Free Agents by Dr. K J Mitchell: review

 “Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will” by Dr. Kevin J. Mitchell.

I’m currently concerned with how well our existing concepts equip us to discuss consciousness and free will.  Dr. Mitchell promises to help out:

A purely reductionist, mechanistic approach to life completely misses the point… basic laws of physics that deal only with energy and matter and fundamental forces cannot explain what life is or its defining property: living organisms do things, for reasons, as causal agents in their own right… I present a conceptual framework that aims to naturalize the concept of agency by grounding the otherwise vague or even mystical-sounding concepts of purpose, meaning, and value. The truth is that, far from being unscientific, those concepts are crucial to understanding what life is, how true agency can exist, and what sorts of freedoms or limitations we actually have as human beings.

while warning that:

“Do we have free will?” is undermined in an obvious way by a lack of agreed-on definitions.

So Mitchell promises to apply both scientific discourse and everyday language discourse in a satisfactory account of free will. How successful is he? That’s what my review will focus on.

The bulk of his text consists of summaries of every science touching on life. He includes even accounts of basic physics such as quantum theory. His reasoning:

How can we think about things like purpose and value and meaning without sinking into mysticism or vague metaphor? I argue that we can do so by locating these concepts in simpler creatures and then following how they were elaborated over the course of evolution…

Anyone curious about free will is likely to be bored by his accounts of familiar science, and skim, as I did, so I may have misunderstood him. But as he rises from one level in the emergence of intelligence among living creatures to another he seemed to me to be looking for cracks in determinism he could aggregate into a space big enough to squeeze free will into. From his blog,

The idea that an organism can have causal power, as a whole entity, as a self, depends on concepts of emergence and downward causality.

This continues throughout the book, culminating in a recapitulation of his argument in a final chapter titled “Free will.”

When you use everyday terms to refer to the evolution of intelligence, as Mitchell does, an obvious danger is you’ll mistakenly project your own evaluative terms onto the creatures you’re studying. To illustrate, of an animal that’s lost its leg you might say it is “wanting” a leg, “wanting” here meaning merely missing but confusable with the animal consciously “wanting” its leg back. Such confusion is referred to as the “pathetic fallacy.” Mitchell’s challenge is to gain new insight into free will by employing everyday terms along with scientific terms without falling into this fallacy. I’m interested because that’s exactly what I’m concerned with—valid ways of talking about consciousness and free will.

How does he do, in his final summing up? I’m not sure. Maybe he defined and qualified his terms in prior chapters, freeing him to use them as he does here.  In the following, taken again from his blog, what are we to assume he means by "represent"? What does his "represent" represent?

They’re higher-order patterns of neural activation that represent beliefs and desires and goals and possible actions.

Brief quotes may do him an injustice, but it’s the best I can do. From his final chapter titled “Free will,” in order as they appear:

Living things strive, actively, to keep themselves organized… The first glimmers of meaning and value inhered in these responses: approach or avoidance was good or bad for the organism, relative to its goal of persistence. Organisms now had reasons for doing things… patterns of neural activity that do not just have pragmatic consequences but rather have semantic content: they mean something to the organism… At some point in evolution, our internal models became so abstract and recursive that they gave rise to mental experience… through both biological innovations and cumulative cultural evolution, humans developed capacities for creative, open-ended, recursive thought and boundless imagination that truly set our minds free to combine and manipulate ideas in more and more abstract ways… I aimed to naturalize the underpinning concept of agency, with its core elements of purpose, meaning, and value, so as to arrive at an understanding of the properties, scope, and limitations of human decision making…

His final sentence casts doubt on the wisdom of embarking of his enterprise, “to naturalize the underpinning concept of agency”:

The low-level details and laws of physics do not fully explain how the system evolves: not “fully” because indeterminacy leaves open multiple possible paths,

I felt validated in my concern that the terms available to us are inadequate to comprehend free will. Such a set would have to describe consciousness too because, in my experience, we experience possessing free will only while conscious—there is no other condition the existence of free will is relevant to. Something else he confirmed for me: the kind of naturalistic or physicalist discourse that takes up most of his book is a poor place to look for gaps in determinism, because the possibility of such gaps is denied in its foundational premise.

Sapolsky's "Determined": review

I believe in consciousness equipped with free will. Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky doesn’t. Our difference runs deep. Sapolsky: “I haven’t believed in free will since adolescence.” At that age I remember believing in free will enough to explore ways of amplifying it. So, on the matter of free will, we both care.

But should you? Two decades ago, of two dozen humanists I queried, three claimed they didn’t have free will, another three (not including me) claimed they did. Three quarters of those present, though, cared so little as to have no opinion. So, no, like most people you probably don’t care.

But Sapolsky is intent on making you care:

This book has a goal—to get people to think differently about moral responsibility, blame and praise, and the notion of our being free agents. And to feel differently about those issues as well. And most of all, to change fundamental aspects of how we behave.

In reviewing “Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will” I too have a goal: to thwart Sapolsky’s goal.

From his introduction:

The book’s intentionally ambiguous title reflects these two halves—it is both about the science of why there is no free will and the science of how we might best live once we accept that.

For me, Sapolsky’s marshalling of scientific proofs for the non-existence of free will falls flat. For two reasons: first, more obviously, because absence of evidence, which is all science can deliver, is not evidence of absence. Let me give you a parallel to illustrate this: Jane’s car traveled to Albany yesterday. Explain. Sapolsky would respond by itemizing everything required for the car to travel--the engine, the brakes, the tires, the gasoline. Since any one of them being deficient would prevent the car from operating, them all being sound together accounts for the car travelling to Albany! Actually, the explanation we want is that Jane drove her car to Albany because she has a friend there she wanted to visit. Sapolsky’s listing all the ways our thinking and behaving depend of neuronal machinery and established cultural norms is beside the point. Our concern is, how to account for our experience of free will operating within conscious experience to drive at least some of our behaviors. Sapolsky ignores this concern.

Why? How does Sapolsky experience consciousness? Let’s consult his text. I recall only one instance of him reporting his conscious experience:

I’m driving down the freeway… I’m listening to music. And then a guy passes in a sensible electric car that I note has one of those commit random acts of kindness bumper stickers. In the next few seconds, I probably have the microexpressive start of a smile, along with a number of thoughts. “Well that’s nice.” “I bet I would like the guy.” “I wonder who he is.” “I bet he has an organ donor sticker on his driver’s license.” And then I tease myself for having such a macabre thought. I think that he no doubt listens to NPR. Then I think how ironic it would be if he were on his way to rob a bank…

No conscious decision-making here, no intentions, no desires, simply observations and associations. Daniel Dennett, to prove he experienced consciousness, similarly reported being conscious of seeing a tree out of his window. Again, sensation, no free will.

Sapolsky goes on:

Then, about thirty seconds later, the car ahead of me to the right signals that it wants to merge into my lane. Being a jerk, I think, “Oh no you don’t! I’m in a rush,” and am just about to put my foot on the gas when I briefly flash on the bumper sticker. I stop from pressing the accelerator. And half a second later, I shift my foot to the brake, allowing that car to merge, briefly basking in a sense of my profound nobility.

What does this experience mean to him:

What went on in those seconds after I saw the bumper sticker? It’s deterministic Aplysia [sea snail neuroanatomy] all the way down… We have a motor output, the neuron(s) that triggers our muscles to push down on the gas. And on a metaphorical level, there’s neural circuitry whose net output is to stimulate that neuron, a “Do it” signal, while a different circuit prompts an inhibitory “Don’t; slow down instead.”

As he points out, his decisions were autonomic. No reports here of decisions arrived at within consciousness. Is it conceivable that Sapolsky does not experience conscious as we do?

While reading about people having no mind’s eye, no ability to create mental images (“aphantasia”), I came across a related condition: people testifying to not being conscious of their own thinking processes, only of sensations coming into consciousness and completed thoughts passing out, as speaking and behaving. The thinking required to go from sensations to responses appeared to them to go on behind a curtain, out of sight. Yet they displayed no loss of mental ability. So there are people whose experience matches what Sapolsky reports of himself and seems to assume of the rest of us. From their experiences these people would have no reason to doubt what science declares, that all their thinking is due to deterministic factors. Fortunately for people with aphantasia (“aphants”), there’s an organization, the Aphantasia Network (, that they can visit to commiserate with fellow sufferers. Maybe Sapolsky should start such an organization, for people not conscious of their own thinking processes. He knows his condition is unusual. He writes:

I recognize that I’m on the fringe here, fellow traveling with only a handful of scholars (e.g., Gregg Caruso, Sam Harris, Derk Pereboom, Galen Strawson)…

And one other professional spokesperson for physicalism/determinism, in response to my asking, paused, then admitted he did not experience consciousness. There are probably candidates enough for a jolly Arctic cruise.

You might wonder, how do they account for so many people disagreeing with them? We get insight into that from Sapolsky. In an extended defense of atheism he likens other people’s reports of consciousness and free will to belief in religion. In other words, for him consciousness and free will partake of the supernatural. Could he be serious? For me, there is nothing more down-to-earth and in-your face than being conscious. It’s more real to me than my right hand. Yet he regards our conscious experience as no more real than ghosts and goblins or, as he tactfully puts it, “rarefied aspects of the universe that do work indeterministically.”

In the second half of “Determined,” to present the upside of determinism, Sapolsky resorts to the classic moral concern of physicalists/determinists: responsibility. If all our behaviors are determined, as he believes he has proved, what sense does it make to hold anyone responsible for anything?

Here again for me all his huffing and puffing is to no effect. We hold people responsible because we assume they arrive at the decisions that drive their behavior in consciousness, as we do, and it is that that justifies us and them being held responsible. Whatever the consequences of this are, they operate by entering the consciousness of them, of us, and of everyone else.

Where can you start when confronted with such an evangelical physicalist/determinist? First of all, do not argue in his/her terms. There is no way to defeat the physical denial of consciousness and free will, their absence is implied in the very terms they use. Instead, ask if they experience arriving at their decisions within consciousness? If they say, no, there is nothing to discuss. Change the subject. If they’re like Sapolsky they’ll be highly intelligent, broadly cultured, and dryly amusing. Good fun.

I end this review with quotations from his text.

About the impact of science:

the decisions you supposedly make freely in moments that test your character—generosity, empathy, honesty—are influenced by the levels of these hormones in your bloodstream and the levels and variants of their receptors in your brain.

In order to prove there’s free will, you have to show that some behavior just happened out of thin air in the sense of considering all these biological precursors. It may be possible to sidestep that with some subtle philosophical arguments, but you can’t with anything known to science.

where did that intent come from in the first place? This is so important because, as we will see, while it sure may seem at times that we are free to do as we intend, we are never free to intend what we intend… at the moment when we believe that we are consciously and freely choosing to do something, the neurobiological die has already been cast. That sense of conscious intent is an irrelevant afterthought.

Is the reach of science broad enough to banish the possibility of free will?

Crucially, if you focus on any single field like these—neuroscience, endocrinology, behavioral economics, genetics, criminology, ecology, child development, or evolutionary biology—you are left with plenty of wiggle room for deciding that biology and free will can coexist. [But] put all the scientific results together, from all the relevant scientific disciplines, and there’s no room for free will.

Some science must be qualified:

what the revolutions of chaoticism, emergent complexity, and quantum indeterminism show is that some of the most interesting things about us defy pure reductionism.

But isn’t that also true of the classic laws of physics?

Will we ever get to the point where our behavior is entirely predictable, given the deterministic gears grinding underneath? Never—

Generally most physicalists/determinists comfort us with this assurance it can never be proved that we're determined. But doesn't it also mean they can never prove we are? Why are they so sure?

Sapolsky goes on to claim that by giving up free will we’ll enjoy enhanced harmony with our surroundings:

we can subtract responsibility out of our view of aspects of behavior. And this makes the world a better place… it makes as little sense to hate someone as to hate a tornado because it supposedly decided to level your house, or to love a lilac because it supposedly decided to make a wonderful fragrance. That’s what it means to conclude that there is no free will.


What the science in this book ultimately teaches is that there is no meaning. There’s no answer to “Why?” beyond “This happened because of what came just before, which happened because of what came just before that.” There is nothing but an empty, indifferent universe in which, occasionally, atoms come together temporarily to form things we each call Me.

What about evolution, through which free will would have had to originate? He marches loyally behind physicalism’s standard: we originated through purely physical processes.

evolution—the random physical chemistry of mutations occurring in DNA provides genotypic variety, and natural selection is then the filter choosing which mutations get through and become more common in a gene pool.

No room for free will there.

In one crucial respect, physicalists/determinists do overshadow us free-will advocates. They have inherited and further developed an elaborate and coherent body of concepts.  Can we free-will advocates develop our own? Until we do, it will remain inviting for physicalists/determinists to add to their tally of publications with further denials of consciousness and free will.

Meyer: Return of the God Hypothesis

Stephen Meyer’s ”The Return of the God Hypothesis” consists of two interwoven narratives. One, occupying the great bulk of the book, is an exhaustive compilation of aspects of the physical world that today’s science can’t account for. Let’s refer to that as the text. The other consists of brief comments interspersed within the text suggesting that each of these unknowns can be accounted for better in terms of “intelligent design.” Let’s call that the “commentary.” Apply to that the critical reading needed to appreciate the text, and the commentary fall apart. Meyer lays bare for us the barrenness of creationism’s claims.

First, let’s do justice to the text. It carries considerable authority and is clearly written. It is, however, exhaustive to the point of tedium. I doubt that anyone interested in Meyer’s hypothesis will plough through his text. I was tempted to say “OK, I give in, I’ll take the rest on faith.” I confess I wondered if that was the point. I began to skim and sample.

Text and commentary are written in contrasting styles. Where the text is disciplined scientific discourse the commentary more resembles angels-on-heads-of-pins scholasticism. Words like “transcendent” sometimes mean merely beyond the reach of today’s science, at other times--well, you know, spiritual, supernatural! As accounts besides materialism of what’s beyond the reach of today’s science he recognizes pantheism, deism, and theism, yet in place of them as a group he’ll often say just “God,” capitalized, implying the Christian god.

The properties of the universe and of life—specifically as they pertain to understanding their origins—are just “what we should expect” if a transcendent and purposive intelligence has acted in the history of life and the cosmos. Such an intelligence coincides with what human beings have called God, and so I call this story of reversal the return of the God hypothesis.

As a target to apply critical analysis to I found this kind of writing impossibly slippery.

Here’s how I wish his argument had gone.

First, let’s compile a list of things in the physical world that today’s science cannot account for. Then, let’s allocate them to made-up causes. I suggest we give those causes names like Stoic element 1, Stoic element 2 and so on, along the lines of the Stoic element 5, the quint-essence, that the Stoics supposed was responsible for all the beauty and order in nature. Then we assign each item on our list to one of those causes, involving as few causes as we can. I might assign all unknowns to do with living creatures, all evo devo for example, to Stoic element 1. This cause, however, is unlikely to account for the origin of the universe, so I’d assign that to element 2. Fine tuning of the physical constants I might also assign to element 2, or I might assign it to a new element, 3. And so on.

Once we have all our unknowns assigned to a small number of Stoic elements as causes, we might look for sensible ways to differentiate them. Element 1, cause of all unknowns to do with living creatures, I might liken to pantheism. Elements 2 and 3 I might liken to deism.

Now, would it any longer make sense for someone to liken all these separate causes to theism? I don’t see any logic to that. Then, what does theism correspond to? I think, conscious experiences of a personal god, without question a reality and one that science can’t account for. Assign it to another element.

Such an analysis would give us a ground for assessing the claims of creationism. I think, by contrast, Stephen Meyer, in grouping all my Stoic elements under the header “intelligent design” and identifying them with the Christian God, reveals that all his claims are no more than a pious wish. I’m quite prepared to accept that a Christian consciousness is superior to today’s shallow atheism. But I’d prefer that claim to be based on other grounds that creationism. Sadly missing from Meyer’s book is any passionate testimony to the joys of believing in a personal god. Short of that, what does theism amount to?

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Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind.

I’ve long wanted an authoritative but readable account of how consciousness is thought about in a biological context, to compare my own thinking to. Peter Godfrey-Smith is a professor in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney. His “Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind” is what I wanted. He is the needed combination of academic philosopher and field worker; he illustrates essays on creatures and their minds ranging from microbes to humans with accounts of scuba diving amongst such creatures. In “Metazoa” I trust I come across all the ideas common in thinking about consciousness in a biological context.

My conclusion: those ideas are absurdly inadequate to the task. If we’re confused about consciousness that’s largely because we lack concepts we need for understanding it.

Metazoa does share with me some of this concern:

If we ask whether there is “something it’s like to be it,” then we are back where we started. Our current language seems somehow inadequate for asking the crucial questions here. But I don’t think the problem can be solved just by coming up with better terms; at this point we are inside a thicket of every kind of uncertainty.

His basic position is physicalism--mental is physical. To account for mind and conscious experience all we need to explain is how the brain generates thoughts and experiences:

The aim… is to make sense of why it feels like something to be a material being of the kind that we are.

Brain processes are not causes of thoughts and experiences, they are thoughts and experiences… experiences and other mental goings-on are biological, and hence physical, processes of a certain kind…

If materialism is true, then the storms within cells, the threading together of countless cells’ activity, the perturbed rhythms of their electrical breathing, and their large-scale coordination are the stuff of mind. This is what we are asked to identify with—not to think that our minds are a consequence of this, but that our minds are such activities… What is experience? First and fundamentally, it is the activity described above as felt from the inside.

any alternative seems to head back toward dualism… To say that is to go back toward a view in which brain activity somehow causes consciousness. Instead, once we have worked out the kinds of brain activity that matter here, we can say that having that pattern of activity is having conscious experience.

His method of study:

Evolution has shaped animals not just into complicated collections of cells, but into centers of agency and subjectivity... [To be explained] varieties of subjectivity, different ways of being a subject that relate to an animal’s lifestyle and circumstance.

He draws his conceptual terms mainly from human psychology and neuroscience:

There is also the possibility of a separation between different forms of experience, which I will call sensory and evaluative experience. (They might also be called sensory and evaluative consciousness)… They do sense and respond, and are full of signals, but this is probably not enough to have felt experience even in simple forms… These emotion-like states are in between those two timescales—longer than a jolt of pain, shorter than learning. When we look at these intermediate scales [similar to those of our experience], the evidence for experience can be quite strong.

What does a philosopher of biological philosophy have to say about the role mind plays in the cosmos?

Two starkly different pictures can be compared; we might think of these as desert and jungle. The desert view holds that mind exists hardly anywhere [human exceptionalism?]… The opposite vision is a jungle, with mind everywhere or nearly everywhere. The most extreme version of this view is panpsychism, with soul-like powers seen even in atoms… The truth is between these, neither desert nor jungle.

To propose such a vast range of roles for mind as from human exceptionalism (my reading of desert, above) to panpsychism is essentially to throw up one’s hands as to its place in the cosmos. “Metazoa” confirms my impression that the philosophy of biology, as far as mind goes, is barren. It lacks a discourse adequate to account for the biological origins of our experiences of consciousness and what that implies more broadly.

I’ve written the above not as an even-handed review of “Metazoa” itself but as a survey of the conceptual framework professional academic philosophers of biology bring to the study of the evolution of mind and consciousness. I am unembarrassed to assume the role of creative writer free to speculate wildly without consequences. Godfrey-Smith’s account helps me appreciate where and how I will appear to violate professional wisdom. Below a quick summary of my thoughts on the subject:

We humans are capable of thinking up novelties. By novelties I mean events that appear not to follow from the action of physical laws on prior events, ie are not physically determined. Examples are scientists coming up with alternative hypotheses and novel equipment they design to judge between them. Thinking up novelties like this typically involves conscious experiences. I will refer to being able to think up such novelties and conscious experiences as mind. Being able to generate novelty, mind is not physically-determined yet invariably comes associated with a brain, which is. Despite this, minds and brain work closely together: I can consciously decide to have my brain report on my current conscious experience and it will express it physically, in writing, and accurately, as my consciousness confirms.

For mind and brain to work together as closely as this they must have evolved together as a single entity. Evolutionary processes must be able to harness both physical and non-physical processes at the same time. If mental processes must have some physical support, as our minds are supported by our brains, where is the physical support for evolutionary processes? Drawing on Erasmus Darwin’s suggestion in Zoonomia that there exist “living filaments” capable of directing their own evolution and identifying his living filaments with our genomes, I suppose that genomes, as physical “brains,” support minds capable of thinking up novel kinds of living creatures.

Discount for a moment the current scientific mechanism for evolution of genetic mutation and natural selection, two purely physical processes, and look at the products of evolution with a fresh eye. Once freed from the assumption that they are the result of physical determinism, the process of evolution stands out as having vast capacity to create novelty, beyond anything we see in a purely physical environment such as the Moon or Mars.

In this view, genomes had to evolve first, before they could think us into existence, together with a portion of their creativity. But genomes are unlikely to have been the original platform for life. All (almost) of the genomes of species of living creatures are written in the same arbitrarily-settled-on redundant code, suggesting that some mind had to have evolved first able to migrate prior living creatures from a variety of other codes onto the genetic code of DNA and RNA. This suggests an origin of life as follows: First, physical creatures of a great variety were generated by chemically-generated AI, these induced into existence a mind that evolved able to bring about that migration of those creatures from a variety of platforms onto one consisting of nucleotides. The nucleotide platform facilitated further evolution leading to genomes as we know them. My cosmos consists of living creatures like us, thought up by genomes, in turn thought up by a process of evolution they in turn support.

This suggests there are several kinds of evolutionary processes, that we’d learn about by studying their products, first genomes, by studying the evolution of their creatures they generate, and then other processes of evolution by studying the evolution of genomes themselves.

Such a study is likely to generate a set of concepts with greater reach than those we have now.

I do not believe my account above is actually true, it can’t be, we don’t have the concepts yet. This is what I call an “as if” theory. It could act as a forcing ground for generating such concepts.

Now let’s see if there are signs of such ideas surfacing in “Metazoa.”

One of my suppositions is that genomes can read each other’s minds, that they form intelligences at every node in the tree of life. Otherwise, how could living creatures’ bodies maintain such perfect proportion as they develop, to an invariable schedule? But there may not be minds at every node. We each seem to have one, at the level of the entire individual, but not at the level of individual organs or cells. Then, there may be a mind corresponding to an ant colony, but not to individual ants:

Wound tending has never been seen in an insect. After injury these animals just continue, as best they can, with whatever they have to do. They may show some initial squirming, but then they get back to work.

Maybe the test should be for whether the colony repairs itself.

And, possibly, a convergence with some of my thinking:

the genealogical tree of life on Earth, the tree produced by evolution, now over 3 billion years old. First, and surprisingly, some activities that are mind-like in a broad sense are all over the tree, perhaps on every branch and stem…. one option has it that although precursors to experience exist in much of the animal part of the tree, felt experience arose several times in different evolutionary lines… second possibility is that a primordial form of experience arose just once, longer ago, early in animal evolution. That form was in place for the evolutionary radiations we have charted in this book, and developed in its own way down various different lines. Which is it? The attempt to resolve this question encounters every possible problem.

I sense a welcome open-mindedness.