Changing Perspectives on Free Will: An Example of Cultural Evolution#1


Any study of cultural (or "memetic") evolution will have to recognize the defining role of science in the process. The evolution of scientific knowledge operates as the engine fueling change in all the other aspects of culture -- such as technology">

Changing Perspectives on Free Will: An Example of Cultural Evolution#1


Any study of cultural (or "memetic") evolution will have to recognize the defining role of science in the process. The evolution of scientific knowledge operates as the engine fueling change in all the other aspects of culture -- such as technology, philosophy and the arts. Even religious world views adjust (albeit reluctantly) to the implications for cosmology of fundamental paradigm shifts in science. This paper attempts to demonstrate the effect of such shifts on one of humankind's most fundamental "memes": beliefs surrounding the issue of free will versus determinism. Throughout history, revolutions in science have been followed by revolutions in the way people view causal processes in nature and their own role within or without these processes. The issue of free will versus determinism can be interpreted by humans only in the context of their assumptions about what causes things to happen, in both a cosmic and a personal sense. From the atomism of Hellenic Greece, through the geocentric theory of Ptolemy to the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions and the subsequent breakthroughs of Darwin, Pavlov and Einstein -- to the work of today's evolutionary scientists and psychological neuroscientists -- we can trace corresponding radical alterations in assumptions about the possibility for, and limits upon, human sovereignty. These changes are identified in the world views of Democritus, Augustine, John Duns Scotus, Erasmus, Descartes, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Schopenhauer, Joseph Priestley, Harriet Martineau, Marx, Spencer, Freud, Santayana, Julian Huxley, Jean-Paul Sartre and Hannah Arendt. The study concludes with an acknowledgment of the seminal contribution of Ivan Pavlov, who showed how the emergence of the language facility in one branch of upright primates opened the door for this "second signaling system" to function in a way that enabled the humans thus endowed to "think". This made it possible for them to act in response not only to reflexes conditioned by previous experience (as in the case of habits) but to imagine possible alternative responses and to assess the likely consequences of these in terms of remembered feeling states.

KEY TERMS: memetic evolution -- memes -- natural selection -- Lamarckism -- symbolic representations -- social behavior -- the "free will" meme -- metaphysical dualism -- neoPlatonism -- Scholasticism -- Necessarianism -- Romantic Idealism -- praxis -- survival of the fittest -- "the pleasure principle" versus "the reality principle" -- indeterminacy -- transcendentalism -- phenomenology -- existentialism -- Ubermensch -- value judgments -- contingency -- organic (feedback) causality -- "elan vital" -- the "second signaling system"


(A subsequent paper titled "John Dewey and the Problem of Free Will" follows this particular evolutionary current into modern times. It recognizes that any attempt to trace the evolution of the free will "meme" throughout history can point to only a tentative conclusion concerning its current status and the scientific warrantability of the beliefs supporting it today. The final paper -- to be published in 1999 in Humanist in Canada -- concludes with the suggestion that modern science would seem to justify a limited version of the free will meme which might better be defined as the capacity for reasoned choice.)


The purpose of this essay is to trace an important strand in the web of what can be termed cultural or "memetic" evolution. It is the story of changes undergone over a space of several millennia in one of the most significant memes in the entire span of human culture: changes that, at every turn, were generated and limited by the scientific explanations available at the time. We can think of memes as the smallest conceivable units of culture. They are meaningful entities capable of being expressed in symbols and images and thereby of being rendered transmissible -- not merely through imitation of observable behavior, but across generations and cultures. Or we could describe them as "patterns of information that can thrive only in brains or artificially manufactured products of brains -- books, computers and so on"#2

Ideas or concepts are memes, as are explanatory constructs, mythological representations, mathematical formulations, melodies, pictures and tools. Memes in the culture are considered to be analogous to genes as the basic self-replicating units of biology. However, the process by which replication and transmission occurs at the two levels of relations is very different. Although it can be argued that the vehicle of natural selection operates in both biological and cultural evolution, only the latter process is Lamarckian in the sense of being affected by what happens to individuals during their lifetimes.#3 Memes, unlike genes, are propagated by being disseminated and learned.#4 "As they propagate they can change -- mutate". In fact they are uniquely open to alteration: to both diminution and elaboration; to refinement and clarification as well as to obfuscation.

It is also necessary to distinguish between the symbolic representations that we now call memes and those social behaviors such as conditioned responses, habits and intuitive beliefs (or "animal knowledge") which we share with other animal species. Changes in social arrangements that must be directly modeled or conditioned anew for every infant and every generation do not add up to "memetic" evolution. Thus far, only humans have evolved the capacity to manipulate symbols rather than mere gestures and signs. It was the crucial breakthrough into symbolic language that enabled our species to emerge as the creators, bearers, shapers and transmitters of self-replicating memes with the capacity to transcend the barriers of time and place. Once created and communicated, memes function as controlling contingencies that feed back to determine social patterns and the behaviors and thoughts of individuals. As in the case of genes, however, some memes are more important than others. Alterations in certain critical defining ones will both reflect and contribute to revolutions in the major world views (or meaning systems) within the evolving stream of human culture. This is why any comprehensive, disciplined approach to the study of "memetic" evolution must begin with the identification and clarification of those basic concepts which have formed the underpinnings of world views throughout history. One of these is what we might call the free will meme.

The justice system of every society which operates according to the rule of law is based on certain premises about the possibility of free will. One of the most deeply embedded beliefs in Western culture has been that of free will. Throughout much of our history we have assumed that individuals possess the freedom to make moral choices, and must be held responsible for these. To what degree are we warranted in these beliefs? Does modern science justify our confidence, or does it raise questions about the sources of, and limitations upon, the general human capacity to be the masters of our fates? How does one examine such a question in the context of "memetic" evolution? The problem of establishing conceptual boundaries haunts the student of any specific meme; and one that has been as historically embedded in human culture as is the notion of free will poses a particularly difficult problem. This is because no meaningful discussion of the topic can ignore the beliefs about causality which have always and everywhere defined the limits of free will. Changes in such beliefs typically result from radical shifts in scientific theory; therefore some familiarity with the evolution of science is required. Added to this difficulty in limiting philosophical scope is the fact that adequate comprehension of any aspect of memetic evolution requires an in-depth knowledge of history. For instance, in the case of the free will meme in Western culture, we must begin by retracing our steps to Ancient Greece.


The Greeks of the Homeric era, and of the earlier Mycenaean civilization idealized by Homer, did not conceive of free will except as applied to the doings of gods. Humans were generally perceived to be at the arbitrary disposal of these all-powerful supernatural beings. It was not until the advent of Hellenic Greece that an orderly cosmos was assumed by leading thinkers, and the role of the human actor in all this was seriously pondered. In the fifth century BCE the atomist Democritus offered an explanation of causality which appears surprisingly modern. He thought that, although all events are determined when considered in ultimate and objective terms, what the human being happens to encounter of all this is usually the result of such a complexity of causal chains that, in any subjectively conceivable sense, many effects can only be perceived as random.

The Hellenic sophists and atomists did not associate this private sensation of random cause and non-conditioned volition with any free-floating faculty of the human mind which could act upon and redirect the course of cosmic necessity. It is true that Epicurus, in an effort to allow for human free will, subsequently introduced the idea of random "swerves" in the otherwise determined flow of atoms. But he did not conceive of the mind as different in kind from other aspects of reality. The notion of a soul or spirit existing apart from this material process, and exerting control over it, came from a different source. It had been introduced during the latter part of the fifth century by Parmenides and Pythagoras, and subsequently developed by Plato and his followers. However, the notion of free will as we presently understand it had to await the coming of Christianity -- especially the mystical orientation of Paul and the later scholarly elaborations of this perspective by Augustine.

Both Paul and Augustine grounded free will in a supersensual reality. This accorded with the prevailing world view of metaphysical dualism. So, too, did the Ptolemaic geocentric theory which, by the second century AD, had replaced the earlier heliocentric explanation of the Hellenistic Greek astronomer Aristarchus. Augustine, who had come from North Africa and had travelled in Persia and India, incorporated into the evolving Christianity of the period many of the key ideas from both neo-Platonism and the Eastern mystery religions. He posited a realm of eternal ideas with which the human mind makes contact in the act of pure contemplation, the ultimate reach of which is that highest level of the supersensual known as Pure Being. Augustine viewed all of human history as the unfolding of the Will of God. He thought that humans are born into this ongoing process -- bringing with them an element of free will -- in spite of the fact that God's omnipotence necessarily sets certain limits on that inherited freedom. God expects his human subjects to struggle against an innate inclination to do evil, wrote Augustine, and it is in this struggle that the will comes into play. Along with original sin is the God-given inspiration to exercise the will in the direction of choosing virtue. Augustine taught that those who succeed will find eternal salvation in the City of God.

Augustine's version of free will dominated Western culture for more than twelve centuries. It was not until the scientific progress originally encouraged by Scholasticism began to herald the demise of the very philosophical perspective which had nourished it that we find stirrings of radically different approaches to the notion of human freedom. John Duns Scotus, sometimes remembered as the last of the Scholastics, sought to separate the will from the intellect in the act of choosing, perhaps in order to restrict the intellect to the material realm assumed by then to be accessible to science. For him piety had to do with will -- not thought -- and the realm of freedom in the act of willing to be good rather than bad must of necessity reside in the time lapse between subjective contact with the conscience reflecting God's will and the volitions spurred by contingent material conditions.

Erasmus was pulled in two directions by the problem. He felt that Martin Luther's new theology, with its authoritarian extension of Augustine's ideas about predestination, denied the possibility of free will entirely. In his "Essay on Free Will" Erasmus expressed the desire to believe in an element of freedom of choice for individuals.#5 He differed from the teachings of the Church of his day in suggesting that human depravity was conditioned rather than innate. He also did not think that it could be predestined for all but the select few of the "saved", as Luther claimed.


During the European Enlightenment, efforts to reconcile a belief in free will with the premises necessary for a pursuit of science proceeded in two quite different directions. One of these followed the recommendation of Rene Descartes, the early seventeenth century French scientist and philosopher. Descartes' re-formulation of a mind-matter dualism left scientists free to regard the physical world as subject to cause and effect, while human spirituality remained open to non-material influences and free from necessary causality. Only within a dualistic cosmos, Descartes thought, could there remain a realm of freedom for human beings. While Descartes' updated dualism was successful in freeing "natural philosophy" from the strictures of supernatural religion, its effect on social science proved to be disastrous, and for biology only a little less so. However, it did allow for continued faith in the older notion of free will as spirit isolated from the realm of material necessity.

The other direction culminated during the late-eighteenth century in a movement called Necessarianism, which represented a further refinement of dualism. This was based on the work of Isaac Newton in physics and John Locke in psychology, and was formalized in Britain by Joseph Priestley. It involved substituting a Creator who had engineered a complex cause-effect machine operating by rules discoverable through scientific inquiry for the older notion of a God who interfered in the ongoing course of history. It was a machine within which humans -- as even more complex mechanisms -- had an important, but as yet little understood, part to play. This essentially dualistic perspective left unresolved the problem of how an autonomous will could intersect with and affect the flow of linear cause-and-effect governing material existence.

David Hume chose to take a stand specifically on the issue of free will: one that ignored the role of any supersensual order. He spelled out a view of cosmic change dispensing altogether with the older dualisms of substance versus spirit or mind. Harking back to the Hellenic Greeks, Hume spoke instead of a process of cause and effect enveloping all of reality -- human as well as inorganic existence. He thought that, within this all-encompassing process, human free will does indeed play a role -- in spite of the obvious fact that behavior is to a large extent predictable. Hume maintained that, although each individual act is really the effect of the acting person's character and motives, the person can always choose not to act in any given situation. The human process of making inferences on the basis of experience opens up this possibility. Hume concluded that all legal and ethical systems are founded on this premise.#6

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a contemporary of Hume, saw free will very differently. He believed that individual humans were originally endowed with a sovereign will, but that this was forfeited to the extent that desire for property and the need for mutual protection had made society necessary. Society and its laws gave "new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich [and] destroyed natural freedom for all time".#7 Rousseau's faith in the legitimacy of will over reason resonates through all his writings and clearly characterized his own life choices. In a later work on politics (Le Contrat Social) he came to the conclusion that there does exist a possibility for the protection of his vaunted "natural" freedom. It is the social contract by means of which all the individual wills are voluntarily relinquished to the General Will: a somewhat mystical mirroring of the ultimate source of natural virtue represented on earth by the sovereign authority of the state. Rousseau was satisfied that his approach rescued the concept of free will from the threat implied by the new Newtonian determinism.


The Enlightenment version of Newtonian determinism had been gaining ground among scientifically oriented intellectuals for some time when Immanuel Kant decided to take action against it. He viewed the dismissal of the very possibility of free will as one of the harmful legacies of Enlightenment thought. He set out to update and re-establish the philosophical foundations of dualism in order to make room for two premises: premises that he deemed necessary to maintain a central role for the human will in the scheme of things. These were unconditioned intuition and moral autonomy. Humans, he said, represent "intelligence with a will" and thus "are endowed with causality .... Freedom of will is autonomy, i.e. that property of will by which it determines its own causality and gives itself its own law".#8 He believed that a similarly unconditioned reason serves this free will by identifying "universal imperatives": logically consistent moral principles by which the individual who acts in terms of them can be assured of their universal applicability and essential truth. Arthur Schopenhauer expanded on Kant's ideas, explaining that the free will of each individual is a manifestation of the cosmic Will which it rejoins when the person dies.

The position spelled out by Kant and Schopenhauer was subsequently quite drastically altered in the process of being merged by the German romantic movement with the thought of Rousseau and that of Augustine (as filtered through Lutherism). Schelling went so far as to once more elevate free will to "primary being". The progression of the meme in this direction culminated in Hegel's dialectical version of idealism in which the State, as the vehicle of Rousseau's General Will, became the earthly representation of Pure Being.

Harriet Martineau, translator of the works of Auguste Comte and herself a founder of sociology, was another who struggled mightily with the free will meme. In the end, in spite of the alternatives provided by the philosophers of her time, she rejected the notion altogether. "In a practical sense," she wrote, "all the world is determined. All human action proceeds on the supposition that the workings of nature are governed by laws that cannot be broken by human will... The very smallest amount of science is enough to enable any rational person to see that the constitution and action of the human faculty of Will are determined by influences beyond the control of that faculty".#10 She referred to the notion of free will as "that monstrous remnant of old superstition". Here Martineau was expressing the logical implications of a Newtonian causality as applied to the type of radical monistic philosophical stance then being developed by Ernst Haeckel #11. In so doing, she was repudiating the dualistic Kantian world view which had prevailed for almost a century.

Karl Marx, in a reversal of Hegelianism which never quite escaped the premises of dualism, gave to matter what Hegel had assigned to spirit. Marx took from Kant the notion of a teleological unfolding of those political-social conditions necessary for the blossoming of humanity's hidden nature. In a unique application of Kant's "pragmatic anthropology", he defined the human being as an essentially active agent -- with a consciousness forged out of social conditions -- through which the forces of history were to realize their inexorable progress. In Marx's thought, free will was partially restored in that he left open the possibility that humans could intercede by means of praxis in a developmental process in which they were themselves implicated. But Dialectical Materialism set fixed limits on that freedom. Individuals could choose either to impede or to facilitate the inevitable tide of events: to act as midwives or as obstacles to the course of history propelling them along. They were powerless to alter that course.


As the turn of the century came and went, Western culture was split by three contending approaches to the free will meme . The majority of scientifically oriented social theorists chose the position implied by the physics of Isaac Newton and the "sensationalism" of John Locke. They were, for the most part, determinists in the Martineau sense, as distinct from those who preferred the various traditional dualistic reconciliations of fatalism and free will. The leading social theorists of the period attempted to do away once and for all with the "illusion" of a non-material free will somehow having an impact on matter from outside the process of evolution. It was not long, however, before a conflicting current of anti-determinism emerged as almost the mirror image of the former. This movement sought to repudiate causality in the realm of the human altogether and thus to resurrect -- largely in a non-religious context -- earlier beliefs concerning the sovereignty of the human ego. The new anti-determinism owed its vitality to the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as to the work of the pioneering existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson's concept of "creative evolution", and Edmund Husserl's method of "phenomenological reduction".

Meanwhile, a third perspective on free will was being explored by the American pragmatists, who seem to have been the first to realize the significance of Darwin's discoveries for causality in organic life. These thinkers, while agreeing with the determinists in their emphasis on the universality of cause and effect, recognized causality in organic and social life as something quite different from the mechanistic patterning of effects obtaining at the physical level of relations.

1) Newtonian Determinism.

The majority of the evolutionary thinkers of the late-nineteenth century had followed Thomas Huxley and Ernst Haeckel in remaining "Newtonian determinists" where causality was concerned. Most would no doubt have agreed with Ivan Sechenov of Russia who felt that social science would never progress until humanity had rid itself of the "metaphysical fiction" of free will.#12 Sechenov explained that society would have to be protected from dangerous offenders regardless of the origin of their inclination to crime. The only difference in approach (were we to assume a genetic-environmental origin) would be in our attitude toward the offender. He thought that a justice system no longer based on the premise of free will would emphasize rehabilitation rather than punishment.#13 Two Western European theorists in particular are worthy of note because of the relative success and lasting influence of their efforts to achieve the progress to which Sechenov referred. They are Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud.

Herbert Spencer was one of the most creative of the systematic thinkers who attempted to adapt the new evolutionary framework to the prevailing scientific world view. He wanted to provide an explanation of the source of variation which (in the absence of our subsequent knowledge of mutations) was not then available in Darwin's theory. This source he identified as the drive within the developing organism for equilibrium with the surrounding environment: a drive rooted in the innate capacity to experience the presence or absence of discomfort or disjunction, and to feel the resulting pleasure and pain.#14 Spencer applied the equilibrium hypothesis to explain the entire evolutionary process in terms of mechanistic cause-and-effect. He included in this process both psychological development and social change. At none of these levels of change did he recognize any need to assume the operation of a free will unconditioned by preceding causes. Unfortunately, Spencer's doctrine of "survival of the fittest" reflected a confusion of genetic heritability with individual development, social change and cultural evolution. This lack of understanding of the hierarchical and emergent nature of systems in evolution -- and of the "contingent" nature of the causality operating at the organic and sociocultural levels -- proved to be a fatal flaw in Spencerian thought. It was this that spawned the Social Darwinism which was taken to extreme lengths by Nietzsche, and which influenced Freud as well.

Freud built on Spencer to a considerable extent. He set out specifically to "complete the Copernican revolution" by eradicating belief in the sovereignty of the individual ego. Like Spencer, he assumed the operation of a mechanistic causality at all levels of existence. Also like Spencer, he believed that characteristics acquired during an individual's lifetime are somehow passed along in the process of biological evolution, so that certain key aspects of culture (such as the oral tradition represented in the myth of Oedipus) are inherited as innate propensities. Freud thought that the unconscious serves to house such race memories, as well as socially destructive instinctual drives and repressed guilt-ridden fantasies of forbidden actions spurred by these -- along with forgotten memories of actual happenings. All these contents of the id interfere with the conscious ego in its struggle to resolve the inevitable tension between the "pleasure principle" and the "reality principle".#15 And both must contend with the super ego, or internalized awareness of the "good" as determined by the culture and taught by loved authority figures in the life of the developing child. Freud's theory left little room for "sovereignty" for this beleaguered and thoroughly conditioned ego.

George Santayana was typical of the scientifically oriented philosophers of the following generation who were strongly influenced by Spencer. He maintained that the "free will vs. determinism" problem could be dispensed with entirely by understanding that the will which we experience as free is no more nor less than "the observable endeavor in things of any sort to develop a specific form and to preserve it".#16 Santayana wrote this when a new model from physics was beginning to replace that of Newton in the theorizing of many philosophers. For people such as Jaspers and Heidegger, the indeterminacy that they thought was implied by Einstein's theory of relativity was far more congenial than any implications of Darwinism could ever be. However, Santayana viewed the existentialism of these thinkers as simply an updated version of romanticism, which he abhorred because of its central doctrine of the primacy of will. Perhaps fortunately, he did not live to witness the peak of the new wave of anti-determinism in human affairs.

2. Existential Anti-determinism.

More than any other person, Jean-Paul Sartre gave voice and energy to what he understood to be the application of the principles of relativity and indeterminacy to the human condition. Ironically, what actually coalesced in Sartre's writings were all the various strands of nineteenth century romantic transcendentalism. He included, as well, Augustine's conclusion that -- being human -- we are doomed to be free. Sartre had been also influenced in his formative years by Edmund Husserl's idea of the "life world" and "intentional object" of the human ego. In his rejection of what he viewed as mechanistic positivism, Sartre threw out, as well, the "abstract fiction" of cause and effect insofar as it applied to humankind. He had been introduced to Heidegger's writings by his German captors in the early years of the Occupation, and seems to have accepted at face value notions about free will borrowed by that philosopher from the older romantic idealism. Typical of these was Heidegger's declaration that "real freedom is achieved only through the discovery of the essence residing in the ... [collectivity]".#17 This idea appeared in somewhat different form much later in Sartre's attempts to reconcile existentialism with Marxism.

In Sartre's first publication, "The Transcendence of the Ego" the sovereign individual will was reinstated and given free reign. From Bergson's concept of "creative evolution" and Nietzsche's Ubermensch, Sartre derived the idea that "Man is the being whose project is to be God."#18 For him this meant that "freedom is simply infinite in each individual."#19 It "is precisely the being which makes itself a lack of being."#20 No one ever promised that being God would be easy, however, for according to Sartre, "man, being condemned to be free, carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders."#21 But, happily, this does not entail the burden of godlike responsibility, for man's life project is a creative aesthetic enterprise, and "we never speak of the artist as irresponsible."#22 When we cut through the conceptual confusion in Sartre's work, one conclusion at least seems apparent. Whereas the Husserlian phenomenology that first attracted him was a failed attempt to find a route to objective certainty by making individual consciousness a microcosm of the essence of an encompassing reality, Sartrian existentialism became an equally dead-end reversal that sought to make all reality a creation of the human ego. Sovereign free will had indeed made a comeback!

Hannah Arendt was an existentialist who differed radically from Sartre in that she attempted to retain a central role for reason in human affairs. She wanted to counter the position of the logical positivists of her time (such as Gilbert Ryle) who denied the reality of the will altogether. She believed that there must exist at least some degree of freedom to choose. She attempted to locate this in "the notion of a mental faculty corresponding to the 'idea' of freedom".#23 But she concluded that humankind, throughout its history, had confused freedom with sovereignty -- at both the individual and political levels. For her, free will could never mean sovereignty for, whatever humans are, they can never be unlimited by inheritance and circumstance.#24 She thought that what we have called free will is no less than the source of our personal identity and character.#25 "Our will is the originator of actions not explicable by preceding causes", she concluded.#26 It results in action that is contingent. Arendt shared with all existentialists a commitment to the idea that the future is indeterminate, and that we can retain our freedom only to the extent that we accept individual responsibility for shaping our own characters and for using our judgment to control the course of future events.

However, Arendt could not follow to their logical conclusion her ideas about the relationship between free will and the making of value judgments. This may have been because she was hoist on a petard of her own making. Although she was intellectually aware of the importance of Darwin's breakthrough, she had never been sufficiently able to free herself from her university enculturation to comprehend what it might mean for the nature of causality -- and thus for the free will issue. Her Husserlian-inspired dualism had led her to posit the existence of three separated faculties of the mind -- thinking, willing and judging -- and her model allowed no way for her to connect these within the context of human choice. If she had read the pragmatists and social behaviorists (whose work she seems to have both feared and loathed) she might have been surprised to discover that, in spite of her paralysing premises, the logic of her argument was leading inexorably to a quite different approach to free will. Her last, unfinished writings indicate that slowly but surely she was moving in the direction of the third path referred to previously.

3. The Role of Contingency in Human Actions

This third perspective on free will had been a long time developing and had actually originated a full century earlier, with Darwin's revolutionary breakthrough. But it was decades before members of the philosophical community began to understand that neither Newtonian nor Einsteinian physics is relevant to the issue of human freedom, for they do not deal with causal relations at the organic level of existence. Social theorists were slow to accept the idea that they must look, instead, to the process of evolution for a radically new way of viewing causality in the context of behaving organisms. For Darwin's findings implied that nothing more mysterious than a gradual accumulation of tiny advantageous changes selected by surrounding conditions have produced all of the complex structures of even the highest mammals -- including human brains and the "spiritual" processes of mind, soul and will.

What all this meant for philosophy and theology would have been earthshaking -- if its significance had, in fact, been recognized. One of the most important and least clearly comprehended aspects of Darwinism has been what it says about the nature of causality -- and, by implication, about the role of the human will in the universal causal process. The vehicle of natural selection that emerged with life was able to operate in terms of a new kind of cumulative and "after-the-fact" or contingent causality. Darwin's theory implied that the consequences of the organism's activities within its environment feed back to become, in turn, the causes of subsequent species-change. These consequences include both the impact of the organism on its environment and the degree to which it is successful in producing offspring. Although few were aware of it at the time, all this makes the organism's actions -- along with the contingent nature of the resulting environmental impact -- critical to the entire process of evolutionary change. The resulting emphasis on new definitions of the sources of these actions, for the first time within an evolutionary framework, encouraged a psychological and neuroscientific -- rather than metaphysical -- approach to the age-old question of "free will versus determinism". This marked the first stirrings of the third resolution of our dilemma. It was demonstrated originally by the work of Ivan Pavlov, and by the pragmatists John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. Although working within different conceptual frameworks, these men believed that Spencer (as well as Freud and other scientific determinists who were inspired by his work) had missed the significance of the crucial reversal of causality implicit in natural selection. This third group of thinkers began with the premise that the linear causality of physics does not apply at the level of psychological and social interaction. Their approach was based instead on the significance of functional circuitry, or contingent feedback, in the life process. This new perspective opened up the possibility of a radically new understanding of the origin and role of conscious choice in human affairs, and promised to make the older free-will versus determinism argument obsolete.

Henri Bergson can be credited with the idea that the prerequisite for individualized action (willing?) is the advanced nervous system of the human primate, "a veritable reservoir of indeterminateness".#27 He thought that this was the source of an inherent dualism of mind and matter which melded in the mystical flashpoint of a "memory image" within the "stream of consciousness" connecting "pure recollection" with perception: a flashpoint fueling the elan vital. Bergson was convinced that human free will requires both a complex nervous centre and the spiritual awareness rooted in the stream of consciousness. "our consciousness," he said, "does not spring from the brain; but brain and consciousness correspond because equally they measure ... the quantity of choice that the living being has at its disposal".#28

Unlike Bergson, the Russian researcher Ivan Pavlov had come to view the indeterminateness giving rise to a private awareness of "willing" as the beginning, rather than a satisfactory end point, of inquiry. He hypothesized that the causes of all animal behavior -- including that of humans -- were to be found outside, rather than inside, the organism. Eventually this led him to the discovery that inherited neural connections or reflexes are not immutable, but subject to change with altered circumstance. His findings demonstrated that reflexive responses can be elicited not just by stimulation of the relevant organs, but by new cues in the environment -- providing these have been consistently associated with the original occurrence of the response.#29 The broader significance of his finding was driven home for Pavlov when it became clear that, with the breakthrough into language, the human primate had evolved a sophisticated "second signaling system". This system allowed for a virtually unlimited source of stimulation for increasingly complex behaviors such as remembering, imagining and the weighing of alternative possibilities.#30 It had finally become clear -- to those whose reading and thinking had made them open to the possibility -- that the older assumptions of a dualism of mind and brain were no longer necessary to explain what we had been accustomed to thinking of as "willing".


  1. an article by Pat Duffy Hutcheon
  2. .Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1986), p.158.
  3. J.P.B. Lamarck, Philosophie Zoologique. N. Ed. (Paris: Librairie F. Savy, 1873). p.233-6.
  4. Dawkins, p.158.
  5. Margaret Mann Phillips, "The Free Will Essay" in Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance (Aylesbury, UK: The English Universities Press, 1964), p.192-3.
  6. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Charles W. Hendel New York, NY: The Liberal Arts Press, 1955), p. 100.
  7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses. Ed. and Trans. Roger D. and Judith Masters (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1964), p.160.
  8. .Kant, Immanuel, The Metaphysics of Ethics (Edinburgh, UK: T. and T. Clark. 1871). p.57.
  9. Harriet Martineau, Autobiography Vol. I (London, UK: Virago Press, 1983), p.110. First Published in 1877.
  10. Ibid.
  11. .Ernst Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe (London, UK: The Rationalist Press, 1929), p. 206- 7. First published in 1899.
  12. McLeish, John, The Development of Modern Behavioral Psychology (Calgary, AB: Detelig Enterprises, 1981), p.63.
  13. .Ibid., p.69.
  14. Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology Vols. I and II (New York, NY: D. Appleton, 1899), p. 284.
  15. .John Rickman and Charles Brenner, A General Selection From the Works of Sigmund Freud (New York, NY: Liveright, 1957), p.36.
  16. George Santayana, Realms of Being. One Vol. Ed. (New York, NY: Cooper Square, 1972), p.607.
  17. Mark Lilla, "What Heidegger Wrought" in Commentary 89, 1 (January 1990), p.43.
  18. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York, NY: The Philosophical Library, 1957), p.63.
  19. .Wilfrid Desan, The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1966), p.268.
  20. .Sartre, 1957. p.66.
  21. Robert Denoon Cumming, The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre: Selected Works (New York, NY: Random House, 1965), p.277.
  22. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism. Trans Philip Mariet (London, UK: Methuen, 1948), p.49.
  23. Hannah Arendt, "Willing" in The Life of the Mind Vol. 2 (New York, NY: Brace Javonovich, 1978), p.6.
  24. .-----------------, Between Past and Future (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1961), p.164.
  25. .Glenn Gray, "The Abyss of Freedom -- and Hannah Arendt" in Melvyn A. Hill, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1979), p.229.
  26. .Ibid., p.227.
  27. .Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975), p.140. First published in 1907.
  28. .Ibid., p.286.
  29. .Ivan Pavlov, Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes. Trans. W.H. Gantt. (New York, NY; Liveright, 1928), p.87.
  30. .Babkin, 1949, p.318.