Darwinian Conservatism and Free Will

Dr. Angus Menuge, PhD

Ordered Liberty and Darwinian Human Nature

Darwinian Conservatism claims that the central ideals of political conservatives are supported by Darwinism. In particular, Larry Arnhart argues that a Darwinian view of human nature fits nicely with the conservative ideal of ordered liberty: the intrusive central planning of the state can be minimized if citizens take personal responsibility for their actions (see Arnhart 2005 Darwinian Conservatism). This kind of buck stopping responsibility arguably assumes that a human agent has libertarian free will. Thus, Arnhart concedes that in order to support his claim that Darwinism is supportive of ordered liberty, he must show that libertarian free will plausibly arose via Darwinian processes.

Arnhart is aware that many Darwinists have understood the Darwinian paradigm as an inherently reductionist one, according to which human beings are machines that exist to preserve their genes. He grants that this makes it hard to see how there could be free will. At the same time, Arnhart thinks the Darwinian view is incompatible with dualistic schemes which assert that minds could exist independently of the physical world. However, like John Searle, Arnhart sees emergence as a third alternative. On Arnhart’s view, a mind with powers of rationality and free will emerged as a consequence of the selection in humans of frontal lobes with greatly increased size and complexity (for more on Searle, see his 2007 Freedom and Neurobiology, and then also my “Neuroscience, Rationality and Free Will,” Philosophia Christi 15:1 [2013] 81-96).

My critique of Arnhart

My area of specialization is philosophy of mind, and in my chapter, I argue, contra Arnhart, that the kind of libertarian free will presupposed by the conservative ideal of ordered liberty is not plausible given a Darwinian view of human nature. This is because four of the ontological requirements for libertarian free will exceed those available in the naturalistic framework presupposed by Darwinism.

1. The Self is a Continuant

For a self to be responsible for its decisions, it must be the same self who deliberates, decides and acts, which means that on Arnhart’s view, the self that emerges must be a continuant something that persists over time. However, I argue that there is nothing about the underling physical processes that explains or predicts a continuant self, because those processes are in flux.

2. The Unity of Consciousness

The unity of consciousness also does not plausibly emerge from physical processes because a subject’s thoughts are inseparably tied to that subject and this is utterly unlike physical structures of separable objects or events. The primitive unity of the self cannot simply emerge from the rearrangement of separable parts in aggregates or processes.

3. Teleology

Selves make choices in order to achieve various goals which they can represent in intentional states (states that are about something beyond themselves) such as desires. However, the whole point of the Darwinian paradigm is that there is no teleology within nature: undirected processes are sufficient to account for the appearance of design. I argue at length that various attempts (including Dennett’s) to explain how human purposes and intentionality arise from non-purposive and non-intentional processes are incoherent.

4. Downward Causation

If we have libertarian free will, then our choices make a difference to what our brains and bodies do. But as Jaegwon Kim has argued, the kind of emergence assumed by Arnhart is inconsistent. For if one rejects dualism, one must claim that every physical effect has a sufficient physical cause. So any mental states that emerge from underlying physical states cannot act back on the physical world. Indeed, I argue that to say that the mind has independent causal power is to be a dualist: emergent libertarian physicalism is not a genuine option.

Future Directions

My view is that philosophy of mind is increasingly dominated by bad faith naturalism: theories claiming to be naturalistic typically presuppose entities more at home in a non-naturalistic framework. Is it a coincidence that ’emergence’ has become an increasingly popular option, favored by both secular and Christian physicalists? I think that the term is generally poorly defined and frequently conceals inconsistencies both between the usage of various authors and in the thinking of a single author who hopes to mentally enjoy his mind and physically eat it too. What we most need is careful work closely defining and distinguishing various interpretations of ’emergence,’ followed by critical examination to see which (if any) of them has merit.

My concern is that ’emergence’ is too often employed as a non-explanatory veil of confusion and evasion of more important issues. For example, has emergence become popular partly because philosophy of mind has been too preoccupied with an ontological paradigm of physical event causation? Is it really plausible that a self (something apparently in the category of a substance) can emerge from underlying event causal processes? Is not a better approach (as pursued by E. J. Lowe , J. P. Moreland , and Richard Swinburne) to reconceive causation in general (and hence agent causation in particular) as fundamentally a relation between substances? If so, is emergence helpful in conceiving an agent’s powers of rational deliberation and free will? Are there more promising alternatives? (for more on this see E. J. Lowe 2008 book, Personal Agency: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action; J. P. Moreland’s 2008 Consciousness and the Existence of God and his 2009 The Recalcitrant Imago Dei; and then Richard Swinburne’s 2013, Mind, Brain, and Free Will).

More fundamentally, would we arrive at the idea of emergence if we had started by taking God Himself as the paradigm example of a rational agent? How much philosophy of mind, even when pursued by Christians, is driven by an impatient scientism, rather than a thoroughgoing theocentric and Christocentric view of reality? Philosophy of mind informed by a deep understanding of the nature of God and the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ may lead to some fascinating breakthroughs.

To learn more about the contributions of Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension (Lexington Books, 2013), click here for a fuller discussion at the EPS website. Readers are also encouraged to take advantage of a 30% discount when purchased through Rowman and Littlefield’s website (Lex30Auth14 – this discount expires 12/31/2014).