This is the 10th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Society: The Reality of Collective and Shared Consciousness. I’m looking at the works of two scientists who are considering recent claims from neuroscience: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.
The assumption of atheistic materialists is that the entire universe simply follows an endless series of cause and effect that was set in motion by the Big Bang. Thus everything which occurs in the universe is pre-determined by what occurred before. In the materialist’s thinking, determinism rules humans completely since humans are simply one part of the material universe, and in fact there is nothing but the material universe. Thoughts and consciousness in this thinking are merely the products of the same deterministic material world working through its cause and effects – in fact, according to the neo-atheists, they don’t exist at all but are an illusion created by the empirical brain.
“So the hard determinists in neuroscience make what I call the causal chain claim: (1) The brain enables the mind and the brain is a physical entity; (2) The physical world is determined, so our brains must also be determined; (3) If our brains are determined, and if the brain is the necessary and sufficient organ that enables the mind, then we are left with the belief that the thoughts that arise from our mind also are determined; (4) Thus, free will is an illusion, and we must revise our concepts of what it means to be personally responsible for our actions. Put differently, the concept of free will has no meaning. The concept of free will was an idea that arose before we knew all this stuff about how the brain works, and now we should get rid of it.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2059-65)
Both Gazzaniga and Tallis point out the science that does not support the claims of absolute determinism in the universe. The evolutionary atheists who want determinism to be true still have to deal with what is known as the randomness of the universe – in natural selection, as expressed in chaos theory, as demonstrated in quantum physics. Pure determinism is not upheld by experience or by science.
“The thing is, you can’t predict Newton’s laws from observing the behavior of atoms, nor the behavior of atoms from Newton’s laws. New properties emerge that the precursors did not possess. This definitely throws a wrench into the reductionist’s works and also throws a wrench into determinism. If you recall, the corollary to determinism was that every event, action, et cetera, are predetermined and can be predicted in advance (if all parameters are known). Even when the parameters of the atom are known, however, they cannot predict Newton’s laws for objects. So far they can’t predict which crystalline structure will occur when water freezes in different conditions.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2004-9)
Thus as Tallis commented in an earlier blog, what science may have discovered is not proof that determinism governs the universe or that free will does not exist, but rather that there are limits to science and limits to what we can know. Determinism cannot in fact be determined with absolute certainty because of our limits – we cannot know all there is to know, nor can we even be absolutely certain in complex systems of what “all” consists. Rain drops for example may actually fall in a pattern, but because we cannot control or measure all of the variables, we cannot know for sure that they do not (see also my The Word, The Information, the Bit III).
“If the presence of chaotic systems in nature, Poincaré’s fly in the ointment, limits our ability to make accurate predictions with any degree of certainty using deterministic physical laws, it presents a quandary for physicists. It seems to imply that either randomness lurks at the core of any deterministic model of the universe or we will never be able to prove that deterministic laws apply in complex systems.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1916-19)
Tallis sees this limit as something which science must come to own as a truth rather than trying to ignore it because it is inconvenient. Tallis sees the limits of scientific knowledge and also sees problems with the logic and philosophical assumptions materialists must make to hold to their beliefs. Gazzaniga on the other hand opts to accept a notion that there are different realms of knowledge which we must acknowledge and not confuse.
“We should also not waste time arguing whether the world itself is deterministic or stochastic since this is a metaphysical question that is not empirically decidable.” (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1971-72)
Tallis thinks the limits of determinism must be acknowledged if we are going to deal with reality as it is, not as we need it to be to fit our epistemology.