I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness. As a materialist, I can’t see any way that our thoughts and behavior, which come from our neurons and muscles, which themselves result from the interaction between our genes and our environment, could truly be influenced by our “will.” Yes, there may be quantum uncertainties, but I don’t see how those can be influenced by our minds, or play any role in the notion that our decisions are freely taken. But if you don’t believe in free will, you might be tempted to stop thinking so hard about what you do, or start questioning the idea of moral responsibility. The end result is nihilism.
Nevertheless, like all humans I prefer to think that I can make my own decisions. I decided to adopt an uneasy compromise, believing that there’s no such thing as free will but acting as if there were. And I decided to stop thinking about the issue, deliberately avoiding the huge philosophical literature on free will.
I was forced to revisit the topic, however, by an environmental incursion: a new “inaugural article” in PNAS by biologist Anthony Cashmore (reference below; online access is free). Cashmore argues persuasively that free will is an illusion and “a belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs”:
The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will. Some will argue that once we understand better the mechanistic details that underlie consciousness, then we will understand free will. Whatever the complexities of the molecular details of consciousness are, they are unlikely to involve any new law in physics that would break the causal laws of nature in a nonstochastic way. . . The irony here is that in reality, a belief in free will is nothing less than a continuing belief in vitalism—a concept that we like to think we discarded well over 100 years ago!
It’s a nice article, touching on things like the evolutionary advantage of consciousness, and the idea of thinking we have free will, and though I don’t agree with all of it, it’s well worth worth a read. Cashmore winds up arguing that in light of the absence of free will, we should reform the judicial system. Since we partially exculpate mentally disturbed criminals on the grounds they are not “free” to refrain from crime, so we should reconsider our ideas of punishment for “regular” criminals, whose acts are equally determined. As Cashmore argues:
First, the legal system assumes a capacity for individuals not only to distinguish between right and wrong, but to act according to those distinctions—that is, an integral component of the legal system is a belief in free will. Furthermore, the legal system assumes that it is possible to distinguish those individuals who have this capacity of free will from those who lack it (32).
Cashmore ponders the implications of this view for the legal and judicial systems: should we, and how should we, punish people whose crimes don’t reflect free will? Many others, of course, have trod this ground, but the question is still worth considering. Two followup letters in PNAS, from Henrik Ancksäter (a forensic psychiatrist) and James McEvoy (a chemist), take issue with Cashmore’s ideas, but he gets the better of his interlocutors in his responses. (Links to the letters are below.)
Stimulated by Cashmore’s article, I asked a philosopher friend to recommend some readings on free will. He sent me a long list of books and articles, at the top of which—as I mentioned last week—stood Thomas Pink’s Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004). I found it a pretty dire book. Although Pink gives a useful summary of the history of philosophical arguments about free will, he completely neglects science, eventually claiming that free will is a reality largely because we feel that we have it. Pink’s neglect of physics, chemistry, and biology—that is, the whole area of naturalism and determinism—is inexcusable. I’ll pursue some of the other books on my reading list, but I’m not going to pay serious attention to any philosopher who neglects the advances of science. For the nonce, I’ll view free will through a scientific ocular, adhering to Cashmore’s definition:
I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.
And if you accept this definition, there’s no way to respond to the question of “Do we have free will?” except with a vigorous “No!” If you answer, “yes,” then you’re tacitly accepting a mind/body duality and a species of vitalism that has no part in science or naturalism. As I see it, you can no more be consistently scientific and believe in free will than you can be consistently scientific and believe in a theistic God.
But of course all of this, including Cashmore’s arguments that are intended to persuade, are predicated on the pretense that we really do have free will. Maybe all these articles and letters are determined, as is our openness to accepting their arguments. This way, of course, lies madness—or Camus.
Cashmore, A. R. 2010. The Luretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107:4499-4504.
Anckarsärter, H. 2010. Has biology disproved free will and moral responsibility? Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107: USA E114.
McEvoy, J. P. 2010. A justice system that denies free will is not based on justice. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107:E81
Cashmore, A. R. 2010. Reply to Anckarsärter: A belief in free will is based on faith. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107: USA E115.
Cashmore, A. R. 2010. Reply to McEvoy: The judicial system is based on a false understanding of human behavior. 107: Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107: USA E82.