Thursday, August 2, 2007

Notes on the evolution of responsiveness and free will

Obviously -- by definition -- organisms that can respond (to environmental conditions) in ways that enhance their survival and thrival will survive, reproduce, and be selected FOR through the process of natural selection. So, over the eons, we tend to see more entities that have increasingly sophisticated systems of response.

Responsiveness tends to include different forms of
  • awareness, perception, intelligence, etc. (including increasing diversity, clarity, and interconnectedness of various forms of information available to the entity)
  • will, intention, choicefulness, option-creation, initiative
  • agency, action, impact, technique/technology

So what I'm calling "responsiveness" is a whole line of evolutionary development that we could explore -- i.e., What manifestations of responsiveness show up in unicellular, multi-cellular, mammalian, human, and cultural entities and interactions (and so forth)?

Looking at this more closely, we see that the VARIABILITY of environmental conditions -- different weather, changing predators, loss of food or habitats, etc. -- selects FOR variability of responsiveness. The more flexible certain organisms or populations are in the face of changing conditions, the more likely they are to survive and thrive.

So we can hypothesize that the variability of environmental conditions stimulates a progressive development of choicefulness, freedom, and flexibility in organisms, populations and species, over time. To roughly outline this:
  • Some entities evolve single-option stimulus-response mechanisms that we associate with "instinct".
  • Some entities evolve a genetic "Plans A, B, and C" repertoire of "if-then" responses, depending on their current situation or the conditions of their early development (reptilian fight or flight, beetle aggressiveness or deviousness, rabbit long or short hair depending on temperature).
  • Some groups of entities evolve many variations within their species so that some of those variants will survive no matter what conditions develop (within limits!).
  • Some entities and groups evolve ways to evaluate their circumstances and actually create new options for response. We see in human society -- at least in the case of certain groups and organizations -- an evolution towards increasing capacity to understand, innovate and change ideas, attitudes, and behaviors in increasingly complex, novel situations.

Intriguingly (paradoxically?), all this is developing within a largely causal universe, constrained by the many physical laws that have led some philosophers to postulate a "deterministic" universe -- a universe in which everything is pre-ordained because it was caused by things that had causes, etc., so what happens is the only thing that could have.

Other philosophers, noting the sense of choicefulness I have described above, have postulated a universe in which "free will" exists. Naturally, the two sides argue over whose view is right or if the two views can co-exist (see for example, this wikipedia entry).

Not being an academic philosopher, I am not sure how this will affect the debate about free will and determinism in philosophy, but it seems to me that we could generalize that a largely deterministic universe has given rise to an increasing measure of free will AS AN EMERGENT PHENOMENON. In other words, thanks to the deterministic laws of Darwinian evolution noted above, Life is coming up with increasingly complex and intriguing ways that organisms and groups can exercise choice in their activities.

In short, might we say that the universe is determined to have free will?

As CONSCIOUS knowing, CONSCIOUS identity, CONSCIOUS choicefulness, CONSCIOUS agency, and CONSCIOUS interdependence (social interactivity) emerge and intertwine, we begin to develop that level of responsiveness that we call RESPONSIBILITY. Responsibility is conscious agency. Responsibility is knowing and owning that
  • we did / didn't / could have done things
  • we are / aren't / could be doing things
  • we will / won't / could do things

At early stages "responsibility" is mostly tied to social networks of expectation, often linked to guilt, shame, regret, punishment, etc., as well as pride, status, rewards, etc. As a person individuates (matures into a more whole human being), "responsibility" begins to mean something more like "ability to respond" and has an empowering "I do, can, and will make a difference" flavor to it. To "take responsibility" for a past act includes learning from mistakes, failures, and successes, in ways that enhance performance in the future.

To the extent this kind of responsibility is accompanied by highly developed forms of awareness and creativity -- all manifesting at individual and collective levels -- it is on the leading edge of the evolution of "responsiveness".

Thanks to John Abbe for the conversation from which all this emerged.

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