Human Exceptionalism

Attacking “Free Will”: My Chemicals Made Me Do It

It is astonishing to me the fervor with which some in the life sciences seek to dismantle the very concept of human freedom.  If they have their way, we will go from, “The devil made me do it,” to perhaps, “My genes made me do it,” or, “My genes as mediated by my experiences made me do it,” to now apparently, “My chemicals made me do it.”

At least that is what Penn biologist Anthony R. Cashmore seems to be advocating  in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in an article in which he claims that human free will is fiction. First, Cashmore claims that our behavior is controlled by a “trinity of forces,” one of which is the “inherent uncertainty of the physical properties of matter.”  From the article, “The Lucretian Swerve: The Biological Basis of Human Behavior and the Criminal Justice System (no link, here’s the Abstract):

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 stochasticism (GES)—that governs all of biology including behavior, with the stochastic 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 in contrast to this philosophy, other aspects of the complexity of living systems actually reflect selection in favor of random events

Apparently that uncertainty means that our behavior is not in our control–we just don’t know it:

I believe that free will is better 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. Here, in some ways, it might be more appropriate to replace “genetic and environmental history” with “chemistry”—however, in this instance these terms are likely to be similar and the former is the one commonly used in such discussions

In other words, behavior is merely biology in action, rather than the actions or inaction of people with freedom to choose between what we want to do or not do, between  right and wrong, etc.:

Although, like any biosynthetic process, the product may be quite distinct from the input material, it is still a direct consequence of these materials. I suggest that consciousness acts on behavior in a similar manner, such as to commonly reinforce the negative effects that are associated with antisocial behavior. Similarly, for some of us, consciousness heightens our desire to listen to music, for example, or to watch or participate in sporting activities. Whereas the impressions are that we are making “free” conscious decisions, the reality is that consciousness is simply a state of awareness that reflects the input signals, and these are an unavoidable consequence of GES. The mechanistic details of these conscious processes are unknown, and remain the major unsolved problem in biology

How convenient.  Nonetheless, a belief in free will is “religion:”

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. However, despite thi similarity, although in scientific circles a skeptical viewpoint is very common regarding religious forces and their day-to-day impact on biological systems, it is my observation that similar skepticism is not widely held regarding a belief in free will

This means we are not responsible for even the most heinous acts, and the law should change accordingly, allowing some form of “punishment” and “treatment,” although how you punish someone for something they couldn’t help is beyond me.  And get this:

We are conscious automata.” That is, Huxley believed (as I and many others do) that we are mechanical forces of nature and that, by some mechanism we have evolved the phenomenon of consciousness, which, I would argue, has conferred upon us the illusion of responsibility.

Apparently that means the Holocaust wasn’t really Hitler’s fault–it was all in his chemistry!  And can you imagine any wife accepting the excuse, “Not my fault, it was my chemicals!”  No, it might have been your hormones but you had the power to say no.  That is part of what makes us human.

And here comes the scientism imperialism:

It is almost with a sense of pride that the authors of such texts may contrast this understanding with the alternative earlier belief in vitalism—the belief that there are forces governing the biological world that are distinct from those that determine the physical world. The irony here is that in reality, a belief in free will is nothing less than a continuing belief in vitalism—a concept that we like to think we discarded well over 100 years ago! It is my concern, that this vitalistic way of thinking abouthuman behavior—a style of thinking that is present throughout our scientific institutions—serves only to hinder what should be a major onslaught on determining the molecular genetic and chemical basis of human behavior.

This article is a classic example, not only of the many attempts to destroy human exceptionalism afoot in the sciences, but also, of how some in the life sciences (in particular) seek to supplant philosophy and religion as the sources for determining meaning (it would seem  there isn’t any), ethics, and morality.  We should not let them get away with it.

As I often say: If you want to see why society seems to be going so wrong, just check out the professional journals.

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