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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Freewill is an Adaptation

The essential objection to the existence of freewill is the same as the objection to any seemingly non-material “entity” for which no basis in known matter/energy relations can be found or convincingly surmised.  The consideration of the issue can begin from either of two stances: that the personal experience of freewill is sufficient to strongly suggest its reality independent of a matter/energy explanation or that the freewill experience is the product of discernable matter/energy relations and not actually ‘freewill’ as it is commonly thought of.  Since humans have been operating from the first stance for a measured time of 5000 years, and most likely before, while producing the same paradoxes over and over again, the second stance must be given serious consideration.
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Variability in human behavior, without regard to its origin, is the source of our success on the earth.  Imagine an animal like a rabbit increasing in population by an exponent.  The behaviors of the rabbits would not also increase in variety by the exponent, but would remain almost fixed (I say ‘almost fixed’ since there would be weak performance variability and a small increase in variability based on genetic variety).  It is the fixed behaviors of rabbits that limit their populations to clearly defined habitats and numbers per hectare – only by changing their behavior could they increase in number under consistent macro-environmental conditions (I say macro-environment because the immediate environment would be greatly affected by large changes in rabbit numbers, precisely because their behaviors are fixed).

For an animal to add variety to its behavioral repertoire, actual mechanisms must be acting – and posited in explanation (this is one of the paradoxes: that an animal must explain itself to itself with the tools that the explanations are explaining!).  The explanations that humans use are imagination, innovation and freewill.

What we perceive as and have formalized in the language as personal freewill is a design of brain process with the overall adaptive consequence of increasing variability in human behavior.  This must be true regardless of the processes that underlie what we call freewill. Looked as a whole, a group of animals has a volume of behavior; most of the behavior is ‘of a type’ typical of the group, practiced and weakly variable (weak variability from random variations of performance contrasted with strong variability from matter/energy systems adapted to produce variable responses).  However, in humans there is a component of strong variability in our behavior such that when a “snap shot” of behavior structure is taken at one time it will be noticeably different from one taken at another time – the amount of difference is most often highly correlated with the amount of time between looks.

The human process of storing experience over time and distance and combining these experiences by either a “purposeful” or random action, both in the single brain and, powerfully, in the social construction of group-based Story, is the basis of our strong variability.  The essential question is: are the combinations of imagination purposefully arrived at, as we most often feel that they are, or are they random combinations derived from the probability structure created by the local environment, current social structure, nature of language and the vicissitudes of personal experience; and then selected from by an adaptive process within the present Story playing against the recognition (as comprehended in Story) of present needs?

That this is ‘a mouthful’ is a clue to the understanding (misunderstanding) of our variability as the product of ‘freewill.’  There was, in our evolution and in our general history, no adaptive advantage to correctly identifying the functional nature of our Consciousness Order variability-producing processes; if anything, advantage goes to the illusion that we were exercising choice and organizing experiences into meaningful reality-based behaviors. 

So long as Biophysical Reality served as an essential arbiter in the adaptive process, the Stories that humans told themselves about what was driving the process mattered little: it doesn’t matter whether a sailor thinks that the wind is coming from a giant waving a fan or from high and low pressure areas so long as the mainsails and jibs are properly set, and there is nothing in the two ‘understandings’ to improve the sailor’s skills, one over the other.  Except… in the big picture, when the sailor needs to have some knowledge of the whole sea, now and tomorrow; when the actions of sailors begin to influence the wind, then illusions become a danger.

As difficult as it may seem, it is becoming essential that we understand how our adaptive processes actually function.  Among our biggest errors of understanding are freewill and agency.  While it is not necessary for every behavior and behavioral change to be deeply analyzed by every human actor, it is becoming vital that we find a way to see collective actions in veridical terms.  This means, in part, that those “in charge” of ideas, and the collective actions generated, be competent to perform such analysis.  Only when the Story that we tell about ourselves includes such a need will it happen; our present Story sends some of the most incompetent people ‘imaginable’ to lead us.

This is what we need to understand about freewill and human variability, and to have structured into a comprehensible and comprehensive Story: freewill is one of several ways of naming Consciousness System of Order activities that provide an adaptive advantage for our species, primarily by increasing the variety of behaviors available to us from which actual conditions “select”.  Imagination and innovation are closely related others.  When a situation produces a variety of options through the human process of imagining, the typical understanding is that we use our ‘freewill’, supported by reason, to make a choice.  There is nothing wrong with this illusion – just as there is nothing wrong with the illusion of color when we see certain wavelengths of light.  But it is an illusion and we must be ready to realize it as such when its limitations endanger us.

Of course, this is difficult for us.  The ‘feeling’ that we are evaluating and deciding is very strong.  But, just as we can’t directly experience ultraviolet light as a perceptual form (only indirectly as sunburn and eye damage), we can’t experience the underlying reality of randomness.  We have no reason to.  Randomness will take care of itself and offers no guide to specific behaviors.  We are about finding patterns that we can use to advantage.

Because we can’t experience randomness directly, we are denied the intuitive capacity to realize the primary source of all movement—and the design of the processes that form to construct ordered systems from randomness.  Our only immediate intuition is to search for a non-random source of agency since we can’t recognize the deeper processes of order. 

Another example may be helpful.  In our evolutionary history our hominid forebears faced dangers, actually relatively simple ones and not so many as we tend to speculate from our present “safe” world.  Daily dangers were, primarily, tainted food and water, poisonous plants, dangerous large animals, poisonous small animals.  There were larger scale dangers such as unpredictable weather events and starvation, but these were very rare and did not figure strongly as designers of detailed evolutionary consequences.  As a result of these dangers, today, we have responses to smells, tastes, situations (e.g., heights) and certain animals that seem instinctual or nearly so.  These responses continue to serve us, but only on the margins of our lives; our greatest dangers come from chemicals that we cannot smell or taste, radioactive elements for which we have no sensory tools, situations that we routinely misestimate (e.g., auto travel) and geopolitical and geo-economic behaviors that condemn billions of people to the greatest suffering in the history of humanity.

The point is that our primary tools for sensing the world and for understanding it derive from an evolutionary history of adapting to very different realities from those that we face today.  The tools of our thought processes are more like the male peacock’s tail than the crisp formulas of physics.  The design of science process is a constant and vigilant struggle against many of these processes of thought.  Belief in our own agency with its “freewill” is just such an evolutionary product; a product that we can no longer afford to appeal to uncritically.

This is not to say that we must deny the use of the ‘freewill process’.  Just as we can successfully use the language and idea of color and still understand, when needed, that visible light is a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum, we can feel that we are deciding and choosing with reason.  However, we need to be ready to realize the deeper reality that this is a process for increasing options in behavior and not a reality of agency.  In this way we have the potential to design yet another way to extract a new level of order from randomness to meet our present dilemmas, a change that can only be made by realizing the true nature and potential of the Consciousness System of Order.