Monday, January 08, 2007

The Scientific Assault on Free Will

John Rose at First Things has some worthwhile comments regarding a NY Times article about science and free will. Apparently, there are a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that free will is simply an illusion, a trick played on the mind by the mind. According to neurobiologist Mark Hallett, "Free will does exist, but it's a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free... The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don't have it."

Someone should remind these scientists (and the NY Times, as well) that the debate over free will is not one that can be resolved by science. Why? Because science itself does not have free will when it comes to this question; that is, science is forced by its own presuppositions to conclude that humans lack free will. This is nicely illustrated in the article by Dr. Silberstein, who notes that "every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random." But these are the only two possibilities that science allows itself to consider! Science regards all systems as machines whose behavior is determined by fixed laws of cause and effect, and any system whose behavior is not predicable in this fashion is labeled as "random". Thus, when approaching the brain, the neurobiologist is essentially forced by the scientific method to think of this organ as a machine, a fancy computer that (by definition) lacks free will in any meaningful sense. It's not surprising, then, that they have found some aspects of what they were looking for, but the overall conclusion was determined in advance (but then again, that shouldn't surprise the scientists, because they lack free will themselves).

Quoting Dr. Silberstein, the article goes on to say that "if human actions can't be caused and aren't random, 'it must be - what - some weird magical power?'... People who believe already that humans are magic will have no problem with that." So apparently anyone who believes that there is a qualitative difference between a human being and a machine is guilty of "magical" thinking. Of course, this is a not-so-veiled shot at those religious types who stubbornly cling to the notion that humans have an intrinsic dignity greater than birds, bacteria, and PCs. Indeed, as Rose points out, it seems that the urge to expose the "free will delusion" is largely motivated by the desire to debunk religion. After all, if there is no free will, then there can be no soul or spirit, or so the argument. But this is not a good strategy, as the lack of human free will is hardly incompatible with theism; in fact, there are various strands of Christian theology, in particular Calvinism, that have long advocated determinism. The findings of biologists that some of our actions and decisions are out of our control would come as no surprise to Calvin or Luther (the latter even wrote a book entitled "The Bondage of the Will").

What the scientists fail to realize is that the real casualty of their assault on free-will will be humanism, not theism. If there is no free will, then there really is no democracy, no ethics, no art or literature, no science, no love. If free will is an illusion, then all these other things are illusions too. Is this really what the scientists want? I somehow doubt it. But in their quest to destroy religion, they should take care lest they accidentally destroy humanity instead.

P.S. The article also contains some baffling comments from Daniel Dennett, in which he essentially claims that "free will and determinism can coexist". Anyone who understands what he's saying here, please help me out. He makes no sense to me.


Macht said...

An example from Dennett that I think helps explain his view is that of a man walking through a field during a thunderstorm. If the lightning strikes in the field were random, the man would have no way of avoiding getting hit by lightning. If, however, they were deterministic, he may be able to predict where they would hit and thus avoid being in those places at that time. In this case, Dennett argues, determinism would help increase the person's freedom, since he would be free avoid being hit. If the lightning strikes were random, his fate would be left up to chance. This is what the article means when it says "causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan."

Essentially, Dennett seems to equate freedom with predictability and the ability to judge what will happen in the future.

Thomas Adams said...

I guess that makes some sense to me. However, it seems like your analogy is more focused on whether or not lightning has free will, while the human's freedom is not addressed. I agree that the deterministic behavior of certain natural phenomenon is a good thing, as it allows humans to "look ahead and plan". But doesn't the word "plan" necessarily imply that the planner has some degree of free will?

Dennett seems to assume that there are only two options for the universe (and thus the brain): pure determinism or pure randomness. But can't there be a middle ground that still allows for human free will?

Patrik said...

A finnish philosopher (Hannes Nykänen) has written that to try to prove or disprove free will is like trying to sneak a peak of oneself in a mirror. I think that is pretty much to the point.

Lee said...

I can't access the NYT article, but Dennett wrote a book on free will some years back called "Elbow Room." Essentially he argues that meaningful freedom simply means having a certain level of flexibility and reflectiveness in our responses to the world, and that this is compatible with determinism at the physical level. In other words, a human being is free because she has a repetoire of responses of a certain level of complexity.

I don't buy it, but there you are.

Kevin said...

I have been led to think about free-will lately and I can’t come to any conclusion about whether free-will exists or not. In my younger days, I used to believe that we have free-will but Augustine’s view on sin and Luther’s comments on our inability to come to Christ without the Spirit’s enabling us to do so changed my view on free-will. I am no longer sure. I can still see the existence of a form of will but in order for our will to be truly free, it must be under the Lordship of Christ. As Patrick’s previous comment from Nykänen, that “to try to prove or disprove free will is like trying to sneak a peak of oneself in a mirror.” I tried looking at myself in the mirror the other day but I didn’t look too good. That’s how I see my own free-will (that is…if it exists).

Robin said...

Thank you for this article. I have been exercising my Apologetics muscles recently by following the people (Dennett, Dawkins, etc) and their "simple man" arguments against the existance of God, and became stuck on the idea of "Magical Thinking" - it seems such a resonable criticism, a normal human behaviour that "causes" religious patterns to emerge over time with use.

Thank you all for setting me straight and reming me of the presumptions behind their model of the mind - we have no free will, there are only a few possible outcomes of any scientific investigation.

Bravo! Keep up the good work brothers, I'm adding this feed to my reader.