See below for a Q & A of particular interest which was answered by John M. Beggs on the question of whether scientific results about the neural pathways for decision-making can be used to prove that we do not have free will.
How would you respond to the claims that free will is an illusion? I’ve looked over some of the “evidence” for this argument and have heard several lectures on this topic (http://media.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/WebMedia/FAR460%20Alexander.mp3 and http://media.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/WebMedia/FAR470%20Newsome.mp3) given professors and scientist at The Faraday Institute. I believe the strongest evidence for the “illusion” of free will is given through Libets experiment where the recording of the readiness potential is demonstrated in the subconscious before any conscious decision is made.
Editor’s Note: A good friend of ARS, Dr. John M. Beggs at Indiana University was asked to answer this question because it is in his area of expertise, which is neuroscience.
I hope you don’t mind John Oakes availing me of your email. I conduct research in neuroscience, so I might be able to offer some thoughts on this, but I should give the disclaimer that I work only with rodent brains, not human brains! John and I are friends and we are both interested in trying to advance a view of science that is consistent with Christianity.
Yes, the issue of free will is one where many have argued that the Bible is wrong. Libet’s experiments are usually the strongest evidence advanced against free will. I am still working on constructing a solid response to this, but here is what I have so far.
- Automatic vs. deliberate responses
Libet’s experiments looked at someone raising or lowering a finger – a fairly low level activity that does not engage much of the brain. When people get really good at something, the brain offloads the processing to “automatic” circuits. For example, when people first play tetris, brain scans indicate many areas light up. After becoming experts in tetris, very little of the brain lights up. Responses become almost automatic. Raising or lowering a finger probably does not engage much of the brain, and is certainly not a “moral” decision. Once something becomes automatic, it is not surprising to me that subcircuits in the brain largely regulate it. These subcircuits might operate somewhat outside of our conscious knowledge. Do I think much about the order in which I move my fingers when I tie my shoes? Do you think much about pushing the spicy burrito you just ate through your esophagus into your stomach? Hopefully not! But you might become consciously aware of it *after* it moves further along your digestive tract. In a similar manner, I am quite ready to accept that with such a low level action like lifting your finger you might not be very aware of it as it is occurring, and that your awareness might arrive somewhat later. This is what Libet reported: the prepotential occurred before a person indicated a desire to move, and before the EMG recording from the muscle.
However, deliberate actions are probably much more difficult to attribute to subcircuits and are much less likely to be automatic. Deliberate actions are also far more likely to have moral components. By a deliberate action, I mean something that takes willful behavior to execute. For example, many of us are prejudiced toward people from backgrounds different from ours. You can take this test to see how your reaction times to simple questions can vary significantly when given pictures of people from different ethnic groups: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ Almost everyone is racist to some degree, and our racist responses are very automatic and quick. But do my automatic responses rule me? Can I willfully overcome them? In my opinion, this is by far a more interesting question. It is also more relevant to the issue of free will and moral responsibility as it is described in the Bible. As I Christian, I acknowledge that I am a sinner and I take steps to try to overcome my sin. I have automatic urges to get angry, to be prejudiced, to curse, to lust, etc. But I can overcome these urges by exertion of my will. And note that will is most strongly tested when temptation is greatest, in other words, when automatic responses are most powerful. I think that it would be extremely interesting to scan some one’s brain as they were resisting a temptation. The prefrontal cortex would be involved in suppressing temptation, no doubt. But the timing of the activity would not be as much of an issue here. Those against free will might argue that the low-level, temptation signals occurred first, before the suppressive higher level signals. But in this case that would not be very relevant at all. What is more at issue is what part of the brain ultimately wins. This type of experiment gets to the heart of what I would call free will, and Libet’s experiments, while interesting, are much too facile to probe this. I do not believe that free will is beyond scientific investigation, I think it is. And I would be eager to see what turns up in the next few years. I just don’t think Libet’s experiments are very relevant to free will as it is discussed in the Bible.
- Free will and awareness
Another assumption in the work of Libet and others is that conscious awareness is a valid window on free will and the decision making process. But I am not so sure that this is always the case. It might be that we are aware of our trivial decisions, and that we are less aware of our important decisions as they unfold. For example, CS Lewis describes his conversion to Christianity in a way that shows that he was not always directly aware of what was going on. From this website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/people/cslewis_1.shtml ): The final stage in Jack’s conversion to Christianity took place three days later and was typically unconventional. He and Warren were travelling by motorcycle to Whipsnade zoo: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” Does this mean that Lewis did not decide to accept Christ? Of course he did, but the process was a very deep one that took quite a long time (he had many conversations with people like Tolkien over the years, and each one changed him a bit more) and may have involved parts of his psyche that he was not always aware of. I think we do not understand this type of process very well right now. Similar arguments could be made for one’s decision to marry the right woman, to enter a particular career, to live in a certain place, to adopt a child, etc. Each of these decisions can be momentous, and each can take a long time. Often, in decisions like these, we are not consciously aware of what is going on, yet we are clearly acting to abide by certain principles as we sift information. We often get “gut feelings” telling us whether something is right or not, although we may not be aware of how these feelings arise. This is complex, and I would be very suspicious of anyone who claimed to have identified the brain region or the brain state that was responsible for generating such decisions. We simply don’t understand enough at this point to say that decisions of this type are merely deterministic once you know the neurons involved. And I do not trust self-reported awareness as the only valid window on how these processes occur. It could be, for example, that my decision to practice being truthful was once something I was consciously aware of. After attempting to practice it for years, I am no longer aware of it as much. Yet this commitment to be truthful could exert a powerful subconscious influence on my unease in proceeding with a certain business deal. I might ultimately decide not to go ahead with the deal, but I might not be aware of why I chose not to. Was the decision a product of my free will? Yes, but perhaps it was not limited to a single point in time. My decision was really the product of many choices that I made over many years, and of which I am now not fully aware, but which nonetheless had an impact. My awareness might only capture a small fraction of all my mental processes that went into the decision. So self-awareness may not be the best way to assess free will, particularly in meaningful decisions.
My main stance against many people who use neuroscience to discredit Christianity is that they are overreaching the science in making their conclusions. Similarly weak arguments have been made about how the “God module” in our brains makes us religious, about how certain brain structures cause us to have particular sexual preferences, about how morality should be decided by looking at what the most recent evolutionary addition to our brains indicates, etc. All of these are very unscientific extrapolations.
A consequence of our poor understanding of the brain is that it is very hard to make positive arguments for Christianity right now based on neuroscience. This does not bother me much, though. Perhaps the day will come when we can do this. Right now, I think the best arguments for God from science come from cosmology. In neuroscience, though, I think we have to assume a mostly defensive posture over the next few years.
I hope this helps somewhat. John, please feel free to add your thoughts!
Cheers, John M. Beggs
Additional comment (from John Oakes)
We should be very cautious about accepting the conclusions of avowedly philosophical naturalists. I assume that their science is solid, more or less, but when scientists try to give a philosophical interpretation to their science, we should be very cautious. I believe that in the case of Libets’ work this is particularly true. The mere fact that the brain makes a certain category of what we can call “decisions” without going by way of the conscious thought pathways is light years away from proving scientifically that none of our decisions are made by conscious, morally/ethically affected thought. If we bear in mind that philosophical naturalists believe, as a matter of faith, that human consciousness and moral free will are not real, this will cause us to be particularly skeptical of their extrapolations. Thanks, John!