Evolution of Free Will

The question of free will has been bugging me since around April 2005, prior to that, it was a given that free will was absolute - every choice or lack of choice was your decision to make (Sartre we are condemned to be free).

From a physics point of view, the development of free will is nonsense, since free will transcends the deterministic nature of the physical universe (ignoring for the moment spooky quantum behaviour). Consequently, free will cannot exist. Therefore, we are deterministic, but ... we have the illusion of free will. We believe we make choices, we believe we a distinct from others. But why would such an illusion evolve? What is the benefit of thinking we have free will? I haven't seen any good theories on this; generally, it is ignored or left unanswered. When answers are given, they tend to be of the “it makes us feel good” variety. Feeling good about ourselves means we will be more likely to reproduce and pass those characteristics on, as opposed to those who find life sucks and do away with themselves before they can reproduce (pass their genes on).

Recent posts on breal's blog and a series of exchanges with MOI have led me to think a little more about it. Here are my latest thoughts:

People exhibit a dichotomy, on one hand people tend to avoid being too different from others; on the other hand, people claim to exercise independence of thought and choice. If people did exercise independent thought and choice, I would expect to see much less clustering behaviour - but I do not, people definitely cluster.

It can be argued that people have limited ranges of comfortable sensory input, so it is reasonable for this to limit available choices and, indeed, drive choices toward a median (for example, preferring a sweetened beverage over plain water). So clustering is natural and expected. Sounds sensible, however, one would therefore expect choices to constantly be driven to the same locus. They are not. Fashions, tastes and trends change, yet, people cluster around the new loci. If our sensory input ranges were truly limited, then we would expect people to continue to listen to classical or big band, but they do not, these are non-mainstream, not of interest or appeal to the majority. It is unreasonable to assume evolutionary pressures have evolved musical taste so quickly. A more reasonable explanation is that people independently choose to like the new music. Yet this independent choice is an illusion, because they have really just chosen to be like everyone else. What is the evolutionary benefit of that?

It is unfair to say that people are mindless sheep; there are differences between individuals.

I have two explanations (which, to the best of my knowledge are original - yep, you heard it here first) and they both relate to survival (not surprising given I am trying to understand it as a product of evolution).

One: As individuals, we compete for resources in order to survive. If everybody is clustered together and trying to survive of the same bit of land, chaos and violence would rapidly ensue resulting in the loss of genetic information (recall Richard Dawkin’s proposed the gene as the smallest survival unit in his book The Selfish Gene). If violence did not occur, eventually the land would be unable to sustain the population.

So by being independent, striking out on our own, we seek to distance ourselves from the group / community. But not really. Let's face it, there is safety in numbers. We are safest from predators, if we are in the middle of the group rather than on the periphery where a hungry predator picks us off. Consequently, we have this built in drive to be independent and to do our own thing, but it is countered by a desire of not endangering ourselves. So, instead of crossing the mountains and settling alone 300 miles away, we instead opt to move down the road a few yards. Therefore, we cluster, despite wanting to strike out on our own.

Two: an alternate view, or possibly complementary view is that our primary function is to ensure we pass our genetic information to future generations. One way to do this is for us to believe that we are unique and special and our genes definitely need to get to the next generation because no one else is like me. To badly misappropriate Pascal, I think, I choose, therefore I am fit to reproduce, unlike those sheep over there. If the differences are too great, then reproduction likely would not go ahead, so once again, you choose to be different by conforming, more or less, to the crowd.

Image nabbed from here.


Ulysses said…
You overestimate the "deterministic" nature of the universe. At best, the world is estimatable; large numbers of bodies and events makes foreknowledge less and less accurate. You can only count on certain things being most probable, even in a Newtonian solid-state model highly improbable and unpredicatble things will appear if you only wait long enough (or if you happen to be there at the right time).

Haven't seen any arguments for the benefit of thinking you have free will? You must be willfully avoiding them.
There are so many different issues involved here that I really don't know how to comment in any one direction.

I'm not sure that every one of us has built-in drive to do our own thing...(and are you equating this with free will?)...perhaps our genetic codes do their own thing to enable selection of the most adaptable traits... but maybe not behaviour-wise. No man is an island..We are social and I think we're driven more to cluster, be communal and help make sure enough of us survive to procreate.

When choosing whether we like things or not, we are not always influenced by others' choices. Very strongly defined people will always choose what they WILL regardless of where the flock of sheep are. As new ideas and trends arise, the intelligent thing to do is try them and expose yourself to them so you are informed, and if you don't like it or buy into the whole idea, then you reject it. But if you choose it, who's to say you haven't thought about it and really did choose it from your own free will? You may never know the truthfull answer but you can't assume they chose it because they don't have free will. I agree that we are influenced by society, especially by our peers and family (upbringing etc.)and indeed this is present in many areas. It is called social facilitation and it has a few factors that go on here. Like..if you weren't really wanting a banana, and there are people around who do, and there are only 2, you may be socially facilitated to want one also...and maybe even if there are plenty for everyone. But no one is twisting your arm...you still have a choice.

Maybe "strong will" is a factor here in all this too. People who are strong-willed, have more control over their choices and are willing to stick to their opinions despite clustering. I'm not strong-willed particularly so I have to try hard not to be drawn into things I don't want to do...even with things like diet and drinking...it's not healthy so I have to say no to drinks/wine/dessert when at social things. Sometimes, I've caved because I just want to "join"..I'm a joiner by nature.

Of course, I do believe there's great benefit of thinking we have free will. In some situations in life, we need to have some conformity to ensure the success of certain events and perhaps procure safety of the group. Some people just like to rebel and don't like being told what to do. If a situation is presented in a way that lets them think they've agreed and chosen for themselves, this enables smoothness and harmony in a group which may be crucial. I always thought that was a sign of good admin....they let you think you've been asked and had a say so you are on board and have some ownership and thus allegiance with what they do next.

That's about all I can think of for now!
tin-tin said…
haven't read your entry yet. just wanted to greet you a happy father's day :)
Richard said…
Ulysses: That is the whole point of this exercise. Uncertainty in measurement simply reveals limitations in our instrumentation, even if we allow for uncertainty, then behaviour becomes more probalistic rather than deterministic - however, it does not invalidate the notion that free will is an illusion.

A number of my friends propose a compromise solution along the lines of: we have a limited free will. Our free will is constrained by various nature / nurture boundaries. For example: in a given situation, there might be 10 choices available, but owing to nature / nurture only 4 may now remain open to a particular individual.

I don't buy that. It is rather like being pregnant, either you are or aren't but you can't be sort of pregnant any more than you can be sort of free. Which prompted one friend to remark, "Whit you it either has to be everything or nothing."

If you know of any articles that explain the benefits of believing we have free will, I would be happy to read them.

MOI: yeah, there are a lot of things going on, I have a bad habit of looking at things in all over the place.

If free will is an illusion and we are deterministic creatures, then there is no such thing as a strong willed person, just someone who reacts differently. I am someone who would be considered to march to his own beat, does that make me stronger willed? I don't think. It is just me. It is who I am. I do not need to think about how I react.

In a deterministic system, I respond the way I do because I am programmed to respond that way - not because I am stronger willed, but because I have no more choice in refusing to "join in" than an average person has in joining in.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a joiner. I want to belong, but I feel no need or urge to join. This extends even to my clothes – I prefer non-descript clothes. I absolutely loathe anything identifiable (especially bearing brand names or logos). Even when I was younger, I remember my mother suggesting I might like to wear “these clothes that others are wearing” and I would strongly reject it.

tin-tin: that's ok. Thanks!
There's the crux, is free will really an illusion, or is it a blend of this and reality? And then, define reality and illusion. Multi-factored entities. You can have someone who chooses to exercise their choices/will all the time because they are wired to be strongly defined people and it is important to them to do this for their self-identity. They inherently (wired in to)have the will to be strong. They react with strong will to be deterministic most of the time, hence, they are considered to be strong-willed. It's splitting hairs type thing..the resulting effect is what's important. And some of that wired in stuff can be tempered with life experience which plays a part in how you became the way you are..so it is possible that life experience and environment could moderate or modify your reactions to different situations, allowing for you to change a little. If you're in a life situation in which survival, comfort, etc. is dependent upon being a joiner or to work with the group for the common gain, then you may choose to join and may come to like it or at least see its benefits.

I agree with your friends on limited free will. Free will is not black and white and is open to interpretation and definitions whereas the state of pregnancy can definitely be proved and determined by a very simple test. Pregnancy state is not influenced by factors involving opinion, the way we are wired-in, plus experience/nurture.

You are somewhat of a joiner in that you choose to be an active member of the typical work force, a stereoptypical family of your own, a church, a citizen of community who obeys laws...and probably others...you could easily walk away from any of these if you really were determined to do so...you may pay dearly in consequences with some of these but there is a certain degree of choice. And when an issue has "degrees", it is never black and white like pregnancy.

My Monday Morning Insights!!
Thanks, Richard, you make me think!
Richard said…
MOI: You might want to read an earlier post Non-Conforming or Non-Conformant which covers my thoughts from a little over a year ago - essentially, an "independent" person may not really have any choice in the matter, since they are wired that way. So, we take the illusion of free will and wrap those differences up in it and claim the person to be an independent actor, when, in reality, they have no more choice in choosing to join than a joiner has in choosing not to join.

I don't think anyone is a true isolationist, we all want to belong. While it is true that I participate in various groups / communities, I do not feel bound to them. So while many support king or country, right or wrong, I only support it if it is right.

For me, free will means that we are able to act in a manner that is independent of our nature. In other words, we act (or are capable of acting) in a manner that is supra-natural (outside of nature).

I remember attending a talk by an environmentalist 15 years ago at Ottawa U. He was from New York, an atheist, but he maintained that humans had evolved to be supra-natural and could operate outside the bounds of natural law -causing much harm because we were not bounded. Of course, I reject this because it does not make sense that something wholly contained within the universe can evolve to be outside that universe.
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