December 18, 2014


Eddie Nahmias
Philosophy Department
and the Neuroscience Institute 
Georgia State University

Dear Professor:
I read your article (Eddie Nahmias, Why We Have Free Will SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN vol. 312 no. 1 January, 2015) with great pleasure.  Two things come to mind, one trivial and the other of the most profound importance imaginable.  But the trivial one is fun so I’ll start there and hope you tough it out and get to the good part. 

If one were to invent a cosmos from scratch, the first obvious choice would be an eternal nothing of nothingness.  The second obvious choice would be utter chaos.  The third would be a series of locked steps in which each even compelled the next exactly so that initial conditions utterly determined everything.  None of these admits the possibility of free will, far less of moral order, since the direction of time must be arbitrary in each case so an event is constructive or destructive depending on how you look at it.  So our non-empty, sort-of-but-not-quite predictable cosmos has three remarkable characteristics that just happen to provide us free will and even a moral basis on which to exercise that will.  How odd. 

One of the things cosmology must grapple with is the existence of certain regularities, like all electrons are alike.  Yet they cannot have come into equilibrium.  Sorry “inflation” scenarios don’t really fix that.  Once plausible scenario is that the universe we know (“firmament” would seem like a cheerful word for it) is/was/will be/might be somehow on some inconceivable timeline be … tenses get squishy here, and it’s not really the fault of English … in continuity with chaos.  So it’s all the same electron moving in and out of chaos.

Ha.  Then maybe consciousness is similarly a single entity moving in and out of chaos, always the same one.  It doesn’t make the choices.  It only watches.  We share the same watcher.  I don’t recommend the idea, but I point it out.  Maybe you can use it as a rhetorical ploy one day. 

Getting down to blood and guts, I think we can agree that people do have free will and maybe not always as much as we think.  This becomes crucial with respect to the number of children a couple have.  This was studied carefully a few years ago comparing the number of children a couple in Iceland had with their shared ancestry.  (An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples Agnar Helgason et al. SCIENCE vol. 329 no. 5864 February 8, 2008 page 813 – 816)  Kinship determines fecundity, and there is almost no room for anything else having any effect at all.  And – get this – the couples didn’t even know how kin they were, at least not out to the precision that the researches found to be effective. 

In these environmentally sensitive times of course overpopulation is a threat.  I can imagine being happy in a world of any of a number of population sizes, but there is one and only one population growth rate that spells anything but doom.  That is zero.  So anybody who cares about anything should put zero growth at the top of all priorities.  In fact, as I’m sure you know, Western Civilization is in negative growth.  To stabilize it, we need to understand it.  Here’s a link to pretty much what I have been able to gather. There’s also a paper I published on the same effect in fruit flies, but although I love my fruit flies and admire their cunning I would be hard pressed to prove they have much free will (although our watcher might be there monitoring their welfare.) 

The place where free will comes in is this:  selection ought to command us to marry third or fourth cousins.  It has been proven to happen in Japanese quail.  But we, the rich world, marry almost exclusively strangers, pretty much not as close as ninth cousins.  This makes sense only if nature, for some reason, has us marked for extinction.  Brace for a two-step think-up.

Take a stable ecosystem and introduce a new niche.  Assume two animals already there begin to compete for the new resource.  One undergoes speciation slowly; it cannot optimize for the new niche and might even lose its old since it’s no longer optimized there.  The other speciates rapidly, optimizes for the new niche and never risks its old.  Obviously there is selective pressure for rapid speciation. 

Step 2, assume 2,000 generations to speciation.  Like if a glacier splits the system for 2,000 generation and then the animals from either side cannot have fertile offspring after the glacier melts.  But instead of a glacier the population is 1,000.  Now on average it takes a chromosome or a key bit of a chromosome 2,000 generations to find its nearest relative.  The whole population dies.  Selection won’t stand for that, so imposes a fertility penalty, and if that doesn’t bring the population down in a few generations then selection is bound to kill it off, since it is now a threat to the whole species.

Nature is very patient but not very bright.  In killing off all the local populations nature, at least in the developed world, is killing off everybody. 

So nature demands that we choose unsuitable mates; I have never had much luck finding dates.  Some men don’t take an interest in women at all.  Most who do are not drawn to cousins.  This is exactly what you should expect.  We don’t even know we’re doing it.  The question is whether we have a choice at all.  Will we continue down the road to extinction, always choosing the stranger until – it might be this century – the babies stop altogether?

I have written by last count about 185 renowned scientists whose work touches on this.  So far as I can tell all but a handful have wet themselves and run away squealing.  I’m sure you won’t do that but will answer with sound logic and persuasive data and let me know whether we have a choice in this matter.


M. Linton Herbert

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