So what is so FREE about freewill anyway?

Now that we have discussed more about continuity and spontaneity as fundamental aspect of the universe, and opened up the discussion about what Conscious Evolution actually is, it is time to update my thoughts about freewill. In an earlier post I boldly asserted that if there was such a thing as Conscious Evolution there had to be such a thing as freewill. Lots of questions were raised in your thoughtful comments and I now have to admit that my position has changed. 

I no longer believe in freewill – at least not in the same way that I did all those posts ago. In thinking about it more it is hard to imagine what freewill in the ultimate sense would mean. If it were to mean that you were free to make any decision at any time – well, that just doesn’t make sense. I can’t decide to fly, or live without eating, or have a million dollars without making effort for it. Our ability to choose is tempered by chance and physical and social circumstances. Someone born into a low caste family in India probably can’t become the president of India, and certainly can’t simply decide to be president necessarily.

Our will is limited, it is constrained, and it is conditioned. As I looked for sources to read in consideration of this discussion of freewill I came across a philosophy text book which described this type of constrained freedom as belonging to a school of thought known as “Qualified Libertarianism.” It is most frequently associated with schools of Eastern thought. In these schools people are seen as having the freedom to choose, but it is also recognized that human choice is restricted by karma.

Karma is the notion that everything results from that which came before and that implies that the reality we experience is at least partially created by the results of our own choices. This self-imposed limitation is fairly obvious. You cannot choose to hike three hours into the forest and then once you arrive in the heart of the wilderness choose to see a movie back in town that starts in 30 minutes.

As I see it now (always subject to change) freedom is a fundamental characteristic of the universe, not of an individual. It is the spontaneity that Charles Sanders Peirce wrote about. It manifests in human beings as our ability to make choices, but it is not a characteristic of a human being, it is a characteristic of the universe. By way of analogy, I may use my hand to pick up something, but I don’t say that it is a characteristic of hands that they can pick up trash from the floor, it is a characteristic of human beings – the hand is the part of the human being that is used. Similarly the universe has freedom and it is in the human ability to choose that that characteristic enacts itself.

This being said, it seems to me that the evolution of the universe tends to evolve in ways that increase the level of relative freedom that the universe can express through the forms that have evolved. For instances atoms can exhibit very little freedom, very little ability to change. Molecules can exhibit more freedom and organisms even more. Sexual reproduction led to a massive explosion in evolutionary change because there was so much freedom to create diversity when two parents came together to create a third completely different organism.

The human mind with its ability to conceptualize abstractly gives us a degree of freedom to construct and interpret reality that is unprecedented in the universe. Many people can come into the same situation (assuming it is complex enough) and because of the enormous perceptual interpretation that affects how they perceive realty no two will necessarily see things or respond to things in exactly the same way. But does that mean that there really is free choice? Are the choices that we make free or are they only the predetermined outcome of all of the impossibly complex mixture of our internal cognitive functioning and the environment we encounter? It may be impossible as yet to prove either with certainty. I would contend that our ability to conceive of freewill and to wonder about it actually gives an even wider range of possibility to choose. Perhaps the important question isn’t “Do I have freewill?” Maybe the question we should be asking is “How wide is the range of my ability to choose?”