Free will is an illusion

When biologist Anthony Cashmore claims that the concept of free will is an illusion, he’s not breaking any new ground. At least as far back as the ancient Greeks, people have wondered how humans seem to have the ability to make their own personal decisions in a manner lacking any causal component other than their desire to “will” something. But Cashmore, Professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that many biologists today still cling to the idea of free will, and reject the idea that we are simply conscious machines, completely controlled by a combination of our chemistry and external environmental forces.

In a 2010 study, Cashmore  argued that a belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs, since neither complies with the laws of the physical world. One of the basic premises of biology and biochemistry is that biological systems are nothing more than a bag of chemicals that obey chemical and physical laws. Generally, we have no problem with the “bag of chemicals” notion when it comes to bacteria, plants, and similar entities. So why is it so difficult to say the same about humans or other “higher level” species, when we’re all governed by the same laws?

No causal mechanism

As Cashmore explains, the human brain acts at both the conscious level as well as the unconscious. It’s our consciousness that makes us aware of our actions, giving us the sense that we control them, as well. But even without this awareness, our brains can still induce our bodies to act, and studies have indicated that consciousness is something that follows unconscious neural activity. Just because we are often aware of multiple paths to take, that doesn’t mean we actually get to choose one of them based on our own free will. As the ancient Greeks asked, by what mechanism would we be choosing? The physical world is made of causes and effects – “nothing comes from nothing” – but free will, by its very definition, has no physical cause. The Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, in reference to this problem of free will, noted that the Greek philosophers concluded that atoms “randomly swerve” – the likely source of this movement being the numerous Greek gods.

Today, as researchers gain a better understanding of the molecular details underlying consciousness, some people think that we may discover a molecular mechanism responsible for free will – but Cashmore doesn’t think so. Such a discovery, he says, would require a new physical law that breaks the causal laws of nature. As it is, the only “wild card” that allows any room for maneuvering outside of genetics and one’s environment is the inherent uncertainty of the physical properties of matter, and even this stochastic element is beyond our conscious control. (However, it can help explain why identical twins growing up in the same environment are unique individuals.)

Deskarati joke

Jim dies and goes to heaven (I know it’s a long shot), but instead of the pearly gates, there’s a fork in the road, and a sign pointing down each path. One sign says ‘Believers in Determinism’ and the other says ‘Believers in Free Will’. Jim has always believed in predestination, so he goes down that road. He eventually comes to a big door with the word ‘DETERMINISM’ written over the top. He knocks, and an angel opens the door and says, ‘Why have you come to my door today?’ Jim says, ‘Well, there were these two signs, and I chose the one that said determinism.’ The angel says, ‘and you chose it? then you can’t come in here,’ and slams the door. Jim’s confused. Finally he trudges back to the crossroads and goes down the other road. Eventually he comes to another large door that says ‘FREE WILL.’ He knocks and another angel opens the door and says, ‘Why did you come this way?’ And  Jim says, ‘I had no choice!'”

More here Free will is an illusion, biologist says.

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3 Responses to Free will is an illusion

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    I really loved that joke! Causal determinism goes to far (as does religious predestination), yet…

    “Free will” is really quite limited, despite belief that we control ourselves and our lives. We think we have endless choices…until we try to make them. Each decision must not only be based on what we “want to do,” but also on our own capabilities and what is expected of us. Nature and society imprison us, whether we like it or not. The key to release is mystical realization. All in One and One in All, the divine unity, opens the gate between heaven and Earth…between a universal consciousness and most people’s constrained awareness.

  2. alfy says:

    The problem here is the nature of truth. Is the scientific method the only way of establishing truth? Are there other sorts of truth? Cashmore wants to disprove free will because it is akin to religious belief. It may well be, but that does not demonstrate that it is untrue.

    All that science can do is to demonstrate that something is untrue. It is in no position to take on issues that lie outside its competence. There is a school of physics which believes on quite good grounds that all motion and time itself are illusory, just a product of the human brain.
    If Cashmore once starts on the issue of what is illusory there may be no end to it. Even Rene Descartes was stuck for a bit over whether he himself was an illusion.

  3. Deskarati says:

    ‘The nature of truth’ – philosophers have discussed this one for thousands of years, but I have never heard it better described than our old friend Ludwig Wittgenstein:
    ‘What it means for us to call a statement “true” is that we currently judge it true, knowing that we may some day revise the criteria whereby we do so.’.
    One thing we do like here at Deskarati is an open mind.

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