Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will
November 9, 2023 7:23 AM - Subscribe

Kevin J. Mitchell explores how free will can exist by taking us through the beginning of life all the way through to humans making decisions.

Mitchell points to the earliest organisms separating their insides from the outside world, creating causal insulation: a bit of a buffer so that things on the outside are not the only cause of things happening on the inside. As they begin to move, evolving senses becomes an invaluable source of information about the world--but only a very tiny bit of the world, very up-close. This is the birth of reasons for doing things--not, obviously, conscious reasons; everything is hard-wired. With multicellularity and division of labor, greater energy can be expended and new activities can be pursued, leading to muscles and the neurons needed to control them.

But the nervous system begins to become complex, with intervening structures between sensory organs and muscles. Thus "the meaning of signals became disconnected from immediate action, giving rise to internal representations." As creatures begin to step onto dry land, vision and hearing become more important, vastly expanding the amount of information available, and making more complex brains profitable. As brain structures continue to grow more complex and elaborate, organisms begin to use memories and beliefs, as well as their senses, to behave in new, forward-looking ways.

Then...people! We not only model our world, and model our bodies, but can model our own minds and those of others, creating the possibility of will, of cognitive control.
posted by mittens (1 comment total)
I decided to write about this book because I'd already done a post on Robert Sapolsky's recent book, and I think they go together in interesting ways. They argue entirely opposite points--Mitchell believes evolution creates will; Sapolsky believes evolution saddles us with awareness but no real choice. Yet Sapolsky's is a big, shaggy, humane book (there's a footnote where he talks about his depression that casts the whole work in a new light), while Mitchell's is drier, less fun, but whose conclusion I feel like I probably agree with more than Sapolsky's. It turns out to be a bad idea to read them together. I was an unfair reader to Mitchell, constantly hitting passages about brain evolution where I'd be all, but i KNOW this, i just READ about it!. Not his fault obviously.
posted by mittens at 7:28 AM on November 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

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