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October 12, 2004

Undermining Free Will?

As I promised weeks ago, here is another silly article from Foreign Policy magazine's "World's Most Dangerous Ideas" cover story.

This article, titled "Undermining Free Will" (registration required) by is Paul Davies, who is writing, as you can tell, on the basis that developments in the field of sociobiology are undermining the concept of free will. It is worth pointing out that Davies is a physicist, a really, really smart one at that, especially since he has written about various aspects of quantum mechanics (stuff that's way over my head).

However, I feel this article he has written is flawed, as you'll see soon . . .

I'm reproducing the parts of the article that I think are relevant, and due to classes, I will not post much in the way of comments except in maybe the comments section. But it's a good read, even if it is immensely flawed.


Belief in some measure of free will is common to all cultures and a large part of what makes us human. It is also fundamental to our ethical and legal systems. Yet today’s scientists and philosophers are busily chipping away at this social pillar—apparently without thinking about what might replace it.

What they question is a folk psychology that goes something like this: Inside each of us is a self, a conscious agent who both observes the world and makes decisions. In some cases (though perhaps not all), this agent has a measure of choice and control over his or her actions. From this simple model of human agency flow the familiar notions of responsibility, guilt, blame, and credit. The law, for example, makes a clear distinction between a criminal act carried out by a person under hypnosis or while sleepwalking, and a crime committed in a state of normal awareness with full knowledge of the consequences.

. . .

Physicists assert that free will is merely a feeling we have; the mind has no genuine causal efficacy. Whence does this feeling arise? In his 2002 book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner appeals to ingenious laboratory experiments to show how subjects acquire the delusion of being in charge, even when their conscious thoughts do not actually cause the actions they observe.

The rise of modern genetics has also undermined the belief that humans are born with the freedom to shape their individual destinies. Scientists recognize that genes shape our minds as well as our bodies. Evolutionary psychologists seek to root personal qualities such as altruism and aggression in Darwinian mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” writes Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins.

Those aspects of the mind that are not predetermined by genetics lie at the mercy of “memetics.” . . . British psychologist Susan Blackmore recently contended that our minds are actually nothing but collections of memes that we catch from each other like viruses, and that the familiar sense of “I” is some sort of fiction that memes create for their own agenda.

These ideas are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them. There is an acute risk that they will be oversimplified and used to justify an anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide. Conversely, people convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate an exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them. If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don’t believe in free will.

The scientific assault on free will would be less alarming if some new legal and ethical framework existed to take its place. But nobody really has a clue what that new structure might look like. And, remember, the scientists may be wrong to doubt free will. It would be rash to assume that physicists have said the last word on causation, or that cognitive scientists fully understand brain function and consciousness. But even if they are right, and free will really is an illusion, it may still be a fiction worth maintaining. Physicists and philosophers often deploy persuasive arguments in the rarified confines of academe but ignore them for all practical purposes. For example, it is easy to be persuaded that the flow of time is an illusion (in physics, time simply is, it doesn’t “pass”). But nobody would conduct their daily affairs without continual reference to past, present, and future. Society would disintegrate without adhering to the fiction that time passes. So it is with the self and its freedom to participate in events. To paraphrase the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, we must believe in free will—we have no choice.

Paul Davies is professor of natural philosophy at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney. He is the author of 25 books, including The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999) and How to Build a Time Machine (New York: Viking, 2002).

The thing that got me was how he said, "imagine a world where most people don’t believe in free will," and then stated, "it is easy to be persuaded that the flow of time is an illusion (in physics, time simply is, it doesn’t “pass”). But nobody would conduct their daily affairs without continual reference to past, present, and future. Society would disintegrate without adhering to the fiction that time passes." Is it just me, or did he answer his own assertion / question about "imagin[ing] a world where most people don't believe in free will" ?

How many people out there are familiar with sociobiology? How many out there are familiar with the physicists who say that time "simply is" and doesn't "pass" or "flow"? If the work of a few physicists hasn't altered how everybody uses time in their lives, why is he so worried about the work of a few sociobiologists? Society hasn't "disintegrated" because physicists view time as a fiction, so why does he think it will disintegrate if sociobiologists show that much of the concept of free will is a fiction?

I'm an amateur when it comes to sociobiology, I admit. But I don't think I'm the only one who thinks this article is bizarre.

Posted by Arcane at 07:09 PM