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Dr. Kevin Mitchell is an Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Trinity College in Dublin. His research focuses on understanding the wiring of the brain and how it relates to variation in human faculties, especially to psychiatric and neurological disease. Kevin’s latest book tackles a longstanding philosophical debate and makes bold new claims. It is entitled Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will. Kevin joins the podcast to discuss misconceptions about free will, the development of agency and decision-making in complex organisms, and consciousness as a filtering system.
Tom: Well, I’d like to welcome on our show Kevin Mitchell. Thanks for joining me today.
Kevin: Thanks very much, Tom. Thanks a lot for having me.
Tom: Well, I want to start off, going back to some of your early days and find out a little bit about you before we launch into your new book. Your new book is entitled Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will. And I’m really excited to dive into that, but to kick things off, let’s take it back to an earlier stage. Tell me a little bit about when you were a kid, like what are your greatest passions and interests that you pursued?
Kevin: Hmm. I guess I was a nerdy little kid. I was always interested in science and nature and the natural world. I grew up loving, like, Jacques Cousteau, you know, the old, marine biology kind of stuff, and then later on, David Attenborough. I just loved those things about the natural world, you know, animals, animal behavior. Those sorts of things were, I was, passionate about and I read loads of books about them and stuff like that. So, yeah, I guess probably from an early age, I had that interest that colored my professional career. And then I was interested in lots of other things like, you know, superheroes and baseball and lots of other normal kid stuff.
Tom: Absolutely. And tell me, where did you grow up?
Kevin: I grew up just outside Philadelphia, where I was born. And then when I was nine, we moved to Dublin. So I grew up mostly in Dublin. And then spent another decade back in California, actually, after my undergraduate days. I did my PhD and postdoc in California. So that’s why my accent is unforgivably all over the place.
Tom: Are there some people, particular people early in your life who cultivated, who saw the interest you had in science and, and actively cultivated or inspired or modeled it for you?
Kevin: Yeah, that’s an easy one. That was my mother. She was a naturalist as well and had done a master’s in biology teaching and she didn’t teach professionally, but she taught me. And, I was always inspired by her. Love of nature and her interest and her sort of I guess a scientific approach to things It didn’t rub off on my other siblings. Actually, they didn’t go that direction. But I definitely took a love of an interest in the living world from her.
Tom: What would you do if, if science were no longer an option, no longer on the table for you?
Kevin: Well, if I were younger, I’d definitely have a go at the baseball career.
Tom: Oh, nice.
Kevin: But, I’m only kidding. I never really had the talent for it, but I definitely enjoyed it. I’ve really taken to writing actually as an activity and there’s an awful lot to be said for the thrill of scientific discovery, where you’re really finding out something that nobody else in the world knows.
But, those experiences tend to be focused on very particular details, right? You don’t generally find out something huge and momentous all in one go. And I think the exercise of writing for me and trying to bring together different ideas is very satisfying. Actually, I think, thinking more broadly, trying to make a synthesis of things and trying to come up with a framework under which we can think about complicated ideas, is a direction I might go.
Tom: Yep. Yeah, I can tell just from reading your book that writing is important to you. It’s, for some, I think it’s a matter of conveying information, but I think for others it’s engaging with the reader and taking them on a journey in which you can start somewhere, and you want to accompany them to introduce them to some of the things that you’ve discovered.
And I think that it makes a big difference. I mean, in a sense, you can’t write a successful trade book without it. I mean, there’s plenty of things that’ll sit on a library shelf somewhere where one can really just do the mechanics. But I think that taking pride in writing makes the difference between a book that people want to read versus a book that people see as like a reference work, right? With information in it. So, well, I want to now take us to your book. Kevin, your new book is entitled Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will. And before we get into those details, actually, I want to start with a quote from Francis Crick that you had in your book.
I’m going to read it here so our listeners can reflect on it, and I think that will kick us off for a good conversation. So Francis Crick said, “You are, in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Kevin, what does that statement get right and what does it get wrong?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s a very stark statement. So, Francis Crick was famous for, you know, the discovery of the double helix of DNA. And he went on, to become a very prominent neuroscientist. So what he’s expressing there is this very reductive view that all of our sort of cognition, all of our mental states and psychology is, as he says, no more than the firing of all these nerve cells. And, you know, he’s expressing them in a materialist view. In a way, it’s a reaction to the idea that there must be some sort of immaterial soul or spirit, something immortal that lives on that’s, you know, outside the realm of the physical. I think he’s arguing against that, but I think he goes way too far, right?
You can argue against that, you can say that mental cognition and so on requires the activity of the brain, is entailed by it, or depends on it, all of that is consistent with a physicalist view of the universe without thinking that you can reduce it to that. And say it’s nothing but that. And it’s that extra bit, the nothing but that. No more than. That’s the thing that I really take issue with. And it’s an unfortunate trend, I think, among some neuroscientists these days. Partly it’s because we’ve been so successful in actually figuring out these amazing mechanisms in the brain, these different circuits and systems and cell types and molecules and transmitters that underlie, you know, this operation or this kind of behavior and so on.
And we get so much detail, and we have so much power, actually, we can go in and manipulate the circuits and say, look, if I drive this circuit, I can make an animal do this or do that. I can make it, you know, I can change the way it’s thinking. I can implant a memory. I can make it falsely perceive things. And when you have the power to manipulate like that, and the power is at a certain level, right, the level of neurons firing, then it feels like that’s where all the causation has happened. It feels like you’ve exhausted the explanation for everything and the fact that those neural states have some meaning for the organism doesn’t seem like it’s doing any explanatory work in that framework. But I think that’s an illusion. I mean, I think it would be like saying that the conversation you and I are having here is just nothing more than the firing of some, you know, the movement of some electrons in the circuits of our computers. Which, it depends on those things, but it’s not just that.
Tom: Yep. Yeah, a great Van Gogh is nothing more than pigment on a canvas, right?
Tom: It under-explains what’s going on and why you’re looking at it right now and how it survived 250 years.
Kevin: Exactly. Right. Yeah.
Tom: So yeah, we’ve got that tendency to kind of overly reduce these factors. With the title of your book, you introduce some more concepts that I think are challenging and tough to grasp. So you use both the terms free will and free agents in your title. Tell me a little bit about why you choose those terms and what you mean by them.
Kevin: Yeah. Well, the free will thing was, I mean, really, the impetus to write. The book was prompted by questions about free will, which, as you know, as you mentioned, is a topic of perennial interest. And, you know, really the question of how in control we are of our own decisions and our own actions and so on.
And I think everyone has probably thought about that to some extent. But lately, it feels like scientists are producing evidence that many take as, arguing against free will. Against the idea that we, ourselves, in a holistic sense, are in charge of things. And instead, it’s like our parts, our configuration is in some deterministic kind of way, just driving what happens next. And so from, for example, behavioral genetics, we can say, well, look, we have some traits that are partly genetic in origin, our personality traits, for example, that influence our decision making. And so people would ask, well then, what does that mean for my free will?
I came kind of pre-wired in a certain way because of my genetics and the way my brain developed. I didn’t choose that. So what does that mean for whether I’m in charge or how much freedom I have in my decision making? And I think that’s an interesting question. It was often raised when I was talking about my previous book, which is called Innate. And it’s about how the wiring of our brains shapes who we are. And then the other is from neuroscience, as I just said, this kind of reductive view, which is also a very mechanistic, deterministic view that the behavior that an animal does, that an organism does, including human beings, is just driven by their neural states in a way that seems to not leave anything for the organism itself as an agent to do.
It’s like, why? You know, what are you saying that the whole thing does something? When we know that its parts are doing these bits of work. So there’s a question there about freedom, right? What does it mean to be free?
And that usually implies some kind of choice, there’s a question about will. What are the control systems that organisms actually use to control their behavior? And then there’s a deeper question that’s hidden there, which is about the nature of the self. What is it that we think, has the freedom or is exercising this will? And that turns out to be a really tricky, hidden, sort of question in, within that broader, that broader question. And it’s one that pertains to the agency of any organism, not just what we call free will, which is usually, you know, just used for humans.
Kevin: What do you think are some of the common misconceptions about free will that you see when you’re reading articles, when you’re scrolling your news feed? Kind of popular conceptions of, maybe, we’re just not thinking about free will clearly enough.
Yeah. I think, in the first place, there’s a very absolutist framing. Where, the idea is, if you’re not completely free, in your actions of any prior cause whatsoever, then you don’t have free will. And if you set it up like that, it’s just a non-starter, right? There can be no entity that behaves like that.
Because I mean, what characterizes living things is their historical processes that extend through time, right? That’s what it means to be alive. And the only way that living things can do that is to incorporate aspects of their history into their genome, into the configuration of their neural circuits that allow them to learn from experience in such a way as to guide behavior really in the service of our future selves.
So if you’re not doing that, you’re not a self. In fact, you wouldn’t be alive for any length of time at all. And so, this absolutist version of free will. It’s just for me, a red herring, but many people set it up that way. And then they say, well, look, clearly it’s not like that. So, we must have absolutely no free will.
Tom: Turn now to, actually from the very beginning of your book in the preface, you bring in some concepts that I think many scientists are almost allergic to terms that they just do not do not need to be a part of the conversation But I’m gonna read this and have you reflect on it.
So you wrote that purpose, meaning, and value are crucial to understanding what life is, how agency can exist, and what sorts of freedoms we can have as human beings. Then you say, “the universe may not have purpose but life does natural selection ensures it.” Tell me that, that last sentence there, what do you mean by that?
Kevin: Yeah. It’s tricky, and I think you’re right that many scientists are allergic to those terms. Like, we have very good, technical terms for information, say, but not for, not for something like meaning. And, for me, the sense of goal directed behavior. It looks like animals and of course we are doing goal directed things, but the rejoinder is, well, it only looks like that.
It’s not really like that. It’s just these mechanisms are configured in this way such that this behavior occurs, right? But I think that’s just a mistake. I think purpose is a perfectly legitimate term. And in fact, I think it’s essential for thermodynamics. energetic terms, right? They stay out of equilibrium with the environment. That’s what makes them a thing through time. And so they’re configured in a way that the ones that are good at doing that persist for longer than the ones that aren’t. So natural selection naturally selects for the ones that are configured, with functionalities that are directed towards that purpose of persisting.
And I think that’s a very perfectly naturalized scientific way of describing it. Now, though, you know, the simplest organisms don’t have an inner representation of a goal. They just have a pragmatic configuration that ensures that they will behave in that goal directed way. So the inner representations come later, right?
We can think about our goals because we can internally represent them. So purpose for me is the defining characteristic of life. It’s the thing that separates it from the rest of the universe. And once you have purpose as an anchor, then you have value, right? Some things are good or bad relative to that purpose. Value doesn’t mean anything. It has to be relative to something. And once you have value, then you have meaning. In the sense that information can be useful. It can be about something in the world, but it can also be used for something. For a purpose of, say, approaching a food source. Or avoiding a dangerous chemical or something like that, or a predator or whatever it is.
So all of those things are absolutely necessary as concepts to understand goal directed action in a non-mystical way. I hope to ground them and, my goal, it may seem odd to some readers, that I, I talk about free will and in humans. In the preface and the introduction, but then I make the argument that to understand it, we need to go back to the origin of life itself and start with bacteria, worms, and simple creatures.
And the reason to do that is to understand these concepts and ground our view of them, such that when it comes to these really complicated scenarios in humans, we have a firm foundation on which to build an understanding. Because otherwise, if you just start with humans, it all gets muddied up with questions of consciousness, and moral responsibility, and society, and culture, and lots of more very interesting things.
But they’re sort of add ons to the basic idea of control systems.
Tom: So as I was on your evolutionary journey through history and thinking to myself, there’s kind of a fundamental question of how do you get from an organism that’s pre-programmed to behave and respond to an organism that, in a sense, is pre-programmed to not act directly according to a program, and instead, the program is to, in a sense, give up. The built in reactions and to have the reactions then, be related to what’s dynamically happening.
So there’s that, come somewhere, maybe like a pivot, an inflection point in evolutionary history where you just go from that kind of, to use the metaphor, the computer controlled to like creating a remote control and giving an organism more agency. What does that inflection point kind of look like?
Kevin: Yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. There really is a transition from, relying on evolution to do the learning work and to pre-configure some pretty, I don’t want to say hardwired, but at least pre-wired kind of, control policies, right?
So they’re not necessarily reflexes, but for example, for a little bacterium or for a worm, you know, some noxious chemical comes along. Something that’s bad for it. Well, it’s, it’s perceived as something that should be avoided. And so the natural response would be to move away. And that’s good. Evolution has configured that control policy into the nervous system, in the case of the worm, or into the biochemical configuration of a bacterium.
And, I mean, even there, it’s not an isolated thing because they’re actually doing a lot of sensory integration and historical integration over recent time and so on. To take a holistic action based on not just one thing in the environment, but what everything else that’s going on. But it’s still pretty much pre-programmed, the sort of contextual relationships between those different signals and so on.
Now, what you get with the nervous system, however, is also the ability to learn. And for me, that’s a key transition, because what it means is that organisms can now survive in worlds that evolution couldn’t predict.
So they’re in a more dynamic environment, and they have to be able to flexibly adapt on the fly, in a way that simpler organisms don’t, or can’t. But they also have to be able to, as individuals, learn from their experience, which, again, evolution can’t predict what their experience is going to be, but it can predict that the ability to learn is a useful thing in general, and then it just lets that, machinery, as it were, do the adaptive work.
That’s useful, but it also allowed a different kind of learning, which is called reinforcement learning, which is when an organism has a repertoire of actions, so it encounters some scenario. It has a repertoire of actions that it can execute, and when it executes one of them, it can learn from the outcome whether that was a good thing to do in that scenario or not.
And that becomes a hugely, hugely powerful learning paradigm, because it means that organisms can, you know, learn from their experience in the world using these kinds of feedback signals. But eventually, what happens is those signals kind of get internalized almost in a simulation. Where an organism can say, okay, I’m in this scenario now, rather than thinking I should do a and doing it and seeing how it happens, they can internally simulate it and say, well, I wonder how it would, how it would turn out if I did a versus B versus C and this internal sort of reinforcement learning machinery now gives, an anticipatory, evaluation of the outcome of each of these actions and lets the organism kind of evaluate them internally.
Okay. Without having to risk its life basically in trial and error in the real world. that, That transition, I think to being able to learn rapidly kind of scales up in usefulness and you can see it paying off in the ability to predict things over a longer timeframe, to integrate over more complex scenarios and to do this internal simulation, offline as it were.
In order to predict the outcomes of your, of your own actions.
Tom: Well, I want to turn from free will to maybe something even more mysterious and challenging – this idea of consciousness. And to kick us off, another quote, from a familiar and famous voice, to start our conversation. So let me read a quote from Sam Harris, that you in fact also had in your book, “did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Well, it seems like either consciousness is either, in this case, a helpless bystander, or just an illusion altogether.”
I wonder, maybe just going back to our, what we were just discussing, from the perspective of evolution, what could be the point of consciousness? Maybe just tell me a little bit more of like, what could consciousness be doing for us as biological creatures out in the world?
Kevin: Yeah. Well, first let me just address Sam Harris’ scenario that he puts there. Because I think, you know, he’s talking about a scenario where he’s picking coffee or tea. And I think actually it’s perfectly plausible to say that he consciously didn’t make that decision, and that it was, reflecting some events in his brain that he wasn’t aware of.
Where I think he makes a mistake is just assuming that all of our decisions are like that – that we never know what our reasons are, that we never consciously deliberate. It just simply doesn’t follow from the fact that we sometimes don’t. It doesn’t follow that we never do, right? And so that just seems a simplistic kind of framing, and it’s odd to think of someone who, you know, was just wandering around sort of constantly befuddled by their own actions, just unaware of their own reasons for things and never being able to think about them, because that doesn’t match most people’s experience. We can think about our thoughts and reason about our reasons, and we tell each other our reasons all the time, right? And I think there’s a few ways of thinking about that. One is at a kind of a basic level of consciousness. The idea is that you can have some central arena in which you can think about a limited number of things at a time and filter out a lot of extraneous information that you don’t need that shouldn’t be feeding into your decision making.
And that’s useful as a part of a higher order part of a control system to allow behavior to be focused towards particular goals at particular times and, and not be distracted by other things.
So, at one level, you can think of consciousness as a filtering system. But I think there’s, of course, other aspects to it, and one of those comes from the fact that we are able to tell each other what we’re thinking about, right?
And so that, that is something that as a social species, a really hyper social species, is incredibly valuable because that means we can communicate, we can plan. Once we had language, that gave us this cultural evolution that allowed humans to take off and that drives our human nature in a very deep way that goes far beyond what a hominin species would have without that.
But I think the other, the final aspect of consciousness, at least, is really around metacognition. It’s about being able to think about our own thoughts and reason about our reasons in a way that, you know, is just more sophisticated. So many organisms will have a model of the world. And a model of themselves, and they operate on both the elements of those models.
But we have these extra levels, where we have a model of our own mind. We have a model of our own cognition. And we can inspect that. So very much the exact opposite of what Sam Harris claimed. We can inspect our cognition. We do that all the time. Now, it’s not always transparent to us. There is a subconscious, as Freud said. You know, we’re not aware of everything that’s going on, in all of our processing and all of our motivations and so on, but that doesn’t mean we’re not aware of any of it.
Tom: Yeah. With the time we have remaining, I want to ask you a couple of personal questions to wrap up. So, I’m wondering, at a pretty early age, you were excited about the sciences, particularly the natural world: life sciences.
Were there certain questions you had kind of at the top of your mind entering college, grad school, or giving you a sense of purpose of what do I want to learn here?
Kevin: I think by the time I entered grad school, yes. And that was that developmental question, which is still very much on my mind. So, how is the form of an organism in some way encoded in the DNA? And, you know, some people will object to the term encoded because it sounds like a computer program.
And the question is, well, what is it like, then? We don’t have a good meta metaphor or a good conceptual grounding for it. And then, you know, the fascinating thing is that that form of the organism includes these innate instinctive behaviors and capacities and tendencies and so on. So I think all of that is part and parcel of the question of what it is to be a certain type of an organism or a particular individual.
Tom: Yeah.There are so many, powerful methodologies for exploring the world, certain kinds of questions. Complex things that baffle and fascinate us. But are there certain kinds of questions that, I don’t know, keep you up at night that you would like to know the answer to but you feel like are less amenable to the tools at your disposal?
Kevin: Yes. To be honest, many of them are less amenable to me as a biologist because many of them are about physics.
Tom: Oh, okay.
Kevin: Yeah, so partly in researching the book and going into thinking about things like physical determinism and the idea of that, there were some pretty deep questions about the nature of time, why events happen, why time has an arrow. All sorts of things like that are oddly not prominent topics among physicists, in that I think many physicists are sort of trained to shut up and calculate, as it were. And they want to figure out the equations that will allow them to make predictions and so on, and not necessarily question so much what those equations mean in terms of the nature of the physical world.
And I think that people, you know, people are coming around maybe too, that maybe it’s all right again to be thinking about those deeper metaphysical questions. And I hope that they will and I hope they’ll figure it out because I’m certainly not going to. But that, that, is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night.
Tom: Yeah. Taking this back full circle, I want to go back to your childhood. And also the arrow of time. If you could drop off your new book into the hands of your high school self, what might he think?
Kevin: Ha, that’s funny. What an interesting idea. I’m not sure my high school self would even have read that book. He was busy reading, you know, The Lord of the Rings, and Dune, and a lot of these, sort of, nature adventure books. Lots of Tarzan, things like that. I don’t, yeah, he wasn’t a, he wasn’t a real science reader at the time, so I don’t know, but, you know, I have to say that, even the idea of entertaining these philosophical questions is something that has emerged over time.
I used to be very dismissive of a lot of philosophy, frankly, as a scientist. I didn’t see the worth of it, I didn’t see the relevance of it. And the parts of it that I was exposed to, I wasn’t overly impressed with necessarily, because it felt like a sort of semantic argument that was very self contained and inward looking. And I think that’s, unfortunately, that does characterize some of academic philosophy.
But there’s also lots of very much outward looking stuff that’s really deep and fundamental: the more I guess I’ve matured as a scientist and as a person, the more value and relevance I see to that. But I don’t think my 14 or 15 year old self would have been ready to think about things at that level. Although, I mean, I’m sure many 14 or 15 year olds are. I just don’t think I was one of them.
Tom: Did you meet any particular philosophers along the way or any philosophical essays that you read that did kind of spur you into this, these avenues of curiosity that you find yourself now?
Kevin: Absolutely. So, I’ve been, you know, heavily inspired, by Dan Gennett in particular. Not that I believe everything that he says or all of his arguments, but his general approach of engaging with science in a realistic kind of a way I think is very appealing in that it’s not just armchair philosophizing.
That has no connection to what we as scientists, you know, encounter in the world. And Patricia Churchland would be another one who very much, you know, follows that line. Again, I don’t agree with all of her positions, but her approach I very much appreciate. And then there’s two others, Helen Stewart, who is a contemporary philosopher in Leeds, and Alicia Huarero, both of whom have influenced me quite a lot.
And, yeah, they’re I think, among a set of philosophers who are really engaging with ideas of, you know, emergent structure and top down causation and things in what I take to be an unproblematic sort of way. You know, it’s not magic, it’s not mystical, it’s just the idea that the way systems are organized can constrain how they evolve through time.
Tom: Yeah. So good. Well, we covered a lot of ground today. I’m going to Thank you for taking this time. And again, I really enjoyed reading your book. For the listeners, encourage you to get a copy yourself. It is entitled Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will. Thank you, Kevin.
Kevin: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.