(Roughly) Daily

“The conundrum of free will and destiny has always kept me dangling”*…

… as it’s kept thinkers dangling for centuries. Dan Falk considers two new books– one arguing that free will is an illusion; the other, that free will is the (very real) result of evolution…

You’re thirsty so you reach for a glass of water. It’s either a freely chosen action or the inevitable result of the laws of nature, depending on who you ask. Do we have free will? The question is ancient—and vexing. Everyone seems to have pondered it, and many seem quite certain of the answer, which is typically either “yes” or “absolutely not.”

One scientist in the “absolutely not” camp is Robert Sapolsky. In his new book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, the primatologist and Stanford professor of neurology spells out why we can’t possibly have free will. Why do we behave one way and not another? Why do we choose Brand A over Brand B, or vote for Candidate X over Candidate Y? Not because we have free will, but because every act and thought are the product of “cumulative biological and environmental luck.”

Sapolsky tells readers that the “biology over which you had no control, interacting with the environment over which you had no control, made you you.” That is to say, “everything in your childhood, starting with how you were mothered within minutes of birth, was influenced by culture, which means as well by the centuries of ecological factors that influenced what kind of culture your ancestors invented, and by the evolutionary pressures that molded the species you belong to.”

Many scientists and philosophers beg to differ. Prominent among them is Kevin Mitchell, a neuroscientist at Trinity College in Dublin. In his new book, Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will, Mitchell argues that although we’re shaped by our biology, it’s that very biology that made us, over the course of billions of years of evolution, into free agents. Even the earliest and most primitive creatures had some capacity to control their destinies. When a single-celled organism moves toward a food source, or away from danger, it has entered, however meekly, into a new world of agency and freedom. Simple organisms, Mitchell writes, “infer what is out in the world” and “make holistic decisions to adapt their internal dynamics and select appropriate actions.” He adds: “This represents a wholly different type of causation from anything seen before in the universe.”…

n a universe where the mindless laws of nature push bits of matter around, it might indeed seem miraculous that free will—agency—can emerge. As I made my way through Free Agents, I thought of a New Yorker cartoon where two scientists are at a blackboard filled with equations. In the middle, instead of an equation, the first scientist has written, “Then a miracle occurs.” The second guy says to him, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

But emerge it does, according to Mitchell, and he’s adamant that there is nothing miraculous about it. Rather, in living creatures like us, freedom is enabled by the underlying biology…

Yes, there are physical and chemical processes operating within the brain—how could there not be?—but that does nothing to take away our freedom, he says. “It comes down to the idea that if we can find the machinery inside the brain that is active when we’re making a decision, then maybe decision making just is being done causally by that machinery,” he told me. “I don’t think that view is right, because I think you can have a completely different view, which is, yes, there is some machinery that we use to make decisions; but it’s machinery we use to make decisions. We’re making the decisions.”

A fascinating look at a volley of new insights that has reignited the debate over whether our choices are ever truly our own: “Yes, We Have Free Will. No, We Absolutely Do Not,” from @danfalk in @NautilusMag.

As Eistein observed, “I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will…Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.

To which Stephen Hawking added: “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”

* that well-known philosopher, William Shatner


As we muse on motive, we might send categorical birthday greetings to Konrad Zacharias Lorenz; he was born on this date in 1903.  A zoologist and ornithologist, he founded the modern field of ethology.  His work– popularized in books like King Solomon’s RingOn Aggression, and Man Meets Dog– revealed how behavioral patterns may be traced to an evolutionary past and explored the roots of aggression.  He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for developing a unified, evolutionary theory of animal and human behavior… which was, overall, determinist.


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