It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices. In reality, humans are complex systems interacting with other complex systems. The “individual” human part of this process is the small part of our mind/brain that is consciously aware of things and the roughly 10% of our cells that belong to “us” (and not the massive number of micro-organism that inhabit our body and deeply affect our minds, moods, and immune systems). However, since we are complex systems always in interaction with other complex systems, the outcome of these interactions—in terms of feelings, actions, interactions, and behaviors—are “free” in the sense that we cannot predict them with any great accuracy, as is true of any complex system.
The situation is the same with animals (some of whom have consciousness—smaller than our already small amount, but still some). Animals are in grounded contact with the world and thus, “swim” in the world, acting in repeated and probing actions and reactions, actions and interactions with the world. These grounded, probing, testing activities lead to processes of assimilation and adaptation whose success is tested by is survival or the lack of it and the end of probing and testing.
Actually, survival is a poor term here. A better one is “flourishing”, since evolution requires a fairly good deal of flourishing for an animal to survive—merely hanging on does not usually work well. In this process, animals do not care whether they are free; they care whether they are flourishing. When they are not flourishing, they probe for changes in the system of systems of which they are a part that will move them “upstream” towards flourishing and away from not flourishing. It is a “swim” through hills and valleys in a landscape of interacting complex systems.
Most mammals, unlike us humans, are grounded in the quite literal sense that they are much closer to the ground (dirt) than we are. They have very good senses of smell, because at the level of the ground, most of the useful data are smells, a chemical of language of infinite complexity for them, but barely a child’s decodable text for us humans. We humans long ago stood up and lost our sense of smell, our noses too far from the ground. One of the reasons we humans think of animals as not as smart as us is that we cannot see that they are reading and writing complex texts that we can barely decipher at all. It is like an illiterate human watching someone read Shakespeare when they can barely figure out a road sign.
But something even worse than losing our sense of smell—a mammal’s strongest tie to the ground—happened when we stood up and gained our limited consciousness. We also lost our ties to the ground in a more profound sense of “being grounded”. We became unhinged from the real world, from the complex systems of complex systems in which we live and breathe, and lost the intelligence to probe and re-probe, test and retest, question and answer, in a embodied conversation with the world. We lost the ability to swim forward towards flourishing and away from harm from self and from and to all living others. We came to inhabit a world of words, myths, and abstractions that originally themselves arose from the ground of probing the world, but, for the most part, became detached from the ground and degraded into self-serving confabulations, many of them now institutionalized.
Humans feel free and guilty when they have made a “bad choice”—often with very little consultation with the world and certainly with very little data about all the complexity that has taken place outside their conscious awareness—and then lapse into misery, blame, lashing out (to “get back” at the unfairness of it all), and a search, in all the wrong places, for “meaning”. When things go badly, pigs probe again and move on. They are close enough to the ground to just “smell” another more likely, but never guaranteed, direction. They are smart enough to move.
Every living thing on earth—except human beings—knows that the core value of life is flourishing; that flourishing means continuously, interactively, and probingly (like a blind man tapping his cane) assimilating and adapting to our darkly complex world; and that flourishing requires probing that world in a search for new positively directed routes through risk. Every animal—save us—knows there are no guarantees and that the point is to swim in the sea of complexity until the game is over for us, but not necessarily the collective of which we were a part and which our own flourishing often keeps alive. I think animals deeply enjoy the swimming, the probing, the trying, the unpredictable surprises. I think that that physical joy is the only guarantee they get and care about.
It is important to note that some animals are, to varying extents, “herd animals”. In such animals (such as cows, ants, and humans), the “unit” that is “choosing” (probing, moving) is the individual in interaction with the herd (or a part of it). What is “intelligent” is the individual connected to (networked with) the herd and its “tools” (“equipment for living”). Tools, of course, figure hugely in humans. Individual cows, ants, or humans are considerably weakened in terms of intelligence.