No Free Will Mash Up


Here are some heavily edited commentators discussing, not really the science against free will but the”meta” issues of cultural beliefs that are nonsensical.  Mainly from the blog Why Evolution Is True, from which I have been censored for sharing brain science which the blog author, Jerry Coyne, refuses to engage with – for intellectually dishonest rhetorical reasons.  Dishonest, because like all atheists he accepts the evidence for no free will but blames beliefs for behavior!?  Some writing of Anthony Cashmore are also included

Anthony Cashmore:

{The common sense, culturally accepted and everyday sense of }…what is commonly called “dualistic” or “contracausal” free will, in which people can somehow, by processes that bypass physical strictures, change their behaviors and choices.

“Free will is defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.”

{In contrast, evidence aginst free will includes}….experiments…showing that brain scans can predict decisions before the “decider” is conscious of having made them; studies showing that you can manipulate people’s sense of agency by psychological trickery, either by making them think they have agency when they don’t (as in people with various brain lesions) or by making them think they don’t have agency when they really do (Ouija boards)…{Yet} Even if, in the future, we could predict people’s actions and future decisions with perfect accuracy using very complex brain-monitoring and knowledge of neurology, compatibilists would continue to claim that we have free will.  That’s because their notion of “free will” is a philosophical one, impervious to scientific refutation…

{Where do most people say we} find free will?…in the notion that we are evolved, complex beings who reason: that is, we feel that we mull things over before coming to decisions about complex issues, and that this process of reasoning, which is an evolved part of our brain (supplemented with the environmental inputs of learning the consequences of actions), gives us free will…it is this reasoning that makes us free, as opposed to decisions made when we’re constrained by other factors, like a person holding a gun to our head…In other words, …free will lies in the ability to make reasoned as opposed to coerced choices…In other words, some people can make “responsible” choices, and those are the folks with free will. The others, well, they’ve been coerced.

How philosophical arguments for free will are like religious arguments/{voodoo}:

The definitions of free will, like that of Sophisticated Gods, are concocted post facto, after compatibilists have decided in advance that their task is not to find the truth, but to buttress a conclusion they want to reach (i.e., we have free will)
Both set humans aside as special—different from other animals (souls or free will)
In both cases academic doyens (theologians or philosophers) feel that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth (about God or about determinism).
Both groups need some sense of free will to “sustain our sense of moral responsibility”
There are as many versions of compatibilism as there are conceptions of God (and no general agreement on them), so advocates can always say to critics, “you’re not attacking the best argument.”
Both dismiss science as either irrelevant or inferior to philosophy for solving the Big Question at hand (free will or the existence of God).

[Arguments for free will set out..]…not to follow the truth where it leads, but to buttress a preconceived notion—”we must have free will at all costs”.  To get there, both camps simply redefine terms, so that both “God” and “free will” become notions that don’t correspond at all to how they’ve been understood through history…

… free will is similar to belief in magic…despite the near-total scientific consensus that genes, environment, and chance shape most human traits, many biologists believe that most people can exercise free will to control their actions.  Because an individual’s actions have neurobiological underpinnings, the feeling of mastering our actions by exercising free will…is an illusion.

“Unless someone comes up with a molecular mechanism for free will, the concept should be discarded.”

“People are nothing but a complex mixture of chemicals, and many might take exception to this viewpoint. But the enormous complexity and combinatorial nature of this mixture, constantly tweaked by the environment.”

Many discussions about human behavior center around the relative importance of genes and environment, a topic often discussed in terms of nature versus nurture.  In concentrating on this question of the relative importance of genes and environment, a crucial component of the debate is often missed: an individual cannot be held responsible for either his genes or his environment. From this simple analysis, surely it follows that individuals cannot logically be held responsible for their behavior.

As de Duve has written, “If … neuronal events in the brain determine behavior, irrespective of whether they are conscious or unconscious, it is hard to find room for free will.  But if free will does not exist, there can be no responsibility, and the structure of human societies must be revised”.

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….Certainly, the determination of the sequence of the human genome and the assignment of function to these genes is having a dramatic effect on our understanding of the role of genetics in human behavior.  Similarly, developments in imaging techniques, allowing changes in neuronal activity to be correlated with thought processes, is affecting our thinking about relationships between the functioning of the mind and chemical activity in the brain.  Here I propose that the time is opportune for society to reevaluate our thinking concerning the concept of free will, as well as the policies of the criminal justice system.

……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.  Also, it is often suggested that individuals are free to choose and modify their environment and that, in this respect, they control their destiny.  This argument misses the simple but crucial point that any action, as “free” as it may appear, simply reflects the genetics of the organism and the environmental history, right up to some fraction of a microsecond before any action.

Genes, Environment, and Random Events: A Trinity of Forces Governing Biological Systems

If our genes and environment govern our actions, does this mean that our behavior is deterministic?  Not necessarily.  Rather, there is a trinity of forces —genes, environment, and random events – that governs all of biology including behavior, with the random component referring to the inherent uncertainty of the physical properties of matter…Whereas biological systems may have evolved mechanisms to minimize some features of randomness, it is my contention that… the complexity of living systems actually reflect selection in favor of random events.

…Of particular relevance to this article, the formation of neuronal connections reflects a degree of randomness, with no two individuals, even those that are genetically identical and under constant environment, displaying the identical neuronal network.  Hence, the popular debate concerning the relative importance of genes and environment on behavior, is commonly inadequate for two reasons: both because it ignores the question of responsibility (or lack of) and because of the additional random component that influences biology…differences in genetically identical twins may reflect not only environmental factors but also biological randomness.

The introduction of randomness would appear to eliminate determinism.  However there are three additional points that need to be addressed here.
-The first point is that, at least in some instances, what at first glance may appear to be random might simply reflect microenvironmental differences and may not be the direct consequence of some inherent stochastic property of atomic particles.
The second point is that some physicists do not necessarily accept the apparent unpredictability associated with the quantum mechanical view of matter
Finally, even if the properties of matter are confirmed to be inherently random, although this may remove the bugbear of determinism, it would do little to support the notion of free will: I cannot be held responsible for my genes and my environment; similarly, I can hardly be held responsible for any random process that may influence my behavior! will is [best] defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible random laws of nature.  Here, in some ways, it might be more appropriate to replace “genetic and environmental history” with “chemistry”…. we in society think about free will (and religion) is likely to be an example of such a process—the line of thinking may have survival value, despite the fact that it is nonsensical and unsupported by any evidence.

Consciousness – Effect and Correlated, Not a Cause
I have argued that one of the reasons that it is common to believe in free will is the constant awareness {illusion} of the capacity to make conscious decisions that appear to causally affect one’s behavior.  This relationship is depicted as where consciousness, reflecting in part a force WILL, impacts in a causal way the unconscious neural activity of the brain and thus affects behavior.

The dilemma here, stressed throughout this article and illuminated in is that:

WILL has causal properties (WILL affects behavior) and
yet WILL arises in a noncausal way;
society “demands” that WILL be “free”
we want to be able to hold people accountable for their actions.

Some might argue that there should be an arrow indicating information flow from “unconscious neural activity” to WILL.  This would provide a causal component for WILL; however, WILL would then lose its “freedom”—it would then simply be a product of teens, environment and randomness.

…the commonly accepted model is shown whereby WILL influences conscious thought and, in turn, unconscious neural activity, to direct behavior.

…studies indicate that consciousness is something that follows, and does not precede, unconscious neural activity in the brain. In experiments performed by Libet et al.:
–  subjects were asked to move a finger (at “will”) and electrophysiological measurements were determined, both for the finger and the brain.
Activity of the brain preceded finger movement by ≈500 ms.
When the participants were asked to record the time of their conscious decision to move their finger, this also preceded finger movement (in keeping with the apparent causal relationship between will and behavior).
However, this conscious awareness followed in time, by a full 300 ms, the initial onset of neural activity. Furthermore, a more sophisticated version of these experiments has recently been performed whereby neural activity was measured, not by electrophysiological means but by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In these experiments, brain activity was detected in the prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before subjects were conscious of any decision-making process.

Another phenomenon that is consistent with the idea that consciousness plays only a peripheral role in behavior is that of blindsight.  Individuals who have suffered damage to the striate cortex of the brain often show varying degrees of blindness; they are not aware of being able to see.  However, when such patients are asked to make decisions that are dependent on their visual ability, they clearly demonstrate some capacity to see, even though they are not conscious of it.

I am constantly struck by the anomaly associated with the commonly accepted model of consciousness namely, WILL lacks any causal component…I have suggested earlier that one of the reasons for the popular acceptance of the notion of free will is the constant awareness {delusion} of conscious thought processes that seem to affect our behavior.

In summary, then, I believe that free will is clearly an illusion…Consciousness confers the illusion of responsibility.  No wonder the belief in free will is so prevalent in society—the very survival of those “selfish free-will genes” is predicated on their capacity to con one into believing in free will!

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 beliefs, nor a belief in free will, comply with the laws of the physical world.

Progress in understanding the chemical basis of behavior {makes} it increasingly untenable to retain a belief in the concept of free will.

One might ask: How does this proposal differ from the present system? Whereas in some ways, not significantly; in other ways it differs fundamentally. The primary difference would be the elimination of the illogical concept that individuals are in control of their behavior in a manner that is something other than a reflection of their genetic makeup and their environmental history…

…we are mechanical forces of nature and that, by some mechanism we have evolved the phenomenon of consciousness, which…has conferred upon us the illusion of responsibility.

… we still believe (much as we pretend otherwise) that there is a magic component to human behavior. Here I argue that the way we use the concept of free will is nonsensical…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. Some will argue that once we understand better the mechanistic details that underlie consciousness, then we will understand free will. Whatever the complexities of the molecular details of consciousness are, they are unlikely to involve any new law in physics that would break the causal laws of nature in a nonrandom way…

“…belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs, since neither complies with the laws of the physical world.  One of the basic premises of biology and biochemistry is that biological systems are nothing more than a bag of chemicals that obey chemical and physical laws.  Generally, we have no problem with the “bag of chemicals” notion when it comes to bacteria, plants, and similar entities.  So why is it so difficult to say the same about humans or other “higher level” species, when we’re all governed by the same laws?”

To put it simply, free will just doesn’t fit with how the physical world works…“I would like to convince biologists that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism (or, as I say, a belief in magic),”

… in reality, all behavioral decisions are nothing more than a reflection of our genetic and environmental history.

“Few neurobiologists would argue with the notion that consciousness influences behavior by acting through unconscious neural activity…More controversial is the notion that consciousness plays a relatively minor role in governing our behavior.  The conscious mind is conceivably more a mechanism of following unconscious neural activity than it is one of directing such activity.  I find it interesting to compare this line of thinking with that of Freud, who created a controversy by suggesting that the unconscious mind played a role in our behavior.  The way of thinking regarding these matters now has moved to the extent that some are questioning what role, if any, the conscious mind plays in directing behavior.  Namely, Freud was right to an extent that was much greater than he realized.”

To summarize, Cashmore’s argument is that free will is an illusion derived from consciousness, but consciousness has an evolutionary advantage of conferring the illusion of responsibility. So what is the point of publicizing the fact that we have no free will, and letting everyone off the hook of individual responsibility? Cashmore says that, as researchers deepen their understanding of the molecular basis of human behavior, it will become increasingly difficult to entertain the fallacy of free will.

“Where is the logic in debating an individual’s level of responsibility, when the reality is that none of us are biologically responsible for our actions?” A. Cashmore

“Why is it important to make a change? Because increasingly the legal system is being forced to confront the reality that people’s behavior is governed by nothing other than their biological history: their genes, their environment and a degree of randomness.

Read more at:


Bucky Catt, “free won’t,” free will, Dan Dennett, and Templeton

Free Won’t – The concept of “free won’t” was, I recall, floated by researcher Benjamin Libet, the first person to show that our brain can make simple but predictable “decisions” that can be detected and predicted by researchers (using brain scans) before the subject is conscious of having made a decision.  Although, said Libet, we may not be able to exercise “free will,” we can somehow override the “decisions” made by our brain in an exercise of dualism called “free won’t.” That, of course, is completely bogus: if your actions are determined by the laws of physics, then “overriding a perceived decision” is also determined by the laws of physics.  If there can be no free will, then there can be no free won’t.

…[The everyday, intuitive and culturally promoted] view [of free will is ] that despite the reign of [scientific facts and experiments], we can still have free will and be morally responsible…the human brain is a complicated device, and must take in many inputs before it reaches the “output” of a decision. (That requirement for multiple inputs is presumably evolved.)… that output could be predicted given perfect knowledge…[of all the physical, chemical and biological mechanisms and processes]…

My own refutation of this notion is to admit that the wiring and operation of human brains (sometimes called “rumination” when it is accessible to consciousness) is complicated, but that there’s still no freedom in the output, just as there’s no freedom in the output of any complex computer program. So although the lab experiments showing pre-conscious decisions are simple ones, I have little doubt that, with refinement of brain-imaging techniques, we’ll be able to predict with appreciable accuracy even more complex decisions.

In the end, any kind of dualistic free will is ruled out by [facts], and any kind of compatibilism is just a sop foisted on the public to let them continue believing that they can “choose otherwise.”

To me it seems far more important that philosophers impress on the average person that [science facts] reigns, something that philosophers seem reluctant to do. After all, it’s [science facts], not compatibilism, that carries the important lessons about how we should change our views of responsibility, punishment, and reward.

And, at any rate…nearly all philosophers agree that for any decision, we could not have decided otherwise. So there is no real “freedom.” The rest is semantics and commentary.

[for philosophers]…whether or not humans have “free will” seems to be a matter not of right or wrong, but of semantics—how we define the term.  “Compatibilists”…see free will as perfectly consonant with a world in which all human actions and choices are predetermined by the laws of physics

..what [most people and philosophers] feel is this: science has nothing to say about free will. I think this is because their argument is basically semantic, involving various definitions of “free will”; and sometimes… they don’t even bother to define it.

I don’t think they realize that their denigration of scientific studies of free will comes from their feeling that the issue is one that can be resolved only through philosophy…this is one of many ways that [everyday notions of free will] resembles theology: both areas denigrate science as being incapable of resolving the Big Question.


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