From an evolutionary perspective, why did nature give us free will?
I say it never did. It’s the wrong question. We’ve never had free will. The beneficial adaptation that nature gave us is not free will, but a wide-ranging imagination, akin to second sight–a special form of sight. Call it future landscape vision.
In other words, the human superpower that evolution has given us, and that no other animal has, is not free will as a replacement for instinct, but the imaginative ability to see in our heads logically possible alternative futures. Like the owl that sees at night, we see in the dark of our heads all sorts of ways that the future might go. And as with seeing anything outwardly, so it is inwardly: to see a thing triggers different parts of our brain to react to what we see, such as, say, the horny part of our brain: Hey, I can see a way to get so-and-so into bed! or Hey, I can see how I could become a lawyer–and get so-and-so into bed!
Think of this Japanese haiku:
The old pond.
A frog jumps in.
The frog is a shit disturber; it generates reactions in the otherwise still pond. Our minds are like that old pond. What enters into awareness elicits our response. It quakes us.
To switch the zen metaphor to a biblical one: seeing logically possible futures in our head is a plague of frogs: “Except ye let them go, I’ll plague thy borders with frogs,” God has Moses tell Pharaoh. Our blessing and our curse is to see the plague of frogs. The borderlands of our minds–our ability to see the potential landscapes of the future–are the frogs of our alternative futures, croaking to us. So much to run to, so much to avoid.
Maybe Mel Brooks is wrong. Maybe it’s not good to be the king (or Pharaoh) of the animal kingdom, aware as we are of so many possibilities. This awareness, however, is not free will, but a wider range of vision than is possessed by other animals–the ability to see logically possible futures. That’s what makes us unique: the Pharaoh of the Beasts.
So here’s my claim: we become aware, by introspection, of a desire for one alternative future over all the others we can think of, then naturally move toward the future our brains calculate to be this most desirable and plausible one to reach. We do this as naturally as a night owl stirring at the sight of a particularly tasty morsel in the grass.
We call this movement toward desire our free choice–our free will–but it is triggered by second sight–our ability to imagine and scan the landscape of alternative futures–exactly as an owl flies to food on seeing prey on the night landscape. The owl doesn’t have night free will, it has night vision, and naturally moves toward those things that owls desire when they are exposed to them. The owl is, conventionally speaking, a lord over the night. Its night vision is an extraordinary power, conferring an evolutionary advantage. But it doesn’t give the owl contra-causal free will. The owl isn’t doing anything contrary to its nature.
Likewise, we don’t have free will, but future landscapes vision, and our brains do the quick calculations, subconsciously, of what the best combination of desirable and plausible outcomes seems to be at the moment, bringing the conclusion of that calculation into awareness. That’s the frog entering the pond. The logically possible is translated by our brains into those scenarios that are plausible or probable, and this gets combined in introspection with desire or aversion for elements of one or more potential futures to be realized–or avoided. We then have awareness–which we can also use to communicate efficiently our vision and desires to others.
It goes something like what the novelist Don DeLillo writes in his novel White Noise:
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.
In other words, going to Montana is an alternative future that the brain calculates and delivers as desire or aversion into awareness.
So the free will delusion is caused by our ability to imagine logically possible futures, and to imagine how we might choose one of those futures over others. We then notice in ourselves a desire to choose one of those futures, and we follow that desire. We imagine that we’ve had a great deal of choice in the matter, when we’ve really had no choice at all–only insight.
At no point in the process have we actually chosen anything. We just narrate the process of vision, desire, and movement toward desire as the process of our free will. We wouldn’t do this with an owl–call what an owl does at night the exercise of its free will–but we do this with ourselves–the selves that belong to the dream landscapes of our imagination.
We therefore confuse the tight coupling of imagination, desire, and action with free will. Free will is a correlation-causation fallacy. What we choose, we surmise, must be independent of our brains, yet nevertheless causing things. It’s the old error of dualism. Imagination, desire, and action seem to be in a causal relation to one another absent chemistry, but they aren’t. They’re only coincident. We make a narrative of them. We think we’re pushing the world around–making it break our way, in accordance with our purposes. We think we’re disturbing the universe, when what we’re doing is following the dictates of our extraordinary visionary power–the power to imagine alternative futures.
So let’s go back to that owl. We don’t say that an owl at night has free will to choose among options not available to animals without night vision. We say, instead, that the owl hunts at night because it can see things it naturally wants. It can see possibilities unavailable to other animals absent nocturnal vision, and reacts to these possibilities. It “chooses” what you would expect an owl to “choose”–the things its brain calculates to be both desirable and plausible to achieve. Its brain is a horny and hungry gambler, its eye ever on the gambling table landscape.
Likewise, humans are night owls of a different sort. We see through the dark fog and night of future time the forms of alternative futures–not the ghosts of Christmases past, but the ghosts of Christmases future, and we move toward the ones you would expect–toward those that we can imagine would please us most, and might actually have a chance of being reached; toward those that stand to increase in some manner our power, prestige, property, food, access to mates, etc.
Thus humans are not free–no freer than any night owl–but are triggered to action by imaginative sight.
Why then do we feel this as free will, as if we’re in command and control? Why do we narrate our experience to others as if we are making choices and not communicating our awareness of desires placed there by exposure to inner vision? Because we are social animals. It’s shorthand for the whole complicated process of seeing alternative futures. Announcing to a mate–I choose you–is just another way of saying, I can see us together, can you see us together? Of all the plausible alternative futures I can imagine, I feel desire to move in your direction–and I’m doing so. Do you feel an equivelent desire? Can you see the real world plausibility of us? Will you come with me?
Yes, Bob, yes! I choose you, too! I see what you see, and how desirable it is. The story of us.
So here’s some lines of Lucretius from two millennia ago. For atoms, trope logically possible futures, and you have a model for the human imagination that I’m proposing, and its obedience to the laws of evolution (the pursuit of desires in accord with survival and reproduction). We’ve never had free will, just the imaginative landscape–future landscape vision–to which we swoon, salivate, and, like atoms, swerve:
For myriad atoms [logically possible futures] sped such myriad ways
from the All forever, pounded, pushed, propelled
by weight of their own, launched and speeding along,
joining all possible ways, trying all forms,
whatever their meeting in congress could create,
that it’s no wonder if they all tumbled
into such patterns and entered on such orbits
as those that govern our [inner] cosmos and its changes. (V 187-194)
There’s no contra-causal free will in this passage of Lucretius (minds disrupting the course of causally determined atoms), and so it is that there is no contra-causal choosing of alternative futures. It’s “no wonder” that we’ve “all tumbled / into such patterns and entered on such orbits” as we have–no more wondrous, certainly, than an owl with expanded night vision. Given the sorts of animals we are (social primates of high imaginative intelligence and future vision), of course we will enter into the orbits of the most desirable alternative futures that we can imagine. (If someone handed you a billion dollars, no strings attached, do you suppose you wouldn’t take it?) We follow desire in the swirl of the logically possible and plausible futures that appear before us. We enter into the spell of the orbits of our vision, we don’t disrupt them in their courses. Suddenly, we can see Montana in our future, we want to go to Montana, and we move toward Montana.
But if we don’t have free will, might we at least have (in Daniel Dennett’s phrase) free won’t–some sort of veto power over the spells of our desires?
Again, I see this as just another form of moving toward a desirable alternative future–one more distant as opposed to one nearby. Our brains, after all, can be thought of as loosely modular, governed by often contending impulses, and that means that in awareness one part of the brain can predominate over another (I’m hungry right now, and now I’m contemplative, and now I’m feeling horny,…).
And so a person who is, by temperament, hyper-religious, may find in herself (when she introspects) a powerful desire to override the sexual siren coming from the same brain. She imagines herself, in the narrative of herself, being quite righteous, and the thought of pleasing God pleases her–and this motivates her to hold down her sexual siren–but, as Blake, says, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” One part of the modular brain dominating another part is hardly evidence of free will (let alone contra-causal free will, where the mind is pushing around atoms).
We don’t have free will. We have future landscape vision. And the best alternative future that we can surmise, and adjudicate as achievable, wins. Exactly as an owl at night moves toward the tastiest morsel.