Saturday, March 6, 2010

Free Will

It is a foundational principle of our apostolate, that criminals act freely in becoming criminals and have the capacity to act freely in transforming their lives.

This article from Culture of Life is an excellent introduction to the ongoing discussion around it, with a look at the often absurd reasoning used by those who deny the reality of free will.

An excerpt.

“…an opinion on human agency with Anthony R. Cashmore, professor of biology at U. Penn., and author of the lead essay in the recently published inaugural issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) [1]. The aim of Cashmore’s essay is to establish the proposition that “the concept of free will is an illusion,” and, having so argued, to propose that the time is right for our society to reconsider the concepts of behavior and responsibility and hence the nature of the criminal justice system.

“For purposes of this short piece, I don’t intend to engage his argument for penal reform. But I do want to address his denial of free will, since his conclusion is widely shared by biologists, philosophers and psychologists (researchers, not clinicians). His position is called ethical determinism, a view of human agency holding that all acts of the will are sufficiently determined by causes other than the will; in other words, there are “sufficient reasons” accounting for all the choices we make. There are, of course, reasons for most of the things we do. But to say there are sufficient reasons means that there is no element of volitional indeterminacy—no freedom—in our action; it’s all accounted for by causes outside the will. Acts of the will in Cashmore’s view are caused by a combination of subtle forces arising from genetics, environment, and what he calls biological
"stochasticism," that is, an inherently random dimension of the behavior of complex living systems, especially the randomness factored into the process of neurological hardwiring that takes place in infants and fetuses.

“Why then do most people believe they can and have made free choices? Cashmore argues it’s because they are wired to believe it. Natural selection has found it advantageous to maintain in humans the illusion of free will—an artificial sense of self-agency. The illusion gives rise to the correlated illusion of human responsibility, which itself has considerable adaptive advantages for human communities. But “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.” Our “selfish free-will genes” maintain in us the biophysical conditions that perpetuate this illusion, and will continue to do so long as they are successful in conning us into believing in free will.”