May 5, 2010

Scientists Debate ‘Free Will’

Print More

These faculty members study a broad range of topics, and during their academic pursuits, they have often dabbled with larger (often philosophical) concerns. Their examination of complex ideas provides valuable insight into an enigmatic, divisive issue.

The famous theorists of philosophy spent centuries examining the realities and constraints of human free will. But as scientific research continues to explore the subject through evolution and genetics, new knowledge challenges these traditional views of human free will.

Prof. Shimon Edelman, psychology, claimed that “free will” is a “conceptual muddle.” It is vague, and remains open to interpretation.

According to one description of free will from The American Heritage Dictionary, it is “the power, attributed especially to human beings, of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances or by necessity.”

Different views recognize these “external circumstances” as destiny, fate and the influence of god(s).  According to modern research, these cicumstances may include genetics, the external environment and cause-and-effect relationships.

Still, exact definitions vary between people.

“If you take physics seriously, and don’t invoke the existence of anything outside the realm of physics and the realm of nature, it is not possible to escape the notion that what happens now determines what happens later,” said Edelman.

He said that, in the larger-scale, the happenings of the universe must restrain human life in many ways.  However, it too has a limited effect.

Prof. Will Provine, ecology and evolutionary biology, possesses a strong stance on free will — he does not believe in it.

“I could not live with someone who believes in free will, because all that leads to is blaming.”

His “myth of free will” is starkly different from daily choices.

“Choices are not fee will. I make choices all the time. I like doing things my way. It’s not about choices. It’s about the procedure. The procedure is not free. Nothing about it is free,” said Provine.

Edelman, too, dismissed the correlation between controls over motions and freedom of choice. He cited a visiting lecturer, who said that he proved the existence of free will through his ability to raise his hand.

“It was a ridiculous notion. There were so many reasons behind why he was in the room at the time. It was so easy to deconstruct the silly notion,” Edelman said.

Provine argues that, from an evolutionary standpoint, genetic traits and environmental influences determine the actions of an organism. In the book he is currently writing on the topic, he cites factors including heredity, uterine environments, parental influences and peer influences as factors that affect an individual’s free will.

Provine has given over 50 lectures across the nation on the topic, and he said that one hour is not enough to convince people. “I love disagreement though. I think it’s wonderful. Most students will completely disagree with me.”

Provine believes free will only creates the conception of justification, vengeance and a society where individuals are not told to reconstruct their behavior. He believes that the judicial system should be reconstructed to discount for the notion of free will — as in place in countries like Finland.

For Provine, a lack of free will does not restrict humanity. If anything, it liberates it.

Provine suggested that the major consequence of free will is that individuals are encouraged to blame each other. “Not believing in free will changes human life wonderfully.  Humans can embrace universal kindness, and human modesty.”

Prof. Rita Calvo, molecular biology and genetics, supports a similar relationship between genetics and the environment.

“We certainly know a lot of cases where mutations lead to retardation. So the negative we know. So, why isn’t the positive also true?” said Calvo.

“When you talk about free will, not everyone can make the free choice to become a musician — or a physicist.”

Calvo explained, citing a two-way road of genetics. According to Calvo, “Some people have perfect pitch. There is actually a genetic mutation for those who are tone deaf. So the same way you can have a mutation to make you tone deaf, you can have genes that make you musical.”

Whereas one road generates musical talent, another hinders musical ability.  Despite an individual’s desire, their genetics will partially determine their capacity for music.

However, Calvo also recognized the environment.  “We have genetic limitations. That is not to say that the environment is not important. Genes aren’t everything — but they set the stage.”

For instance, an individual without a musical gene can seek training.  If he or she does not practice, genetics will prevent him or her from ever becoming a musician.

In contrast, if they do practice and receive lessons, they may overcome certain aspects of their genetics to become a musician. Though he or she will likely never become Beethoven, he or she will fare better than individuals who do not practice.

Calvo cited the recent news frenzy over Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs as an example of how society may not accept certain actions, even those with a logical, evolutionary origin.

“Tiger Woods is obviously an alpha male and it’s not surprising that alpha males have multiple females.  You look at baboon society or chimps, and this is the way it is … biologically it’s advantageous for men to have multiple women and to deny that is just silly.”

She said that society does not need to accept such behavior, but it should understand the reasoning behind it.  She noted that understanding genetic contexts of social behavior may benefit society.

“I do think there is less free will in some activities than we would like to think… what do we do about that? That’s hard,” said Calvo.  “I believe the understanding of science in the ways that have to do with big ideas is totally not accepted.”

She suggested that scientists must find individuals who can bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public to relay new ideas.  “Scientists have to be translators for the public, and I don’t think they have done it and I think it’s something they need to do,” said Calvo.

Original Author: Tajwar Mazhar