6. I think, therefore ……. ?

September 10th, 2019

The story so far

We have been looking at different aspects of our common experience as human beings that are hard, if not impossible, to explain if our universe is no more than physical.

  • Most neuroscientists find it hard to see why our consciousness, our unique sense of ourselves, would evolve in a purely physical world.
  • If we are no more than physical, it seems impossible we can have true freedom of choice, yet that is what we experience.
  • Most people believe some things really are right and wrong, yet in a physical world there is no objective basis for morality but only whatever we choose, either personally or as a culture.

All of these features of human life seem to imply there is truly something beyond the physical, something mental, or spiritual, lending support to the conclusion that a God exists who created the human race with these characteristics.

In this post we examine one more ability of human beings that may be the strongest indicator of all that God created the universe with the human race in mind – our ability to think and reason. This is perhaps the most difficult, and yet the most important, of this series so far.

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4. Freedom of choice

August 19th, 2019

The story so far …..

We have seen that it is hard to explain the fact that the universe exists without some sort of cause and hard to explain its apparent design apart from a designer. Then we saw that it is also difficult to explain human consciousness on purely naturalistic terms.

This post, we look at another aspect of being human that seems to point to something beyond the merely physical.

Freedom of choice is what we want

In Devo’s very old song now, Freedom of Choice, they suggest: “Freedom of choice is what you got. Freedom from choice is what you want.” But what makes our choices “free”, or not? And do we actually have “free choice”?

There seem to be several requirements for a choice to be free:

  1. We are the agents who actually make a conscious choice (it wasn’t just an accident or an unconscious reaction).
  2. The choice is voluntary (we are not coerced or forced, e.g. by a threat or by hypnotism).
  3. We have a reason or goal that leads to the choice (i.e. the action isn’t just random).
  4. We are originating agents who could have chosen otherwise, because the choice isn’t totally determined by physics and chemistry.

People generally feel we have the ability to make choices like that. Our laws and social customs assume it, and studies show that is what most people think.

But is this true?

Mind and brain

Our brains are physical parts of our bodies that can be measured by science and affected by physical injury. But our minds seem to be something different, for they are not physical, yet in a sense they are the essence of what it means for each of us to be “us”.

It is apparent that our minds depend on our brains – when our brains die or are injured, our minds are also affected. But what is the mind? Is it just the way our brains work, or is it something more? And how does our mind make choices?

Science and philosophy

Because our brains are physical, the electrical and chemical processes in our brains follow physical and chemical laws. And if nothing interferes with those processes, they will continue to follow those predictable laws.

So if our minds and brains are the same thing, there doesn’t seem to be anything of ourselves outside our brains to change those processes, and our thinking will be determined by factors we have no control over, such as our genetics, the sensory inputs our brains receive, and the laws themselves – hence this view is known as “determinism”.

If all this is true, then our choices will satisfy the free will criteria 1-3, but not criterion 4 (for we are not originating agents), which means they are not free as most of us understand the word.

Most neuroscientists seem to agree. For example, Prof Jerry Coyne: “You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece …. was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will.”

Neuroscience experiments are not quite so conclusive. For example, experiments by Wilder Penfield and Benjamin Libet can be interpreted either for or against free will, although most commonly they are thought to demonstrate our actions are determined rather than free.

The philosophers tend to agree. If we humans, like the rest of the universe, are totally physical beings, then free choice is logically impossible. There is no mind, no “us” outside the physical brain processes to make any independent and free choice. For example, philosopher Galen Strawson: “The impossibility of free will …. can be proved with complete certainty.”

A different kind of choice?

Some try to resolve this dilemma by arguing for a form of free will that only requires criteria 1-3. That is, we can indeed make choices that are intentional and not coerced, and that is freedom enough, even though we could’t actually have decided differently for our choice was determined by factors outside our control.

This view, called compatibilism because it considers free will to be compatible with determinism, is really just a matter of definition. If “free will” is defined that way, then our choices are “free”, but nevertheless, they are determined and, given the circumstances, we couldn’t have chosen differently, so criterion 4 isn’t fulfilled.

But what if our minds are more than just our brains?

All this so far is on the assumption that naturalism is true (i.e. the physical is all there is), and thus the mind is nothing more than the physical brain.

But what if we are more than physical, our minds are more than our physical brains? What if there was some part of us that isn’t just physical, and that is where the choice is made (a view called “dualism”)? Then we could be originating agents and our choices could be genuinely free.

Reasons to believe we have free choice

1. Free will is our common human experience

As I’ve said, most people believe, without really thinking about it, that we have the ability to make free choices.

2. Law and custom

Our laws and customs assume it too. For example, if a criminal choice was not free, because of mental illness, the effects of drugs or alcohol, or external compulsion, the law can assign diminished responsibility. And we sometimes justify actions that we are ashamed of by saying “I couldn’t help it!”.

So law and social customs are based on the understanding that in normal circumstances people are responsible for their choices. Chief Judge in Equity, Supreme Court of New South Wales, David Hodgson, writes: “Our system of criminal justice is based in various ways on common-sense ideas of free will and responsibility for conduct”.

3. Psychology and counselling are based on free will

One aspect of psychological counselling is helping people make better choices, and this implies the ability to choose between alternatives. For example this article in Psychology Today (Making Good Choices) says: “Essentially, any choice involves at least two options” and assumes people can change their choices.

Cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky says of free will: “Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief”.

4. It is impossible to live without believing in free will

Many scientists, psychologists and philosophers conclude that free will is a necessary illusion for us to live satisfactorily. Philosopher John Searle: “We can’t give up our conviction of our own freedom, even though there’s no ground for it.”

In his opinion piece quoted above, neuroscientist Jerry Coyne argues that free will is an illusion, but then gives a whole range of ways we “should” respond to this fact, which seems to imply we have a choice about it. And he agrees “It’s impossible, anyway, to act as though we don’t have [free will].”

If free will is an illusion, it is a hard illusion to shake.

5. Not believing in free will makes us worse people

Belief in free will is necessary for us to be ethical and human. Studies show that when people stop believing in free will they are more likely to behave unethically. Scientific American: “when people believe – or are led to believe – that free will is just an illusion. they tend to become more antisocial.”

Thus Philosopher Saul Smilanski believes that free will is “a morally necessary illusion …. vitally important …. to maintain or promote crucial moral or personal beliefs and practices.”

6. Naturalism is only an assumption of neuroscience

Because science measures and observes the physical world, it is unable to address the question of dualism and a non-physical mind. As Alwin Scott said many years ago: “Although dualism cannot be disproved, the role of science is to proceed on the assumption that it is wrong and see how much progress can be made.”

Thus the apparent scientific support for determinism is based on assumption rather than demonstrable fact, and we need not be over-impressed by it.

These are good reasons

Why should we trust our experience? A parallel with our experience of the external world can assist us.

We cannot prove the external world is real, but most people never question it, because (1) our experience of it is consistent across time, (2) it is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way, and (3) believing it is real helps us live productive and meaningful lives.

A similar argument can be used for free will. Based on all the above six points, we can reasonably believe that free will is real because (1) our experience of it too is consistent across time, (2) it too is apparently experienced by everyone in a similar way, and (3) believing it is real also helps us live productive and meaningful lives.

The choice we all face

So as with our consideration of consciousness, we have to choose between two options. Either the natural world is all there is, science explains it all, we don’t have free will (it is just an illusion) and we humans are less that we thought.

Or else naturalism isn’t true, science is unable to address the whole of reality, our experience of free will is real and our minds really can rise above the physical and make genuine choices.

It’s a choice between believing what we experience and what works best, or accepting the dehumanising assumptions of naturalistic science.

One step at a time

Like consciousness (in my previous post), free will doesn’t prove God exists. But it does point to another weakness in naturalism, that it cannot adequately explain what we experience. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

It seems to me that this makes it a little more likely that naturalism/atheism is untrue, there is a God, and the first cause and designer of the universe created humans to be something more than just physical beings.

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Photo: Pexels

2. Was the universe designed, or random?

August 5th, 2019

People tend to take a lot for granted. The sun keeps shining, the earth is full of useful minerals and gravity keeps us from flying off into space. We don’t think about it much, but what if things were different?

What if gravity repulsed rather than attracted? What if we couldn’t sit on a chair because the space between the molecules that make up the chair allowed the molecules in our backsides to fall right through? What if the only atom in the periodic table was hydrogen, and so there was no chemistry?

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1. Why does the universe exist?

July 31st, 2019

When thinking about possible evidence for the existence of God, it seems logical to start with the big picture, and work our way down to the more personal. So we start by considering the universe and the explanation of its existence.

What is the universe?

This may sound like the dumbest of questions, for we know our universe is all the matter and energy that inhabits space and time. It began with the big bang almost 14 billion years ago.

But many cosmologists now believe there are other “universes”, and perhaps our universe arose from one of them. The whole group of universes, if there are indeed more than one, is commonly called the multiverse.

So what caused it all?

It is a natural question to ask where did our universe come from? What caused it? Most people in the world believe in a God or some supernatural force, and I suppose most think that God had something to do with it all. But it isn’t quite that simple.

So let’s consider the bigger picture. What could be the explanation for all the matter and energy existing in space and time? What are the possibilities?

Cause or no cause?

Either something caused the universe to exist, or else it exists without any cause. That is simple logic. And it seems that there are two ways each of these possibilities could be imagined. Let’s look at the four possibilities:

1. No cause, it has always existed

Perhaps the multiverse doesn’t have a cause because it never began, it has always existed from infinite time past? But there are a number of reasons to think this isn’t the answer:

  1. There are many scientific hypotheses or models that address the beginning of the universe, and it turns out that most of them entail a beginning.
  2. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, everything is slowly running down, moving from a state of highly uneven temperature and distribution of matter, to a state of being homogeneous. If the universe was infinitely old, the universe would have already reached this state. The fact that it hasn’t shows that it cannot be infinitely old.
  3. Mathematically, it is impossible to count to infinity, so it seems to be equally impossible to count down from an infinite past time to now (though not all mathematicians agree on this). It seems that a chain of events like the universe cannot be infinitely old.
  4. Even if the universe was infinitely old, we still wouldn’t have an explanation of why it exists. And a hypothesis which cannot explain the facts is generally considered to be a poor hypothesis.

So this option doesn’t appear to help us answer the question of why the universe exists.

2. No cause, no explanation, it just happened

Perhaps the universe just began for no particular reason. In quantum physics, fundamental particles can appear apparently out of nothing for no apparent cause. So couldn’t the universe have been one gigantic quantum event?

Again, there are good reasons to suppose this isn’t a reasonable explanation.

In quantum events, the particle doesn’t appear out of nothing for no reason (despite some people portraying it this way). A quantum event happens because of a fluctuation in a quantum field, which is composed of energy and occupies space. So a quantum field, especially one powerful enough to create a universe, is far from nothing! A quantum field is already part of the universe or multiverse, and thus part of what we are trying to explain.

So this “explanation” turns out to be no explanation at all. It simply says that the universe appeared out of nothing for no reason. This is contrary to everything we know about the universe, where everything that happens has a cause of some kind. The idea of cause and effect is logical, and there is no reason to suppose that the beginning of the universe should be any different.

3. Perhaps the universe caused itself?

So it seems that the universe probably had a cause, but could it have caused itself?

It is hard to take this bizarre idea seriously. How could anything cause something if the cause doesn’t exist to do any causing? (That sentence is a bit of a mouthful! Perhaps you should read it again, slowly?)

Surely the universe had to first exist to cause something else …. or itself?

4. So perhaps something caused it?

This is the intuitive and simplest answer to our question. Something outside the universe or multiverse caused it to come into being. And because the multiverse contains all the physical matter and physical energy that exists in space and time (by our definition), then this cause must be non-physical and outside space and time.

Most people would call this “God”, but we might more carefully say it would have to be some kind of god or supernatural force (I can’t think of any other options). He, she or it would have created the universe out of nothing, which provides a sensible and understandable explanation for why the universe exists. Of course it’s not a total explanation, because we still don’t know why such a being might create. There’s more to come in this story!

This explanation make sense. It conforms to our experience that everything in this universe has a cause, and so it satisfies our sense of logic. But there are still unanswered questions, like ….

So what caused God?

If everything we experience has a cause, surely God also must have a cause, right? Doesn’t this take us right back to square 1? There are two answers to this.

(1) Our experience is of the physical world. Everything in the physical world has a cause. But we don’t know if this applies to something non-physical like God.

(2) Everything we experience is “contingent”. That is, it had a beginning, it was caused by something else, and it could have been different. We can always ask why is it the way it is? The only way we are going to find an explanation for the universe is to find something that isn’t contingent, isn’t dependent on something else and couldn’t have been different. Clearly this isn’t the universe, which (the cosmologists tell us) could have been different for all we know, and is (as we have seen) dependent on whatever caused it. But it seems much more plausible that an eternal God, outside the universe, might be non-contingent, not dependent on anything else for its existence.

So it seems to make more sense to look to God as the ultimate explanation or ultimate fact than to look to the universe.

So where does this leave us?

We have looked at four options. None of them is certain, but I can’t think of any other options, so we must choose from among them. Most of them provide no explanation at all, have little or no evidence to support them, seem wildly improbable.

But the “God” explanation is at least based on logic and our common experience of cause and effect. It provides an explanation of why the universe exists. Thus it makes more sense, and surely must be more likely, than any of the other options.

Putting it another way: if there is no God, there’d be no reason to expect a universe to exist, but if there is a God, it wouldn’t be a surprise that the universe exists.

As Terence McKenna said: “Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing.”

One step at a time

It would be an enormous overstatement to consider this a “proof” of God’s existence. But the universe is one piece of evidence that seems to make God’s existence more probable.

Photo: NASA

12 reasons to believe in God

July 25th, 2019

It’s an age-old question. Is there really a God?

But it’s also a modern question.

Most cultures have evolved with a religion. For those living in that culture, believing in that religion was part of life. Not really to be questioned all that much.

But in modern western cultures at least, we have moved beyond blind acceptance, believing by faith in what has been passed down to us.

We demand evidence. We ask for proof. We need reasons.

12 reasons: evidence from an inquisitive life

I am a child of that modern quest for answers with substance.

I wasn’t raised with a strong belief, but for half a century I have searched out and questioned the evidence for God. I have rejected some beliefs and some reasons and accepted others.

I don’t believe there is proof of God, any more than there is proof of very much in life.

But I have concluded that God exists and he has left us clues to him being there and being interested in us. I believe we can follow the clues if we are interested, and find the answers. Answers that ring true and are satisfying.

None of my 12 reasons are new. Few of them are compelling on their own. But they are personal to me, for I have read, pondered, searched and discussed each one of them. And together they give me good reason to believe in God and to find in him purpose and meaning.

I share them hoping that you’ll also find them cumulatively helpful.

12 reasons: the series

So over the next weeks and months I’ll be trying to condense this evidence down to 12 short outlines, each with follow-up reading if you are interested.

What’s not to like?

But wait, there’s more!

After I’ve completed this series, I’ll have a look at reasons NOT to believe in God.

Begin the series

1. Why does the universe exist?

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Can you tell me why you believe?

May 8th, 2019

I sometimes get asked for the reasons why I believe. Sometimes it is curiosity, sometimes people are desperate to know why they should believe.

Occasionally people ask what sort of reasons are good, with the implication that some reasons are somehow inappropriate.

So here’s the results of many years of thought and reading …..

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Claim a fallacy and win the argument?

March 12th, 2019

The internet sure has opened up space for people to argue. We’ve got plenty of quantity but not always so much quality!

Often an argument is met with the claim that the proponent has committed a fallacy. Sometimes the accusation is true, but not always.

Here are three alleged fallacies I have come across recently. I wonder how you think they stand up?

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Did the universe have a beginning? Did it arise from nothing?

February 24th, 2019

I suppose it is quite natural to look at the night sky, especially away from city lights, and be in awe. When we learn that the universe apparently contains something like 100 billion galaxies, each with about 100 billion stars, our amazement and awe increase.

It is also natural to ask where it all came from. Has the universe always existed? What caused it?

And of course these questions lead naturally to the question: Is this all evidence of God?

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How strong is the Kalam Cosmological argument?

May 2nd, 2018

A friend and I have been discussing the Kalam Cosmological argument recently, so I thought it might be worth posting about it.

The Kalam argument has been used many times by philosopher William Lane Craig in public debates, with some success. His use of the argument is itself much debated on the internet. I have summarised the argument and its main objections in The Cosmological argument, which I have recently updated.

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How can a christian possibly believe in something as impossible as the resurrection of Jesus?

April 1st, 2018

It’s Easter again, which evokes different responses in different people. Some people think about the claim that, after he was executed, Jesus was raised to life by God.

Of all the critical comments I have received on this blog, criticism of christian belief about the resurrection of Jesus is one of the most common and most vehement.

Let’s look at some of the arguments that have been offered to me.

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