“We have no more free will than a bowl of sugar”

Harold Erickson summarizes a new paper out in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that describes the biological basis of free will.

This fascinating paper is about free will. Dr Cashmore presents compelling arguments that free will does not exist, and that the behavior of every human is completely determined by their genetic make-up, environmental history, and stochasticism (which obscures the determinism). He raises the remarkable point that “relatively few biologists seriously question the concept of free will. This holds in spite of the fact that we live in an era when few biologists would question the idea that biological systems are totally based on the laws of physics and chemistry.” A belief in free will is really a continued belief in vitalism, which we thought disappeared 100 years ago.

Dr Cashmore discusses in some detail how consciousness plays a major role in giving us the illusion of free will, but he raises the anomaly (recognized by the ancient Greeks) that ‘will’ is thought to be a non-physical entity that can influence conscious thought yet ‘will’ itself lacks any causal component — a kind of magic. He summarizes arguments that the evolution of society has likely selected for the illusion of free will and ‘responsibility’. He concludes by discussing the implications for our criminal justice system. It would not actually change that much in practice, since it will still be necessary to incarcerate people to protect society and act as a deterrent. We should, however, eliminate psychiatrists from initial judicial proceedings — so gone is the insanity defense. A final summary point 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.”

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