An exceptionally clear discussion of biologist Anthony Cashmore’s ideas about free will is at physorg.com today. Here’s Cashmore’s basic thesis:
In a recent study, Cashmore has argued that a belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs, since neither complies with the laws of the physical world. . . . To put it simply, free will just doesn’t fit with how the physical world works. Cashmore compares a belief in free will to an earlier belief in vitalism – the belief that there are forces governing the biological world that are distinct from those governing the physical world. Vitalism was discarded more than 100 years ago, being replaced with evidence that biological systems obey the laws of chemistry and physics, not special biological laws for living things.
“I would like to convince biologists that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism (or, as I say, a belief in magic),” Cashmore told PhysOrg.com. . . .
Cashmore argues that there are deeper explanations for why we think we have free will. He thinks that there must be a genetic basis for consciousness and the associated belief in free will. Consciousness has an evolutionary selective advantage: it provides us with the illusion of responsibility, which is beneficial for society, if not for individuals as well. In this sense, consciousness is our “preview function” that comforts us into thinking that we are in control of what we will (or at least may) do ahead of time. As Cashmore notes, the irony is that the very existence of these “free will genes” is predicated on their ability to con us into believing in free will and responsibility. However, in reality, all behavioral decisions are nothing more than a reflection of our genetic and environmental history.
So let’s unpack this a bit. Cashmore is saying:
- free will violates physical law, and so you cannot be a naturalist and believe in free will;
- you really must become a religionist of some sort—a believer in out of this world “magic”—to hold to the common sense view that you really have a will that acts in the world; and
- free will genes function as messengers of deception: they arrange for us to pass our existence under the spell of an illusion.
Wow. Especially that last bullet (which goes right to my heart). If Cashmore is right, we live in a genetic matrix: we are Escher’s ants moving in the eternal cage of a Kafkaesque prison, only dreaming that we are free:
How enormously tragic: a world in which human freedom is an illusion. If this is true, and became widely internalized by the masses of men, what would happen to the liberal political project, to the justice system, and to humanism generally? How do you salvage any of these things without the religious and Descartian moves that Cashmore insists draw you out of the realm of naturalism?
And Cashmore goes even further. He says that consciousness—even an ultimately determinate consciousness—may play no feedback role in our actions at all: that everything—absolutely everything—may be “decided” upon in the human unconscious. Talk about a huge vindication of Freud!
I find it interesting to compare this line of thinking with that of Freud, who created a controversy by suggesting that the unconscious mind played a role in our behavior. The way of thinking regarding these matters now has moved to the extent that some are questioning what role, if any, the conscious mind plays in directing behavior. Namely, Freud was right to an extent that was much greater than he realized.
Is your head spinning? Mine is. Is it any wonder why religion won’t be going away anytime soon (if, for no better reason than this: it gives us a route for at least a distant hope in free will)? Still, you have to wonder. Is the below video, ironically, just the plaintive cry of what really is a robot? Free will is not in the house?