Is Free Will Anti-Science? (RJS)

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 self-determining.

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]



May 27, 2010 at 7:33 am

I don’t think there’s any room for Free Will in a strict materialistic sense. Most people trying to hold onto to such a view will inevitably appeal to the unpredictability of Quantum Mechanics in a God-of-the-Gaps type fashion, but as you said, this doesn’t work. Not only does Free Will require some kind of feed-back system, as you said, but even the synapses of the brain are much too large to be affected by random quantum fluctuations.
As a result of all this, I was a textbook fatalist when I was an atheist. My life was miserable.
The only reason I believe in Free Will today is because I’m no longer an atheist and God holds people accountable for their actions. I find the Calvinist arguments on this point to be unsatisfactory.
I don’t know how he does it, but God gave us Free Will. I also don’t know how this interacts with the physical world, but I suppose it must somehow. I look forward to advancements in neuroscience to help explain it a little better.

May 27, 2010 at 7:46 am

ditto what Whoschad said.

Scot McKnight
May 27, 2010 at 7:51 am

RJS, what do you think is a really good example of “free will” action/behavior?

May 27, 2010 at 7:53 am

I think a strong case could be made that “free-will” is unbiblical. And I don’t think it damages God’s jusatice either. It just reframes it, just as it does for our current legal/justice system. Justice becomes about purification/ repair (sanctification anyone) of the individual, rather than punishment, because jsutice recognises that the actor is not a totally free agent, but is BOUND by his nature/environment.
I could wax lyrical about this all day, but to detail how I think it might fit WITHIN a biblical framework would take more that a comment’s worth of space.
CAPTCHA – numerous goblets…

Scot McKnight
May 27, 2010 at 7:56 am

Well, “free will” has a philosophical discussion where a person’s will can choose whatever it wants, a kind of nonrestrictive choice, while others focus on “choice” and see a will being what humans can choose to do within the limits of their nature.
Do you deny the power of choice?


May 27, 2010 at 8:07 am

Scot, “Do you deny the power of choice?”
Actually, I’m not really sure! This is such a complex and sticky issue. But I sure love to talk/think about it, and I’m glad RJS has opened up this can of worms.
I do recognise that maybe persons are free to make choices within a set of constraints. But why they make the choice they do might still be programmed into them. So maybe they don’t have a choice? Is it possible to know what a man will choose before he does? Does God know what a man will choose before he chooses?
I’m just going to throw this out there: I have a little theory about moral responsibility that goes something like this: I’m not responsible for who I am today, but I am responsible for who I will be in the future.
So, let’s say I’m making particular “sinful” decisions. With knowledge of my personal casue-and-effect, (i.e. how my nature/environment causes me to do things), I should be able to manipulate the future environment AND my nature (through discipline) to actually become different. So we practice spiritual disciplines to change who we are, and we pray that God would allow the future environment to be different so that we have a way out. Then, next time, I make a different decision.
So the me that is responsible is the me that is present at any one time. A contrite person is truly repentant, in that moment. And perhaps that?s why a plotter of evil is morally responsible too, in the moment they plot evil, they really are sinning. And if they can’t carry through their plan at a later date, then at that time they’re effectively repentant.

May 27, 2010 at 8:15 am

As RJS points out, it seems to me that these anti-free will arguments are literally self-defeating. If they are true, they are not true (or their truth status is irrelevant). If they are true, the concepts “true”, “thought”, “argument”, “concept”, “convince” and “persuade” (among others) are either nonsense or illusion.
How can a person whose “thoughts” are determined “persuade” other such persons of anything? What does it mean to say the first person’s thoughts are “true” as opposed to the thoughts of the others?
“Free will is an illusion, therefore we should change our behavior in these ways.” How can we change our behavior without choice?

jonathan Heaps
May 27, 2010 at 8:42 am

the other Jonathan is right. This fellow wrote an article, appealing to our intelligence, rationality and responsibility, that denies our intelligence, rationality and responsibility. That’s incoherent. The ground of his mistake is the incorrect assumption that the real is the ‘already, out-there, now’ as Bernard Lonergan called it. Lonergan’s philosophy of scientific method shows how neither understanding nor being are determined ‘from the bottom up. Human freedom is a higher integration on the lower psycho-sensitive flow. Its opening into being isn’t at the ‘bottom’ in quantum processes, but at the top, in the statistical residue.

Adam Omelianchuk
May 27, 2010 at 8:47 am

The argument that all our behavior is reducible to physical processes entails that the argument itself is reducible to physical processes. Let BRP stand for the belief that all behavior is reducible to physical processes. If BRP is true then at no time does rational deliberation take place. What we take for rational deliberation and rational persuasion is just a chimera of natural and physical causes predetermined by their biological antecedents. So there is no REASON why we should find any argument rational or persuasive. There is only an EXPLANATION as to why we might find one rational or persuasive. Presumably, according to evolutionary biology, this explanation has to do with what makes us more fit for survival–it is not primarily interested in what is true or rational. If BRP is true there is no reason to believe our cognitive faculties would be reliable for forming true beliefs if they arose through an unguided physical process. They might contribute to our adaptive behavior, but that does not guarantee that they would be concerned with true belief. What BRP guarantees is that our behavior will be particularly concerned with self-preservation.
To the professor’s argument, the premises and conclusions he believes to be true are so in conflict with our basic epistemological beliefs that it simply will not last for long in the public’s mind. It has been tried and tested in the 20th century and it was found wanting. Even if we come up with a sound scientific argument that eradicates moral rights and responsibilities that are bound up with libertarian conceptions of freedom, we will nevertheless always see ourselves as rational, self-determining agents that contain the dignity of personhood where we are responsible to use our freedom to protect the dignity of others. That is simply human experience and as plain as the nose on our face.

May 27, 2010 at 8:51 am

Does the Bible posit that Free Will is a given recognition from the very beginning of its narrative? How else could God rationally ask Cain to exercise rule over his desires if it wasn?t an embodiment of free choice within man?
Gen 4:7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, BUT YOU MUST RULE OVER IT.”

Robby Charters

May 27, 2010 at 8:56 am

Interesting question. I think that, tied to this is the question of artificial intelligence. It appears that scientists have succeeded in creating synthetic life ( I think that we could safely conclude that if what we think of as free will is no more than material DNA, give or take a few quirks, then it should be ultimately possible to create a human type being with a soul. That seems to be the premise of many a Science Fiction film, notably Star Trek. I tend to think otherwise, and I am coming at it from the view of a writer of science fiction. I’m sure C.S.Lewis would have had a hey-day with this one.

May 27, 2010 at 8:59 am

To me, this gets back to the inevitable problem that we have that we all swim in one universe, which both religion and science attempt to accurately describe, but with different (opposite?) assumptions, and different methodologies. Further, as the post makes clear, scientists of great prominence have no problem at all, and increasingly so, asserting as fact what they are supposed to merely assume for purpose of scientific study, namely, that natural causes are all that there are in the world. If scientific naturalism continues to gain ground as the only defensible basis for decisions, it will reshape criminal justice and all other human endeavors, particularly those that require some kind of public justification.
RJS, you’ve used the analogy of studying the weather as a model for how Christians should accept evolutionary science. The thought, in part, if I recall, being that God may “cause” both creation and weather but almost exclusively, if not exclusively, via physics, biology & chemistry (natural laws). Wouldn’t the same argument apply here to accept the thinking this scientist describes? Or, better, why shouldn’t it apply here?

Ray Ingles
May 27, 2010 at 9:03 am

What does it mean to choose something, anyway? No choice we make is completely unconstrained. We always have some limits on our options. We select, we pick from what’s available. Our choices are shaped by our desires, our beliefs, our character… or else in what sense are they our choices?
Looked at a certain way, choice is a process of sorting through our wants, and applying those wants to the available options. Even someone who does something altruistically, with no thought for their own benefit, is still doing it with the intent of benefiting others – i.e. because they desire good for another. (Y’know, one operational definition of “integrity” might be “sticking to fulfilling a mutually-consistent subset of one’s desires”.)

A free will requires some degree of feedback control. There is no physical mechanism for “will” to exercise control.

I studied control theory in college. I fail to see how material systems can’t produce feedback loops…

May 27, 2010 at 9:09 am

Scot comes close to my thinking on this. While free will may not exist at the level of atoms and energy quanta, it DOES exist at the level of human thought and interaction (Scot calls it “choice”).
Saying that there is no free will in a material universe, and therefore we should not try to judge what behavior a person can and cannot control just seems silly to me. It’s like saying atoms experience unpredictable quantum fluxuation, therefore I can’t reliably drive my car straight.
We have the power to choose, and to take our lives in different directions. We have the power to change how our lives affect others. We can form societies built on standards that maximize happiness and minimize fear. And we can use social pressure, punishment and reward to guide others how to work well within that society.
The power and the responsibility are ours, not God’s.

May 27, 2010 at 9:35 am

Is he really saying that at the point of the big bang, because of teh material composition of the universe and the flow of atoms and molecules that it was at that point foreordained that there would be a human being who lived in a part of the world called Italy that would use a paintbrush to paint a place called the Sisteen chapel? If free will is an illusion and every action is predetermined by biology and physics isn’t this what he is saying, Isn’t he even saying that the formation of languages and evolution of slang, since they are actions/choices of creatures that cannot be explained by free will, are the necessary and required outcome of the material process – so they universe determined that in 2009-2010 ‘sexting’ would be the name given to the process of sending illicit pictures over phones.

May 27, 2010 at 9:40 am

Is Free Will Anti-Science?
Are we talking compatibilist (i.e. compatible with determinism) free will here? If so, I would have to say no. There is nothing to suggest that a natural action (your decision) is not caused by natural causes (your neurological state at the time of the decision).
If we’re talking incompatibilist (i.e. indeterminist) free will, then I’d have to say ‘yes’, as it would require a cause beyond the natural.

May 27, 2010 at 9:42 am

Of course there are material feedback systems. But “will” if it exists is something else – and for choice to be meaningful there must be will.
I agree – no choice is unconstrained and the choices we make today have impact on our tomorrow. Even with “free will” there is constraint in a realm of possibility. I cannot fly, I cannot hit a ball out of Target Field, people have different physical and mental abilities as well.
But the question isn’t choice constrained by possibility – but the reality of choice at all.
A chlorophyll molecule absorbs light and either emits the light, converts the energy into a triplet state, or channels the energy into the formation of oxygen and carbohydrate (photosynthesis). There is a choice – governed by random selection within a probability distribution. Multiple pathways some destructive some productive some neutral.
There is a quantum uncertainty – but no “will”.
The chlorophyll doesn’t “choose” which path to take.
Why do we think we have any more choice than an excited chlorophyll molecule?


May 27, 2010 at 9:42 am

This is a fascinating and difficult issue, both scientifically and theologically. I’ve written about it at length in this book chapter: A Critical Realist Theology of Law, Neurobiology and the Soul.
Here is what Martin Luther had to say about “free will” — in his typically fiery language — in his book The Bondage of the Will:

This, therefore, is also essentially necessary and wholesome for Christians to know: that God foreknows nothing by contingency, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, ?Free-will? is thrown prostrate, and utterly dashed to pieces

The Catholic / Thomistic / Humanist view to which Luther was responding basically argued that humans have “compatibilist” free will — that humans can make genuinely free choices within the constraints of God’s supervening will.
So, this is not a new debate, even though “God” as the boundary force has been replaced with “neurobiology.”

May 27, 2010 at 9:47 am

No the debate is not new at all. And here is one place where I think Luther got it wrong by the way.
Frankly there is no difference between the Luther/Calvin view of “will” and the secular materialist view of “will.” In both cases we live a delusion for some “superbeing” or for nothing at all.
But I suggest – both are wrong.

May 27, 2010 at 9:53 am

I’m not sure what I think about this topic, though I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last few years thinking about it. Ultimately, I do not believe our will is free. Rather, I believe we find freedom in Christ. Going further would take us away from the original post.
However, it seems to me that if the reductionist view of choice is correct (which I’m not sure we’ll know within my lifetime), then an interaction with how that works within multiverse theory is very important, because a description of how a change in prime causes will have to be explained naturalistically. This becomes very hard and with still maintaining a view of a universe in which “I” made a different “choice”.

May 27, 2010 at 10:01 am

I love this topic. I don’t have a great deal of background in dealing with this topic from a Christian perspective, but the Buddhist view is very advanced and overtly analyzed. One could actually argue that this is at the core of what Buddhism is about since they reject the reductionistic view as unpalatable.
I think this is a subject where every good Christian should study the Buddhist ideas. Here is an exerpt from the wikipedia article on Karma:
Every time a person acts there is some quality of intention at the base of the mind and it is that quality rather than the outward appearance of the action that determines the effect. If one appears to be benevolent but acts with greed, anger or hatred, then the fruit of those actions will bear testimony to the fundamental intention that lay behind them and will be a cause for future unhappiness.
End Wiki

Ray Ingles
May 27, 2010 at 10:14 am

I once saw a comment that I found insightful:

I define free will thusly: the ability to apply decision-making processes to alter decision-making processes to an arbitrary recursive depth.

Insects have decision-making processes, but they can’t alter them. (See “sphexish”.) Many animals can learn and alter their decision-making processes, but within limits. Humans, on the other hand, don’t seem to have a limit on their ‘recursive depth’.
Recursion produces behavior that’s potentially infinite from finite parts. Consider the Koch snowflake – a mathematical object with a finite area but an infinitely-long border. If you want a visual, gut-level idea of what recursion is, click on that link and look at the pictures.
Now, with this in mind, look at that definition of ‘free will’ again – “the ability to apply decision-making processes to alter decision-making processes to an arbitrary recursive depth.” Hopefully it seems a bit more profound.
We can not only make decisions about what we do, we can make decisions about how we decide what to do, and how we decide how we’ll decide to do that, and… soon you’ve got the behavioral equivalent of the Koch curve, infinite options packed into a finite brain.
If we have behavior that’s unpredictable, driven by our wants and needs, adaptable, and so forth… how is it different in practice from ‘incompatibilist’ free will?

May 27, 2010 at 10:15 am

RJS (#19) — I think Augustine helps us out here. This is what he says in City of God:

it does not follow that, though there is for God a certain order of all causes, there must therefore be nothing depending on the free exercise of our own wills, for our wills themselves are included in that order of causes which is certain to God, and is embraced by His foreknowledge, for human wills are also causes of human actions; and He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills

Augustine’s view is a sort of compatibilist free will stated in terms of primary and secondary causation. I think this is a very fruitful heuristic for thinking about neurobiology as well. Like all “natural” causes, the evolutionary development of human neurobiology is a “secondary” cause. It has its own integrity, but it does not by any means preclude God’s “primary” causation, nor does it necessarily preclude human “will” or “consciousness” or “soul” as an emergent property of neurobiology (and/or as a direct creation of God) that can exert downward causation.


May 27, 2010 at 10:42 am

The Design Spectrum
“Given the absence of causal mechanism is free will an argument in favor of design?”
My initial response is “yes” in some sense. But my initial impression is that the design inference here is not that strong, because I don’t see a very compelling argument. I guess the argument is that we experience life as creatures who choose, and not as robotic “gene-driven machines.” The best explanation of this experience evidence is design.
RJS, I am curious to know your answer to this one. Also, for a theistic evolutionist, where does free will come from (if it is real)?

May 27, 2010 at 11:00 am

I meant to add the observation that nobody can live consistently with a belief that free will does not exist.
Richard Dawkins admitted that he cannot live consistently with his beliefs in this regard (lengthy quote here).

Ray Ingles
May 27, 2010 at 11:06 am

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.

Even if one doesn’t believe in “mystical”, incombatibilist free will, this can be wrong. It depends entirely on whether punishment is considered as retribution or deterrent. The latter definition certainly seems to be what people use when dealing with creatures without free will. Most people don’t think animals have ‘free will’, in the ‘mystical’ human sense at least, and yet nobody has a problem with punishing a pet to housebreak it.
If punishment is attached purely to retribution, for example, then considerations like ignorance (‘I didn’t know she was there when I backed up the van’) or insanity would seem to make no difference. But in practice, people seem to want punishment to be inflicted only in cases where it would reasonably have a deterrent effect. If someone didn’t intend harm, and wasn’t acting with negligence, then most people seem to conclude that there’s no need to file charges. And if on the other hand someone is insane, then punishment is no deterrent and dealing with the insanity is the primary concern, not retribution. (Of course, because of this, there’s motivation for sane malefactors to pretend to be insane to escape consequences, but that’s a separate issue.)
More, most people accept that punishment corresponds to intent, not results – to the degree of responsibility involved. It’s generally agreed that the deliberate, premeditated murder of one person (first degree murder) should draw a harsher punishment than an unpremeditated crime of passion that kills two (say, an adulterous spouse and their lover, second degree murder), which in turn should draw a harsher punishment than the negligent killing of several (manslaughter).
Nothing about this automatically changes if humans lack ‘mystical’ free will. Punishment still affects how people weigh choices, and holding people responsible for their actions – and it’s really them acting, even if they are ‘merely’ fantastically complex and ultimately unpredictable mechanisms comprising both deterministic, algorithmic and undetermined, quantum-mechanical influences – is still a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

May 27, 2010 at 11:11 am

The kind of feedback you describe is adaptable the way a computer program can be designed to be adaptable – there is no “will” involved. Sure it can be very complex – and the future operates with memory of the past. But it is random the way the emission from a radioactive element is random.
Will implies the freedom to select one option over another – without a rigorous connection with a material cause for the election.

May 27, 2010 at 11:47 am

So in response to the “mystical” free will position, you are basically offering the “mythical” free will position? There really isn’t any actual choice in the plain sense of the term (ala “it could have been otherwise”), nor is there any willing to make a decision against normal biological function, and as Cashmore makes clear, in his view intent and responsibility are separated. Yet, despite the clear implications, you live the “myth” because the myth provides a narrative for something otherwise absurd.

May 27, 2010 at 12:21 pm

My comment (#27) was in response to your earlier comment (#22). The later comment – #26 – is an interesting one.
I think that you are right that without a “mystical” free will the criminal justice system would still need to look much the same – presumably developed as part of some massive algorithm constrained by the operation of natural laws. There is a time course and our societies are part of this natural process. Punishment will affect how people weigh choices and so forth as part of a “fantastically complex and ultimately unpredictable mechanisms comprising both deterministic, algorithmic and undetermined, quantum-mechanical influences.” It isn’t a “perfectly reasonable thing to do” it is simply the way things are. The word “reasonable” is a value judgment that doesn’t belong in the picture – it is a nonsense term. We describe what is and it just is.

May 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I was trying to remember where I read Cashmore’s article before and then remembered this article by William Carroll (Oxford: Blackfriars) offering a Thomistic response which gets at some of the critiques already mentioned thus far:

Ray Ingles
May 27, 2010 at 12:39 pm

As I said before, “Looked at a certain way, choice is a process of sorting through our wants, and applying those wants to the available options.”
When we speak of ‘mastering our desires’ we don’t mean being able to turn them on and off like a switch. We mean recognizing what’s most important (to us), and not being swayed by the passions of the moment into doing something contrary to those things we deem more important. It’s not an easy process – and nobody does it perfectly – but it’s necessary, if there actually are things that are more important to us than others.
Can we decide what to want? Certainly not easily or quickly, and almost never by a direct act of will. Sometimes we choose to wait until an urge passes. Sometimes we choose to ‘train’ ourselves to avoid wanting something (e.g. snapping a rubber band on your wrist every time you think about wanting to smoke) or, more rarely, to want something. (Sometimes by deliberately and repeatedly acting like we want it – a masquerade can become a reality, “fake it until you make it”, in some senses – and sometimes by simple habituation. I certainly never wanted to eat salad or drink beer when I was a kid…)
Problems like addiction show how hard it can be to change our desires. (In the movie ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Lawrence says that “a man can do whatever he wants”, but he can’t “want whatever he wants”, that there are things that “decides what he wants”.) It can be done, over a period of time, and occasionally to the point where a former addict feels distaste for what they once craved. But even then, if put into the same circumstances that fostered their original addiction, they often find the desire returns with full force. At that point they have to lean on their self-control, and the motivations that urged them to try to break the addiction in the first place.
So, at least some desires can be changed, but it takes time and work: a decision motivated by… a more powerful desire. Even when we speak of “having to do something we don’t want to do”, we’re doing it because it avoids something we don’t want, or serves a larger goal.
Part of being a grownup is understanding what’s most important to us – what we “really want” – and figuring out what choices actually promote that. If we do know what we want – if we do accurately know ourselves – then we should, allowing for human failings, choose accordingly. Why would we do otherwise? Doesn’t the same apply to any version of free will?


May 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Ray, super quote from Lawrence of Arabia!

Charles Hackney

May 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm

It’s odd that Cashmore would suggest that psychologists have no place in the legal system, given that his ideas appear to be little more than warmed-over Skinnerian applied behaviorism (I might be wrong, not having read the book, but I don’t see anything here that’s more than a rephrasing of Skinner’s views). Cashmore says: “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.” Skinner said: “I submit that what we call the behavior of the human organism is no more free than its digestion.”
The inherent contradiction in this kind of thinking has already been pointed out (If I can’t chose to agree with him, then why try to persuade me? Why not focus instead on finding the neurochemical process that will MAKE me agree with him?).
My thoughts on the implications of accepting his approach involve CS Lewis’ humanitarian theory of punishment, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (“Ford… Ford… Ford…”).

May 27, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Ray (#31),
I agree with most of what you say – but there has to be some role for “will” even if all there is to it is a “will” to wait until the urge passes. A purely materialist view is that we never “decide” what to want in the sense of the action of a “will.” There is no material cause and effect associated with “will.”
Free will alone doesn’t mean “theism” … not by any stretch, although it is consistent with theism. But free will does mean that there is something fundamental that we don’t know – don’t understand about the way the universe – biology – operates.

Justin Topp
May 27, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Good post and discussion going on. RJS, I think that you’re starting to “qualify” or I should say limit your definition of free will a bit in your last few comments. I think that it can be do to material causes (at least in part) but that the name of the scientific game, reductionism isn’t providing a sufficient framework to study the problem. As a scientist, I know that we never say a problem is insoluble, but…
No mention yet of the classic early 1980′s experiment in which it was shown that there is neuron firing that precedes the conscious thought associated with a choice or action. This has been huge in divorcing mind from brain, perhaps too much so. The truth is, I think we need better scientific tools before we can give a strong scientific answer on this.
There hasn’t been much discussion of emergence yet? Certainly it’s theoretical, but we should probably take the concept and run with it a bit.
Twitter: JustinTopp

May 27, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Ray (#26) and RJS (#29) — actually, there is a fair amount of scholarship suggesting that criminal law should look substantially different once the findings of neurobiology are taken into account. Ray, the factor of “intent” that you mention is one that most scholars working at the intersection of law and neurobiology question. The distinction between “murder” and “manslaughter” is a great example. The difference between these two crimes is whether there was “malice aforethought”. Most neuro-legal scholars would argue that this is a nonsensical standard and that the severity of criminal penalties should not turn on it.
In fact, neurobiology could rewrite the very foundations of criminal law. All crimes require at least two components: actus rea and mens rea. The former means the act was volitional: I intended to throw a knife at you. The latter means the volitional act was knowingly “guilty” or “wrong”: I knew it was a real knife, not a toy knife, and I intended to harm you. The concept of mens rea clearly is undermined by neurobiology. I have heard it argued that even actus rea is a meaningless concept, because it relies on pre-scientific notions of “volition.”

Justin Topp
May 27, 2010 at 2:42 pm

“Divorce” isn’t the appropriate word choice there. But the finding certainly made us think that mind is more of an epiphenomenon, which no doubt has helped to lead us down this scientific path. If brain trumps all, then…

May 27, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I don’t quite know what you mean by “limit my definition” – perhaps I am, but only for the sake of parsing the problem to look at pieces one at a time.
With respect to the others – emergence is an interesting topic, but one thing at a time. We need a good article to start the discussion.

Nathan C
May 27, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Ray, I appreciate your comments.
RJS #34, what is the “will” that enables us not to act on an urge? (Serious question.) As Ray points out, people have all sorts of desires, some of them meta-desires. (i.e. “I want to desire X.”) What do we lose by identifying the “will” with these higher order desires?
I get the impression, which might be wrong, that you are using “will” as a placeholder for acausal spontaneity of some sort. You’re aware that may undermine moral accountability far more than even robust forms of determinism, right?

Also, forgive my historical pedantry – Luther is a 16th century monk and doesn’t understand causality in the same manner as a 21st century scientist, secular or not (cf. BotW, section 26, last paragraph). In contemporary terms, he’s probably a compatibilist, as well.

May 27, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Nathan C,
Is the apparent will that enables one not to act simple the result of stochastic processes in a material structure with a history, something of a memory, and governed by the laws of physics?
How would acausal spontaneity undermine moral accountability and what do you mean by acausal?

May 27, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Nathan (#39) — some neurobiologists talk in terms of “free won’t” rather than “free will.”

Ray Ingles
May 27, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Dopderbeck –

All crimes require at least two components: actus rea and mens rea. The former means the act was volitional: I intended to throw a knife at you. The latter means the volitional act was knowingly “guilty” or “wrong”: I knew it was a real knife, not a toy knife, and I intended to harm you. The concept of mens rea clearly is undermined by neurobiology.

How is mens rea undermined by neurobiology? Expand that chain of reasoning a bit, I’m just not following.
As to how intention can be intelligibly spoken of in a material world… based on what you’ve written in the past I assume you’ve at least perused what Dennett has to say about the “intentional stance”?

May 27, 2010 at 3:46 pm

This is such a broad topic, and may even have religious components to it 😮
One of the most fascinating changes in science that has occurred in my lifetime is the change to conclusively knowing that we actually do not know what most of the cosmos is made of let alone understanding how it works. Greater than 90% of everything there is, is currently either dark energy or dark matter. Also, some of our best scientists now believe the universe is better explained by about 11 dimensions instead of 4 and those 11 are not at all comprehensible to the man on the street. Then there are other theories of branes where we are actually in a multiverse, not a universe.
We don’t have a clue. The more I learn the more I think there really is something inexplicable that gets us out of the infinite cause and effect cycle that our limited minds are able to comprehend.
I don’t think I answered your lower questions, but you title question, “Is free will anti-science?” is definitely no. We may all be connected in ways that we have not even come close to discovering but many sense. I like to think of this topic in the same thought as the one about people having religious experience. We don’t know…
Thanks for all the good thoughts you all put out today, I enjoy it.

Ray Ingles

May 27, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Part of the problem is we’re talking in very different terms, with very different paradigms (in the Kuhninan sense).
“F=ma” expresses the relationship between four fundamental concepts: force, mass, distance, and time. But what units to use? You are only free to pick units for three of them – then F=ma means you define the last unit in terms of the other three. In the Imperial (British) system, the unit of force is the pound, the unit of distance is the foot, and the unit of time is the second. From that, you derive the unit of mass – the slug. In effect, the British system expresses it as “m=F/a”. The metric system, by contrast, assumes units for mass, distance, and time (kilogram, meter, and second) and derives the unit of force, the Newton.
The relationship expressed as “F=ma” can be expressed many different ways, with different emphases – but still leading to the same results. Similarly the relationship between choice, responsibility, and free will can be expressed many ways – though perhaps not with quite the mathematical precision of physics – and still lead to consistent conclusions about how humans act, and should act, and govern, and should be governed.
It seems to me that the commonsense notions ‘everyone’ has about ethics and morals, and even the large majority of what careful thinkers have concluded about ethics and morals, can be true and expressed in more than just the ‘classical’, ‘mystical’ systems that have been pretty much the only game in town until quite recently. We have a lot of accumulated wisdom over the past 100,000 years or so of humanity’s existence regarding how to get along. That’s not to say that those systems are perfect; the case of ‘revenge culture’ is a glaring counterexample. But it does mean those systems in some senses “work”, and not always for the obvious reason.

Nathan C
May 27, 2010 at 4:29 pm

1. Possibly, though I don’t know that anyone could prove that conclusively one way or the other right now. Maybe you’ll get there via the the kinds of neurobiological experiments Justin Topp and dopderbeck have been alluding to.
More to the point, though, resorting to some form of dualism doesn’t automatically get you libertarian free will.
2. The argument, I think, goes back to William James; I’ll try to sketch it briefly.
People who push voluntarism hard enough often end up presenting free acts as gratuitous in some robust sense. This erodes the concept of character until praise and blame become meaningless.
One says, “I chose not to lie.” Why? “Because I value honesty.” Why? “Because God wills it.” Why do you want to do God’s will? “Because…” etc.
If you keep answering these why questions, you eventually end up saying something like, “Anyone with my genetics, raised as I was, in my environment, with my life experiences, would have done the same.*” If you find that unpalatable – and defenders of libertarian free will generally do – the alternative is to admit that there simply is no why. You did what you did, and that’s a brute fact.
If the actions of your will can’t be explained or meaningfully related to past and future actions, “You” are just the sum of a disconnected set of events. In that case, character is pretty meaningless and it doesn’t really make much sense to talk about moral praise and blame.

*You probably can’t rescue this by appealing to stochastic processes. “Anyone with my genetics, raised as I was, in my environment, with my life experiences… would have behaved according to this pdf.” Not particularly satisfying.
Which is to say, I think I know what you’re getting at with the acausal sub-question, and I’ll cop to ducking it because I don’t think it matters.


May 27, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Ray (#42) — mens rea is undermined because there is no such thing as “bad” or “wrongful” “intent.” At least, that is the argument made in much of the law-and-neurobiology literature. A key “goal” of the strong law-and-neurobiology folks I’ve read is to put a final nail in the coffin of “retributive justice.” Retributive justice makes no sense at all if the best we can do is treat people, ala Dennett, “as if” they had genuine intentions and possessed genuine agency. The goal of the criminal justice system, in this view, is only behavior modification, not retributive justice. (At this point I’m not suggesting whether this is good or bad — I’m just suggesting this is the view many take.)

John M.
May 27, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Does God have free will?
Captcha – “Hubbell hopeful”

Ann F-R
May 27, 2010 at 8:18 pm

RJS, this seems to be the logical outcome of the view that evolution is strictly materials-driven/related. Is that correct?
I appreciated your analysis. It seems that this view fundamentally would throw the whole concept & process of “justice” into question. The implications are certainly broad and would constitute a radical paradigm shift in courts and, if taught (consciously or not), would broaden the natural human tendencies to be estranged from others.
Some implications that come to my mind are racially, economically, gendered and ethnically derived policies that could form new foundations for law based in such beliefs.
If there is only an illusion of responsibility, then redemption would likewise seem to be a meaningless pipe dream.

May 27, 2010 at 8:40 pm

David, Ray, RJS,
I admit beforehand that it’s been a long time since I read Elbow Room. Dennett seemed to be suggesting that in his form of compatibilism that things are completely determined, but at a level so removed from our common experience that our common experience will always seem that things are not causally determined. Therefore, we live as though choices aren’t determined with the knowledge in the back of our mind somewhere that they actually are determined. Dennett’s discussion seems more like myth-making to me than anything else, and if I know that something determined is going on at the causal level then there’s no point in acting as if its not determined.
I spend my time with biblical studies, theology and church planting. Theologically there are all sorts of implications, but nothing that hasn’t been discussed for centuries. Honestly, Ray’s discussion above where he quotes Lawrence of Arabia could have come directly from Jonathan Edwards. Thus, I think its totally unfair to write off a 16th century monk, because his views on causality are different. Surely they are different, but since discussions of causality inevitably stem from metaphysical questions, I don’t see why a modern day neurobiologist would have any great advantage over a 16th century monk. But these are philosophical and theological questions that we too easily make abstract.
I’m a dad. How do I tell my son that he shouldn’t have gotten angry and thrown his dinner off the table. I want to know how to train, discipline, teach and raise my son in the absence of free will. Could someone give me a practical example here of how things would change around my household?

May 27, 2010 at 9:17 pm

This is something worth serious thought and I haven’t thought about it as much as I should perhaps. I haven’t read Dennett.
As I see it, In the absence of “will” (and even in the presence of “will” to a large extent) you train your son by starting with what is encoded in the genes, reinforce positive random occurrences and penalize negative random occurrence, building pathways in his brain that result in desired behavior as he grows. Given parameters and limits the algorithm of life programs the brain. You train as you do from influence of biology and culture having been trained yourself. It is all one big feedback loop spreading out and occupying the realm of possibility.
But in the absence of will “should” and “ought” are meaningless beyond the effective functioning of the system, and the system just is. The development of an individual cog worked successfully or unsuccessfully in any particular case. In a criminal justice system then – true accidents, “random events” are not punished in the same way as intentional events because the need for correction is different – “we” may need to incentivize attention to safe practice, but the person isn’t inherently malformed. ntentional events indicate programming gone wrong, but there is no need to involve psychologists because programing can go wrong in many ways. It doesn’t really matter if an understanding of right and wrong is present or not – there is no free will to distinguish levels of guilt, both “sane” and “insane” are equally sick and must be dealt with – retrained, sequestered where they do no harm, or disposed of.
The universe then favors “justice” if and only if justice is more stable (has better “fitness”) than injustice. If injustice has better fitness, injustice become “just”. What we perceive as justice and injustice (good and evil) is in some fashion strictly utilitarian. There is an end to the process even if there is no “purpose”.
I don’t see how – in a world viewed from the position of ontological materialism it could be anything else.
I also don’t think we should view the world from a position of ontological materialism. In this case the discussion changes somewhat.
I am not quite sure what Nathan C means by “libertarian” free will. But I think that there is an element of freedom complete with control in a fully embodied person. The will can’t escape its embodiment – but neither is it simply a figment of the laws of physics.

Ray Ingles
May 27, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Dopderbeck – Well, I can say that I don’t agree with “the argument made in much of the law-and-neurobiology literature” as you present it. I do agree that “retributive justice” as such is a wrongheaded idea… but punishment is a time-tested means of “behavior modification”, as I noted way back in #26.
I regard “retributive justice” to relate to “deterrent justice” roughly like Ptolemaic astronomy relates to Copernican astronomy. Both reach similar answers in the vast majority of cases, but one of them is based on incorrect premises. It’s the implications “the strong law-and-neurobiology folks” draw – at least, as you report them – that I disagree with. I don’t think much of our justice system needs to change at all based on the findings of neurobiology.

Ray Ingles
May 27, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Oh, and dopderbeck (and Kyle) – Dennet does draw a distinction between “as if” intentionality and ‘original’ intentionality. He just doesn’t think there’s a sharp dividing line between them.
Analogy: There is definitely ‘day’, and definitely ‘night’. They are distinct categories. But there’s no principled, obvious, sharp moment that unambiguously divides day and night. Similarly, while ‘original’ intentionality and ‘as if’ intentionality are definitely different things, there are cases between them where it’s hard to say definitively which category they belong to.

May 27, 2010 at 11:57 pm

RJS, interesting that you have no “vitalists” commenting…
Probably because we (yes, I have come to understand and embrace this after much study and experience over the past 12 years) are tired of apples and oranges conversations.
There are, actually, things that science does not yet understand. And sometimes the presuppositions of scientific inquiry preclude understanding that is outside the box — and vitalism is very much outside that box.
I came to this through my study of what is called energy medicine, especially homeopathy, and I am completely unwilling to enter conversations about it with folks who have not struggled to understand the theory as it is taught, not as they cannot understand it.
The “the sum is more than the parts” is a big piece of the picture. And sometimes, like those magic pictures, you can’t see the hidden image by looking directly at it … you have to look past it and see it peripherally.
Cheers … and thanks for hosting the discussions!
captcha: that maker ;^)

Unapologetic catholic
May 28, 2010 at 1:36 am

A more interesting question is whether Christianity requires a belief in free will.

Darren King
May 28, 2010 at 1:40 am

This makes me think of Dallas Willard, who has a very balanced, realistic, but certainly not at all fatalistic view about this issue. He says (something like) the spiritual disciplines allow us, in a round about way, to accomplish that which we couldn’t through direct effort alone.
Thus he both accounts for factors that direct us (biology, etc), while also showing how we can, through a combination grace and wisely applied effort, exercise our free will to good effect.
I love this approach because it both allows for our biological predispositions, without surrendering to their inevitiblity.

May 28, 2010 at 3:59 am

This is a tangent, but based on the article cited. I’m somewhat surprised by the rhetoric in Cashmore’s piece.
For instance, anyone with a cursory knowledge of Descartes knows that he was a rationalist completely against “magic.” Thus, to term his dualism of the “magic of the soul” comes across as rather perjorative to philosophers in general, and Cartesians in particular (there’s still plenty of them around academics…I can think of a few off the top of my head…Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro) Then he expands the “magic” critique to include religion (for instance, pitting the reality of science and the lack of a free will against the magic of religion and the soul). Furthermore, he calls religion nonsensical and unsupported by any evidence, which is shocking for someone so clearly educated. Agree or disagree, we have evidences. You may not find them sufficient, but claiming that religious beliefs are devoid of any evidence? Finally, he groups all religious beliefs together and says that they do not comply with the laws of the physical world.
I can understand using various types of rhetoric for various situations. For instance, I’m going to use a completely different set of language when in a theology class than when in Sunday school or at the pub with a friend. I could understand certain types of similar anti-religious rhetoric at an atheist convention, or on a personal website, but in your inaugural article as a member of the NAS?
Sure, in the survey from a few years back, we learned that of those whom responded, the organization is 70% atheist, 20% agnostic and under 10% believe in a personal God, but does that justify the rhetoric? They are also just under 90% male, and around 75% white non-hispanic, but that wouldn’t justify demeaning rhetoric towards women or non-whites in an article. I guess I was just somewhat surprised to find such rhetoric in such a scholarly setting.

May 28, 2010 at 7:08 am

Well – despite the pushback on Giberson’s article in Wednesday’s post (and the fact that I didn’t particularly like the way Giberson phrased it) – this is the sandbox we play in.
It makes life difficult … racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, “sexual preferenceism”, classism, when they exist must be veiled or there are consequences. It can’t even be explored as a scientific possible or question (Larry Summers and James Watson cases in point) . But an anti-religion sentiment is fair game – even expressed in the kind of terms Cashmore used it goes unchallenged.

J. Martini
May 28, 2010 at 9:35 am

For good, Christian acknowledgment of basic human physicality without slipping into fatalism, it’s worth reading Joel Green’s new book, /Body, Soul, and Human Life/, as well as Nancey Murphy’s work on nonreductive physicalism (see link).

May 28, 2010 at 11:00 am

The Design Spectrum
Kyle #56,
Great comment. I made a similar point on Tuesday, I think.
RJS #57,
It’s the sandbox you play in because very few criticize this kind of rhetoric. The sandbox won’t change until someone does. Meanwhile, people get hurt. At some point, people need to stand up for justice.

May 28, 2010 at 11:07 am

The Design Spectrum
I don’t see any other comments addressing your question about design, except for my own. (##24 and 25) Interesting.

Nathan C
May 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm

RJS #50 – Sorry. “Libertarian free will” is a common designation for an incompatibilist understanding of free will. Incompatibilist in the sense that free will is incompatible with physical causality (deterministic or stochastic), God’s supervening will, etc.
RJS, much of ethics – even Christian ethics – defines words like “should” and “ought” in terms of “effective functioning of the system.” More properly, you start with some understanding of the good life, just society, etc., and then “should” and “ought” just pick out whatever is most fit to that telos. This is the kind of virtue ethics you get with figures like Aquinas and, it seems, Bishop Wright, and it tends to cohere pretty well with ethical naturalism.
Kyle #49 – Just to be clear, I’m not the one saying we should write off Luther.

May 28, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Nathan C –
In terms of “God’s supervening will” – and choosing the understanding of “good life” in any such context … I was not bringing that into the picture. It is, of course, what Cashmore would call religious causal magic. And brings on a whole other discussion.
My point about “should” and “ought” is highlighted in your phrase here “you start with some understanding of.” The terms only make sense in the context of a “fitness landscape” which is being optimized. Should and ought might mean female “should” consume the male after mating – or it could mean male “ought” to mate with as many females as possible … or it might mean that a water molecule “should” condense, becoming part of a larger droplet. So you start with some end goal … and “should” and “ought” make sense.
But ultimately we don’t construct the landscape … either ‘God’ (some kind or sort not necessarily God as understood by the Christian) constructed the landscape or mindless laws of physics determine the landscape. The question is whether there is an acausal ability to respond on that landscape within the constraints of the body – something beyond the mindless laws of physics and quantum probability. If there is – that is ‘free’ will, if there isn’t – then it just plain doesn’t matter, all of our perception is a fiction. We are one big material algorithm powered by “natural law” or powered by God.

Nathan C

May 28, 2010 at 6:29 pm

On the fitness landscape – That’s my point. You’re presenting as destructive of ethics what is often taken to be the foundation of ethics, whether Christian or not. So, “should” and “ought” are instrumental terms, and, yes, we don’t construct the landscape. Ethics probably just are contingent on our being this type of being in this type of universe.
The catch is when you assert that without acausality “it just plain doesn’t matter, all of our perception is a fiction.” You might be right, but that’s not an uncontroversial position among ethical philosophers – again, whether Christian or not.
So, why doesn’t it matter?

May 28, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Ray (#51) — “punishment” as you’re describing it isn’t the same as retributive justice. Ultimately I think you’re making the same move that I’m describing in the law-and-neurobiology literature: there really is no “justice.” Rather, there is “behavior modification.” “Penalties” or “punishments” are quasi-Skinnerian instruments, and nothing more.
If this were true, it really would result in a massive change in Western law. At the level of basic concepts, such as the elements of mens rea and actus rea for crimes, the law would have to change. Perhaps more significantly, the way we administer punishments would have to change dramatically.
Say, for example, that an adult man rapes a child. What is the appropriate penalty? What if the man could be completely “cured” of any further urges towards children with a year of medication and therapy, or a voluntary castration? Would that penalty be sufficient for the crime?
You might say that the penalty has to be high enough to deter others, but assume also, as seems to be the case, that no prospective penalty of any magnitude will deter serious a pedophile from acting on his urges. You might say also that the man should have to pay restitution to the injured child, but (a) that generally is a matter for civil law; (b) no amount of money can really make up for the emotional harm of this sort of crime, and (c) this still doesn’t account for whether there was a “wrong” to society as a whole.
Without some concept of justice beyond mere behavior modification, it seems very difficult to come up with punishments for serious crimes that seem “just.” Now, maybe our sense of “justice” is one of those ghosts-in-the-machine that Dennett et al. would have us get beyond. I don’t think so, but I think a consistent materialist should admit that this indeed is the consequence of thinking consistently as a materialist.


May 28, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Nathan C,
I don’t know what it is that I assert as destructive as of ethics but is often taken to be the foundation of ethics.
I am suggesting
(1) that there is a landscape not of our making.
(2) that there is an element of acausality in the way we can operate on that landscape. That is there is an element of “me” that is not either random chance or inexorable controlled by external forces.
Of course there are massive external forces over which I have no control including, inevitably, aging and death. Injury can produce massive changes in brain process.
But without some acausality in the way we can operate on that landscape we are left with a few options, perhaps there are others:
(a) In the naturalist view Cashmore is right to compare us with a bowl of sugar, and Nietzsche was right, and life is a farce (which is a meaningless value statement of course). “We” simply evolve on the landscape as a function of genes, environment, and stochastic processes driven by quantum uncertainty.
(b) In a deist view the landscape has a somewhat deeper purpose, but still “we” simply evolve on the landscape as a function of genes, environment, and stochastic processes driven by quantum uncertainty.
(c) In the theist view we are toys – right down to our thoughts. Yeah, I know many will disagree with this.
Of course, inherent in the way we hold this conversation is a deep seated belief in the reality of our ability to operate on some level acausally.

Nathan C

May 29, 2010 at 6:32 pm

I’m obviously not being clear.
I thought you were saying that an external “landscape” somehow rendered morality meaningless. Historically, most ethical thinking has started by describing a landscape and then defined right action in terms of fitness in that landscape. I’m using a contemporary idiom, but this is true of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, as well as more recent thinkers like GEM Anscombe and Philippa Foot.

Beyond that, what I’m getting at is that acausality probably isn’t required for ethics in the way I think you (and perhaps Cashmore) believe.
Let me put it this way. If I say, “so-and-so is a good person,” and you ask me to explain what I mean by that, I might say something like, “Well, she has a good character. She usually has the attitudes and takes the actions that a good person ought to.” Does that seem like a decent account of moral evaluation so far?
It’s not clear where acausality entered that picture. And if we really do try to shoehorn acausality in, if individuals are at every instant prime movers unmoved, it might become very difficult to relate someone’s future actions and dispositions to their past. And if that’s the case, it becomes hard to talk about them having any identity over time whatsoever, let alone a good or bad character. Do you see the danger, here?
I think – and please correct me if I’m wrong – that you objection comes from the intuition that moral responsibility genuinely requires that people could have done otherwise. That’s not indefensible, but it’s not uncontroversial, either. Let me give you a sci-fi-ish example from Harry Frankfurt:
Bob has decided to murder Charlie. Though Bob is unaware of it, the Conspiracy has implanted a device in his brain such that, if he changes his mind, he’ll be forced to murder Charlie anyway. Bob kills Charlie, but he never changes his mind, though, so the device never activates.
A lot of people – and I’m one of them – would agree that Bob really is a murderer, even though he couldn’t have done otherwise. Would you agree?

The upshot is that I think the picture is richer than you’re allowing, because if I understand you, you’re making some very strong claims. You may still be right, but you’re not uncontroversially right, and I think the other side presently gets the better of many of those arguments.
For instance, even stipulating causality, Cashmore can probably only get away with comparing us to bowls of sugar (morally speaking) if we granted a whole lot of things to him that I’m not prepared to. That doesn’t logically mean that I must grant you all the things that you want, either.
(Among other things, I’d probably have to grant Cashmore epiphenomenalism, which I see no reason to do. Possibly, Ray Ingles just parted with me here. If so, I wish him well.)
And RJS, having this conversation no more implies that I (must) believe in acausality any more than your reading these words implies that you (must) believe in luminiferous ether.

Cameron Reilly

May 31, 2010 at 12:43 am

I have no doubt at all that Cashmore is correct. The theory of ‘free will’ is not supported at all by the laws of chemistry and physics as we understand them. It’s quite simple to break down:
The randomness of quantum particles does nothing to bolster the case for free will, either, because that randomness doesn’t exhibit itself at the level of chemical reactions, which is what our brains run on.

Steven Noble
May 31, 2010 at 12:45 am

Science advances by making disprovable hypotheses and then conditionally using and testing them until they are disproven.
The hypothesis that all human activity can be explained by physics etc alone is not testable or disprovable, so it’s not one that should be made in the name of science.
By all means cite the progress of science when you make this claim, but please acknowledge the claim is one of philosophy not science as it is not testable or disprovable.

Ray Ingles
August 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm

You might say that the penalty has to be high enough to deter others, but assume also, as seems to be the case, that no prospective penalty of any magnitude will deter serious a pedophile from acting on his urges.

Well, the case of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) argues strongly against that notion. But if we’re assuming that pedophilia can be cured, then the penalty needs to be high enough to make sure the pedophile seeks the cure rather than victims.
If, on the other hand, it could be shown both that (a) it can’t be cured, and (b) all pedophiles will, without exception, act on those urges… then the sensible ‘penalty’ would be death. On the other hand, I think the odds of proving either are pretty slim anytime soon (and indeed, I think Dodgson pretty well disproves (b)).

Without some concept of justice beyond mere behavior modification, it seems very difficult to come up with punishments for serious crimes that seem “just.”

If you restrict your attention to highly contrived toy examples with very uncommon – and perhaps counterfactual – assumptions, then I suppose you’d be right. But so far I can only say that I’d need a more down-to-Earth and real-life example.

"Chris, I would agree that is one of the strongest logical appeals of a Universalist ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Blessings to you Michael, I think 'the Day the Revolution Began' is one of Wright's ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Hi Ted,I think this is a great and insightful question and I would like to ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Biologos article by David Opderback (some excerpts) The Biblical writers and editors did not know ..."

Adam and the Blue Parakeet (RJS)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mark

    I’d refer us to C.S. Lewis’, ‘The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism’, the 3rd chapter in ‘Miracles’. If we determined that all our actions are determined, that can only be because we are ‘determined’ to do so. If we determine that everything is not determined (and ‘determinism is actually true) we also only concluded this because we were determined to do so. There is only cause and effect under this framework and no ground and consequent type reasoning. All reasoning is an illusion b/c there is only cause and effect. The problem is that we used reasoning to come to the conclusion that determinism is true. But we couldn’t have done so under a deterministic framework. Thus, ‘The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism’.