Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 15 September 2007

Free Will

Below is an argument that I formed and submitted to American Scientist in response to an essay by Gregory Graffin and William Provine, who conducted a survey amongst biology students on their beliefs in religion, God and free will. It was their argument on free will that evoked my response. When they say: 'it adds nothing to the science of human behaviour' (quoted below) they are right. As far as science is concerned, if human behaviour can't be explained by a combination of genetics and environment, then invoking 'free will' won't help. It's a bit like invoking God to explain evolution (see my blog posting on Intelligent Design), so I can understand their argument.

When it comes to studying anything to do with consciousness, we can only examine the consequences caused by a conscious being interacting with its environment. It's not unlike the dilemma we face in quantum mechanics where we don't know what's happening until we take a measurement or make an observation. If we didn't experience consciousness as individuals we would probably claim that it didn't exist, because there is no direct evidence of it except through our own thoughts. And this also applies to free will, which, after all, is a manifestation of consciousness. Effectively, Graffin and Provine are saying that free will is an illusion created by the fact that we are conscious beings, but, if one takes their argument to its logical conclusion, all conscious thoughts are caused by an interaction of our genetic disposition with our environment. So what is the evolutionary purpose of consciousness if our thoughts are just an unnecessary by-product?

Below is my original argument that I submitted to American Scientist.

In the July-August 2007 issue of American Scientist (Evolution, Religion and Free Will) Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine contend that free will is non-existent because it ‘adds nothing to the science of human behaviour.’ This would follow logically from the premise that any idea, concept or belief that can’t be scientifically examined, measured or hypothetically tested, must be an illusion or a cultural relic. They point out that evolutionary biologists, who believe in free will, suffer from the misconception that choice and free will are synonymous. One always has a choice – it’s just that when it’s made it’s predetermined. I sense a contradiction. So there is no ‘intentionality’, which lies at the heart of consciousness as we experience it, and is discussed by John Searle in his book, MiND (2004). This leads to a conundrum: if all intentionality is predetermined, then why has evolution given us consciousness? It's hard to escape the conclusion that the 'illusion' of free will must therefore have evolutionary value – maybe that’s its contribution to the science of human behaviour.

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