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:
- We are the agents who actually make a conscious choice (it wasn’t just an accident or an unconscious reaction).
- The choice is voluntary (we are not coerced or forced, e.g. by a threat or by hypnotism).
- We have a reason or goal that leads to the choice (i.e. the action isn’t just random).
- 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.
We have looked at how the universe gives us strong clues that God exists. Now it is time to come closer to home, and examine how humanity offers clues to God.
We know everything else in the universe from the outside, but we know ourselves from the inside. That inside knowledge raises some perplexing questions.
I know what it feels like to be me
We are all different. We all know what it feels like to be “us”, but we know much less about what it feels like to be someone else. What looks, sounds or tastes attractive to me may not affect you in the same way, and we can’t always understand why.
Our brains are active, keeping us alive and well by reminding us we are hungry or cold or in danger. But we are also introspective most of the time we are awake. Thoughts like: “What are they thinking about me?”, “I wish I could remember her name.” and “Do I look silly with this haircut?” can fill our minds.
This is what it is like for us to be human. We are conscious of ourselves, and it seems like we look out on a world where other people inhabit their bodies and look out at us.
The science of the brain and mind
But neuroscience tells a different story.
Science measures and observes the physical world, and in our brains, this means electrical and chemical processes. And neuroscientists find no “self” in these processes. Instead, they say, the reality is the processes, and the sense of self is just an illusion. As famed biologist Francis Crick wrote: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
Crick is not alone in his thinking. Psychology Professor Steven Pinker: “There’s considerable evidence that the unified self is a fiction – that the mind is a congeries of parts acting asynchronously, and that it is only an illusion that there is a president in the Oval Office of the brain who oversees the activity of everything.”
And Psychology Professor Susan Blackmore says: “there’s no room for a thing called a self”. We feel we are the same person that was around 5 years ago, but, she says: “the so-called me now is just another reconstruction. There was another one half an hour ago, and there’ll be another one, but they’re not really the same person, they’re just dust happening in the universe.”
But the same neuroscientists often admit that our consciousness, our sense of self, is a real mystery. They can objectively study our brain processes when we feel pleasure or pain, but the processes cannot explain what the pain feels like, for that is a subjective experience that can only be known from the inside.
Susan Blackmore again: “How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass?”
Biologist Richard Dawkins agrees: “Neither Steven Pinker nor I can explain human subjective consciousness… We don’t know. We don’t understand it.”
The scientists can see no evolutionary reason why we should have a sense of self, for we could survive and reproduce just as well without it.
…. and disagreements
But other thinkers are critical of these conclusions, arguing that science only addresses the physical world, and so is unable to detect the self. It sees the wood but not the trees (so to speak). If there is a non-physical explanation for consciousness and self, science is not equipped to see it.
There is clearly a difference between saying “someone is sick” and saying “I am sick”. The brain processes may be the same in both cases, but the subjective experience is different. That difference is what it means to be “us” and not someone else. So, it seems, we can easily understand and experience what it is to be a conscious self, we simply cannot explain it scientifically.
Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard: “The mind … remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet is is … real”
Even those who think “self” is an illusion often conclude that it is impossible for humans to live without a sense of self.
Finding an explanation
So science is unable to explain what we all experience without reducing it to an illusion, and what we experience cannot be confirmed by science to be real. How should we resolve this?
Simplifying slightly, there are two basic views.
Naturalism is the philosophical view that the natural or physical world is all there is. Science works well within naturalism and more or less assumes it is true.
If naturalism is true, then our sense of self must be an illusion, and the physical brain processes must totally explain our minds, consciousness and self. We may feel like there’s more to being human than that, but we would be mistaken. We just have to learn to live with it.
But if our sense of self is real, if we humans are more than the chemicals that make up our bodies and brains, and the chemical and electrical processes in our brains, then it looks like something more than naturalism is required to explain these things.
This conclusion can be developed in two directions. Some philosophers and neuroscientists believe we must somehow enlarge our understanding of “natural” to include our conscious experience. They don’t seem to know how we can do this, but they believe it is necessary to provide a true picture of the reality of being human.
But we can explain our common experience if we go beyond the natural, to the supernatural or the spiritual, areas where science cannot take us. Perhaps we humans are more than physical because we were created by God to be living conscious selves? This conclusion is resisted by most scientists because it cannot be observed and measured, but it explains what science cannot explain.
So we face a choice. Naturalism cannot explain what we all experience as human beings. So either we must reject naturalism or we must reject the reality of what we all experience and call it an illusion.
One way to judge an idea is whether it explains reality. Naturalism provides a scientific explanation, but doesn’t explain what we all experience as reality. However believing that we are created by God explains the reality and the science too.
One step at a time
To me, this all makes theism a little more likely and naturalism a little less likely. On its own, perhaps, it is a small step. But as we’ll see in the next few posts in this 12 reasons series, the choice between naturalism and theism has some far-reaching implications.
Nevertheless, after looking at three reasons so far, we have evidence that God created this universe for a purpose, and he seems to have endowed us humans with a sense of self that is crucial to being human. Each step adds a little to the puzzle.
And that isn’t the end of the story! Stay tuned for more on what it means to be human.
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This page in brief ….
Neuroscientists tend to conclude that the processes in our brains follow known physical laws, and so our thinking is determined by physics – meaning we don’t have genuine free choice. But our experience is that we do indeed make choices and they seem to be free most of the time, meaning when we make a choice, we have the possibility of making a different choice.
How can we resolve this apparent dilemma?
Our conclusion shapes our views of human nature, ethics and even the existence of God, so it is important to try to determine what’s true.
I have been having an interesting discussion on this with Travis (see Can we be human without free will?). I thought I’d share with other readers where the discussion has taken me, and why I think it is important.
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Have you ever wondered: if the cells in our bodies change every 10 years or so, am I still the same person I was 40 years ago?
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Do human beings have free will? Can we choose among different possible actions and beliefs? Or are we controlled by our genetics, or by blind physical processes in our brains?
And if we couldn’t make genuine choices, would that diminish us? Would we be any different from animals, except a little smarter … perhaps? And what would that say about human rights and ethics?
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Last post I looked at the differences between scientific thinking and religious thinking, at least as one social scientist sees it.
But where does religious thinking come from? Religious belief has been an important component in virtually every culture in human history. Why is this so?
Social scientists have studied this question extensively. Whether you believe in God, as I do, or you don’t, their conclusions help us understand religious belief and disbelief.
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Many people claim to have experienced God directly in some way. They claim to have seen a vision, or received divine healing, or they have had some deep spiritual experience, or God has turned their lives around in some way. They come from different religions, even from no religion and atheism. Sometimes the experience changes their lives completely, sometimes not so much.
The interesting question, of course, is whether God is really the origin of their experience, or not. If so, then life takes on a different meaning. But even if these experiences have natural causes, they are still of great interest to psychologists.
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Most of us like to think that our beliefs are logical and based on the evidence. But we also know that very few things can be known with certainty – after all, this may all be a dream.
But we need to live our lives and make choices. So sometimes we have to act despite the uncertainty.
I have been thinking how this relates to my beliefs (and yours too). How certain am I of my beliefs, and how much do I live with uncertainty?
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