It never ceases to amaze me how some people will blithely burst forth with incoherent convictions of determinism. I acknowledge that Anthony R. Cashmore is an accomplished biologist holding an endowed chair at Penn. But that doesn’t mean he makes sense speaking of free will. The following comes from his January 2010 paper, The Lucretian Swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.
Cashmore is a full-blown free-will denier:
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.
How has he come to that conclusion? The glib answer would be, “not by any choice of his own.” It’s not just glib; if Cashmore’s thesis is correct, then it’s also exactly true. It’s the short form of one of the most basic objections to hard determinism: if determinism is true, then there is no rational choice involved in accepting it. (The same applies to determinism coupled with randomness, which is Cashmore’s position.)
I’ll come back to the bowl of sugar shortly, but first I want to give somewhat more respect to Cashmore’s process of (ahem) deciding that free will does not exist. As much respect as I think it deserves, at least. The word “mechanism” appears fifteen times in this article, revealing Cashmore’s fundamental view of reality:
It is my belief that, as more attention is given to the mechanisms that govern human behavior, it will increasingly be seen that the concept of free will is an illusion….
This information is translated into action via the motor neurons, joined to the muscles and the glands of the body, using a mechanism of both electrical and chemical transmission….
Whereas this so-called Cartesian duality, at least superficially, provides a nice mechanism whereby one could entertain the concept of free will, belief in this mechanism among scientific circles has ostensibly disappeared….
However, as admirably appreciated by Epicurus and Lucretius, in the absence of any hint of a mechanism that affects the activities of atoms in a manner that is not a direct and unavoidable consequence of the forces of GES [genes, environment, and stochasticism], this line of thinking is not informative in reference to the question of free will….
There must be a mechanism by which consciousness does influence behavior.
The mechanistic details of these conscious processes are unknown, and remain the major unsolved problem in biology
This focus on mechanism may have blinded him to the fallacy contained in one of his central refutations of free will:
However, if we no longer entertain the luxury of a belief in the “magic of the soul,” then there is little else to offer in support of the concept of free will. Whereas much is written claiming to provide an explanation for free will, such writings are invariably lacking any hint of molecular details concerning mechanisms.
Obviously I don’t deny there are mechanisms in nature. If there is free will, though, it won’t be found there. Mechanisms don’t choose. If biologists haven’t found free will in molecular mechanisms, that means either (a) there is no free will, or (b) there is free will—which by definition cannot be found by looking for it in mechanisms. (Nice to have options, isn’t it?) You can’t prove something doesn’t exist, if the only place you look for it is where everybody knows it couldn’t exist. He could as cleverly have concluded there is no photosynthesis in nature because he’s looked all over the animal kingdom and can’t find it there.
This is a severe stumbling point for many with a scientific frame of mind. Science is so successful in unveiling mechanisms (also describable as objects, organisms, etc. operating by natural laws or regularities), some people think mechanisms comprise the only sort of causal process there could possibly be. If science doesn’t find mechanisms for free will, then poof! there is no free will; never mind that the whole idea of looking for free will by scientific means is incoherent to start with.
Cashmore’s scientistic assumptions glare like klieg lights from phrases like,
the sparsity of evidence or credible models in support of free will
“Sparsity of evidence”?! How about the evidence that you and I each demonstrate whenever we decide A rather than B? But for Cashmore, that’s not the right kind of evidence, since it can’t be modeled biologically.
He ought to recognize that if free will exists, it will not be known by scientific means. Ergo, if scientific means do not discover free will, that says nothing at all about whether free will exists.
A. Hypothesis: Free will exists
B. Method of testing: Scientific
C. Result of scientific testing: Negative (free will disconfirmed)
D. Relevance of testing method: Nil
E. Validity of testing result: Nil
Cashmore devotes considerable space to research on consciousness, and on the biological correlates of decision-making. He probably knows correlation does not demonstrate causation; but then, he doesn’t use the word “correlation” in this article but just one time. He uses “causation” and its cognates 33 times. Maybe he doesn’t recognize that what he’s talking about actually are correlations, and that his leap to causation is just that, a leap.
Is it possible that something other than mechanisms could cause human decisions and behaviors? How would it do that? Watch out: this so-called interaction problem misdirects the question. Stage and street magicians (my son is one, working his second day at Busch Gardens today) employ misdirection to foster an illusion. The same thing is happening here. Hidden within the “interaction problem” is this tasty philosophical morsel, “If you suggest something other than mechanisms might have an effect on human decisions and behaviors, by what mechanisms do you propose they operate?” Do you see what’s happening there? The questioner is trying to direct you back toward his own beliefs, asking us to accept their truth as steps toward demonstrating their falsehood. Another name for this trick is begging the question.
My answer to the interaction problem is quick and easy: non-mechanical causes affect human behavior non-mechanically, so there is no mechanical explanation. “What kind of explanation is that?” you ask. I’ll answer that if you’ll own up first to the fact that the interaction question implies (demands, actually) a mechanistic answer and thus begs the question. (No pretending, now. You need to really accept that scientistic, mechanistic assumptions and demands are illegitimate in this context.)
Speaking of tasty morsels (two paragraphs up, in case you’ve forgotten already), I’m about to come back to that bowl of sugar. First, though, I need to bring in two further quotes from Cashmore:
From this simple analysis, surely it follows that individuals cannot logically be held responsible for their behavior. Yet a basic tenet of the judicial system and the way that we govern society is that we hold individuals accountable (we consider them at fault) on the assumption that people can make choices that do not simply reflect a summation of their genetic and environmental history.
Many believe that the consequences of a society lacking free will would be disastrous. In contrast, I argue that we do not necessarily need to be pessimistic about confronting a world lacking free will. Indeed, it is quite possible that progress in some of the more vexing sociological problems may be better achieved once we clarify our thinking concerning the concepts of free will and fault.
I think he’s suggesting that we ought to decide to think of ourselves as unable to make free decisions, because it’s more logical, and because then things might get better for us. Three problems there:
1. The aforementioned difficulty of deciding anything if we can’t decide anything.
2. The difficulty of making sense of “ought,” if “individuals cannot logically be held responsible for their behavior.”
3. If we’re just a bowl of sugar, what on earth does “better” mean for us?
Number three is quite a big deal. Don’t rush past it too quickly. If our human ability to choose what we do, what we value, how we treat one another, how we live and die, all turns out to be a meaningless illusion, then why would not the word “better” also turn out to be a meaningless illusion?
The real illusion lies in scientism’s misdirection. Don’t fall for it.