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Could Evolution Give Us Free Will?

Photo credit: Shane Devlin via Unsplash.

The traditional materialist stance, one that neuroscientist Sam Harris, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne endorse — along with many thinkers past and present — is that in this universe there can’t be free will. Albert Einstein (1879–1955) expressed the basic view in a 1932 address to the Spinoza Society where he stated, ”Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion.” 

Now a debate seems to have started up again. From one corner we learn that free will could possibly exist, provided that it is materialized or, if you like “evolutionized.”

In This Corner…

A new key player is a primatologist and Stanford professor of neurology, Robert Sapolsky. His new book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will (Penguin), says flatly that there is no free will:

After more than 40 years studying humans and other primates, Sapolsky has reached the conclusion that virtually all human behavior is as far beyond our conscious control as the convulsions of a seizure, the division of cells or the beating of our hearts. This means accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It means treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane. 


In the Other Corner…

But then another new key player is Trinity College neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell, whose new book, Free Agents:  How Evolution Gave Us Free Will (Princeton University Press, 2023), counters with yes, there can be free will. First, he notes, physics does not support absolute determinism because the quantum world that underlies it is itself undetermined. In any event, he argues that we are not puppets of our environment:

Moreover, we have additional abilities, perhaps unique to humans, which mean our behaviour is not in fact completely determined by all those constraints at any moment. As our brains expanded in evolution, we developed more levels of the hierarchy of the cerebral cortex. These give us capacities for metacognition, for introspection about our own cognitive processes, for thinking about our thoughts and reasoning about our reasons. We really can deliberate and those deliberations really can settle what we do.

There is thus a way to surmount the metaphysical challenges to free will. Nature has already found it – evolution has led to the emergence of organisms that are capable of acting in the world, not just as collections of atoms, but as autonomous agents. By tracing that evolutionary trajectory, we can see how living organisms came to have causal power in their own right, without violating the laws of physics, and without the need for any mystical or supernatural forces at play.


So in Mitchell’s view, the impersonal natural force of evolution has shaped hierarchies in the human cerebral cortex so that we can have the free will and metacognition that it does not itself have…

Assessing Both Positions

Science writer Dan Falk, writing at Nautilus, assesses the two positions and comments,

To my mind, Mitchell seems to be on the right track. We really do make decisions, and that ability to make decisions has evolved over the eons. Simple creatures make simple decisions (“a possible food source—must move in that direction!”) and complex creatures make complex decisions (“I don’t like the candidate’s flat-tax proposal, but I like where he stands on offshore wind energy”). A determinist might insist that whatever we do, we do because of what came before. For simple creatures, that’s a fair position. A paramecium’s “decisions” happen more or less on autopilot. But for complex creatures like us, our actions depend on conscious decisions; for Mitchell, we are in the driver’s seat.


Very well but the problematic term in Falk’s summation is “conscious decisions.” There is no meaningful way to account for human consciousness that does not involve the idea of an immaterial reality — precisely what Mitchell is at pains to deny. In the traditional dualist understanding of the human person, free will, like abstract thought, is part of the immaterial and immortal soul. Mitchell tries to get around the problem of having free will in a material world by endowing evolution with the capacity to create something that a mere natural force would not itself have. It’s a nice try and may make for a good book but but it won’t work.

Wrapping up his own discussion of the topic, Falk offers another thought worth considering: “If individuals don’t have the freedom to choose, how can courts or legislatures or whole societies have it? If freedom is an illusion, it might seem that an idea like ‘advocating for judicial reform’ is rendered meaningless, too.”

Livestock or Human Beings?

Actually, individuals, left to themselves, may have more free will than larger entities, where group dynamics may come into play. In any event, Michael Egnor, co-author with me of The Human Soul (Worthy 2024), likes to point out that denying free will is a quick route to a totalitarian society: “Without free will, we are livestock, without the presumption of innocence, without actual innocence, and without rights. A justice system that has no respect for free will — a justice system in which human choices are diseases — is a system of livestock management applied to Homo sapiens.”

What’s really interesting about the whole discussion is that materialists have not been able to simply disprove free will, so Mitchell appears to be trying to shape an evolution theory to fit it. That’s not something we see every day.