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Is Science Metaphysically Neutral About Free Will?

Posted on July 23, 2012 by James Kohl.

Re: Iris Fry Is science metaphysically neutral?  Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Volume 43, Issue 3, September 2012, Pages 665-673 .

Article excerpt: “Reflecting the growing realization toward the beginning of the 19th century that biological organization is a unique characteristic of life, he also argued that organisms can be understood only when evaluated ‘‘as if’’ their complex and interactive organization was designed (Kant 1987[1790], p. 383).”

My comment:
We have since learned that biological organization must be used to evaluate the complex characteristics of life.  Biological organization must be used because life always experientially interacts with the sensory environment via the epigenetic effects of nutrient chemicals on receptor-mediated individual survival and epigenetic effects of pheromones on receptor-mediated species survival.

Odors and pheromones, for example, directly effect olfactory receptors. This allows them to cause changes in intracellular signaling and stochastic gene expression. The result is changes in behavior that are predictable because of its biological organization (the evolved gene, cell, tissue, organ, organ system pathway I have detailed).

In this context, Kant missed an important scientific truth. His philosophy was that human free will must be denied if  odors influence human emotions and behaviors.  We now know that being human does not mean being fully conscious and above the kind of gross, reflex reactions animals experience. Indeed, in my model we are genetically predisposed and classically conditioned to respond to olfactory/pheromonal input that unconsciously affects our behavior — just like it does in every other species on this planet.

I’ve moved beyond debate about the opinions of long dead philosophers, and have even attempted discussion of free will with people who don’t seem to understand the difference between Pavlovian (e.g. classical conditioning) and operant conditioning (e.g., training). Olfactory/pheromonal input,  for example, classically conditions genetically predisposed biologically based (e.g., receptor-mediated) behaviors. These behaviors are not linked to free will in any species, because they are required for species survival. Without behavior that is classically conditioned by exposure to nutrient chemicals, individual organisms would starve to death. Without behavior that is classically conditioned by pheromones, species could not efficiently reproduce.

This means operant conditioning must be the basis for our free will. Unlike other animals, we can chose to respond or not to the rewards associated with operant conditioning because only classical conditioning is directly linked (e.g., epigenetically via olfactory/pheromonal input) to behaviors that are required for species survival. Unfortunately, it is today’s behaviorists and animal trainers who have taken Kant’s unscientifically supported philosophical position on odors. They seem to think that training animals is pertinent to the biology of behavior in humans who have the free will to choose not to respond to the variety of cues used to train other animals.

Our ability to choose links operant conditioning to free will. Understanding the difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning could lead to more rapid progress than what has occurred due to Kant’s influence on behaviorists and animal trainers.



James Kohl
Retired medical laboratory scientist

James Kohl

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