Are the genetic revolution and neuroscience demonstrating that there is no
such thing as "free will"?
Two political scientists, one newspaper columnist, and one psychiatrist
believe that free will is alive and well. They expressed their views at a
recent Washington, D.C., press conference on the topic "Genes,
Neuroscience, and Free Will" sponsored by the American Enterprise
Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), a conservative think tank in
Sally Satel, M.D.: Free will is the ability to make a decision about
whether to engage in a complex behavior.
Photo courtesy of Sally Satel, M.D.
The political scientists were James Wilson, Ph.D., a professor of public
policy at Pepperdine University, and Charles Murray, Ph.D., coauthor of
The Bell Curve, a highly controversial 1994 book about I.Q. in
American society. The newspaper columnist was David Brooks of the New York
Times. The psychiatrist was Sally Satel, M.D., author of numerous
magazine articles and books and a staff psychiatrist at the Oasis Clinic, a
Washington, D.C., alcoholism and drug-addiction treatment
The press conference was held at this particular juncture, AEI moderator
Christina Sommers explained, because genes seem to play an increasingly large
role in people's personalities, outlooks, and behaviors and to threaten the
existence of free will. In fact, might genetics and neuroscience advance to
the point where they prove that there is no such thing as free will and that
people are not morally and legally responsible for their actions? "Our
panelists will show us how to negotiate our way through this thicket,"
Antisocial behavior, Wilson reported, has been linked to possession of a
particular MAO gene variant, but the variant seems to exert its influence only
in conjunction with one or more environmental factors, say childhood treatment
(Psychiatric News, November 4, 2005). Wilson thus believes that such
evidence discredits the postulation that people's behaviors are totally
dictated by their genes.
Murray agreed. Moreover, if one gene influences one behavior, then other
genes probably influence others, and these various influences undoubtedly
interplay and perhaps even contradict each other. If that is the case, he
continued, it too is an argument against the postulation that people's
behaviors are totally controlled by their genes.
Free will, Satel explained, is the ability to make a decision about whether
to engage in a complex behavior. She said that she believes that free will
exists, and that it exists even in addictive behavior, where people's values,
desires, and motivations come to bear on their choices. She also said that
while she has "incredible respect and admiration" for
brain-imaging technology, and while "the seduction of brain images is
astounding," she does not believe that the brain activity that one can
visualize with neuroimaging dictates what a person does. Nor does she believe
that other advances in neuroscience are going to disprove free
will—"We are not going to have a metaphysical meltdown anytime
Some of the greatest neuroscience discoveries to date, Brooks remarked,
demonstrate not only that people engage in unconscious brain processes, but
that these processes play a big role in their lives—for example,"
We deeply imitate people around us" or "tend toward things
that are familiar to us, even the sound of a word." Such advances, he
added, suggest that people have no control over such unconscious brain
processes—that is, lack free will. However, he does not believe this to
be the case, he said: free will is influenced, but not eliminated, by the
unconscious. Also, "there is a lot we don't know and a lot we will never
know [about free will]," he contended.
After all four panelists had spoken, one audience member pointed out that
none of the speakers had gotten to the heart of the determinism—free
will debate—the quantum mechanics, the chaos theory, in short, the
physics underlying brain structures and activities. Another person said that
while the speakers had made a good case that the genetic revolution and
neuroscience are not disproving free will's existence, at the same time they
had not presented any evidence proving free will's existence.
But perhaps the greatest critique that could be leveled against the
panelists' free-will postulation is that there were no scientists on the panel
who spoke to the other side of the issue. ▪