Saturday, April 5, 2014

Consciousness, Free Will, and Evolution

One of the great problems with contemporary debates over free will is that two distinct and fundamental philosophical questions are frequently (almost always) confused.  One is the question whether the ubiquitous human intuition of an open future is metaphysically viable.  Do I really have choices that are not already made yet, in the sense of being predetermined by the state of the Kosmos before I make the choice?  The second is whether human consciousness is part of the chain of causation leading to human actions.  Did I drop the hot object because it hurt?  Or was my conscious pain merely an epiphenomenon, generated by the underlying physical processes but having no consequences of its own? 
This has been a persistent concern of mine for some years.  Tonight I have been reading Eckart Voland’s interesting article: “We Recognize Ourselves as Being Similar to Others: Implications of the “Social Brain Hypothesis” for the Biological Evolution of the Intuition of Freedom.”  Voland clearly regards our intuition of freedom as an illusion and sets out to explain how we came by it.  His thesis is that it is a byproduct of modeling the intentions of other persons.  Here is a bit from the abstract:
If, as the “social brain hypothesis” alleges, the main selective pressure among primates is on generating social knowledge about one’s cooperators and competitors, then it is the knowledge about others and not the knowledge about oneself that is the scarce cognitive resource. It is beneficial to make the others predictable and to form hypotheses about their probable behavioral tendencies. This is done by behavior reading and mind reading and by classifying the recurring stochastic patterns in everyday language as the “will.” Thus, the idea of free will emerged first as a social attribution and not as an introspectively gained insight.
I strongly suspect that Voland is right on the specific question.  It seems to me more than likely that the human sense of self and of deliberation (and particularly moral deliberation) emerged in tandem with a “theory of mind,” which is to say, a recognition that other persons have minds like “mine”.  However, I do not see how this thesis is required, let alone advanced, either by determinism or epiphenomenalism. 
Here is how Voland begins his essay:
The human psyche, with its ability to feel, think, and act, is a deterministic system. In the current discussion, this thesis is primarily supported by arguments informed by neurobiology.
I have long regarded determinism as one of the myths of modern science.  The problem with all myths is not that they are false but that they cannot be verified and that the reason for believing in them has nothing to do with their veracity.  It may well be that the state of the Kosmos at any moment, T1, rigidly determines the state of K at T2.  How one could know that is beyond me, and it is not a necessary assumption for any science.  All the scientist needs to suppose is that T1 determines some part of T2 within some specified margin of error. 
I will pass here on the question of why so many want to believe in something that is unverifiable and unnecessary.  I will point out that when Voland speaks of neurobiology, he has in mind certain findings that indicate that the brain makes up its mind before the mind becomes conscious of making a decision.  Again, this may be true; however, it is an argument not for determinism but for epiphenomenalism. 
Voland makes a pitch for the proposition that genuine freedom cannot have evolved. 
Contrary to other claims: Freedom does not evolve, and what is more: Freedom could not evolve, because if we assume that organisms which could make use of the freedom to not obey the biological imperative were created by a whim of nature, then natural selection would disfavor these genotypes to the degree that they were to make use of this freedom, and the endless game of evolution would proceed without them. Freedom here is understood in the sense of the indeterministic libertarian intuition of being able to behave in other ways, if one only wanted to do so.
To prevent a widespread misunderstanding: The antithesis of determination is indetermination and not flexibility. Humans, perhaps like no other species, are capable of special behavioral flexibility, which in turn is carried by special cognitive abilities designed for this purpose. This allows humans, more than other organisms, to adequately deal with situations that are new to them and to cope with unusual requirements (Kanazawa, 2004). This changes nothing, however, with regard to the fact that all of the knowledge of how requirements are to be mastered already must exist in the form of certain strategies of perception and thinking in the organism, completely within the meaning of Kant’s a priori (Heschl, 2001). There is no room in this system for a libertarian freedom of the will, i. e. the capacity to act differently under identical conditions and to cause behavior while oneself being uncaused.
This strike me as altogether wrong.  “Flexibility” means precisely not obeying “the biological imperative.”  It means this in two ways.  One is that the biological, preprogrammed imperative must be responsive to different situations.  The organism must be able to zig and zag in ways that cannot be fixed ahead of time. 
The other is that organisms that disobey “the biological imperative” may be the ones that flourish when the environmental niche has changed.  Evolution has engineered a vast number of modes of flexibility.  The most pervasive is genetic diversity, of which, the most interesting is sexual reproduction.  Is it not obvious that consciousness is precisely the most sophisticated form of flexibility?  Let us suppose that all conscious creatures are capable of some measure of freedom, in the sense of making choices that are not governed by deterministic rules.  That would allow such creatures to be very flexible in their responses to the environment. 
How then to keep such creatures honest in a Darwinian sense?  The obvious answer is to bribe them.  This is the function of pain and pleasure, discontent and happiness.  Rather than giving precise instructions to sentient animals, evolution was content to give them parameters.  Do whatever you want so long as you survive long enough to reproduce. 
This is the only account, as it seems to me, that explains why it hurts when I pick up something that is very hot.  If consciousness is really an epiphenomenon, produced by but not effecting biological processes, then it is a very odd phenomenon.  It is analogous to the occasionalism that you find in dualistic theories.  It doesn’t seem like a winner. 


  1. It is interesting how little this debate changes when religion is removed from the equation. Voland's pre-determinism doesn't dissimilar to Calvin's predestination.

    But Voland's comments and your responses remind me of an earlier post you made about bees. I objected to bee tyranny and the lack of freedom bees had. You explained that when bees rebelled it threatened the very existence of the hive. In the case of the bees, Voland's assumption seems to be right. Nature seems to select against freedom. You seem to suggest that this is not the case with humans - but at what point did humans or their ancestors become able to develop freedom without killing themselves off?

  2. Miranda: I am grateful, as always for your comments. I apologize for the tardiness of this reply.

    Bees have relatively little freedom, to be sure; however, they are bees. We don't even know if they are conscious. Honey bee hives are astonishingly productive precisely because so many individuals are constrained by the laws of the tribe. However, they have to be constrained. The queen eats eggs that she does not produce, thus suppressing rebellion. In this case, yes, the reproductive interests of the worker females lies in the success of the queen and not in the success of their rebellious tendencies.

    On the other hand, the hive requires that its laws have escape clauses. If too many foragers fail to return to the hive, workers mature early--violating a long standing rule.

    I think that consciousness emerges in evolutionary history because it allows an unprecedented level of complexity in the face of unforeseeable circumstances. A tiger will poke and prod the first turtle it finds to see if it can be opened. If the species is maintain itself, conscious choice must be constrained to some degree. That is why we get hungry.

    So I think that both freedom and constraint are selected for, in different measure in different species. We ought not to confuse the evolutionary origins of freedom from its value to us. There are evolutionary explanations for why I like single malt scotch; however, that isn't why I buy it. I buy it because it is further proof that God loves me and wants me to be happy.

  3. Dr. Blanchard: Thank you very much for taking the time to respond. I am sorry for neglecting this blog for so long. Your reply makes perfect sense and I find myself without any more questions on this point. I particularly agree with your last point!

  4. Thank you, Miranda. We are indeed on agreement regarding that last point.