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Autonomy and self-control

By Rodney Crisp - posted Monday, 4 November 2013

Nature and the individual

Current estimates of the total lifespan of all forms of life on earth place it at approximately five billion years. Four and a half billion years or 90% of that total have already gone. That leaves another 500 million years or 10% to go, before all forms of life on earth cease to exist. Mankind is about to turn the last bend into the straight for the final sprint. He still has a lot to do if he wants to survive the end of the solar system. Time is running out for us to complete the process of emergence of the individual. We are 90% there and just have another 10% to go. It could well be that it is those final 10% which are the most difficult to achieve, the most spectacular in terms of results and perhaps, also, the most rewarding. It is difficult to imagine a totally autonomous individual as he may exist in 500 million years time. Perhaps there will be as much difference between him and us as there was between us and the primordial bacteria, Archaea, RNA (ribose nucleic acid),stromatolite, or whatever.

Conscience and free will

The human concept of justice applies to persons presumed responsible for their acts unless proven otherwise. This notion of responsibility appears to have its origins in nature. It is to be observed, in particular, in connection with the reproductive cycle of life and the survival of the species. Procreation is usually the function of the female of the species who also often bears the primary responsibility for nurturing and protecting the offspring until they become autonomous. Nature appears to have endowed other responsibilities on the male member of the species in order to assure its survival.

While these functions or duties appear to have been largely determined by nature in the form of what we commonly call instincts, unlike breathing, they are not under the exclusive control of the unconscious. They require the active cooperation of the conscious mind in strategic planning and decision making in order to be effective. This brings into play what we call free-will which also appears to be a necessary constituent of nature in assuring the survival of the species.


Just how free free-will actually is, is a question of debate among philosophers and scientists, many considering that it is not free at all. It is a debate which is impossible to settle in general terms due to the fact that both conscience and free-will are evolutionary processes which advance at variable degrees, rates and rhythms from one community to another and from one individual to another within the same community. We know approximately when the whole process started and we have a fair idea of when it is due to end but we are quite incapable of measuring the precise degree of maturity of the conscience or free-will of any particular individual at a particular point of time

Superstition and religious dogma aside, the most plausible explanation of the genesis of life appears to have been provided by the ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus (460 BC – 370 BC) who is reported to have observed that "Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity". Jacques Monod, the French biologist, a 1965 Nobel Prize winner, later accredited and developed that theory in his book "Le hasard et la nécessité" (Chance and Necessity) published in 1970. From this it is deduced that "Life is a spontaneous, evolutive, sensitive and reproductive process triggered by the fortuitous encounter of complementary elements of matter and energy in a favourable environment". Chance in this context should be understood as meaning a "random variable" and necessity an "inevitable" event.

Free will is a functional advantage developed by nature. It is autonomy, the autonomy of the individual. Its acquisition and development is progressive. It is an evolutive mode of functioning. It has been evolving ever since the apparition of life on earth of which human beings are by far the most advanced form. We have long surpassed all other forms of life and all other animal species in terms of autonomy and continue to make progress, generation after generation. Though there may be important differences in the rate of development of autonomy among individuals due to all the variables that contribute to its evolution, progress is nevertheless achieved during the lifetime of each individual. Beneficial mutations and experiences continue to accumulate over time, multiplying and diversifying choice patterns to an ever greater degree of complexity until the individual is no longer held to obey any particular predetermined course of behaviour, gaining in the autonomy we call free will.

Autonomy or free will implies that the individual is capable of governing himself, of determining his own thoughts and actions without, or in spite of, outside influence. He must clearly be in the driving seat. He must exercise what we call self control. Self control is an integral component of autonomy. If there is no self control, there is no autonomy. The degree of autonomy is determined by the degree of self control and vice versa.

As the individual continues to emerge and develop free will, his vision of society and the environment in which he evolves takes on a new perspective. He develops a greater awareness of his earthly condition and the nature of his existence and life in general.

The emerging faculty to extract himself from his environment and observe himself as an individual is fuelled by that innate, basic emotion we call curiosity which mankind shares with other animal species. Our curiosity and need for understanding leads us to develop a capacity for abstract thought and imagination when no obvious rational explanation is available. It is a gradual evolutionary process that allows us to develop the capacity to project our minds beyond perceived reality in our quest for an explanation. Conscience and free will continue to emerge as a result of this development.


The continued emergence of the individual producing a more acute degree of conscience as well as a greater capacity to exercise free will, necessarily modifies mankind's relationship with his fellow human beings. Some relationships are reinforced. Others are re-positioned, re-negotiated or, perhaps discarded. However, this natural evolution rarely engenders the relaxation or abandonment of existing social ties, forms of association or cooperation and solidarities. It more often provokes their redefinition, evolution, reorganisation or replacement. Social relationships tend to become stronger and more effective because individuals are quick to recognize that it is generally in their best interests to conserve and reinforce them. There can, however, be no free will without the possibility of individuals to choose, deliberately or inadvertently, a course of action contrary to their perceived best interests. This possibility exists and may be freely exercised at all times and in all circumstances.

The development of conscience and free-will depends not only on the biological and psychological development of each individual but also on his or her personal development of knowledge, culture, intelligence, experience, perspicacity and sensitivity. As previously observed, such attributes, whether inherited or acquired, are not equally developed among all individuals. Nor are they constant in respect of any one individual throughout his or her life. The capacity to exercise conscience and free-will may vary considerably from one individual to another at various stages of his life. Each individual matures and develops at his own particular rhythm depending on the circumstances and the environment in which he evolves.

Conscience has to do with awareness of what is at stake from a moral point of view, discerning right from wrong. It has a religious connotation. There is no right or wrong in nature. There is only what is most efficient for survival and development.

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This is the second of four articles where Rodney Crisp looks at issues to do with justice and the condition of humanity. The first was Justice: the Achilles heel of democracy

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About the Author

Rodney Crisp is an international insurance and risk management consultant based in Paris. He was born in Cairns and grew up in Dalby on the Darling Downs where his family has been established for over a century and which he still considers as home. He continues to play an active role in daily life on the Darling Downs via internet. Rodney can be emailed at

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