The 'left' of evolutionism

Tue, 10 May 1994 19:25:00 PDT

Tomaso writes:
" Evolution emphatically _does_ _not_ downplay the
role of choice, intent and agency in behavior. Choice, agency and behavior,
rather can/should be seen as mechanisms of change ...."

I read his comments in two ways: (1) choice, intent and agency in behavior
have been well established from prior research; therefore any theory which
downplays choice, intent etc. must, ipso facto, be false, and the comment is
solely intended to point out that evolution cannot be rejected on this basis;
and (2) it expresses a BELIEF that choice, intent, etc. are critical aspects
of behavior and further that evolution is consistent with this belief. The
first reading suffers from the problem that obviously choice, intent, etc.
have not been exhaustively studied and their precise role in behavior well
established, so this suggests that the second reading is more accurate. But
this is problematic as it suggests consistency with prior belief is a
criterion for acceptance or rejection of a posited theory and thereby places
that prior belief outside of inquiry. We may like to BELIEVE that we have
choice, etc., but if the reality is that this is only an illusion, then it is
our belief that must change. Do we have choice? The question came up
earlier in the discussion on infibulation/female circumsion and it was
discussed previous to that in an exchange over free will.

Let me try out a way to avoid the usual quagmire that arises when dicussing
choice, free will, etc.

In some sense, what seems to be meant by "free will" or "choice" is the
notion that regardless of the inputs I have received, I am potentially as
capable of making one choice as another. The opposite view would be that my
decision is in fact determined by those inputs and I only have the illusion
of making choice.

Now let us suppose that the brain has two distinct levels. First, a level
which operates without our awareness and which is capable of the kind of
reasoning that we usually associate with conscioius thought; i.e. rational
thought. Let us suppose that this level uses some criterion like
"optimality" for decision making. So given a set of inputs, this level of
the brain processes the inputs and arrives at a decision: Do X. Let us
allow that decision making at this level is "predictable" if we know the
criterion that is used. Now consider the so-called conscious mind as being
capable of examining the state of the first level and taking the state of the
first level as input which it can examine in terms of higher level constructs
such as meaning (leaving aside the question of what constitutes meaning!).
So this second level takes the state of the first level--Do X--and examines
it at a higher level of meanings and, further, can override the first level.
In this scenario the second level is acting at a metalevel which is
inaccessible to the first level. We can postit that the second level, since
it is (in this scenario) capable of overriding the first level, capable of
giving this action a "meaning" e.g., the second level views this override
action on its part as "free will". However, there is no reason to assume
that the second level is capable of overriding any and all outputs from the
first level; e.g. overriding the first level might require a destabiliztion
of the first level.

This is a crude model, but would allow for viewing decision, free will, etc.
not in absolute terms but as a tension between different levels of the brain.

D. Read