Friday, June 29, 2018

Freely Willing and Chilling

I’ve always found the materialist position on free will amusing, because to believe in just the material you could not concede that there was an immaterial element to the person making decisions — whether we call it the soul or whatever mediates the natural to the supernatural.  Yet, neuroscience and psychology have come up with some evidence that we are not so free, so maybe it is us more “woo-woo” types who need to (unfreely) make concessions.

I enjoyed Alfred Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, because he doesn’t go down any “woo-woo” tracks as to what makes free will possible, but instead offers a lucid and decisive refutation to the recent evidence that attempts to undermine it.

Perhaps the best known evidence against free will comes from the experiments conducted by neurobiologist Benjamin Libet. Participants were asked to flex a wrist whenever they felt like doing so, and then to report on when they had become consciously aware of the urge to flex it while being wired to an EEG machine. The results found that that the activity in the motor cortex would begin an average of 300 milliseconds before the participant had a conscious sense of the willing to flex the wrist. So from the materialist view, this proves their case. If free will requires that conscious willing to do something is the cause of doing it, then we don’t act so freely.

Mele posits that there are issues with Libet’s approach: (1) we have no evidence that the specific kind of neural activity really is sufficient for flexing; and (2) the approach is quite artificial since it does not take account for active deliberation by participants.

Moreover, there is some nuance to the idea of free will, and as to whether or not we have it depends on what we mean by free will, and more importantly, where are we coming from? 

Mele admits the following definition raises the bar too high: “(1) Having free will requires making conscious choices that are entirely independent of preceding brain activity, and (2) Having free will requires being absolutely unconstrained by genetics and environment (including the situations in which we find ourselves).”

If you take that as the straw-man argument, then yes, you have to concede that we are soul-less mammals. But truthfully, we can see our actions as being more fluid, in that, we are pre-consciously making choices in each moment as to where we place our attention to act, and consciously deliberating more complex choices during other times. We are both conditioned and unconditioned, with mixed motivations in respects to many of the behaviors we enact.

Again, where are we coming from? There is also the possibility of coming from not our will, but God’s will. There is no “do-er” and yet we individually align to fulfill actions not necessarily of our own making. This is where it gets most interesting, and while Mele does not dare explore such terrain, it makes the contrast of “thy will be done” and “Thy will be done” all the more compelling.