Free Will and Biology

I’ve heard it suggested, with what appears to be increasing frequency that there is no such thing as free will. That is, evolutionary biology can account for every impulse within the human mind. However much we may think we make our own choices, so the claim goes, we are merely doing that which our genes have programmed us to do; we exist merely to propagate them.

There are at least three reasons why this position is both false and harmful to our society.

Most obviously, it is not science. Rather, it is materialistic philosophy masquerading as science. Even the freshman biology student can see that no experiment can test between “we exist for our genes” and “our genes exist for us”. And, as Francis Bacon first pointed out, scientific theories need to be falsifiable.

Wrong though it is, this wouldn’t concern me were it not for the natural consequences of deciding that one’s personal position is scientific fact. It is conducive neither to empathy nor curiosity.

Second is the speed with which human beings are reduced, in this line of reasoning, to pure chemistry. While I believe, fervently, that one need not believe in the soul to be kind to others, this seems to go beyond the pale. The particular type of materialism that reduces not only the basic state of humanity, but even our thoughts and will, to puppets of blind forces is unnerving at best.

Not only does this devalue everything we say or do, but it seems a universal excuse ready for the taking. I doubt that many of the proponents of this idea have considered the degree to which it opens the door for claiming “I was only following my drives”, and of the danger that entails. I believe thoroughly in moral responsibility, and cannot abide a philosophy which denies it.

At the very least, this strips our choices of all meaning.

Last, but most difficult to communicate, is the very concept of “free will” being supposed here. Perhaps it is only natural that a society that tends to view freedom as liberation from anything which restrains us would end here, at last realizing that our impulses, too, are a kind of restraint – in that they press us to behave in particular ways.

But, as any musician, athlete, or craftsman can tell you, there is a greater freedom that comes from submitting to training and practice. Freedom, in this sense, is not liberation, but something more like growth. Certainly, this holds true in the spiritual as well. The will is most free, not when it embraces genetically programmed instincts, but when it strives after something higher than pleasure.

And that seems to be an essential element of freedom: the ability to sacrifice. The ability to put aside the immediate, submitting our desires to the long-term, even the eternal, untangles the knots in one’s heart. There is joy in such moments: becoming that which one was created to be.

That is a joy, and a purpose, that only a will freed from its base impulses can achieve.

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2 responses to “Free Will and Biology

  • c emerson

    > Most obviously, it is not science. Rather, it is materialistic philosophy masquerading as science.
    > I believe thoroughly in moral responsibility, and cannot abide a philosophy which denies it.

    Sadly, and with all due respect, you’ve slid backwards here, have you not, with respect to core assumptions and debatable points?

    Don’t misunderstand my query, for I believe that ‘free choice’ and perhaps even ‘free will’ has real meaning. Moreover, as a technical matter, I couldn’t agree with you more that science has not demonstrated any neural-firing sequence that can be said to explain the human decision making process. But “cannot abide a philosophy which denies [moral responsibility]” does not sound like an objective argument to me, and instead sounds like a core assumption being disguised or hidden.

    The mind-brain gap seems to exist, with some good arguments as to why Mind (consciousness, about-ness, and free ‘will’) are presently not reducible to specific brain functions – but the existence of a first-person observable process (Mind) does not preclude a future scientific, or even materialistic, explanation, one which either confirms meaningful and intentional free choice, or denies it. If the latter actually occurred, you would have no ‘choice’ but to ‘abide’ it, would you not?

    Again, I actually side with you, as a matter of informed belief, that free choice, and therefore individual ‘moral-agent’ responsibility is meaningful. But if it turns out to be otherwise, it turns out to be otherwise, and concepts and definitions related to moral responsibility would have to change. This would be true, also, if something along Nagel’s approach was discovered or metaphysically validated. What would almost certainly not happen would be mass suicide :). Peace.

    Btw, I agree that the ability to sacrifice for the future is logically and as a matter of practical reason, a key if not also a necessary part of the notion of human freedom. I trust my comment above is taken in the spirit of good debate (because I agree with many of your points here and in later posts – and in comments on Feser’s blog).

    • Debilis

      You are definitely right to say that this is a core assumption.
      My position is that all philosophies must start with axioms, and my view is that basic, everyday experience should be trusted until we have a reason not to do so. And that would include moral experience.

      But, I did state that in a less than clean way, as you point out.

      As to the issue of the mind-body division. I do think it precludes the discovery of a materialistic explanation of the mind. That is to say that science does not investigate the subjective, but only what can be said to be objective. As the mind clearly contains subjective things, it cannot be fully explained by a naturalistic approach like science.

      I’m actually sympathetic to Nagel’s views. I wouldn’t call them materialistic, though (so maybe there is simply a semantic issue here).

      Most importantly, yes, you leave me with the impression that you are simply interested in the subject. I adore debate, and you are raising good points in a civil fashion.

      That is a world away from antagonism. So, thank you.

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