Noted Biologist Denies Biology of No Free Will for “Undeniable Subjective Sense”!?


Here is a recent exchange and example of how deeply engrained and flawed are out beliefs behavior – even among the “best and the brightest.”  The human brain, and we can assume other animal’s brains, default to magical thinking.

“The missiles, bombers, bombs and warheads in our nuclear arsenal are our own creation, our own responsibility, not something imposed upon us by a malignant God. And we are the most adaptable of all creatures, probably the only ones capable of acting, consciously, in our own self-interest. Once we stop acting like musk oxen.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

So, I wrote:

Your LA Times piece ends with what I believe is a medical and physiological mistake.  The evidence is good and growing that there is no conscious control in human behavior any more so than with the Musk Ox.

Indeed, given descent with modification, it is hard to make a case for any special cognitive abilities.  Certainly, cognitive models – primarily based on human exceptionalism and the primacy of everyday language and subjectivity – have not been successful.

So, what’s the Plan B, presuming consciousness and everyday language have little effect on behaviors – based on peer-reviewed medical studies, of course?

David responds:

Dear …,

I don’t accept your Plan A. I understand the philosophical and neuorphysiological arguments that proclaim lack of conscious control, but to my mind they are negated by the undeniable subjective sense we each have of being largely in control of our actions.  Indeed, it is precisely the claim that we aren’t in control – not just mentally, but politically – that allows so many people to duck responsibility for their actions, with nuclear weapons very high on the list.

best wishes, in any event …

I respond:


Huh…medically untrue.  Most people have “undeniable subjective sense” of ghosts and gods.  You are barking up a dead “tree” and ignoring the basic biology.  It won’t work.  Problem analysis and solving using Medieval beliefs are doomed.



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