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Evolving decisions

rmehta's picture

Free-will and destiny are two words that retain such powerful and reflective connotations with a hint of optimism.  Free will offers a course of action for achieving a certain destiny.  Under this definition, it seems to be clear why humans are so obsessed with this idea of free will; it is because it offers human beings a thought of control and personal power in a world that is consistently evolving and changing in random motion.  But in a continuously evolving world, is a concept of personal control even warranted?  Are the minds and reasoning of human beings further evolving in the Darwinian sense?  In trying to discern if we in fact have control on our actions and if free will is able to exist in a selection oriented world, I try to intertwine the concept of evolution with that of human analysis and decision making.  

 Darwinian evolution argues that organisms continuously evolve as to try and achieve the most fit (the most perfect) form.  Human beings have evolved and continue to evolve out of a necessity to sustain living in an evolving environment.  If it is assumed that humans are a product of a process of natural selection, then all of our capacities and abilities that are a component of our survival in our environment must contain an evolutionary explanation as well.  It is not only our biological functions and anatomy that evolve, but also our capacity to understand, our moral judgment and our overall perceptive ability that change as well.  For certain much of what we believe to be morally correct when we are four years old is not the same as that of when we are 50 years old.  It can be argued that our conception of “rightness” does not evolve, but rather it is our application and decisions (that are the physical approval of rightness) that experience the change. That is, the mode of belief does not change, but the mode of action does evolve.  However, here in lies a difficulty in applying evolution to our moral capacity.  If evolution is this natural random process that occurs out of a necessity to retain optimal reproductive success, do our morals also then evolve out of a necessity to retain this same success? If so, then it has to be true that we do not contain any core understanding of right and wrong or an innate ability to do well (unless doing well is what leads us to Darwin’s definition of evolutionary success).  Instead this ying-yang relationship is continually changing as a reaction to our experienced life.  In his thoughts about the application of Darwinian evolution to cultural manifestations, Daniel Dennett states that “if we survive our current self-induced environmental crises, our capacity to comprehend will continue to grow by increments that are now incomprehensible to us” (1).   

So if our perceptions and mind capacity are continually evolving, is there a moment within this motion where we are able to dictate what influences this growth? Can the concept of free-will exist in this? If as Dennett states, our mind is a skyhook and not a crane, the possibility of an achievable end is unachievable. So within this system then how can there exist a notion of purposeful action, free will? Human survival requires a will, a force of action that is able to dictate non-biological processes.  Without control over our actions we would not be able to carry out Darwinian evolution as there would be no judgment to harmful versus helpful ways of living. It takes an initial recognition and then action to carry out optimal survival.  Dennett’s use of evolution is towards a greater understanding of our pivotal place in the universe.  Overall, he seems to propose that causal laws determine the fate of a governed set of particles (of which humans are included). I would argue that it is causal laws with our personal moral that determine the destiny. 

It is interesting to further look at Dennett’s argument in relation to determinism. Determinism contends that at any given moment there is only one possible choice and no available alternative.  It appears that Dennett uses this idea as an alternative to free will.  Determinism seems to include the idea that one action is a product of another; happenings are a series of determined events caused by a series of single actions.  Free will, however, is a product of several chosen events.  Dennett would seem to support the notion that no action is chosen freely (2).  Our actions, using his wording, would then have to be a crane as behind each action is a reason and behind each reason lives our rubric of core beliefs.  Free will, in this context then is an illusion that instead should perhaps be called predestined will.  Can there never be a reason behind any of our actions? Here in is where I see a specific trait to free will that is absent in a predestined alternative: fee will embodies a conception of want and worth that the alternative does not offer. 

So does decision making offer itself to an evolutionary analysis? Does morality fit into an evolutionary discussion? The brain is the anatomical entity that serves as our core for decision making.  In evolutionary terms, the survival of an organism in relation to the behavioral assets of the brain means that conscious decision making must evolve with the organism.  It seems simple to say that as we experience life, conscious decisions evolve to suit our surroundings and experiences.  A conscious decision to prolong survival dictates our reasoning to do certain actions.  Dennett’s proposition that free will is an evolved process that has changes along with human reasoning makes sense.  But his contention that this process lacks an aspect of moral judgment seems questionable.  Morality evolves along with basic reasoning; in my mind, there is no specific difference between the two.  Without free will humans do not get a place in a “logical hierarchy” (2). Is it not the concept of choice that makes us human? As Darwin states in his work The Descent of Man, “I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”

Work cited:

1. Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Siman &

Schuster Paperbacks: New York. 1995 (383).

2. Mozes, Eyal. The Dogmatic Determinism of Daniel Dennett.  (




Paul Grobstein's picture

an evolving skyhook?

“I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”

And it too evolves?  But can function, at any given time, as a effective skyhook, so we actually do have meaningful choices?

the writer's picture

From rmehta: Please forgive

From rmehta:

Please forgive my failure to cite my source regarding Dennett's idea of determinism and "a logical hierarchy". I failed to upload my final cited version so instead here is the information for the information from which I pulled from: It is a commentary written by Eyal Mozes on Dennett's book Freedom Evolves.

Likewise, the first quote used is from Dennett's novel Darwin's Dangerous Idea.