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PNAS: Free Will Into the Dumpster

The article is open access, so you can choose to download it. Or choose not to download it. Or choose to click over to YouTube, or the Huffington Post, to see what’s doing there.

Whatever happens, “you” — meaning the person reading this right now — won’t be making a decision. Physics and chemistry will. These forces will inform you of their “decision,” so to speak, by the perceptual illusion, constructed in the infinite wisdom of natural selection, which gives you the misleading sense of having made a choice. Otherwise known as free will, which doesn’t exist.

Anthony Cashmore, the author of this Inaugural Article in the PNAS, is a molecular biologist and botanist at the University of Pennsylvania. I didn’t see a single sentence about botany in the article, but I suppose National Academy members have catholic [small c, please] interests and can range over the intellectual landscape to alight on whatever problems attract them.

What I really didn’t see, however, was any new science. As Cashmore notes, the existence (or not) of free will has been debated since antiquity. It’s a classically philosophical problem. The pages of the PNAS are open to materialistic solutions, as evidenced by the Cashmore article. His Inaugural Article, remember: this is what a botanist most wants to say to his NAS colleagues, by way of introducing himself.

Could a defender of the reality of free will — i.e., of an irreducible person acting from mind, on the basis of reasons, goals, ends or purposes — publish her arguments in the PNAS? After all, that’s the other side of this ancient debate.

Homework assignment: Did the members of the National Academy really elect, as in choose, Cashmore? Or should that be credited to physics too?

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29 Responses to PNAS: Free Will Into the Dumpster

  1. Beautiful irony!

  2. I was predestined to believe in free will…

  3. I would think the National Academy’s election of Cashmore would have to be analogous to the old game show “Let’s Make a Deal”:

    MONTY: “Do you want to keep the money? Or take what is behind Door Number One?”

    CONTESTANT: “Ooo! Ooo! I want to pick…”

    *thinks* Or what I mean to say is, the chemicals in my brain are configuring themselves so that I open my mouth and my vocal chords vibrate, causing sound waves that the chemicals in his brain will react to as ‘words’…

    …pick the door…
    …keep the money…
    …pick the door…
    …keep the money…
    …pick the door…

    “Keep the money!!!”

    MONTY: “And here is what you passed up behind Door Number One…”

    CONTESTANT: “A new Pontiac???”

    CROWD: “Ahhhhhh…

  4. From the article:

    If free will is an illusion, then it becomes more difficult to hold people responsible for their actions.

    No it does not. What Cashmore’s logic means is that we can’t hold Society responsible for wanting to make laws that assume Free Will exists (even if it supposedly doesn’t exist), and we can’t object to society wanting to hold people responsible for their actions. Thus by Cashmore’s standard, he should not hold society responsible or irresponsible for how they choose to do business.

    And if determisism drives society this way, what is the point of reform? On what basis is one outcome to be favored over another? Cashmore’s whims of what is good and bad?

  5. Tgp@2,

    I was predestined to HAVE free will.

    Scordova@4,

    It is like that movie minority report. We can then safely arrest people before they commit crimes we figure they are predestined to commit. And Al Gore can be the one to interpret the scientific data and determine who needs preemptive imprisonment based on their genes, environment etc. We could even sell and trade “action” credits- to help protect the environment from our “action” footprints… If you steal from a store you no longer have to go to jail for it(it was not your fault anyways) but the community can just pay larger taxes needed to purchase action credits for the good of the community and environment of course.

    Actually if the notion of free will was to be removed it would not by logical necessity need to change too much regarding current law- some changes may take place- but in reality, murderers would still need to be kept out of society- same best served with thieves- and sex offenders etc- and rehabilitation and counseling type situations would still either work or not work depending on the data regarding success ratios.

    What would change possibly is the notion of dignity and breadth of the individual’s soul, being, self reliance and personal responsibility. The individual’s own recognition of the possible extent of their own power in making choice empowers people to tell themselves that they have the ability to choose- whereas- when you tell them they are more or less constrained- or “probably” so- by various factors beyond their influence- they are in that case, less likely to try and work hard at an apparent up hill battle.

    Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes- I have quoted many times here before but stands the test of time- concerning the reality of hope, choice, freedom, the will and the inextricably connected importance of Faith in these matters…

    “It is the commitment of man to the possible, to what is loftier than their attainment, beyond what the present has achieved, that PERMITS THE REALIZATION of the potential whose seed is ALREADY THERE. “In the realist, the miracle springs from faith, and not faith from the miracle”

    -Dostoevsky.

    So long as people continue to have faith in the possibility of free will- they may be alright.

  6. Cashmore freely chooses (albeit self-defeatingly) to place letters, words and sentences in a specific order that defies any laws of physics to convey his beliefs and purposes while at the same denying the very freedom that allows him to do so. After all he could have refrained from writing it.

    If law-like mechanical processes determined his actions, that would be the end of creativity including Cashmore’s (which may not be so bad in his case).

    I do give Cashmore credit for being consistent in his view that if Naturalism is true then we are just “bags of chemicals” and there is no room for magic emergentism. Either some form of Thomistic dualism where personal agents have libertarian freedom is true or Naturalism is true. There is no lukewarm middle ground.

  7. The big question is, what is free will? Is it randomness? If not, then is it determined by something? What is the difference between free will and randomness?

  8. Collin, free will is different in the physical materail sense and in the religious philosophical one. Let me take a crack at explaining each.

    Physical: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is considered by man (myself included) to be a fundamental law of physics (like the speed of light) and it states that the position and momentum of any object- especially at the subatomic level, cannot both be exactly known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. Hence the very nature of the material world at the most fundamental cannot be known- which causes some people to question the existence of matter entirely. To put this in a definition- free will in material terms would be “the unpredictability and or knowing of the position of an object”. This is close to the notion of randomness but events can happen in a non-random way and still be unpredictable at the same time.

    Philosophical: IN philosophy Locke realized that man did not have an absolute free will in an totally literal physically inclusive way because he could not do things like fly or live forever just upon the desire of his will- and so Locke like r philosophers separates the two terms- freedom and will- and says man has a certain degree of freedom- a certain range of motion- and a certain amount of understanding which offers him the ability to liberate himself to a certain extent. And on the other side man has “a will” which is connect to his immaterial nature or soul- and this regulates his choices and desires. So the notion of free will to Lock is the product of man’s limited freedom and the nature of his nature inclination based essentially on his soul.

    Theological: In classical theological sense ere are many different kinds interpretation to be sorted through- lest we forget Calvinism- yet I understand it in the classical Catholic sense the free will has to do with the soul-nature of man and the life that God elects to put him into. The notion that God will not give you more than you can adequately handle. For example you may have two different people hypothetically in the same situation and one may commit murder and another choose to. That ability to choose is a mystical gift that God gives to test us and develop our souls into a state of grace. The question that is leveled against this interpretation is why would God put a man that he knows will murder into a situating where he cannot resist? This is answered by appeal to the notion of “divine election” – God will give those who’s souls deserve it the grace to resist temptation- and or to do any multitude of difficult things involving freedom of will- and of course the Grace to do ordinary deeds can be bestowed on the individual through prayer.

    All three notions in my view make sense and can work together for the benefit of the understanding.

  9. “There is no lukewarm middle ground.”

    This is not true. The chemicals in the bag known as A. MacNeil have coalesced into a determination otherwise.

    He is, of course, not alone.

  10. Frost122585 said:
    “The question that is leveled against this interpretation is why would God put a man that he knows will murder into a situating where he cannot resist? This is answered by appeal to the notion of “divine election” – God will give those who’s souls deserve it the grace to resist temptation- and or to do any multitude of difficult things involving freedom of will-”

    Me:
    “the notion of “divine election” – God will give those who’s souls ***deserve it*** the grace to resist temptation”?!?!?!? (emphasis mine)

    How about this instead:
    ” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac ; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls,” (Romans 9:10-11)

    “16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” (Romans 9:16)

    ” 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace. 7 What then ? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened ;” (Romans 11:6-7)

  11. I think the most common notion of freewill stipulates that it is predicated upon the uncertainty of future events. If future events are predetermined in some way, whether by deity or physics, then future events are certain, and freewill cannot exist by definition.

    I don’t believe that either certainty or uncertainty can be proved, but I think it makes a good deal of logical sense to infer that reality collapses along the path of least resistance. And assuming it is true that the sum of matter/energy neither increases nor decreases, then reality is like a domino setup, with its path physically predetermined.

    I do believe in freewill, but I also think that the determinist case against it is quite powerful.

  12. Frost122585,

    Thank you for such a thorough answer.

    We discussed this a lot in my psychology classes. Here’s a question: Do you think that psychologists will ever be able to develop a test or other prediction tool that will show an exact distribution of actions (like photon distributions on the wall) but at the same time not be able to say which individual will end up in which category of action. am I making sense?

  13. Collin,

    I think I understand essentially what you are saying. The answer is that the human brain is too complex right now to map a person’s entire thought processes and predict exactly what they are going to do in the future- much less exactly what their state of mind is- emotions thoughts etc.

    The human brain is actually a lot more complex than scholars let on to. The understanding of how it works is very primitive and a lot like evolutionary theory right now- with all kinds of theories and speculations being debated.

    There are all kinds of mysteries regarding brain function that scientists and scholars really don’t understand at all too- for example in some studies of deceased people’s brains showed that relatively healthy brains have come from people who died of Alzheimer’s- and other brains with large amounts of plaque were observed from people who had almost no symptoms of the disease at all. There are all kinds of things like these.

    The mind is really an almost mystical machine- except of course there are some very good mechanical principles scientists can fallow with confidence as well. But mapping out a person’s mind- hat is, reducing them to a spiritual machine- is not likely for many reasons.

    It is conceivable that you could- with the aid of some very sophisticated intelligently designed technology- sort of map out a person’s thoughts “to some extent” and if you also had enough knowledge about their environment you would maybe be able to predict some things they are going to do in the future- BUT the nature of the physical world is quite uncertain because of all the variables that are constantly in play- and the human brain being the most complex thing ever discovered in the known universe. It would be quite a task and undertaking to try and make any kind of useful program out of this sort of thing.

    But remember even if you could generally map a person’s mind the person who is mapping it would have the control- or freedom of will- unless they too were being mapped by someone else… ad infinitum. But there is also as I pointed out the physical reality of the Uncertainty principle and also the 2nd law of thermodynamics which limits the viability of any system over time.

    In truth you are just never going to reduce the human mind and soul to a machine. There is just too much complexity and too many naturalistic resource problems, and the universe is inherently too unstable.

    Man was never meant to be a God and never shall be.

    But that wont stop a minority of foolish people from trying.

    Lastly, Leibniz in the Monadology pointed out that even if you could reduce the mind to sets of mechanical principles and axioms to see exactly how it worked (which is very unlikely) this would not in any way suffice for explaining the nature of the mind in it’s entirety due to the nature of “perception”. That is the mind can be studied from the outside BUT the mind is something that exists in the form of the brain but also as the experience of the person who possess it. When you think you are conscious and consciousness is something that you “experience”. Nowhere when looking at a brain and dissecting with charts and graphs how it works can you point to the “experiences” a person actually feels and has. That is, a mechanical explanation cannot explain the experience of perception. Perception is something that can only be understood by the person doing the perceiving- only from inside the mind- it’s sole proprietor- can it be truly understood.

    To quote Leibniz he compares the problem of mechanizing perception to walking into a mill…

    #17. from Monadology: “Moreover, it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine, that perception must be sought for. Further, nothing but this (namely, perceptions and their changes) can be found in a simple substance. It is also in this alone that all the internal activities of simple substances can consist.”

    Hence perception is not a thing but a result of many things acting with one another- and the result– a phenomena of mind- can only be truly understood by the individual who’s own soul and will are manifesting their unique perspective on their own state of being.

  14. ^ Pardon the mistake of the last paragraph. The perception to Leibniz is found within a simple substance because it CANNOT be the result of mechanical processes like a machine.

    Thus perception is “one thing” that we experience- and it is not the same as a system by which a brain seemingly cogitates.

  15. Otherwise known as free will, which doesn’t exist.

    Does anyone have an example of someone who says free will does not exist and perhaps a link to an article where they set out their argument?

  16. PS:

    Preferably someone alive today!

  17. In his book entitled, “No Place For Sovereignty: What’s Wrong With Free-Will Thesim”

    (http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivp.....hor_id=803)

    author R.K. McGregor Wright points out that in discussions of free-will, people often confuse the terms “choice” and “free will.” He argues that we all make choices, but they are not free. Our choices are bound by our beliefs, values, character, habits.

    For example, Paul Nelson is not free to devote his life spreading anti-ID dogma in public schools. That choice contradicts his beliefs and values.

    Scripture confirms that everyone is a slave either to Christ or to the world-flesh-devil.

    So our choices are based on our beliefs, and our beliefs originate in our relationships. If we are in reconciled relationship with God, we will have beliefs otherwise we would not. And whether or not we are in relationship with God is predestined.

    And as Romans 9 points out, God has mercy on whom he has mercy. And when we wonder how it is fair that God can hold us accountable when God hardens the hearts of some to demonstrate his power, then the Romans 9 response is that we, as clay, are not in a position to criticise the Potter.

    So what we are left with is not a cold fatalism, but deep gratitude for the gift of faith. One of the hardest truths to swallow is that God is actually Sovereign.

    Neal

  18. My brother (who is a physicist, software engineer, and atheist) once commented to me: “If it can’t be predicted with certainty which decisions we will make, we have the functional equivalent of free will.”

    Case closed. All else is meaningless sophistry.

  19. Apparently Will Provine is on record as stating:

    Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.

    .

    So no need to rescue my previous comments from moderation.

  20. GilDodgen: Very clever. I just think the question of predictability is separate from the question about certainty. If your brother is saying that our inability to predict future events, that may nevertheless be certain, results in the “functional equivalent of free will,” isn’t that the same as saying that free will is illusory?

    In other words: Our inability to predict merely witholds our ability to apprehend actual certainty, creating the illusion of uncertainty, and thus the illusory experience of choice. It seems to me that your brother is making a case for illusory, not actual, free will. But he seems to amend it with, “So what? It’s functionally all the same to us.”

  21. Here’s another way to look at this:

    The infinite regress of cause and effect relugates the causal source of our choices far outside and preceding ourselves.

    When I know that a choice will cause me pain, that choice is filtered through my pain tolerance – a personality trait. My personality was ’caused’ by many factors that have resulted in my tolerance for pain. Those factors, and my resulting pain tolerance, have predetermined my choice.

    Simplistic, I know, and other factors may cloud the choice (perhaps both choices are painful?). But other factors also carry a cause-effect history, and while I may make the decision, decisions are made on the basis of my personality and intelligence, both of which are caused by factors outside of and preceding myself.

    Thus, what I’m saying – and what I’ve wanted to say, but could never articulate – is that the infinite regress of cause-and-effect seems to preclude an internal locus of control for choices.

  22. 22

    QuadFather writes: “Thus, what I’m saying – and what I’ve wanted to say, but could never articulate – is that the infinite regress of cause-and-effect seems to preclude an internal locus of control for choices.”

    QuadFather, your conclusion is inescapable if one posits a materialist premise. The important thing to keep in mind is that the materialist premise in question must be assumed a priori. It has not been (indeed cannot be) demonstrated.

  23. Barry Arrington, I am almost persuaded by your point, except I believe that all potential realities, materialist or otherwise, are amenable to cause and effect. It is not so much about reductionism vs irreducible wholes as it is about the chain of cause. It seems to me – and correct me if I’m wrong – that one must break this chain in order to restore the origin of choices to the self.

    If my self is an irreducible whole, that does not mean it is uncaused.
    If my self resides somewhere in the ether, and my body is a mere interface between this world and my ‘spiritual’ self, then the chain of cause is broken – at least in this universe. But I do not believe that my ‘soul’ is uncaused, whether in this universe or in purgatory. The chain is not truly broken, but merely extended into heaven, where I still am caused. My personality, intellect, and all the factors affecting my choices: caused. Causation, extending beyond and preceding my ‘self’.

    One might suppose that all ‘souls’ are uncaused and have always existed. Choice would then have nowhere to go but the self. But that scenario strikes me as more desperate than persuasive.

    Is there any way out except to postulate uncausedness?

  24. 24

    QuadFather, I don’t think we necessarily disagree if all you are asserting is that the immaterial part of each human (what we call the soul) also has a cause even if it is not a material cause. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the cause of the soul. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism_(soul)

    Assuming what you say is true, each soul has an immaterial cause, what is you point?

  25. That the chain of causation extends beyond the self, regardless of whether one’s approach is materialist or otherwise.

    I suppose my question is: Why is the ‘soul’ any more entitled to the choices than the causal factors that resulted in the choice and even the soul itself?

    Why should we say that a result – a “choice” – originated from a person, rather than any other point in that person’s cause-and-effect background? What is so unique about a person that we should assign choices (results) to it above all other factors that played a role?

  26. Quadfather, I submit that I am largely the product of the biological causes, [physical] environmental causes[social and physical], and psychodymanic causes [physical and social] that shaped me, but I am also the product of the choices [cognitive causes] that I have made and am making in all those other contexts. Like most, I was given a few good cards, and I was given a few lemons. So, I can choose how to play those cards and I can resolve to make lemonade out of the lemons. None of that changes the fact the the cards and the lemons were causes–i.e. they were necessary causes for who I am but they were not sufficient causes for who I am.

  27. The concept of free will seems to be a bit like the concept of information in that, at first glance, it seems to be quite simple yet, the closer we look at it, the more complicated it becomes.

    For example, it seems to me that one problem with free will, for Christians, is the difficulty of squaring it with the concept of an omniscient God.

    For God to be omniscient he must know everything not just for now but for all times. The “timescape” – past, present and future – are laid out before Him as a landscape might be to us.

    The problem here is that it implies that the future is certain, it actually exists as much as the present and past, that they are all pre-ordained or determined. But if that is the case then how can we be said to have free will if our future course through life is already as determined as a train’s course across the land is determined by the rails?

  28. you can choose to download it. Or choose not to download it. Or choose to click over to YouTube, or the Huffington Post, to see what’s doing there.

    Whatever happens, “you” — meaning the person reading this right now — won’t be making a decision.

    GAH!!!

    After reading this post, I forgot what my choices were.

  29. #26: I’m not sure that you’ve distinguished between the self and other causes. Certainly, no one cause was sufficient, even while some were necessary. But can’t the same be said about the self?

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