Ah yes, the timeless battle of free will vs. determinism; humanity may never know precisely when and where this prehistoric argument first arose. It’s a conundrum that has racked the brains of countless thinkers. Being a bit of a thinker myself, I’ve recently stumbled down this ancient philosophical rabbit hole…does free will exist?
Last week Amelia and I were discussing problems such as human population growth, the destruction of indigenous societies, the leveling of biodiversity…and so on…when we asked, “Why is it so hard for humanity to just stop?” It seems simple enough to control our choices. After all, we’re not fruit flies. We can think critically, develop new technologies, construct laws and financial systems and use language…we should, in theory, be able to stop cutting the Amazon or stop overfishing the oceans. I mean, it’s really simple! We should be able to just stop doing dumb shit, right? All it involves is not doing something! It seems a lot easier than going to the trouble of chopping an acre of old growth rainforest every minute or forming complex technological schemes, to scour every drop of oil from the farthest reaches on planet. If these choices are so easy to make, why aren’t we making them? Why take the difficult road? We could, in theory, limit our population to a few million and live in hunter gatherer paradise until the sun burns out. We could so why aren’t we? Why choose difficulty over ease? Why vote for complexity over simplicity? Why work when we could relax? In my opinion the answers to these questions are almost certainly not black and white and many of the “choices” that lie before us may be nothing more than illusions.
Alright, put on your long range lenses and let’s cruise the cosmos. The past 13.8 billion years has been marked by one colossal trend: the tireless march towards complexity. This is virtually undeniable. Each layer of complexity is marked by an abrupt phase change. Quarks gave rise to fundamental atomic particles, which evolved into atoms, giving rise to super nova, who created more complex atoms, swirling in free floating nebulae, in the megastructures we call galaxies. Eventually these atoms gave rise to molecules and some of these molecules evolved into life. And this led to the most recent layer of complexity, the development of a global human civilization.
Complexity cannot help but to give rise to more complexity. Complexity begets complexity. OK, what’s going on here? Who or what is behind all of this complexity and what to they want? Do we humans have any say in this? What’s the meaning of all this complexity and can it’s tireless march be altered? Does the universe’s tendency towards complexity allow any room for free will or are we just cogs in a deterministic complexity generator, that we so lovingly refer to as our universe?
I’m gonna go ahead and make the claim that free will does indeed exist. I really do believe in free will. But I also believe it’s existence is a product of complexity and it may not have existed in the primordial soup of our early universe. Free will, I believe, had to evolve. It is not a fundamental property of this universe but rather a property that emerges with complexity. Free will is like a molecule… it springs forth when conditions are just right. And, like molecules, I believe free will can take on myriad forms of varying complexity, sophistication and function.
If I am arguing for the existence of free will then this must imply that determinism has no place in reality, right? Wrong! Reality may contain both free will and determinism just as coins possess heads and tails. To claim that the existence of free will ousts the argument for determinism is like saying the existence of life proves there is no such thing as non-life. Pockets of the universe are alive and at times appear to demonstrate free will. At the same time, vast pockets of the universe remain simple and un-alive, residing in deterministic stasis. The universe is not black and white. All phenomena are fleeting snapshots of a vast amorphous continuum of complexity. If this view is true, where then, did free will first emerge?
Whenever any elements combine and, by the fact of their combinations, produce new phenomena, it is evident that these phenomena are not given in the elements, but in the totality formed by their union. The living cell contains nothing but mineral particles, just as society contains nothing but individuals; it is obviously impossible, however, for the phenomena characteristic of life to exist in the atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. For how could the properties of life exist within inanimate elements? Life…is in the whole, not the parts.
Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (1895)
About 4 billion years ago, the first biochemical reactions arose on earth. The earliest of these reactions almost certainly took place on alkaline hydrothermal vents. It would be a stretch to call these simple chemical reactions living. It would be an even greater acrobatic feet of the intellect to endow them with free will. Does this mean simple life is deterministic…in my mind, unequivocally, YES! Life is deterministic…at times!
The elaborate nano machinery of single celled organisms, while elegant and breathtaking, does nothing to suggest the endowment of free will. An individual cell is nothing more than a boiling vessel of chemical reactions and is, by all means, deterministic in nature. If single cells have a consciousness, it must be of the most rudimentary nature. I personally see cells as fundamental building blocks of consciousness (as we understand it). I see consciousness as an emergent property brought about by the interactions of cells. If true, this may suggest that free will is not innate among life forms but rather emerges over time due to certain interactions and under certain circumstances. That is assuming, of course, that consciousness precedes free will. Just as social behavior is not inherent across the biological board, free will, may too, only be found among certain species and to varying degrees. Perhaps, even individuals of the same species have varying degrees of free will just as they have varying degrees of intelligence, physical strength and immunity? Honey bees, for instance, vary in their willingness to venture far from the hive in pursuit of resources. Do these more “adventurous” bees have a greater degree of free will than their sisters? This begs the question, how much free will do I have?
Some studies suggest many of our actions involve no will at all. Blinking, for instance, can continue without will. But one can choose to blink, or not blink, if inspired to do so. Even sophisticated actions like reaching out to grab a glass of water, may too, be more involuntary than once thought. But complex decisions that impact an individual’s long term circumstances, like weather or not to marry, appear to be the outcome of free will. But if we look at humanity as a whole things appear a bit more more blurry. As we zoom out and observe the entire super-organism of human civilization, the free will of the individual seems to get swallowed up by the collective. It would almost appear there is a super consciousness of sorts, pushing humanity towards ever greater complexity even if against the will of the individual.
The debate over determinism vs free will often enters my mind, while observing our honey bees. The workers, drones and queen all appear to demonstrate a degree of free will. This is, of course, nothing more than an observation but I think it still carries a pinch of validity. One bee can choose to sting me while the others sit back and watch. Each worker appears to decide which direction she will travel in. Each queen varies in her egg laying patterns. Every bee is utterly unpredictable, exhibiting its own set of choices. Individuals demonstrate unique rudimentary personalities. But the colony as a whole is predictable and arguably deterministic. I can tell you with a great degree of certainty when a colony will swarm, when it will draw new comb, when it will raise drones and so on. The entire bee society is predictable and deterministic despite the personality differences among individuals.
While bee sociology is a far cry from that of homo sapiens, some striking parallels do emerge. To name a few, people and bees are both multicellular eukaryotes, highly social, rely on the collective for individual survival, demonstrate specialization and contribute to a social structure whose complexity far outstrips that of the individual. It appears that both humans and bees must be willing to sacrifice individual freedoms for the sake of complexity…a complexity, that in turn, ensures the survival of the individual.
There is a potential irony here. If highly social animals do indeed sacrifice a degree of freedom for the sake of the collective, and ultimately for self preservation, do “simpler” less social animals exhibit a greater degree of free will than highly social beings? Do sea slugs have more autonomy than business men? After all, a sea slug carries with it everything needed for its own survival. It needn’t briefcases, luxury cars, roads or a mortgage to go on with life. The free world prides itself on its economic prowess, technological capabilities, liberty and rugged individualism…cowboys, entrepreneurs, and go-getters. Perhaps, quite the opposite is true!?
Could it be that we so-called rugged individuals are nothing more than simple gears in a magnificently complex mega-machine, fueled by the sacrifice of free will? Could it be, that industrialized consumers are among the least free of all entities. Does the development of space travel, super computing and robotics require the complete surrender of free will from all participating individuals? Like moths to a light, it appears we can’t resist the pull towards greater complexity even at the potential expense of free will. Complexity may be the ultimate tenancy of the cosmos.
Increasingly, individual people are less and less able to function independently in modern society – we rely on the superorganism to feed, clothe and power our many tools, to inform and heal us, even to help us reproduce through surrogacy or IVF. In coming decades, it is likely that access to the internet will have reached almost every part of the globe and, as we become more cohesive as a networked society, individuals who remain outside of the new superorganism will find themselves isolated culturally and technologically from what it means to be a human in the Anthropocene.
Gaia Vince, Homni: The New Superorganism Taking Over Earth 2014
Why would we assume that the laws of reality, at play for nearly 14 billion years, would cut humanity any slack? What makes us think we can turn the tide of evolution, stopping the headstrong, galactic march of complexity, in it’s path? I question whether or not humanity has the ability to simplify. If the cosmos had a gun to our heads and said, “Return to the stone age, or face extinction!”, I think we would “choose” extinction. I fear that civilization as a whole is very limited
in its ability to make choices. Bees must build honeycombs, people must build cities…fin! The course has been charted and we have but a fingernails’ grip upon the helm. If right, we may be on a collision course with extinction? Or maybe, just maybe…we will become masters of the observable universe!? Any outcome resting in the middle seems implausible to me! Yeah…a bit of a juxtaposition, huh?
Over billions of years the highest levels of complexity have increased but is there a breaking point? Perhaps there is a ceiling to complexity and civilization is bumping its head against it right now? Some believe technological civilizations inevitably destroy themselves…that the universe has a complexity threshold and humanity is sitting on it. Civilization as a whole is a pretty precarious proposition after all!
As systems grow more complex, so too, does their fragility, energy requirements and rarity. For example, simple, dead, empty space is exceedingly common, comprising a whopping 99.999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 999 82 % of the known universe. It has an energy requirement of zero and is indestructible. Now, of the remaining 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000028% of the universe, 99.999% is in the form of plasma as in stars. Plasma is, of course, a more complex state than empty space and therefore requires more energy to exist. Plasma also demonstrates a degree of fragility. Stars do, after all, have a life span. Biological systems can be found within the remaining 0.001% of the observable universe. Living things have astronomical energy requirements and are exceedingly complex, rare and fragile. Empty space lives forever, stars live for billions of years, and bacteria live for hours or days. Last but not least comes civilization, ever teetering on the brink of collapse, drinking incomprehensible quantities of energy and demonstrating mind bending levels of complexity. In the great cosmic scheme of things, civilization is so rare and fragile it would appear almost impossible. One wrong move and the whole system comes crashing down…back to the primordial soup we go, and cities become a fleeting galactic memory.
As our civilization has become more and more complex, it has become increasingly vulnerable to disasters. We see this whenever there are power cuts or transportation failures due to severe storms. If electricity should fail for a very long period of time, our complex society would cease to function. The population of the world is now so large that it is completely dependent on the the high efficiency of modern agriculture. We are also very dependent on the stability of our economic system.
The fragility of modern society is particularly worrying, because, with a little thought, we can predict several future threats which will stress our civilization very severely. We will need much wisdom and solidarity to get safely through the difficulties that now loom ahead of us.
John Scales Avery, The Fragility of Our Complex Civilization (2014)
We have at our disposal enough nuclear warheads to decimate the entire terrestrial biosphere in a matter of hours. For many, famine is a reality lurking around every corner. The number one export in the US is topsoil, flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Acre by acre we are leveling our resource base only to reincarnate as garbage in landfills. Ounce by ounce we convert a hospitable Gaia into an exceedingly exotic and complex industrial hell. We are ever teetering on the brink of extinction. Could it be that the universe has given rise to countless complex industrial societies only to be consumed back into the ethers as quickly as they emerged? The universe is old as fuck…13.8 billion years! Evolution had plenty of time to work it’s magic. The cosmos should be crawling with intelligence! So where is everybody?
This question is commonly referred to as the “Fermi Paradox”… that is, why have we yet to make contact with other intelligent beings given the size and age of the universe? The fact that we have not a shred of evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence warrants the consideration that complexity may have an upper limit. The universe seems equipped with hurdles and stumbling blocks that narrow when, where and to what extent complexity can develop. This idea is called “The Great Filter”, and if true, would hold some answers as to why high levels of complexity are so rare and could suggest that space faring civilizations are simply impossible.
Below you see the gauntlet of hurdles that lie between the big bang and modern civilization. Each threshold is a filter marking a phase change in complexity. As matter and energy passes through each filter it develops new properties giving rise to something more complex and rare than that found on the previous “simpler” side of the filter.
Many folks suspect we’re approaching the final filter which could look more like a brick wall than a sieve! We may be right on course for extinction and completely incapable of grabbing the helm! Complexity appears to be our relentless captain. Are we simply passengers exercising our free will to drink pina coladas while our ship heads right over a cliff? We may be staring extinction right in the eyes but unable to make simple, ecologically responsible choices to prevent our own demise. Many people believe extinction is the inevitable outcome of intelligent life. In this scenario life will ultimately become too smart for it’s own good, eventually succumbing to it’s own technologies. It is my hope that this theory is invalid. While there are many great filters already behind us, this doesn’t necessarily imply that more lie ahead. Let’s cross our fingers. Currently we are the only known industrialized species in the universe. We have a sample size of one! Therefore only time can tell what is the likelihood of us passing through yet another great filter!
We walk the fine line of extinction every day despite our supposed free will. We continue to make choices that undermine the integrity of civilization, the long term survival of humanity and, arguably, all life on earth. With regards to the global human community, the quest for complexity appears to supersede the desire for stability. I think most people would agree it’s in our best interest to take a step back and slow our global “development” until we can make sense of where the hell we’re going. The headstrong cultivation of ever increasing technological sophistication and a more intimately linked global empire seems to prioritize complexity over the very survival of life on Earth.
We as individuals can exercise what little free will we may have…go to the movies, quit our job, build a house…but as a whole the inertia of the universe appears to press us ever closer to the ceiling of complexity or maybe, if we’re lucky, the next great phase change? We are, perhaps, free willing individuals who comprise a super-structure whose intricacies and directives are beyond the scope of any human understanding? Civilization, it appears, is mysterious and without self control. We cannot read a map and have broken our compass! Perhaps resistance is futile and we must surrender to the tireless march of complexity wherever it takes us? We may die, splattered across the ceiling of complexity, or maybe, just maybe, we will be the first to shatter it? And then where will we go? What might we become? If there are answers to these questions they’re undoubtedly inconceivable to anything alive today. Are there emergent properties incubating in us now, patiently waiting for the next great filter? Perhaps one day someone or something will read this, itself being the answer to these very questions?
But for now I am left to ponder… Why don’t we create a simpler civilization built on sound choices? Perhaps it’s because we can’t? There is a theist saying “let go and let god”. These folks may be onto something? Perhaps this is a sound approach to life? If so what of the atheists and agnostics…what should they do…? well, just a thought, maybe they should “let go and let universe”? After all, this thing may be out of our hands, free will…or no free will?