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.)
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.