Class Warfare Blog

May 6, 2019

A Minor Thought on Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 11:57 am
Tags: , ,

I have been reading Robert Wright’s wonderful book “The Moral Animal,” which I recommend to you as a source book on evolutionary psychology. (I haven’t finished it, so no book report, yet.) Here are a couple of excerpts:

“One could go further and suggest that folk psychology itself is built into our genes. In other words, not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion (as is suggested by other neurological experiments as well); it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims. (This is in a chapter on deception and self-deception. SR).

“For centuries people have approached the philosophical debate over free will with the vague but powerful intuition that free will does exist; we (the conscious we) are in charge of our behavior. It is not beyond the pale to suggest that this nontrivial chunk of intellectual history can be ascribed fairly to natural selection—that one of the most hallowed of all philosophical positions is essentially an adaptation.”

This just reinforced in my mind the problem with all discussions of free will. The vast majority of the claimants are talking about conscious free will while the vast majority of our behavior is unconsciously governed.

Some of the free will advocates offer that if our will isn’t consciously free then we are just robots, with all of our behavior degraded down to chains of stimulus-response. I expect that this argument is simply a yearning for souls and being “special” and unfathomable. If we do, indeed, live in a material universe, then all human behaviors must break down into such chains, otherwise there would be no connection between our behavior and the environment around us. (Think of my people, out of touch intellectuals, who live in a world created entirely in their heads. How successful would such a being be biologically? Not at all I suggest. Such beings are only supported through the sacrifices and protections of others.)

This fear of having a robotic nature, I believe, is a failure of our imagination. We identify as “I” only our conscious thoughts because those are the only ones of which we are aware. In reality I think we are sub/unconscious beings with a conscious overlay, the existence of which offers benefits but whose origin is not completely explained as of yet (or if it is, I have not yet found it). If “I” is my subconscious or conscious plus subconscious minds, then I have free will . . . I think. (I think it is too early to conclude anything. We have talked about the topic for millennia; we are just now starting to understand what we are supposedly talking about.)

We are just starting to understand unconscious mental processing and until we do, no answer is in the offing to the question of whether wills are free. I think we can conclude that our wills are not conscious nor are they consciously free. But even that conclusion is shaky. For example, we are aware of our conscious thoughts . . . but where do they come from? Do we create them consciously? I don’t think so. This is a little like the paradox of our sense of sight. We see by means of light, but light itself is invisible (you cannot see a light beam from the side; e.g. a beam of blue light is invisible when view from a side, that is the light is not blue in itself). We think consciously by means of conscious thoughts but those thoughts are basically invisible/unsourcable, at least for now.


  1. I’ll have to pick this book up. Looks terrific.


    Comment by inspiredbythedivine1 — May 6, 2019 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

    • I didn’t want to go on and on but it is very well written, referenced and quite encompassing. It was published in 1994 so is probably a bit dated as progress has been substantial since then, but I undertook reading it as a foundation for further reading and I think it is serving well for that purpose. BTW, he uses Charles Darwin a great deal as a case study in moral behavior. A brilliant device and I am learning a lot about Darwin because of that.

      On Mon, May 6, 2019 at 12:18 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 6, 2019 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

  2. Definitely in agreement with the overall thrust of this argument.

    However, I think the idea we are in control probably goes back much further in the evolutionary history. It may have begun in a small degree from the time animals began to develop a control system (brain) that was partly separated from what it controlled (the body). There have been a number of things out recently about how so much of our thinking relate to positioning in space.One of the most important things the brain had to do once it got beyond simple reflexes was to create an internal map of the body, a map of external world, and how the two related. These were spatial maps. This was probably needed as soon as an organism spotted prey and had to move the body and mouth to eat it. From that beginning, I think, evolved the “conscious overlay” as you describe it, although at what point it properly could be said to exist could be debated.


    Comment by James Cross — May 6, 2019 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

    • Going back that far I think food targeting would have to be unconscious because I doubt very much that conscious thinking was going on anywhere.

      These are fascinating discussions and I am looking forward to new evidence. I am, however, getting tired of some philosophical thinking (and I like philosophy!). Recently a philosopher argued that conscious thinking could not be linked to sensory input … at all. WTF?! I was reading his words (sensory input) and had access to his ideas in my conscious mind, but that wasn’t a conscious activity because it involved sensory input?! Good grief! (I remember my Ethics professor in college saying that “in 4000 years of philosophy, we still did not have a definition of is good.” which makes all of ethics on pretty shaky ground. I do not think that is the only shaky ground around. The resistance of the community of philosophers to the application of science to philosophical topics is enormous, btw. They seem to be afraid of losing the keystone of philosophical discussion, namely a way of settling disagreements. Scientists have gotten used to being bitch-slapped by nature, and accept the final arbitrator of all disputes with, well, not glee, but can you imagine science without nature deciding which ideas are good and which aren’t?

      On Mon, May 6, 2019 at 12:22 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 6, 2019 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

      • Yeah, pretty much a stretch to say it originated with targeting food but I was more saying that was the starting point of what eventually developed into the “overlay”.

        BTW, my more recent thinking about the “hard” problem is that the problem mostly vanishes once you start to realize that most thinking is actually unconscious. The so-called “what it is like to be a bat”, human, or whatever more or less implies that there is an observer of the thought process, an entity that has experience. We have this “observer” but it may develop as by-product of social interaction. As we observe others in social interaction we begin to observe ourselves in the same way. If so, this might be related to the mirror neurons that may arise during learned social behavior. I think this puts the whole hard problem in a different perspective.


        Comment by James Cross — May 6, 2019 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

        • We seem to be very much on the same page. I was reading an article about a conference on the limitations of science, e.g. the why of quantum theory, the hard problem of consciousness, etc. as examples of problems that will not be solved. Egad, such impatience! We have had 400 years of modern science and now we are claiming it can’t answer questions we haven’t really learned to address? (Consider the impact of brain scans on several fields we are discussing.)

          I just signed up for your blog (why I hadn’t already is beyond me) and I was looking for an About page to see if you were a “brother of another mother” of somehow otherwise linked. Oh well, you will just have to remain mysterious. Anyone who references Question Mark and the Mysterians can’t be all bad!

          On Mon, May 6, 2019 at 12:51 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — May 6, 2019 @ 1:04 pm | Reply

  3. If we add environment, things get interesting.


    Comment by john zande — May 6, 2019 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

    • Steven Pinker’s position is 50% each for nature and nurture. And if we are robotic at heart (I think we are) I also think we are self-programmable which makes things interesting, no?

      How are you John Zande? You must be working on a new book or something, haven’t heard much from you otherwise. Steve

      On Mon, May 6, 2019 at 1:08 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — May 6, 2019 @ 1:21 pm | Reply

      • Environment would toss things up, a different gear in the mechanism.

        All good. One of our dogs finished her last chemo session today. Summer doesn’t seem to want to leave. We have an idiot as a president.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by john zande — May 6, 2019 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

        • I would have thought expensive medical treatments for a dog to be foolish … and then Claudia got a dog, and … I understand now. Sorry to hear of your dog’s illness.

          You have an idiot as president? What a coincidence, so do we!

          On Mon, May 6, 2019 at 2:56 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — May 7, 2019 @ 9:30 am | Reply

          • Ours cancelled philosphy last week (no, I’m not kidding), and believes there’s a penis crisis.


            Comment by john zande — May 7, 2019 @ 9:40 am | Reply

            • Well at least he is not dicking around!

              When we had DDT we at least could spray to eliminate pests.

              On Tue, May 7, 2019 at 9:41 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


              Liked by 2 people

              Comment by Steve Ruis — May 7, 2019 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  4. Minor thought on free will? Nice try. It’s a great topic and can go well into the night. Thanks Steve. Good things to consider as always.


    Comment by jim- — May 6, 2019 @ 8:28 pm | Reply

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