In the midst of a heated national debate about intelligent design and evolution, Prof. William Provine, ecology and evolutionary biology, tackled the question head-on in a discussion attended by over 60 students, faculty and Ithacan community members last night. Sponsored by the Bioethics Society of Cornell, the lecture, titled “Evolution and Intelligent Design: The Implications for Human Free Will” covered topics including Darwinism, the origin of moral responsibility, the social need to assign blame and reductionism.
“I was a vocal opponent to I.D. [intelligent design] even before [the movement] began,” Provine said at the opening.
One of the most fascinating views of I.D. supporters, Provine said, was that the only differences between humans and chimpanzees were “human free will and immortal souls.”
These differences presumably proved the existence of a creator, but Provine refused to believe that view.
“Choosing doesn’t imply free will,” he said. “Choices are not made freely — there are all kinds of constraints on it.” In an attempt to discredit the view that lack of free will would “lead society into a downward spiral,” Provine argued that without free will there would be no means of blaming people for their actions. “Blame is useless,” he said. “It just creates a horrible system of criminal justice.”
He added that if society recognized the absence of free will, society would ultimately be much kinder to its less fortunate.
“I hated the idea of human free will,” Provine added. He also argued that humans mostly provide their own moral guidance, and that “ultimate moral responsibility is nonexistent.” He admitted, “Free will is the hardest [preconception] … to give up.”
The lecture received mixed reactions from the crowd.
“He makes a lot of good points,” said Scott Jackson, one of the attendees. “But there are also a lot of problems with the idea of free will as he was talking about free will. He makes a lot of jumps to conclusions as if they were obvious.” Jackson added that he saw two kinds of views on free will: libertarian free will and volitional free will.
“[Provine] seemed to be talking about [volitional] free will,” Jackson said. Libertarian free will, he explained, was where despite knowing all information about external circumstances and internal states, there remains no means of predicting with complete accuracy the final choice of any given individual.
Volitional free will, he said, was where the choice could be predicted with accuracy.
Pastor Rick Bair of the Lutheran Campus Mission stayed late to discuss the implications of the lecture with attendees.
“We’re kind of lost,” Bair said to The Sun, “He can’t define what free will is … although it was an entertaining presentation.”
“He’s a very popular professor … who came highly recommended, and he was pretty amusing,” said Matt Wong ’06, president of the Bioethics Society.
When asked about the reactions from the crowd, Wong said, “He left a lot of questions unanswered. We want to continue the discussion of this topic and we hope to in our weekly student-led meetings every Monday.”