ARGUMENTS AGAINST FREE WILL – PART III – SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE (CONT’D)

Last time we looked at the scientific evidence against human free will and today we will look at some opposing positions. Alfred Mele in a recent issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine2 argues persuasively that the significance of the neurological experiments is exaggerated. He participated in a Libet-style experiment and has doubts about Libet’s conclusions both with respect to the timing of decisions and the arbitrary rather than reasoned nature of the actions of the participants. Even if such decisions are made unconsciously, he believes it is a stretch to then argue that decisions requiring sustained information gathering and reflection are similarly unconscious. He discusses restrictivism, a theory which suggests free will only applies when “we are tempted to act contrary to what we believe we ought to do, morally speaking.”

Mele also takes on the argument that even if such actions are not unconscious, the mere fact that we can demonstrate that they are the result of brain activity rather than a soul means they are not free. His counter argument is based on psychological studies that most people do not feel we need to have a soul to have free will.

Roger Penrose looks at a physicist’s approach to free will. He asserts that just because the universe is a well-behaved place does not mean that human actions are determined merely by antecedent causes and the environment. He suggests that the intricate networks of neurons releasing neurotransmitters from microtubules may indicate an entangled quantum system within and between cells. This may permit a fully material system to have a non-computable element. He also believes that this type of quantum consciousness could involve the entire brain – sort of quantum consciousness.3

It seems the scientific arguments for and against free will are unlikely to demonstrate convincingly that humans lack or have free will for now, though it remains for each individual to reach his own conclusion. Next we will look at the philosophical arguments in favor of free will.

 

1Johnson, David Kyle, The Big Questions of Philosophy. The Great Courses. Lecture 17.

2Mele, Alfred, Is Free Will Dead (Again)? In The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 83, 4th Quarter 2018, Pages 80-86.

3Gimbel, Steven, Quantum Consciousness, in Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Steven Gimbel, The Teaching Company, 2015, Lecture 13.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST FREE WILL – PART III – SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I have visited thirty one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

 

Last time we looked at determinism as an argument against free will and noted that its undeniable  corollary that no one would be responsible for his actions undermines that line of reasoning. However some philosophers persist, drawing on science, particularly neuroscience, as evidence that the human belief in free choice is an illusion.

David Kyle Johnson presents the case quite well.1 First the brain appears to be the decision-making center for man and it is simply a collection of neurons wired together in a such way as to determine our behavior. Brain structure and function is determined by genetics and environment both of which originally are not determined by oneself. Also emotions work through the brain’s limbic system and often override the inhibitory signals coming from the cortex or thinking portion of the brain. Joseph DeLoux, a New York University neuroscientist asserts that the emotions therefore control most of our actions and only afterward do we rationalize those decisions.

Johnson also reviews work done in the 1960’s by Hans Helmut Kornhubeer and Luder Deecke where it was possible to measure brain activity before a decision occurred, and the processes involved happened before the decisions in a part of the brain unrelated to conscious deliberation. In the 1980’s Benjamin Liber showed this readiness potential occurs 0.35 seconds before a decision is made.

In 2008, John-Dylan Haynes did an experiment where he found unconscious parts of the brain were busy working to initiate actions seconds before a stimulus which required an individual’s choice. Itzhak Fried showed in a similar experiment that neurons observed directly were unconsciously ‘deciding’ on an action before the conscious decision with consistency that allowed an 80-90% predictive accuracy. The implication of these studies is that the conscious decision is an afterthought and that free will is an illusion.

(continued next post)

ARGUMENTS AGAINST FREE WILL – PART II – EMPIRICAL

“We must believe in free will – we have no choice.” – Issac Bashevis Singer.

In our last blog we examined metaphysical arguments against the possibility of free will, and found them unpersuasive. Today we will examine the stronger empirical argument. At the foundation of this argument is the concept of determinism or a completely mechanistic universe. Empirically whenever we experience an event we expect there to be a cause, and in many cases the cause is evident. That cause is itself the effect of an antecedent cause and so forth backwards presumably indefinitely. Hard determinism holds that all events in the universe fall into such chains of cause and effect including apparently volitional human actions. The determinist does not claim to be able to demonstrate detailed chains of causation, but asserts such chains exist in nature universally. Typically determinists offer scientific support of the theory rather than proof per se.

Hard determinism effectively eliminates moral responsibility for one’s actions as they are not the result of personal choice. This is so contrary to human experience, that the best counterargument is a reductio ad absurdum. Since the unavoidable conclusion is that no one is responsible for his actions, no punishment or praise is due to anyone for any action. Murder is not morally reprehensible and personal sacrifice is not praiseworthy.

Few philosophers are willing to go this far so a milder version known as soft determinism has developed. In this model, human actions are not externally constrained or impeded and are the results of decisions influenced by moods, desires, and choices which themselves have antecedent causes. This position suffers from the problem of hard determinism; if each action is the result of one’s choices, moods, or desires, but those are determined by antecedent causes then the actor still does not seem to be responsible for the action. Richard Taylor describes the implication:

“It is hardly the description of a free and responsible agent. It is the perfect description of a puppet. To render a man your puppet, it is not necessary forcibly to constrain the motions of his limbs after the fashion that real puppets are moved. A subtler but no less effective means of making a man your puppet would be to gain complete control of his inner states, and ensuring, as the theory of soft determinism does ensure, that his body will move in accordance with them.”1

Some philosophers argue that in fact we are not directly responsible for our actions although society may decide to assign such responsibility. Their position tends to rely on scientific evidence that supports deterministic views of behavior. We will look briefly at their position in the next post.

1Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, page 50.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST FREE WILL – PART I – METAPHYSICAL

“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.” – Stephen Hawking.

 

 

Last time we examined the concept of causation which at least empirically seems undeniable. But if all things and events in nature are caused, then human actions and decisions must also be caused. The question we address today is whether this is consistent with free will. As in the discussion of the existence of God, there are several classic arguments for and against free will.

But first we will distinguish voluntary from involuntary activity. Biological functions appear to represent varying levels of involuntary activity. The beating of the heart, circulation of blood, digestion, production of urine, and internal chemical processes are absolutely involuntary or perhaps as Aristotle says non-voluntary. Some senses also are also beyond volition especially touch and perhaps hearing, while others such as sight, taste, and smell can be controlled to some extent by closing the eyes or mouth or by holding the nose. We appear to be able to time sleep, but its eventuality seems involuntary. Many human drives such as hunger and thirst appear spontaneously, but can be resisted. The vast majority of the remainder of human actions are more typically considered voluntary, that is due to conscious choice rather than biologic necessity or function. The remainder of our discussion will refer to these traditionally voluntary human actions and omit the biologically based ones.

I will use Mortimer Adler’s definition of free will or natural freedom as “being able to choose otherwise no matter what one has chosen in any particular instance.”1 On the face of it  we all believe we have such freedom, but in fact, this is not self-evident. Arguments against free will follow two basic formats: metaphysical and empirical/scientific.

The first metaphysical argument is based on time and dates back to early Christian debates on predestination which will be the subject of a later blog. However the argument comes down to this: if events occur in time and if the course of time allows only one future to exist, then only one course of events is possible and hence one cannot have chosen otherwise in any given instance. That is, all events in the universe are instantiated in its single future. This fits the concept of the universe in eternalism, but not presentism (see TIME – PART II – THE METAPHYSICS OF TIME  published on this site June 12, 2019).

A second metaphysical argument refererence causation; if human actions are not caused, they must be random and hence do not represent free will as such. Believers in free will are forced to respond by asserting the metaphysically unprovable theory of free agency; that is events can be caused by either a series of antecedent causes or by the simple initiation of unforced agents. We will entertain this in more detail in a later post.

By and large, most philosophers and most people will not be convinced by these metaphysical arguments against free will. Empirical and scientific arguments appear more challenging as we will take up next time.

1Adler, Mortimer J., Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985. ISBN 0-02-064120-6. p.147.

CAUSATION

“The same motives always produce the same actions; The same events follow from the same causes”- David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

 

In man’s phenomenologic experience of the world,  one  question  inevitably arises: Why? Or perhaps more accurately, why is this object here or why does that event occur? By trial and error and observation, the infant and child learn that things and events appear to have causes, though of course this is a human projection of an idea onto reality. There is no metaphysical reason that things and events should require an explanation; rather this emerges from the human mind. Metaphysics might allow that things and events simply are, but of course, empirically, causation is confirmed over and over in virtually every aspect of life.

Aristotle identifies four dimensions of the causes of things: (1) material – its make up, (2) formal – i.e. the form it takes, (3) efficient – the process by which the thing or event comes to be, and (4) final cause –the end or purpose of the thing. So a house has wood and bricks as its material cause;  a blueprint as its formal cause; the construction crew as its efficient cause; and the need for a home and shelter as its final cause.  In nature, the final cause is usually closely related to formal cause and is the least apparent compared to human creations.

Francis Bacon, the first major philosopher of science, believes that the study of final causes is inappropriate in physics, and later thinking increasingly moves away from all but efficient cause which is reworked as the mechanical explanations of things – dependent only on matter and motion, especially motion producing motion, instantiated in the principle of cause and effect. David Hume, the great 18th century Scottish philosopher, argues somewhat convincingly that we cannot prove cause and effect, rather it is an illusion imposed on reality by human assumptions after repeated observation of similar events in ‘constant conjunction’  – for example the movement of a billiard ball following contact by another moving billiard ball. Nevertheless Hume argues for causation in nature and denies that anything happens by chance or that anything can be uncaused.

The mathematical predictability of mechanics in physics starting with Galileo and Newton and the elegant explanations of changes in biologic organisms described first by Charles Darwin and A.W. Russell seemed to verify the mechanical explanation of reality. Different fields of science converge on the simple and secure principle: events in nature are caused. The reluctant corollary: since man is part of nature, then his actions too must be caused. But is this conclusion inconsistent with free will? Next time we will look closer at the classic arguments.

FREE WILL AND FATE – INTRODUCTION

   

“But still I don’t know quite what to believe!                                                                             For there have been great scholars, many a one,                                                                   Who say that destined fate we must receive,                                                                  Yet others prove this must not be done.                                                                                   Add that free choice hath been denied to none                                                                   Alack, so sly they are these scholars old,                                                                                 I can’t make out what doctrine I should hold.”                                                           – –  –  –  – Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida, Book IV, 139.

Now we turn to one of the oldest debates in Western philosophy, does man or for that matter any living creature have free will, the choice to act in the way it prefers, or are all actions determined by outside forces or chains of causation? On the face of it, most of us will say we do have free will. If I raise my left arm right now for no particular reason, it was my conscious choice to do so. But very good philosophers have strong arguments, not all sophistical, against that action being purely volitional. This section will parse out the arguments for and against free will.

But there is a larger issue that emerges out of this discussion – the subjects of fate and determinism which affect not only us as individuals but humanity as a whole; projecting us into questions of human destiny. Therefore this section deals with the fundamental reality of human striving, the course of civilization and the future of our species. It is essential to our formulation of the meaning of not just any individual life, but of every human life ever.

This section will be divided into the following specific topics:

  1. Causation.
  2. Arguments for and against free agency
  3. Determinism and Fate
  4. Fortune in the philosophical understanding of life.
  5. Theological concepts of predestination
  6. The existentialist theory of freedom
  7. Human destiny
  8. Synthesis

As in the sections on good and evil, God, soul, and death and immortality, no philosopher can offer a definitive answer in these matters, and the point of this investigation is only to help the reader develop a lucid view for planning the best possible path in life. Join me next post as we begin with an examination of causation.

CURRENT READING – DEISM (continued)

Last time we began our discussion of Kerry Waters book, Revolutionary Deists, by looking at the basic tenets of deism, its critique of Christianity, and its political posture. Today we will look at the causes of its decline and ponder its legacy. Walters tells us deism declined in America after the death of its leading voices. Its basis in reason and science was seen as intellectually elitist – “the thinking person’s religion.” Romanticism and transcendentalism which dominated the 19th century arose in direct opposition to Enlightenment philosophy and the complete reliance on rationality.

Philosophically, it began with David Hume’s attack on causation as metaphysically suspect – mere inference due to the human mind’s propensity to see as causal two events that are contiguous, sequential, and constantly conjoined in experience – hence undermining the mechanistic description of nature. Moreover the deist view was ultimately unsatisfying with its austere and indifferent universe and its remote, uninvolved image of God.  Reason also struggled to explain human moods, passion, and intuition. Immanuel Kant’s vision of the uniqueness of humans in nature in possession of freedom contradicted mechanistic explanations of behavior. Perhaps most damaging to deism were philosophers such as Baron Henri D’Holbach who in his Systems of Nature, argued a mechanical cosmos needed no God as explanation and human reason would never identify an origin of the universe nor would a first cause contribute significantly to our understanding of it.

Deism’s legacies were its effect on Christianity and political thought. Christianity reacted to its attacks by de-emphasizing supernaturalism, adopting the naturalist arguments of the deists to defend itself, and using reason in religious inquiry and biblical exegesis. Some denominations began to focus on symbolical or allegorical rather than literal interpretations of Scripture. But deism’s greater contributions to modernity may have been its humanism and its support for tolerance and equality. Many of its political beliefs such as religious freedom, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech and press were incorporated into the American Constitution.2

But I think the Enlightenment and deism have a larger place in the individual search for human meaning. Their belief in human rationality and disbelief in the supernatural have been validated in spite of Hume’s arguments. Trust in  science allowed man to conquer diseases such as small pox and polio, develop modern technology, and land a man on the moon. Individuals lacking a formal religious orientation can find footing in the concept of ‘worship of the deity’ as man’s exercise of godlike qualities – reason and benevolence. The rational and empirical investigation of nature can  still  be the making of a viable theology, and the examination of one’s conscience and the virtuous treatment of fellow humans still works as a foundation of ethics.

Finally thoughtful people will need to come to terms with the question of the origin to the universe. Deism offers no less reasonable an answer than any formal religion and provides an ecumenical approach.

 

1Walters, Kerry, Revolutionary Deists, Prometheus Books, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-1-61614-190-5, pages 7-12.

2Ibid, pages 245-273.

CURRENT READING – DEISM

Revolutionary Deists by Kerry Walters

 

“All that we see, about, abroad,

What is it but nature’s God?

In meaner works discover’d here

No less than in the starry sphere…

His system fix’d on general laws

Bespeaks a wise creating cause;

Impartially he rules mankind,

And all on this globe we find.

– Philip Freneau, On the Universality and Other Attributes of the God of Nature.

In addition to philosophy, I have tremendous interest in the American Revolution, so what good luck when on my recent trip to Michigan I came across this book at Black River Books in South Haven. The author, Kerry Walters, is the William Bittinger Chair of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is author or editor of more than twenty books with intriguing titles such as Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed.

He explores American deism especially as elaborated by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer, and Philip Freneau.

Deism, he tells us, is a religious worldview which sprang from the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, natural philosophy (science), and experience. Its central tenants are:

  1. Reality is the creation of a perfectly benevolent and rational deity (the ‘Supreme Architect’).
  2. Physical reality conforms to universal, immutable, and absolute laws of nature set in motion by God and the discovery and comprehension of these laws is within the reach of the human mind.
  3. In coming to know reality, man gains a deeper appreciation of God’s characteristics.
  4. The highest form of worship of the deity is in the exercise of godlike qualities – reason and benevolence.
  5. The rational and empirical investigation of nature is the basis of ‘true’ theology, and the examination of one’s conscience and virtuous treatment of fellow humans is the foundation of ethics.

Deists considered the Christianity of the time as pernicious in its avowal of the utter corruptibility of man, encouragement of intolerance, persecution of dissent, hampering of scientific progress, and obstruction to social justice. At the political level, deists were strict republicans who believed in freedom of religion and of the press, universal education, and separation of church and state. They denounced slavery, the abuse of Native Americans, and the subjugation of women and sought to reform institutions that bred intolerance.1

Clearly deist thinking was incorporated into the political philosophy of early America and the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, both of which inspired other nations. Their defense of the repressed seems surprisingly fresh 250 years later. But of course deism declined in the following century; next time we will examine why and explore its legacy further.

(CONTINUED NEXT POST)

CURRENT READING – GOD AND PHYSICS (continued)

Schroeder comes to a different conclusion regarding the Big Bang. He rewinds time back towards the singularity to about 10-43 seconds (that’s a second divided into 1 followed by 43 zeros parts) after the Big Bang when the temperature of the universe is 1032 degrees Kelvin, too hot for matter to exist, so in fact the universe is pure energy. The problem is then clear: “as the theories of the early universe reach back to the beginning, they describe a condition in which all the matter is pressed into a space of zero size and infinite density. Infinity cannot be dealt with quantitatively and so cosmologists cannot describe the conditions of our absolute origin in real terms. Only by working in a dimension of imaginary time, a concept that does not translate into a dimension of the world in which we live, can the very instant of the beginning be described mathematically. But if we relate to real-world dimensions, that zero point of time, the beginning, is beyond the grasp of mathematics and physics.”3

He repeats his misgivings on the mathematics used by physicists in describing the Big Bang a few pages later: “In other words, although there is a theoretical solution in the world of physics to this problem of the beginning, in terms that are perceivable to humans, there is no solution.”4

Schroeder does not directly address quantum mechanics as an explanation for a spontaneous universe, but a quote in another context may indicate his likely position, “Except at the nuclear level, where quantum mechanics can alter statistical probability, the very laws of physics that predict the formation of stars, galaxies, and elements rely on the occurrence of the probable over the improbable. Without this there is no basis for physics…Although in theory an event may occur, statistics have told us that in reality when the probability of an event occurring is very, very, small, then there is essentially zero chance of it occurring.”

Schroeder reverts to theology to explain the mathematically inexplicable, citing not only Genesis, but also four great Jewish biblical scholars. The most incisive of these scholars is Nahminides who postulates the origin of the universe from “a speck of space, the size of a mustard grain”6  – a quite remarkable guess, if it is one, for the 13th century.  He postulates that the contraction of God’s divine being is the basis of the Big Bang and the creation of the universe ex nihilo (from nothing).

These two descriptions leave the philosopher in a quandary. Schroeder may of course be biased towards his faith and presenting his arguments to confirm his beliefs while withholding arguments that contradict them. However, Hawking’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the theoretical and statistically improbable appearance of an infinitely dense, infinitely small, singularity at a temperature over 1032 Kelvin using quantum theory and imaginary dimensions and time does not appear entirely intellectually honest either. I respect his initial disclosure of his belief (faith?) in science and its laws, but wonder if in this case he should acknowledge he is debating metaphysics rather than physics. The reader will have to decide that for himself.

1Wikepedia.

2Hawking, Stephen, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, New York, 2018. ISBN 9781984819192, pages 23-38.

3Schroeder, Gerald L., Genesis and the Big Bang, Bantam Books, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-553-35413-2, page 63.

4Ibid, page 66.

5Ibid, page 159.

6Ibid, page 65.

 

CURRENT READING – GOD AND PHYSICS

Brief Questions to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Genesis and the Big Bang – Gerald Schroeder, Ph.D.

 

“Study astronomy and physics if you desire to comprehend the relationship between the world and God’s management of it.” – Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed.

 

On a recent trip to Michigan, I purchased two books written by physicists that address the existence of God but come to opposite answers. The first is by Stephen Hawking who probably needs no introduction. He was a mathematician, theoretical physicist, and cosmologist at the University of Cambridge and considered by most people as the second greatest theoretical physicist of the 20th century just behind Einstein.

The second book is by Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jewish applied physicist who received his degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a former member of the United States Energy Commission.  He is currently a professor at Aish Ha Torah College in Israel.1

Hawking’s book begins with a chapter titled: “Is there a God?”2 His thesis begins by expressing his belief in science wherein “there are certain laws that are always obeyed.” He then says it is reasonable to argue these laws are the work of God, but that this is more a definition of God then a proof of his existence. And this is not what most people mean by ‘God.’ He does not believe God serves as an explanation of the origin of the universe, rather “the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” The universe consists of matter and energy (which are interchangeable) and space – all of which Hawking says came out of the Big Bang which itself came from nothing.

How can that be? Hawking explains that the laws of physics require the universe to have negative energy and the Big Bang created both the positive and negative energy whose sum adds up to zero, much as if you make a pile of dirt by digging  you end up with both a mound and a hole. That negative energy still exists in space and balances out the equation. Also the laws of quantum mechanics tell us particles like protons “can appear at random.” Therefore “if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it,” and “the laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.”

Last he argues that since the Big Bang starts essentially as an infinitesimally small and infinitesimally dense point or essentially a black hole and since time stops at black holes, time does not exist before the Big Bang hence does not require a cause, that is, the question of whether God created the universe makes no sense as there is no time before the Big Bang.

(CONTINUED NEXT POST)