February 17, 2010

PNAS: Free Will Into the Dumpster

17 February 2010
Paul Nelson

The article is open access, so you can choose to download it. Or choose not to download it. Or choose to click over to YouTube, or the Huffington Post, to see what’s doing there.

Whatever happens, “you” — meaning the person reading this right now — won’t be making a decision. Physics and chemistry will. These forces will inform you of their “decision,” so to speak, by the perceptual illusion, constructed in the infinite wisdom of natural selection, which gives you the misleading sense of having made a choice. Otherwise known as free will, which doesn’t exist.

Anthony Cashmore, the author of this Inaugural Article in the PNAS, is a molecular biologist and botanist at the Universtiy of Pennsylvania. I didn’t see a single sentence about botany in the article, but I suppose National Academy members have catholic [small c, please] interests and can range over the intellectual landscape to alight on whatever problems attract them.

What I really didn’t see, however, was any new science. As Cashmore notes, the existence (or not) of free will has been debated since antiquity. It’s a classically philosophical problem. The pages of the PNAS are open to materialistic solutions, as evidenced by the Cashmore article. His Inaugural Article, remember: this is what a botanist most wants to say to his NAS colleagues, by way of introducing himself.

Could a defender of the reality of free will — i.e., of an irreducible person acting from mind, on the basis of reasons, goals, ends or purposes — publish her arguments in the PNAS? After all, that’s the other side of this ancient debate.

Homework assignment: Did the members of the National Academy really elect, as in choose, Cashmore? Or should that be credited to physics too?