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In the theory of evolution, humans do not occupy any privileged status compared to other living beings, they are at one end of a continuous (although not necessarily monotone) spectrum of creatures.

Very basic creatures such as viruses, single cell organisms, or plants don't have free will. Their behavior is completely determined by their biological and chemical conditions. On the other side of the spectrum, if freewill exists at all, then humans and higher order mammals definitely have it.

Any argument for humans and other higher order beings having freewill would have to explain at which point in the evolution process does it appear. There would have to be some qualitative leap at some point, from one level of organism to another, and there would have to be an explanation of how freewill emerges at that particular transition. Proponents of freewill would need to provide an explanation of why some classes of living creatures have it and others don't.

From this point of view, evolution is a problem mainly for libertarian freewill. But even for compatibilist freewill it still presents a challenge, since a more precise definition of "freedom to act according to one's own motivations" would have to be provided: Is a shrub that can grow unimpeded by any obstacles "growing according to its own motivation"??

My questions:

  • Have those who argue for freewill discussed it from an evolutionary perspective?
  • Can a physicalist libertarian freewill be reconciled with the theory of evolution?
  • For compatibilists, at which stage in the evolutionary process do creatures start having motivations that qualify them for freewill?
  • The theory of evolution is not an argument against freewill, but a body of scientific work (a 'theory') – M. le Fou Jan 29 '16 at 2:18
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    @user259242 I think the question should read "does evolution theory provide an argument against freewill" but everyone understood... – Quentin Ruyant Jan 29 '16 at 13:21
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    @quen_tin 'but everyone understood', I'm not exactly sure how you could possibly know that, but my point was not necessarily that people might not understand, rather that subtle differences in the statement of a question, especially in philosophy, can have a very dramatic effect on its interpretation and can solicit completely different answers. – M. le Fou Jan 29 '16 at 23:47
  • If anything evolution theory helped the case for free will by removing the stereotype that qualitative boundaries, such as between the species, require leaps to cross them. I also think that singling out human free will has more to do with worries about anticipation and control that seem to preclude free action than freedom or will themselves. SEP describes Schopenhauer's World Will as "mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything", including viruses and amoebas. – Conifold Jan 31 '16 at 20:10
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    I think it's pretty hasty to say viruses and bacteria don't have free will. Last I checked we don't know how to predict an individual virus's behavior. – Matt Samuel Feb 5 '16 at 11:35
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If according to some compatibilist free will is something that makes sense in a social context (where the notions of personhood, of responsibility or of agentivity take their appropriate meaning) then this is no argument. Evolution theory does not undermine the fact that we live in organised society. The question becomes "at which point in evolution did organised societies appear?". Maybe they appeared gradually and maybe proto-societies even exist among animals. Or maybe there was a gap. But in any case it is sufficient to note that we do live in organised societies to accept that we have free will.

If free will is not restricted to social contexts, a similar argument can be made: at which point it appeared in evolution, and whether it was gradual or not, is a different question that should not bother us that much. I don't think the question of determinism is related in any case.

There is no problem in conceiving free will as something gradual. Perhaps, for example, an addicted person or an ignorant child has "less" free will than an educated person who is fully aware of his own personal bias and who is able to rationally control his desires, impulses, or natural tendencies.

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    I do not think "(where the notions of personhood, of responsibility or of agentivity take their appropriate meaning) " are sufficient for defining compatibilist free will. A more precise notion of what constitutes ones own motivations seems necessary. I've always felt that compatibilists fail to address the following issue: What is the difference between someone physically coerced to perfume an action (by chains, or by pain,..), someone brainwashed into doing so by a drug, some brainwashed into doing so by hypnosis, and someone indoctrinated into doing so by society and religion? – Alexander S King Jan 29 '16 at 18:43
  • @AlexanderSKing One possible response is that the predicate is a freely performed action is simply vague. Of course, some people have qualms with vague predicates generally, but that's a different issue. – Era Jan 29 '16 at 20:35
  • @AlexanderSKing no I did not mean they are sufficient, but if they are necessary we can understand that freewill appeared at some point, perhaps gradually. I agree with Era that the predicate can be vague. There are also arguments against compatibilism that draws on the same intuitions as yours. – Quentin Ruyant Jan 30 '16 at 11:23
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The problem of free will reads:

How to explain the subjective experience of free will (first person’s stance) by a scientific theory, dealing with objective concepts (third person’s stance).

Due to our subjective experience we do not need further arguments “for humans having free will” (first person's stance). What we need, is a scientific explanation for the capability of free will (third person's stance).

Presently, all scientific theories dealing with objects on the scale of neural assemblies deal with deterministic heuristics. The approaches by Eccles, Penrose and his collaborators, employing certain mechanisms on the quantum level, do not convince the maiority of neuroscientists.

As you write, we do not ascribe free will to very basic creatures. On the other end, in accordance with the general relationship of species the most simple hypothesis ascribes free will to animals from species that are very similar to the human species.

The capability of free will requires certain organs like a nerve system with a brain. The brain must be able to create an internal model of the environment of the animal. It must facilitate to simulate different behaviours as reaction to a given situation. In addition, the brain must have the capability to evaluate different alternatives and to decide for one of them.

In the end of your blog you pose three questions explicitly:

Ad 1: Every explanation of mental capabilites should not restrict itself to the question “What is?” Always it should also consider the question “How did the capability evolve?” That has been done for the explanation of mental capabilites in general.

But I do not know whether an evolutionary consideration of free will has already created any important result. For more details one can search e.g. for the keyword “Evolutionary Psychology” and consider Walter, Henrik: Neurophilosophy of Free Will: From Libertarian Illusions to a Concept of Natural Autonomy (2009)

Ad 2 and 3): Libertarians hold three views: a) We make free decisions, we could have decided also differently. b) We can give reasons, why we act as we do. c) We ourselves are the originator of our actions. A physicalist searches for an explanation within a scientific theory.

A compatibilist holds that free will is compatible with determinism.

I do not see any reason why the theory of evolution - a scientific theory based on determinism in general and on deterministic chaos in particular - does sharpen the problem of free will, as stated above.

The capabilities concerning affect, behaviour and cognition have developed during the evolution of animals. The development of these capabilites is never a binary, no-yes process in the sense: This species lacks the capability, but the next evolving species has it. Evolution is a continuous process which develops capabilities from small beginnings.

All this holds also for the capability of free will. Hence I do not consider evolution an objection against the capability of free will, as you write “Proponents of freewill would need to provide an explanation of why some classes of living creatures have it and others don't.“

Added: I learned that Goschke has published several papers on a neurobiological model of volition. For him the viewpoint of evolution is a natural presupposition, see https://tu-dresden.de/die_tu_dresden/fakultaeten/fakultaet_mathematik_und_naturwissenschaften/fachrichtung_psychologie/i1/allgpsy/mitarbeiter/thomas_goschke/Publications%20Thomas%20Goschke%20July%202015.pdf

  • Great description of the evaluation of alternative plans. That goes right to the core of the question. But in a political perspective, it is far too easy to say "the marginal had a choice", mostly by those who never experienced the humiliations of poverty. Just a side note that I thought you could like to develop upon. – Rodrigo Jan 30 '16 at 13:15
  • not all minds are animal, not all choices are made by biological agents, all may entail evolution just the same. – Steven Hoyt Jun 12 '18 at 15:15
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"Very basic creatures such as viruses, single cell organisms, or plants don't have free will. Their behavior is completely determined by their biological and chemical conditions." does not strike me as true. We would like to think of ourselves as the major actors on the stage, the only things with will, and thus the only things that are free. But a dog makes decisions for itself, and so do the bacteria in your intestines. Those things make decisions the same way you do -- by resolving ambiguous configurations of determining pressures, in other words, by taking opportunities.

It may initially strike one as an overstatement to label it 'will', but in any complex, overdetermined system with tolerances for measurements, biological or otherwise, behaviors are not fully determined. There are constantly recurring points where pressures are too close to being balanced and the response cannot be computed from the input.

Those with pretentious bent always pull in mathematical chaos or quantum indeterminacy at this point. But even in a plain old Newtonian universe, no part of the system is isolated enough to be protected from minor effects like inconsistent deformation behavior in materials, or the overall gravitational interactions of uncountable far-off objects, or just plain old heat. These constitute a background noise that is basically completely random.

(If you insist the universe has a finite life before us, which Newton does not, this is the accumulated chaos since then, which became dense with strange attractors long before life emerged. If not, then chaos remains irrelevant, as we observe heat to be random and can assume it always was.)

I would argue that in the biological case this situation is a source of power to an individual, as leveraging the randomness facilitates searching spaces of options, and finding solutions. So, via evolution, which captures power, we have learned to observe it. This resolution of balanced scenarios -- whether we perceive it as being lost, undirected, confused, or free -- feeds back to us, and is what evolves into our sense of 'choice' and 'will'.

But as to where it starts, it starts with the first three particles for which the three body problem tends toward endless non-repetition, and every time a ball comes to the top of hill with no residual momentum, free will is expressed.

  • Mathematical chaos is something that arises from the "plain old Newtonian" laws. Chaos is exactly what you're talking about; I don't think it's pretentious to describe it in a technical way. Bringing up quantum indeterminacy is usually pretension, though-- there's no evidence it acts on macroscopic scales, and it relies on a particular interpretation of quantum physics. – Era Jan 29 '16 at 20:40
  • Why do you want to differentiate the path? The displacement function is perfectly differentiable and that is what we typically use when analyzing collisions: displacement, velocity, acceleration, and so on. – Era Feb 1 '16 at 16:26
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    @Era You can play games with the math. But it remains ambiguous whether the ball is going to continue, or change direction if its energy is spent and it is in an unstable position. It should theoretically simply stop and stay stopped, but that does not happen. You have to call on outside forces as a source of randomness to decide. How gravity will bear on the instability of the position is not chaotic, in the sense of being determined but having a very complex attraction, it is undetermined because the system is not closed. The 'attractor' distribution is quite simple, just unknown. – user9166 Feb 1 '16 at 18:02
  • @Era I have edited to accommodate your observation. Chaos remains a much smaller force in all this than just plain randomness. – user9166 Feb 2 '16 at 22:22
  • There is Brownian motion, random paths, to compare to. I found this: 'Bacteria are more capable of complex decision-making than thought' sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100114143310.htm and Genetic circuit allows both individual freedom, collective good sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130422123042.htm – CriglCragl Jun 12 '18 at 21:25
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In the theory of evolution, humans do not occupy any privileged status compared to other living beings, they are at one end of a continuous (although not necessarily monotone) spectrum of creatures.

False. The theory of evolution claims that human beings have common ancestors with other species. It makes no claims about humans being on a continuum with other species. An organism's phenotype is given by the way its genes are activated in its environment. The genes do all the heavy lifting of making complex biological structures. They can hold information and can be passed on from parents to children, or from one organism to another in other ways, e.g. - plasmids passing between bacteria. Variants on genes arise by mutation. Any given set of genes either manage to make a copy of themselves, or they don't. This process of variation followed by selection creates knowledge in the sense of problem solving information in the genes that survive.

Now, it is true that any given change in functionality produced by evolution has to be small. But many small changes can give rise to a qualitative change. For example, there may be a sequence of animals that lead from ground dwelling reptiles to flying birds. But there is a qualitative difference between an animal that can take off starting on the ground without a ledge or tree branch to jump off and an animal that can't do that. And no amount of saying "I don't know how the transition happened" is at all relevant to that fact.

Any argument for humans having freewill would have to explain at which point in the evolution process does it appear. There would have to be some qualitative leap at some point, from one level of organism to another, and there would have to be an explanation of how freewill emerges at that particular transition. Proponents of freewill would need to provide an explanation of why some classes of living creatures have it and others don't.

False. This is an epistemology fail. Knowledge is created by noticing problems with your current ideas, proposing solutions to those problems, and critically discussing the solutions until only one is left and it has no known problems.

So what problem does free will solve? Free will is about the fact that a person can change his mind, and the sense in which he can do that. If a boulder falls down a cliff and kills somebody, we don't lock up the boulder. Nor would we talk to the boulder and try to persuade it not to fall down a cliff.

There are some devices like microwaves where you can alter its behaviour to some extent by pushing the right buttons, but you it won't do anything original, that is, anything that requires new explanatory knowledge, unless you program that knowledge into it. Non-human animals don't create new explanatory knowledge, so they are in this category. You might manage to program an animal to attack people or refrain from doing so, but no animal will ever learn differential geometry.

And then there are people. People can create new explanatory knowledge. A person who is so inclined can differential geometry, or political philosophy, or whatever. This means that if a person commits a crime there is a point in locking him up because unless he changes the bad idea that motivated him to committing the crime, he may do it again. There is also a reason to talk to him about his crimes so you can learn why he did it and try to fix his ideas.

It would be useful to understand how humans create new explanatory knowledge. It would be useful to understand how that ability evolved. But it is not necessary at all for reaching the idea that we have free will. What is necessary for that is just the realisation that human beings can create new explanatory knowledge, and so can adopt new policies for dealing with the world and with each other.

But even for compatibilist freewill it still presents a challenge, since a more precise definition of "freedom to act according to one's own motivations" would have to be provided: Is a shrub that can grow unimpeded by any obstacles "growing according to its own motivation"??

A shrub has not motivation. It does not understand anything about why it grows this way rather than that way, nor can it. A person may not understand why he did something, but he can learn why he did it, and change his ideas to do something different.

  • "And then there are people. People can create new explanatory knowledge. " So can computer, using, machine learning and statistical inference. So do you argue that computers have some form of freewill or have some form of moral responsibility? – Alexander S King Jan 30 '16 at 16:10
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    A computer can't create new explanatory knowledge using any program that has been written so far. Such a program could be written and it would have moral responsibility, but no example of such a program exists now. What is commonly called machine learning is not learning. Rather, it involves computers generating variations on programs and selecting among them according to criteria chosen by programmers. These programs don't come up with their own explanations about what they ought to to and why, unlike people. – alanf Jan 31 '16 at 16:30
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You say:

Any argument for humans and other higher order beings having freewill would have to explain at which point in the evolution process does it appear.

This is not a valid starting point:

What is free will

How do you define free-will? When there are two choices for an animal, and it chooses one path over another, is that the exercise of free will? If an animal has advanced methods of calculating the likely outcomes of each choice to independently take the options it feels most beneficial.. is that that definition of free-will?

How is free-will measured? How can it be measured in our ancestors when it's impossible to directly observe them?

Evolutionary justification

The fact we have capacity for free will, the fact that other animals demonstrate a capacity for free will, that clearly shows these things evolved.

What matters more for evolutionary thinkers, is understanding WHY we evolved to have free will. For example (hypothetical), if someone told 1000 people to jump off a cliff, but one person with the genes for free will chooses not to jump, that person gets to pass on their genes. Everyone else who jumped off a cliff will not pass on their genes. So the genes that carry free will survive and get passed on. This is an evolutionary explanation.

Free will, which we'll define as the ability to recognise alternate options, calculate the most favourable outcome, and then select that favourable option, greatly increased the survivability of those individuals. That is how an evolutionary explanation works. Demonstrating which ancestor it developed, and how many millions of years it ago it arrived, has no bearing on the evolutionary validity of free will.

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Quantum mechanics inside our brain could, a priori, create the sort of randomness that allow for a "free will" theory.

But since we have no idea of what goes on inside our heads, even in a totally deterministic scenario there would still be room for free will.

The point with evolution and anthropology, though, is that all known cultures, and also other related primates, value and avoid many of the same things. This limits the role of free will, but doesn't eliminate it.

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    Quantum mechanics and randomness have nothing to do with free will. A die does not have free will just because you can't tell what side it will land on before throwing it. – alanf Jan 30 '16 at 12:37
  • Free will, as an emergent property in mind, which is itself an emergent property in matter, may be influenced by, or even created by, quantic fluctuations. A dice that doesn't have a mind misses the point completely. And you can't say "nothing to do" on something not yet fully understood. – Rodrigo Jan 30 '16 at 12:57
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    i never understood our western mistake of reifying words in descriptive sentences; truth, knowledge, moral, logic, math, consciousness, mind, and indeed free will. why on earth do we here, think of free will as something which exists, a property, rather than a way of talking about choice-making? sorry, just thinking aloud. – Steven Hoyt Jun 12 '18 at 15:27
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    @StevenHoyt Good point! I agree entirely with you. Western philosophy sometimes (most of the times?) is just a hobby for bored rich boys. – Rodrigo Jun 13 '18 at 14:53
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No, it is apples and oranges.

Evolution in a nutshell is the natural means of the diversification of life. There are sub processes such as natural selection encompassed in it. It is a well established principle in biology.

Free will and determinism has nothing to do with Evolution. Traditional definitions of determinism disregards the real-time interactivity with reality we have in the present which is absurd. Traditional definitions of Free will disregard the limitations of reality, i.e. you can't fly unaided through the sun and live. Both definitions are poor.

IMHO what is most likely true is that these terms should have narrower definitions and we should concede a compatibilism perspective unless you are a solipsist (which gets everyone no-where).

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Scientific theory is part of empiricism, and studys the "natural world," which is typically considered to be the same meaning as the phrase "the physical world." It is not concerned with any effects which cannot be identified by the scientific method. Evolution is a scientific theory.

When one adds freewill, it must either be a supernatural freewill (dualism), or a natural freewill (compatabalism). If it is supernatural, then it is easy to wed evolution and freewill by simply declaring that the agents with freewill are not part of the natural world, and thus unbound by science and evolution. If it is natural, then the decision gets more complicated.

If one presumes compatabalism for a moment, it is clear that freewill is limited by nature. This seems obvious, but it is often forgotten when discussing freewill. Few believe you have the freewill to simply get up and walk through a cinderblock wall unimpeded. It is generally accepted that, within the physical realm, physics gets its way (which is the seed of the debates about how mind can interact with matter for dualism, by the way). "Unbounded" freewill is always bound to affecting the non-physical part of the universe, for we have not detected it violating the rules of physics in the physical part.

Given this, it is clear that the freewills described by compatabalism must be limited by the laws of physics. You are not permitted to exceed the speed of light, simply because you will it. Thus it must be accepted that freewill is subject to physical limitations. This loophole avoids the need to deal with any supernatural quantities of freewill which are without limit. By removing the without-limit case, we can make it clear that we are talking about a range of freewills, ranging from inanimate objects (which presumably do not have a large freewill) up through plants and animals to humans (which we presume have a large amount of freewill). There is no longer a need to draw a dividing line.

Now if we wish to add a dividing line, we need a way to measure freewill. If we place the dividing line at "we are incapable of distinguishing the freewill of this entity from that of an entity enhanced by a supernatural limitless freewill," I think we arrive at a compatabalist position: once a being's freewill reaches a certain point, it becomes indistinguishable from an entity with a supernatural freewill. There may be supernatural entities, or there might not, but empirical observations (such as those from the science of evolution) cannot prove one way or the other.

  • Although I tend to agree with you that libertarian freewill implies some for of dualism, it has been pointed out to me that it is not necessarily the case. – Alexander S King Jan 30 '16 at 2:59
  • "we are incapable of distinguishing the freewill of this entity from that of an entity enhanced by a supernatural limitless freewill," How can we measure the freewill of amoebas and coral polyps? We are agreeing on the facts, I'm just seeing them more of a refutation of compatibilism. – Alexander S King Jan 30 '16 at 3:02
  • That would be more of a conversation on what is an acceptable measure to meet someone's requirements on a definition of freewill. One I have explored is a physicalist definition: the freewill of a system is measurable by how much of its state cannot be determined using only information available outside of the system. It has behaviors I find useful, but you may not like them – Cort Ammon Jan 30 '16 at 3:21
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The questions are:

Have those who argue for freewill discussed it from an evolutionary perspective?

Can a physicalist libertarian freewill be reconciled with the theory of evolution?

For compatibilists, at which stage in the evolutionary process do creatures start having motivations that qualify them for freewill?

If determinism is that for any existing state of affairs there existed an antecedent state of affairs to which the current is causally contingent, then determinism is not certain given certain facts of reality, but true almost entirely in any way that matters to the questions.

If minds operate accordingly similar to how our theories and models imply, then there is no division between subconscious and consciousness that matters to the questions, and theories in AI completely come to bear on showing how much determinism is importantly irrelevant to free will.

Determinism is trivial.

That is, minds are agents that operate by heuristics and given that some of the best of those require conditioning outside of the value of past experiences (ie risk, which entails randomness and uncertainty, provides more value than conservation for something wanting to be discovered or learned, for example), deliberate choices are made in contrast to the antecedents that should have lead to similar choices rather than disparate.

In our best theories of mind, minds are heuristic in nature and therefore stochastic in choice-making.

We couldn't care less about the micronic, physical antecedent SOAs because choices are very much out of that scope; they are discrete.

Given that AI entails the most successful theories of mind currently in the form of "neural networks" and describes its implementations in terms of "evolutionary" and "genetic" algorithms, I think the questions are laid bare. Given AI, consciousness isn't required in order to make libertarian choices. What is required are goals, rather than motivations, and stochastic attempts to attain them, learning what sorts of activities are likely to be vindicated in the future than others.

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