Anthony R. Cashmore, Robert I. Williams Professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania wrote his inaugural article following election to the National Academy of Science on The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Scot mentioned this article a couple of weeks ago in Meanderings (HT JT) but it is worth some more thought and conversation.

Professor Cashmore asserts that belief in free will is nothing more than “vitalism” rearing its ugly head. Vitalism is defined by Merriam Webster as: 

1. a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a
vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions.

2. a doctrine that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws
of physics and chemistry alone and that life is in some part

There is no doubt that we are embodied persons. It is not really possible to separate will from the atoms, molecules, and structures that comprise a human body. On the other hand – do the laws of chemistry and physics define all we are and all we do?

Cashmore isn’t describing a Newtonian determinism – rather he is pointing out that a combination of genes, environment and stochasticism governs all of biology, including behavior. A stochastic process is a random process – and there is an element of randomness inherent in quantum physics. While the introduction of randomness into response eliminates a strict determinism, it does not introduce a “will.” A free will requires some degree of feedback control. There is no physical mechanism for “will” to exercise control.

A belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs. Indeed I would argue that free will makes “logical sense,” as long as one has the luxury of the “causal magic” of religion. Neither religious belief, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world. (p. 4502).

Cashmore suggests that free will is an illusion having evolutionary selective advantage. “Consciousness confers the illusion of responsibility.”

What do you think?

Is responsibility mere illusion – free will a figment of imagination?

Cashmore suggests that elimination of the fiction of free will should have consequence for criminal
justice systems. People can be held “responsible” for their
actions – but responsibility has nothing to do with intent. This, in Cashmore’s view, has consequence for the way we should deal
with antisocial behavior. We waste time, money, and energy considering such questions as “Is alcoholism a disease?” and “Are sex crimes addictions?”  Volition should not come into consideration in a court of law. All that matters are the facts – not state of mind. Not guilty by reason of insanity and guilty but insane are nonsensical. Psychologists don’t belong in the process in any meaningful way. None of us, judged sane or insane, really have any control. Thus action = guilt and for the good of society it must be dealt with.

Cashmore continues:

Here I argue that the way we use free will is nonsensical. The beauty of the mind of man has nothing to do with free will or any unique hold that biology has on select laws of physics or chemistry. The beauty lies in the complexity of the chemistry and cell biology of the brain, which enables a select few of us to compose like Mozart or Verdi, and the rest of us to appreciate listening to these compositions. 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. (p. 4503)

and later:

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 is my concern, that this vitalistic way of thinking about human behavior–a style of thinking that is present throughout our scientific institutions–serves only to hinder what should be a major onslaught on determining the molecular genetic and chemical basis of human behavior. (p. 4504)

I suggest that Cashmore’s view is either right or dangerous. If he is right, he is also irrelevant. The way we run society and our criminal justice system is no more a matter of free will than the criminal behavior of a sociopath. Response to external stimuli with a dose of probability defines the ways societies will function. Cashmore’s article and suggestion is, in fact, nothing more than the result of genes, environment, and stochastic processes. Any change in behavior resulting from his article is only part of the stochastic impersonal function of the material world.

And this goes beyond the criminal justice system. If there is no responsibility for antisocial behavior, there is also no responsibility for creative or inventive accomplishment. Pride in accomplishment arises from an irrational belief in a fiction. There is societal benefit in a fictive system of reward and punishment, but it boils down to nothing more than preservation of genetic material. 

Cashmore’s view, if wrong, may lead to injustice and a dehumanized view of persons on the margins of society, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the “other.”

I can see two possibilities here – ways in which Cashmore’s analysis could be wrong, the second of which he dismisses in the text. We should have outgrown the “causal magic” of religion in any form. The first does not seem to be considered.

First – Free will is explicable
by laws of the physical world – but pointing to something beyond our
current understanding, new laws and processes we do not yet understand. What this is, how it works out, is unknown at this time but the unknown is what fuels research and the quest for understanding.

Second – the reality of free will could be evidence for “intelligent design,” the existence of
something beyond the laws of the physical world. Looking for design in the material structure of the cell is a pointless exercise. Cause and effect is well established within this realm, mechanisms, models, and possibilities abound. Will, “free” will, if real, is something completely outside our current scientific understanding. We have no model for the cause  (the will) and no mechanism to connect cause and effect.

(E.O. Wilson has also weighed in on these ideas, trying his hand at fiction recently in Anthill: A Novel, with an interview and a review in Wired.)

What do you think? Is free will a reality or a ‘useful’ fiction?

Given the absence of causal mechanism is free will an argument in favor of design?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad