Today’s vitalism


A. Cashmore has published an article, The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system (here). His conclusion is:

I noted earlier that belief in what I refer to as the magic of the soul and Cartesian dualism has ostensibly disappeared. The emphasis that I now give to “ostensibly” reflects my belief that, in the absence of any molecular model accommodating the concept of free will, I have to conclude that the dualism of Descartes is alive and well. That is, just like Descartes, we still believe (much as we pretend otherwise) that there is a magic component to human behavior. Here I argue that the way we use the concept of free will is nonsensical. The beauty of the mind of man has nothing to do with free will or any unique hold that biology has on select laws of physics or chemistry… 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 non-stochastic way…. any search for some new “Lucretian” law of physics, or some startlingly novel emergent principle, will not be successful.

Many believe that the consequences of a society lacking free will would be disastrous. In contrast, I argue that we do not necessarily need to be pessimistic about confronting a world lacking free will… Certainly, crime is a problem that society has much difficulty dealing with… surely it is inexcusable that in addressing these problems we continue to entertain this fallacious assumption 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…. It is almost with a sense of pride that the authors of (biology) 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.

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