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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Evolving free will

Here's some interesting back-and-forth on the age-old question of free will. Biologist Jerry Coyne argues we don't have it. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci responds that Coyne's dismissiveness is premature and unscientific. Coyne then defends his view on various points, but more or less shrugs off a key point of Pigliucci's. Here's Pigliucci:
[W]hy do we have such a pervasive “illusion” to begin with? Apparently, he [Coyne] knew this was coming, and answered thus in the USA Today article: “where do these illusions of both will and ‘free’ will come from? We’re not sure. I suspect that they’re the products of natural selection, perhaps because our ancestors wouldn’t thrive in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they didn’t feel responsible for their actions.”

As far as I can tell there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support such speculation. To the contrary, we know of plenty of social animal species that seem to thrive very well indeed without requiring the illusion of free will to keep them in line. Certainly social insects don’t need to be fooled that way, and it is hard to imagine even species of social mammals, including most primates, needing to engage in deliberate reasoning before deciding how to behave toward fellow group members.
 Coyne's response:
Note that I said, “We’re not sure.” I really have no idea why we have the illusion of agency, and was just speculating that it may be an adaptation.  But it might not be—it could be an epiphenomenon of having complex brains.  By the way, our brains are far more complex than those of social insects, and we process many more inputs than those of, say, ants. A big ant could not function as a human being.  And we have no idea whether animals engage in deliberate reasoning, though this morning’s kitteh post suggest that cats can, and I certainly think that primates can.

But it doesn’t matter.  I have no idea about why we have the illusion of free agency, nor am I deeply invested in an evolutionary, much less an adaptive, answer.

Me: Given that Coyne's blog is titled "Why Evolution Is True" (and I believe it is true), it is notable to me that he can't mount more of a defense of his natural-selection-did-it speculation about the supposed illusion of free will. It's not just that "we're not sure," it's really that the logic of evolution seems to point in a very different direction. Wouldn't natural selection weed out those creatures that devote so much brainpower to maintaining an illusion? Wouldn't it give preference to the hominids that don't think they have free will and don't care? I'm not the first to ask such questions (philosopher John Searle has asked them for years), nor am I the first to suspect that maybe some kind of free will involving genuine indeterminism arose because it carries a survival advantage (such as by allowing an organism to act in ways that predators can't predict). Of course, lest anyone point out I'm speculating, I have to admit: we're not sure.

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