there are not two types of will, two strategies for making choices in the world. It becomes clear that human neurophysiology functions the same way all other animals’ neurophysiology operates.
I recently had a long debate about this via Facebook with my son. He is of the free-will school and argued for it vigorously. He’s very bright and articulate, but he could never understand the mystical nature of free-will, its magical appearance on the stage with people. He cleaved to the belief that somehow people had grown, either a second will, or an entirely new one; although the mechanics of and reasoning for and functioning of he was never able to explain. In the end, he exclaimed that I was arguing against free-will, as a way to “excuse humans for their sins”; to which I replied, “But of course.” Sins are an invention of religion as much as free-will; they aren’t real either. I don’t think my son thinks of himself as at all religious even though he holds to those religious beliefs of sin and free-will. It’s hard to escape the reach of Christianity.
Free-will fails because it has no definition; no one knows what it is.
The farming addendum:
A classic example of misunderstanding of the nature of natural selection occurs with the spread of farming, something which has bothered researchers for a long time. As Jared Diamond ably demonstrated, farming was decidedly bad for the individual; so the question has long been posed as to why it was adopted if it was so maladaptive?
Because, of course, it wasn’t maladaptive. It was only maladaptive for the individual, and not across the board, at that. The rich did quite well, thank you. More importantly, the species prospered even if the individuals did not. Farming most likely didn’t spread because people saw its advantages and adopted it; farming spread because it grew so many people and organized them so tightly that they could whomp the shit out of the hunter-gatherers. Think of the Europeans coming to America. Think of the Americans moving west. Both were done, essentially, behind armies. The difference between the Pilgrims and the Huns is who wrote the history.
Why the first group adopted farming will probably be forever debated; but once it got going, it was a juggernaut, and soon the people who were predisposed to a settled agricultural life swamped those who were not. The hunter-gatherers got selected away by the species.
The lesson to take away is that evolution happens to the species, not the individual.
1 month ago