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.