What is Choosing and How Did it Start?

How can we have free will if we're made of molecules that don't make choices?

Posted Feb 22, 2018

The free will debate addresses an intuitive puzzle. We’re made of molecules. Molecules don’t make choices but we do. How does that work?
The puzzle is solvable once we recognize that there’s a huge gap in our scientific explanations.

See, the different sciences are supposed to pass the baton up to each other for continuity. Explanations from physics become the assumptions for chemistry. Explanations from chemistry should become the assumptions for biology. Sure, there are lots of little gaps to fill in within all of the sciences. That’s what makes them sciences, not pat, all-encompassing answers but a work in progress with scientists red-flagging the gaps and working to fill them.

Still, scientists have failed to flag one gap even though it’s huge, breaking continuity between the physical and life sciences.

Chemists don’t explain effort, function or fittedness which are the bedrock assumptions of biology. Chemicals don’t make effort and nothing is functional or useful to chemicals. And while chemical shapes and charges may fit each other, that’s different from biological fittedness, an organism’s adaptive traits and behaviors, functional because they tailor the organism to its environment.
Camouflage, for example. It’s not as though the terrains chemicals bond to the organism’s skin or fur. Instead, the coloration evolved because it’s functional for the organism, fitted to its environment.

So here we are, with great hand-me-ups throughout the sciences, but a gap between chemistry and biology where the hand-ups fail. Biologists explain behavior as functional, fitted effort, concepts that chemistry doesn’t explain. No wonder we have no explanation for how means-to-ends choosing emerges from cause-and-effect chemistry.

The Puzzle Solved.

Here’s a solution to the puzzle. Organisms make effort to maintain their ability to make effort. What is effort? It’s limiting the chemically possible down to the biologically viable.

Life’s most basic “choosing” isn’t felt or conscious.  A bacterium doesn’t decide how it will respond. Still, it limits what happens. Any effort that even the simplest organism makes is a functional limitation on the many things possible in chemistry. Effort is energy limited or constrained into functional effort that fits, instead of just any old chemical work.

Choosing starts as constraint, a limit on what happens. There’s all the work possible in chemistry and then there’s effort – the narrowed range of work for viability that an organism makes.

Your body is making such unfelt and unconscious effort right now, narrowing the chemically possible down to functionally fitted effort, for example, to regenerate your cells.

What’s doing this limiting of options?

The popular answer is natural selection, but no, it’s not really selecting. It’s just the environment’s features that organisms must narrow in on to keep regenerating themselves.

And what is it in organisms that does it? The DNA? Not really. DNA is a molecule. It’s not alive. It stores a record of the narrowed possibilities.

Is it, therefore, the organism’s material body? No, since a dead body is still there even though the functionally fitted effort has ended. We alternate between saying we are and we have our bodies. Actually, we have our bodies.

And what are we such that we have our bodies? We can name it anything – soul or spirit if we’re spiritual; organism, agency or will if we’re scientific. Naming isn’t explaining. Our names for whatever makes the difference between a live and dead body are just placeholders. We talk about them as though they explain life. Instead, we should talk about them as the red flag we plant over what must be explained, the gap yet to be filled. Whatever we call it, it’s what regenerates the limitations on what happens. It’s what limits possible chemical options down to the viable options that have kept life going for billions of years.

Living effort is a product of self-regenerative constraint, the way organisms constrain chemical possibilities down to those that regenerate the constraints. That’s the origin of choice.

How self-regenerative constraint evolves.

With the evolution of neurons, brains, and therefore feelings, animals engage in basic learning, an ability to refine the narrowing of their functional constraints over the course of their lives. A dog, for example, can learn new responses, new ways to narrow all possible effort down to what’s fitted to changing circumstances.

With language, our human capacity to narrow in on best effort to fit circumstances expands still further. Much further. Words free us to interpret a huge range of possible environmental factors including real and imagined ones in the deep past and far future. We can imagine a huge range of possible effort and narrow in by felt, conscious choice.

The free will debate focuses on choice at this level, ignoring the origins of choice, the narrowing that all organisms must do from the origins of life onward.
As such it makes free will researchers like assembly line workers way down the line puzzled by a flaw that originates way up the line where a scientific gap wasn’t filled because all the researchers thought it was someone else’s job. Biologists talk as though evolutionary theorists already explained functional, fitted effort. Evolutionists waffle about it, sometimes talking as though they explained it and sometimes as though they’ve explained it away with natural selection or DNA.  Chemists assume it’s biology’s job.

Bridging that huge gap from chemistry to biology is now possible. I explain the emergence of self-regenerative constraint in the next videos, but even just recognizing that every organism’s effort is a narrowed range the chemically possible down to the biologically viable provides a hint at what we’re looking for – life’s most basic choosing, unconscious unfelt self-regenerative constraint on chemical possibilities emergent at the origins of life.