Friday, April 16, 2010

More on Evolution and Human Free Will

Every summer I teach a seminar course at Cornell in which we examine the historical, philosophical, religious, and scientific implications of evolutionary theory. This summer our seminar course will once again consider the question: Is free will an illusion?

On the 15th of July, 1838, Charles Darwin began a notebook which he labeled as “M”, in which he intended to write down his correspondence, discoveries, musings, and speculations on “Metaphysics on Morals and Speculations on Expression”. On page 27 of that notebook, he wrote
“…one doubts existence of free will every action determined by hereditary constitution, example of others or teaching of others. (…man…probably the only [animal] affected by various knowledge which is not heredetary & instinctive) & the others are learnt, what they teach by the same means & therefore properly no free will. [Emphasis added]

In his private musing on the question of free will, Darwin came to the conclusion that human free will is an illusion, and that all of our actions (and, by extension, our thoughts and intentions) are the result of our “hereditary constitution” and “the example…or teaching of others.”

Some evolutionary biologists, notably William Provine of Cornell University, have followed Darwin’s lead and asserted that human free will is an illusion. Most philosophers disagree, asserting that free will is the principle difference between humans and non-human animals. Many Christian theologians go further, asserting that free will is the foundation of all human action, without which no rational ethics or theology is possible.

In our seminar course this summer we will take up this debate by considering two alternative hypotheses: (1) that human free will is real and can provide a basis for our morals and ethics, or (2) that human free will is an illusion, the capacity for which is a product of the same evolutionary processes that have shaped our anatomical and behavioral adaptations. Included in this debate will be an extended consideration of the hypothesis that the capacity for ethical decision making is an evolutionary adaptation that has evolved by natural selection. We will read from some of the leading authors on both sides of the subject, including George Ainslie, Daniel Dennett, Robert Kane, William Provine, Daniel Wegner, and Edward O. Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into a perspective of the interplay between philosophy and the natural sciences.

Here are some particulars for the course:

INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.

PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of general evolutionary theory, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and the philosophy of human free will would be useful.

DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall, Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 29 June 2010 and ending on Thursday 5 August 2010.

CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BIOEE 4670 / BSOC 4471 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and HIST 4150 / STS 4471 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion. All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit.


Ainslie, G. (2008) Breakdown of Will, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 0521596947 (paperback: $34.99), 272 pages.

Dennett, D. (2004) Freedom Evolves, Penguin Books, ISBN: 0142003840 (paperback: $17.00), 368 pages.

Kane, R. (2005) A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford University Press (USA), ISBN: 019514970X (paperback: $19.95), 208 pages.

Wegner, D. (2003) The Illusion of Conscious Will, MIT Press, ISBN-10: 0262731622 (paperback: $21.95), 419 pages.

Wilson, E. O. (2004) On Human Nature (Revised Edition), Harvard University Press, ISBN: 0674016386 (paperback: $22.00), 284 pages.


Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, ISBN-10: 0393061345 (hardcover, $39.95), 1,706 pages. Available online here.

Fisher, J., Kane, R., Pereboom, D., & Vargas, M. (2007) Four Views on Free Will, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN: 1405134860 (paperback: $33.95), 240 pages.

Kane, R. (2001) Free Will (Blackwell Readings in Philosophy), Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN: 0631221026 (paperback: $33.95), 328 pages.

Wilson, E. O. (2000) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (25th Anniversary Edition), Belknap Press, ISBN: 0674002350 (paperback: $44.00), 720 pages

Our summer seminar course is always fascinating, and often quite controversial (see this and this). Over the years we have explored many of the implications of Darwin's theory, and the participants have always found our discussions (perhaps they should be called "debates") enlightening. As always, the intent is not necessarily to reach unanimity, but rather for each participant to come to clarity on where they stand on the issues and to be able to defend that stance using evidence and rational argument.

So, please consider taking our seminar on free will this summer - the choice is yours!


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 4/19/2010 01:40:00 AM, Blogger Ramon said...

It is already imbued in me that free will is an illusion. And I find my life ten folds more satisfactory (but ten folds more broke) than when I though free will was real.

At 5/01/2010 05:56:00 PM, Blogger Alan Fox said...

Is a definition of free will totally out of the question? Does anyone still believe in strict determinism? Why should anyone care? Why do you still bother to comment at UD, Allen? Why not exercise your free will and move on?

At 5/03/2010 11:40:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Here's why:

At 5/06/2010 10:47:00 AM, Anonymous ivy privy said...

"Most philosophers disagree, asserting that free will is the principle difference between humans and non-human animals."

Is that so? If they want to wrap it up in human exceptionalism, then I am more inclined to dismiss their conclusion.

Provine has written two chapters, which I have seen, summarising his views on free will. Perhaps you could approach him about getting copies of those chapters and permission to distribute them to your class.

I would guess that you are already planning to have Derk Pereboom contribute to the class in some way.

At 5/07/2010 07:34:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

The two chapters on free will by Will Provine are the first assigned readings for the seminar course. I'm also hoping that both Will and Dirk can make presentations in the class at some point. They taught a similar seminar course together last fall at Cornell.

At 5/07/2010 07:35:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

BTW, Ivy, if you're in Ithaca this summer, why don't you stop by? It would be nice to find out who you are, and your contributions would be greatly appreciated!

At 9/24/2010 11:43:00 AM, Blogger ERSU/USRE said...

"A modern Darwin would concur with the conclusion of Princeton physicist, John Wheeler: most of the time available for life and intelligence to achieve their ultimate capabilities lie in the distant cosmic future, not in the cosmic past.

As cosmologist Frank Tipler has bluntly stated, “Almost all of space and time lies in the future. By focusing attention only on the past and present, science has ignored almost all of reality. Since the domain of scientific study isthe whole of reality, it is about time science decided to study the future evolution of the universe.”

Although you won’t read about it in any New York Times or Wall Street Journal headlines, the disruptive potential of future evolution is the emerging leitmotif in advanced biological theorizing today. The current ID vs. Darwinism dust-up on which the popular press focuses myopically will turnout to be a minor historical footnote to the portentous evolutionary dramathat is about to reveal itself in all its unnerving grandeur."

At 9/24/2010 08:25:00 PM, Blogger ERSU/USRE said...

Perhaps we don't have "free will", but we do exercise choices through measurements, this leads to something analogous to voluntary composition and self-determinacy.

"Conway and Kochen do not prove that free will does exist. The definition of "free will" used in the proof of this theorem is simply that an outcome is "not determined" by prior conditions, and some philosophers strongly dispute the equivalence of "not determined" with free will."

At 12/28/2010 08:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A predator that has the ability to go alternative ways, has the advantage of surprise in attacking. Likewise an animal fleeing that has the ability to go alternative ways has the advantage of unpredictability in escape. That is one of many ways in which a sophisticated ability to go alternative ways, free will, provides a survival benefit.

At 3/18/2013 09:22:00 PM, Anonymous David said...

Privy says that if advocates of free will believe that according to advocates of free will, human beings have free will but other animals do not, this "exceptionalism" is all the more reason to reject free will. What about the human conceptual faculty, and all the products of human culture that our ability to abstract and synthesize makes possible? This faculty is shared by no other species, not even by any primates able to associate specific concrete words with specific percievable objects or actions. At any rate, conceptual ability at the human level is unique so far as we know; and we have direct control over whether we exercise this faculty. As any student knows who has puzzled over a textbook passage, our conceptual faculty doesn't function automatically. Does this "exceptionalism" mean that we can't think, or that we can't choose to focus our minds as opposed to allowing ourselves to drift mentally? That a trait of a species, Species A, exists in a form that does not exist at all in any other species, or exists only incipiently in some others, is no evidence that Species A lacks the trait.

How do we know whether a species has a trait? We look. In the case of humans, we introspect. We see our minds making choices that were not necessitated by antecedent factors. You can get to free will starting with observation. There's no need for religious assumptions, "exceptionalism," etc. We would have free will even if ten other species had a conceptual faculty and volition also.


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