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Do we have free will? In this interview, Helen Steward explains part of her very distinctive approach to the philosophical puzzle concerning free will vs determinism. Steward rejects determinism, but not because she denies that we are not material beings (because, for example, we have Cartesian, immaterial souls that have physical effects). Her reasons for rejecting determinism are very different.
In recent times, self-interest has been seen as the main driving force of behaviour and function in organisms. This is particularly evident in the concept of the selfish gene. However, as elaborated in this book, living systems strongly depend on cooperative behaviour, which is found everywhere in nature. All the way from millions of minute bacteria cooperating in the way they feed and grow, to massive whales talking with each other across oceans, organisms communicate with each other, and that communication is used as the glue of cooperation, even between distinct species. The idea of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ is at best a distorted perspective of the entirety of nature. However, in the grand scheme of things, both cooperation and competition are part of the story, and – whether wittingly or unwittingly – organisms form part of and interact with their ecosystems.
The view of living systems as machines is based on the idea of a fixed sequence of cause and effect: from genotype to phenotype, from genes to proteins and to life functions. This idea became the Central Dogma: the genotype maps to the phenotype in a one-way causative fashion, making us prisoners of our genes.
Living systems are characterised by intelligence. Treating organisms as gene-driven automata, blindly reacting to events, does not take account of their social or ecological being. Living systems anticipate the actions and reactions of other living systems. As in a chess game, anticipation can consider many options. Nevertheless, the chess analogy only gets us part of the way to understanding this characteristic of life. It is more like a chess game in which the players can create the rules, much as happens in a game of poker, in which anticipation is the key to success, including assessment of the other’s power of anticipation. Life is rule-creating, rather than rigidly rule-following. This does not mean there is no logic to what happens or how organisms behave; there is, and often it involves a clear strategy. But this is not regulated by genes. Much behaviour may be programmed, and much is learned; the logic, however, is situational (that is, dependent on circumstances) and subject to change. The ability to adapt to circumstances is an example of evolved functionality. Therefore, dogmatic models of life, seeking to reduce behaviour to little more than a set of algorithms, misunderstand the intelligence of organisms.
Where is the living mind that thinks? Culture is the matrix of the mind. Organisms owe their social and mental abilities to the ‘nesting’ of causation between all levels of their functioning. Higher levels mould what the lower levels can do. This is how living systems can use their flexibility, from cultural and linguistic variability to the water-based jiggling around of their molecules, to enable the evolution of rational and ethical social organisation. It is within this purposiveness that genuine freedom and responsibility are to be found.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a tool created by living organisms, us humans. Like the hydraulic robots of the seventeenth century which inspired Descartes’ mechanical view of organisms, AI has become the latest in a list of mechanical metaphors for life. Yet it is just as limited, just as much a mistaken view of organisms. It views life as just processing further and further information faster and faster. Computers exist to process rapidly. That is their function, given to them by the humans who created them. Organisms use processing to help them create objectives, purpose.
Standard evolutionary theory represents genes as the target of evolution. But organisms may functionally develop without alterations in their DNA, and they may also buffer changes in the DNA to retain function. It is organisms that are the agents in the process of evolution. Outside a living system, DNA is inactive, dead. Furthermore, many significant transitions in evolution have not depended on new DNA mutations. They arose from the fusion or hybridisation of organisms with existing but different DNA. All the molecular processes in a living system are constrained by its purpose. Viewed this way, genes are the most constrained elements in organisms. Evolution of different species has occurred through extraordinarily creative and varied processes that include cooperation and fusion of existing species and the exchange of DNA and organelles. It is much more like nature using preformed tried and tested functionality than through slow gradual mutation. Evolution can occur in leaps and bounds.
If the dichotomy between replicator and vehicle is wrong, then what is it that replicates? The purpose of reproduction is not replication, at least not exactly. Reproduction brings about change. It shakes up the templates and provides new avenues to explore in adapting to a changing environment. It creates and propagates variation. But it also provides a way for the lessons learned in one generation to be passed on to the next. Reproduction is sensitive to the environment of the parent generation and enables change through the germ line.
We are writing this book as agents with a purpose. Agency and purposeful action is a defining property of all living systems. Yet modern science has presented a reductionist, gene-centred view of life, where life is reduced to biochemistry, particularly DNA and proteins. It has even carved out its own areas of study – genomics and proteomics – as if these components can be understood in isolation from the organisms themselves. But they cannot. The gene-centric view of life creates a fundamental problem. If all action can be reduced to genes, or is controlled by them, then purposeful agency cannot exist. Indeed, it has been referred to as an illusion. At best, modern science gives this problem to philosophers, assuming that the answer does not lie in biology itself. This is a mistake. Casting the issue aside ignores the most creative aspect of living things: problem-solving and the agency of organisms.
In the preceding chapters, we showed why the idea that living organisms are really driven by their genes is a profound misunderstanding of how living systems work. On the contrary, they are open systems at all levels of organisation. How things work at the molecular level is constrained and regulated at the cellular level. The interaction of cells is regulated at the tissue level, and tissues at the organ level, and organs at the system level. The system is regulated by the behaviour of the organisms, and organisms by social and ecological interactions. The psychosocial level is unique. If there is a privileged level of causation, then it lies at the psychosocial level and not at the level of genes. This is the level at which wilful agency is initiated and organisms can be genuinely selfish or altruistic. In truth you cannot be selfish if you do not have the choice to be altruistic, which is why selfishness cannot be applied at a genetic level, neither metaphorically nor literally.
Life is definitively purposive and creative. Organisms use genes in controlling their destiny. This book presents a paradigm shift in understanding living systems. The genome is not a code, blueprint or set of instructions. It is a tool orchestrated by the system. This book shows that gene-centrism misrepresents what genes are and how they are used by living systems. It demonstrates how organisms make choices, influencing their behaviour, their development and evolution, and act as agents of natural selection. It presents a novel approach to fundamental philosophical and cultural issues, such as free-will. Reading this book will make you see life in a new light, as a marvellous phenomenon, and in some sense a triumph of evolution. We are not in our genes, our genes are in us.
Central to the teachings of Christianity is a puzzle: on the one hand, sin seems something that humans do not do freely and so cannot be not responsible for, since it is unavoidable; on the other hand, sin seems something that we must be responsible for and so do freely, since we are enjoined to repent of it, and since it makes us liable to divine condemnation and forgiveness. After laying out the puzzle in more depth, this Element considers three possible responses—libertarian, soft determinist, and free-will skeptic—and weighs the costs and benefits of each.
The actualism/possibilism debate in ethics is traditionally formulated in terms of whether true counterfactuals of freedom about the future (true subjunctive conditionals concerning what someone would freely do in the future if they were in certain circumstances) even partly determine an agent's present moral obligations. But the very assumption that there are true counterfactuals of freedom about the future conflicts with the idea that freedom requires a metaphysically open future. We develop probabilism as a solution to the actualism/possibilism debate, a solution that accommodates an open future requirement for freedom. We argue that probabilism resolves the conflicting intuitions that arise between actualists and possibilists and maintains certain distinct advantages over actualism and possibilism.
Chapter 5 considers the theology and moral philosophy of the respected theologian and moral casuist, Robert Sanderson. The divine Sanderson despaired of the unfortunate consequences for practical morality of denying the responsibility and freedom of individuals. In its historical context his doubt amounted to finally rejecting the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Scholars consider Sanderson’s Several Cases of Conscience Discussed in Ten Lectures in the Divinity School at Oxford a main reference for Locke in the writing of the unpublished Two Tracts of Government and his foundational Essays on the Law of Nature. Sanderson’s work sets out a moral philosophy of free will reinforced by mechanical overtones of necessary causality in reasoning. The chapter briefly analyses this type of ‘mechanical conscience’ and shows how Sanderson was committed to a de facto theory of government.
In this book, Lydia Schumacher challenges the common assumption that early Franciscan thought simply reiterates the longstanding tradition of Augustine. She demonstrates how scholars from this tradition incorporated the work of Islamic and Jewish philosophers, whose works had recently been translated from Arabic, with a view to developing a unique approach to questions of human nature. These questions pertain to perennial philosophical concerns about the relationship between the body and the soul, the work of human cognition and sensation, and the power of free will. By highlighting the Arabic sources of early Franciscan views on these matters, Schumacher illustrates how scholars working in the early thirteenth century anticipated later developments in Franciscan thought which have often been described as novel or unprecedented. Above all, her study demonstrates that the early Franciscan philosophy of human nature was formulated with a view to bolstering the order's specific theological and religious ideals.
Suffering is ubiquitous. Quests to make sense of it in relation to the existence of God – and to find meaning in our lives in the face of it – are significant aspects of the human experience. Evil and Theodicy motivates the project of theodicy by examining arguments rooted in evil against God's existence and by critically assessing the response of skeptical theism. Ekstrom explores eight different lines of theodicy. She argues that, even if the prospects for theodicy are dim with respect to defending the rationality of theistic belief in light of suffering, nonetheless, work in theodicies is practically useful.
The opening chapter examines the forebears of Cicero’s notion of will in Greek thought and Roman usage in the period before his birth, with special attention given to the playwrights Plautus and Terence. There was no “will of the people” in classical Greece. The demos wielded power not by delegation but in active, autonomous decision. There is no special discourse of representation in classical Athens, because in classical democracy (unlike today) there is no permanent governing class. In the Republic, Plato proposes that reason and appetite reside in different parts of the soul; though we succumb to appetite despite “knowing better,” in a harmonious soul as in a just city, reason must rule. Plato’s star student is the first to propose a full theory of human action, but neither Aristotle’s boulesis (the desire for ends) nor his prohairesis (the choice of means) map onto the faculty that Latin speakers would call voluntas. It is the Stoics, and particularly Epictetus, who have been credited by some as inventors of the will due to their intense focus on regulating our inner responses to events and forming the correct intention.
At the beginning of the debate over free will, freedom is nowhere to be found. In the Hellenistic period, the question of human autonomy is not one of freedom (eleutheria) but instead, given the nature of the universe, what is “up to us” (eph’emin) and thus left to our choice (prohairesis). It is Cicero and the Epicurean poet Lucretius who first turn the debate into one specifically over man’s freedom from fate. But Cicero’s idea of the will’s libertas – its opportunity to conquer vice and win honor – is very different from that of Lucretius in De rerum natura, a text Cicero read and may even have edited. De fato, one of the last in his corpus, returns to the question of a libera voluntas explicitly to refute the Epicurean doctrine of the swerve (clinamen) and their abandonment of civic duty. For Cicero, free will is the locus of public virtue, the justification of “praise and honors,” and the power to strengthen ourselves against natural vice. Cicero’s letters reveal, in turn, that this technical treatise on fate has decidedly political stakes for the Roman Republic.
Wallace’s reputation as an author naturally outstrips his renown as a philosopher, but Wallace himself wrote that he saw philosophy and fiction as different arms of a single gesture. Among the strains of philosophy with which he dealt directly was determinism. Indeed, his undergraduate philosophy thesis on this subject was published as a stand-alone text in 2010, under the title Fate, Time and Language. This chapter introduces the concepts with which Wallace grapples in this work, as well as tracing the structural persistence of the theme of determinism through his writing. The chapter also argues that Wallace was an accomplished technical philosopher in his own right, but that the strict form of philosophical writing did not lend itself to his tendency toward literal illustrations of complex concepts. In this respect, the chapter argues for Wallace as a literary philosopher in the vein of Wallace Stevens, seeing the creative work as a form of philosophy in itself.
According to the Free Will Explanation of a traditional view of hell, human freedom explains why some human persons are in hell. Human freedom also explains its punishment and finality: persons in hell have freely developed moral vices that are their own punishment and that make repentance psychologically impossible. So, even though God continues to desire reconciliation with persons in hell, damned persons do not want reconciliation with God. But this moral vice explanation of hell's finality is implausible. I argue that God can and would make direct or indirect alterations in their character to give them new motivational reasons that re-enable their freedom to repent. Subsequently, I argue that it is probable that each damned person will be saved eventually, because there is a potential infinity of opportunities for free repentance. Thus, if the Free Will Explanation's descriptions of hell and divine love are correct, it is highly probable that each person in hell escapes to heaven.