Conscious Evolution and Free Will?

Part of the controversy over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has always been its deterministic tone. Darwin saw evolution as happening through the combination of chance variation and natural selection. The theory goes something like this. Individual organisms of any species are born with variations that occur randomly. Some of these variations are inheritable, meaning that they can be passed on genetically from parent to offspring. Of those variations that can be passed along to offspring, some have survival advantages. Over time more and more individuals with this new beneficial trait will be born until having that trait becomes the norm. Over time change of this type results in the evolution of one species into another.

With this explanation for evolution, Darwin had no need of God. He had no need to postulate some guiding force outside of “chance variation” and “natural selection.” His thinking is deterministic in the sense that there is no intelligence required to guide the process. The guidance system is inherent in the need to survive in order to produce offspring.

When this line of thinking is applied to the development of our intellects it can lead to the conclusion that every choice we make is determined by conditioning resulting from past choices that we have made. Essentially the idea is that if you have a choice between A and B and choosing A results in pain, then the next time you face the same choice you will choose B. Taken to its extreme it is possible to imagine that all of our choices are “determined” by what we have been conditioned to do because of all of our past choices.

Those of us interested in what is known as conscious evolution believe that our newly emerging understanding of the evolutionary process (from which we have been produced) puts us in a position to consciously participate in guiding the future development of evolution. To my mind that immediately raises the question of the existence of human freewill. It would seem that if human beings were going to be in a position to guide the evolutionary process they would need to have free will in order to make choices outside of the bounds of “chance variation” and “natural selection.”

Certainly William James and John Dewey put the fact of human choice at the forefront of their thinking about what it would mean to consciously participate in the evolution of consciousness. James in his essay “Are We Automatons?” concludes the function of consciousness is to act as a selecting organ for choosing what part of our experience to give our attention to. He refers to consciousness as an “organ of selection’ and in this he is following the same line of thinking that led Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Spiritual Laws” to define man as “a selecting principle.” Dewey in his book “Human Nature and Conduct” states that the question of morality and ethics only arises in situations in which it is possible to make a choice between two or more alternatives. The fact that this choice is “free” is implied.

But I wonder if “free will” in the personal sense is truly required for a possibility of conscious evolution to be there. Certainly “freedom” is required. No one would argue that in order for there to be any evolution at all it would have to be possible for something “new” to emerge. If there was no freedom for something new to emerge in the universe, nothing could ever change. So freedom, or as Charles Sanders Peirce would call it “spontaneity” has to exist in order for evolution to be possible. The question is, “Does the necessity of spontaneity in an evolving universe require the existence of personal free will for the human being?” This is a question that I would like to think about and respond to in future posts – and I would appreciate any insights from my readers.