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Anthony Cashmore
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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Anthony Cashmore

Anthony Cashmore is a plant biologist who describes animals, including human beings, as a "bag of chemicals" entirely determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. He says, "we live in an era when few biologists would question the idea that biological systems are totally based on the laws of physics and chemistry."

Cashmore apparently does not subscribe to zoologist Ernst Mayr's idea that biology is consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry but profoundly different from those sciences because biological organisms have a history (stored information structures) that guides future behavior. The atoms and molecules of physics and chemistry have no such history.

In his inaugural address to the National Academy of Sciences, Cashmore joined many modern thinkers who support the idea that free will is just an illusion.

Other illusionists include Joshua Greene, Derk Pereboom, J. J. C. Smart, Saul Smilansky, and Daniel Wegner.

Cashmore contends that a belief in free will is nothing other than a continuing belief in vitalism — something most biologists believe was discarded well over 100 years ago.

He examines Lucretius's case for an atomic swerve (actually Epicurus's idea) as the source of free will, and oddly claims that

"The causal component of these random swerves could have been the Greek gods, of whom there was no shortage. Indeed, the self consistency of this line of thinking can be seen in early Greek literature, where the gods had a daily impact on the lives of individuals." [Cashmore cites the Iliad of Homer].
On the contrary, we know that Epicurus and Lucretius both saw this kind of freedom as liberating man from the arbitrary control of the gods. And the whole idea of Epicurus was to eliminate the "causal component" of the atomist and determinist Democritus .

Cashmore finds that there is more determining our actions than genes and environment. He cites "stochastic processes," which is plausible, and adds (as Epicurus and Lucretius hoped) that "the introduction of stochasticism would appear to eliminate determinism." But he is skeptical of any quantum indeterminacy, citing Einstein's famous doubts ("God does not play dice") and in any case he reinvents the standard argument against free will (that neither determinism nor indeterminism can provide responsibility).

"Finally, even if the properties of matter are confirmed to be inherently stochastic, although this may remove the bugbear of determinism, it would do little to support the notion of free will: I cannot be held responsible for my genes and my environment; similarly, I can hardly be held responsible for any stochastic process that may influence my behavior!"
Nevertheless, Cashmore's acceptance of stochastic processes in biology is impressive. He cites thinkers, like Erwin Schrödinger, who thought quantum randomness was absent in biological systems. Then he says,
"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."

"Examples in support of this notion are the process of mutation (which Schrödinger was aware of), and genetic recombination and assortment; other examples are genetic rearrangement associated with the development of the immune system, and the process of X-chromosome inactivation. Recently there have been numerous reports demonstrating a stochastic response at the level of transcription....Of particular relevance to this article, the formation of neuronal connections reflects a degree of stochasticism, with no two individuals, even those that are genetically identical and under constant environment, displaying the identical neuronal network."

Cashmore thinks that too many of his colleagues in biology harbor a belief in free will, one that is "nonsensical and unsupported by any evidence."
"However, in spite of this and the sparsity of evidence or credible models in support of free will, it has been my experience that relatively few biologists seriously question the concept of free will."
He cites Benjamin Libet's famous experiments that indicate considerable unconscious activity (called a readiness potential or RP) before the "conscious will" to suddenly raise a finger. "Although such experiments are certainly not proof that consciousness is nothing more than a mechanism of following the activity of the brain," he says, "the observations are in keeping with this line of thought."

Like Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene, Cashmore thinks that dispelling the illusion of free will should lead to reforms in our legal system.

"It is my belief that, as more attention is given to the mechanisms that govern human behavior, it will increasingly be seen that the concept of free will is an illusion, and the fallacy of a basic premise of the judicial system will become more apparent. Certainly, the determination of the sequence of the human genome and the assignment of function to these genes is having a dramatic effect on our understanding of the role of genetics in human behavior. Similarly, developments in imaging techniques, allowing changes in neuronal activity to be correlated with thought processes, is affecting our thinking about relationships between the functioning of the mind and chemical activity in the brain. Here I propose that the time is opportune for society to reevaluate our thinking concerning the concept of free will, as well as the policies of the criminal justice system."

Some illusionists, Saul Smilansky for example, are more circumspect about publicizing the illusion of free will, in view of studies that show immoral behavior is enhanced when subjects are told they are not responsible. (Vohs and Schooler, Psychological Science, 19, 4, (2008) pp.49-54) Cashmore is sympathetic to this concern,

"If free will is an illusion, then it becomes more difficult to hold people responsible for their actions. I have argued that one of the reasons that individuals have been so reluctant to question the reality of free will is the belief that it would be difficult for society to function under a system in which this concept was abandoned....I believe that it is time for the legal system to confront this reality — increasingly indicated by studies in both genetics and neurosciences — that we are indeed 'mechanical forces of nature.'"

Cashmore demonstrates his conviction that we are no more than a "bag of chemicals" with his astonishing assertion that "we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar."

"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. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will. Some will argue that once we understand better the mechanistic details that underlie consciousness, then we will understand free will. Whatever the complexities of the molecular details of consciousness are, they are unlikely to involve any new law in physics that would break the causal laws of nature in a nonstochastic way. If I am wrong on this point, then I eagerly await the elucidation of this principle. In the meantime it would be prudent to assume (in keeping with the thoughts of William of Occam, where one always adopts the simplest of competing hypotheses) that any search for some new “Lucretian” law of physics, or some startlingly novel emergent principle, will not be successful."
But Cashmore is in a sense correct that the source of freedom for bacteria and flies is the same as the source of our freedom. That was Martin Heisenberg's point in his 2009 essay in Nature. The ultimate source of all freedom from determinism is quantum indeterminism. But it takes more than mere randomness, as the two-stage model of free will shows.

And even when Cashmore goes to the extreme of the bowl of sugar, it resembles the Free Will Theorem of John Conway and Simon Kochen, which concludes that if experimenters are free, so are the elementary particles. This is the reverse of Arthur Stanley Eddington's conclusion that the freedom of the electron could open the door a crack to solve the problem of human freedom.

Finally, Cashmore's assertion that anything beyond the laws of physics and chemistry at the level of molecules should be considered "vitalism" is extreme. When the first molecule learned to replicate, it then made its teleonomic purpose to continue replicating. Thus purpose emerged in the world naturally, not from a mysterious non-physical vitalism.

"Finally, I would like to make the following point: In the introductory chapter of many undergraduate texts dealing with biology or biochemistry, it is common to stress (as I have in this article) that biological systems obey the laws of chemistry and physics; as living systems we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals. 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 about human 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."
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