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Comment on Free will as nonlinear transformational effectiveness

XiXiDu Wed, Jul 21, 2010
Some recent content of note regarding the topic of 'free will' (follow the links for further reading):

Determinism is true but thermostats can still control the temperature. And nobody denies that thermostats control the temperature. — Steven Landsburg paraphrasing Robert Nozick in The Big Questions


It is widely believed, at least in scientific circles, that living systems, including mankind, obey the natural physical laws. However, it is also commonly accepted that man has the capacity to make “free” conscious decisions that do not simply reflect the chemical makeup of the individual at the time of decision—this chemical makeup reflecting both the genetic and environmental history and a degree of stochasticism. Whereas philosophers have discussed for centuries the apparent lack of a causal component for free will, many biologists still seem to be remarkably at ease with this notion of free will; and furthermore, our judicial system is based on such a belief. It is the author’s contention that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism—something biologists proudly believe they discarded well over 100 years ago. — The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system


In my article I draw attention to the illogical nature of the belief in free will (1). If I understand the letter from McEvoy correctly, he does not dispute this conclusion (2). Rather, he addresses the difficulties in administering justice under a system in which it is conceded that free will is lacking. Although I agree that there are difficulties, I have provided an outline for an alternative form of justice. The option of remaining with the present system is not an attractive one for several reasons, including the following: The system does not work well, especially here in the United States where we have the highest incarceration rate in the world (3). Also, it is absurd to expect jurors, in response to competing arguments from so-called experts, to make decisions about the degree of mental responsibility of defendants. This absurdity will only increase with ongoing advances in the study of behavioral biology that result in an increasing understanding of human behavior at the level of the chemistry of the brain. This behavior, in turn, reflects nothing more than the genetic and environmental history of the individual, plus some degree of stochasticism.

I have argued that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism and, as such, for scientists to passively accept this belief is an embarrassment to the field of biology. The widespread notion, present in both the scientific community and university administrations, that there is some magical component to human behavior only serves to hinder research in an area that has to be among the most fascinating and important in all of biology. Furthermore, defining the real basis of human behavior (and eliminating the notion of free will) should increase attention on the importance of creating environmental conditions, both within prisons and outside, which minimize antisocial behavior. At present, such attention is diluted by the mistaken belief that individuals possess some level of control of their behavior, over and above that defined by their genetic and environmental history.

Finally, I would encourage those who strongly disagree with the arguments that I have presented to provide a molecular model for free will. In the meantime, it would be prudent for society to assume that no such model will be forthcoming and that the illusion of free will is a genetically driven evolutionary twist of nature, imposed on us through our conscious mind. We should modify the judicial system accordingly. — The judicial system is based on a false understanding of the biology of human behavior


Anckarsäter is certainly correct when he reminds us “covariation does not equal causation” (1). Indeed, I have made this very point in reference to the covariance of conscious thought processes and behavior (2). It is the daily “minute by minute” reminder of this covariance that may be the primary reason that the majority is willing to believe in free will. However, as argued by many, this relationship is unlikely to be causal, with Huxley noting that it is similar to “the steam whistle which signals but doesn't cause the starting of the locomotive” (3). Yet this belief in free will still holds, despite the insane difficulty in providing a molecular model that might accommodate such a belief. As I have suggested, society would be better served if such a belief was discarded, at least until someone provides a molecular explanation for free will (2, 4). Now Anckarsäter might argue that belief in free will should be retained until proof is provided that human behavior can be fully explained by the genetic, environmental, and stochastic history of individuals. Such an argument would be analogous to a decision to require belief in bodily resurrection and to retain this requirement until someone provides proof that it does not occur. That is, Western and many other societies concede that an act of faith is required for many religious beliefs, and for this reason a requirement for such beliefs is generally excluded from government constitutions. Ironically, and in striking contrast, an integral component of most legal systems is the equally nonsensical belief that individuals can make decisions that derive from something over and above their genetic and environmental history and a degree of stochasticism. — A belief in free will is based on faith