Free Will

An icon of free will

This is the 13th 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 Memory and the Mind.   This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will:  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.

Both Gazzaniga and Tallis offer criticisms of the claims of some that neuroscience has disproved the existence of the self or of free will.  Tallis by far offers a much stronger defense for free will from the scientific evidence, from philosophy and from logic.  Gazzaniga certainly has reservations about the far reaching claims of what neuroscience has proven.  However, he does hedge his ideas a bit.

“Vohs and Schooler suggested that disbelief in free will produces a subtle cue that exerting effort is futile, thus granting permission not to bother. People prefer not to bother, because bothering, in the form of self-control, requires exertion and depletes energy. Further investigation along these lines by Florida State University social psychologists Roy Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and C. Nathan DeWall found that reading deterministic passages increased tendencies of the people they studied to act aggressively and to be less helpful toward others. They suggest that a belief in free will may be crucial for motivating people to control their automatic impulses to act selfishly, and a significant amount of self-control and mental energy is required to override selfish impulses and to restrain aggressive impulses. The mental state supporting the idea of voluntary actions had an effect on the subsequent action decision. It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 1831-40)

Gazzaniga moves in the more neutral direction of pointing out that even if free will is an illusion, it still has positive effects on our behaviors and for society as scientific research has shown.  But in the above passage he says, “The mental state supporting the idea of voluntary actions had an effect on the subsequent action decision.”   The very statement that we can effect decisions by our behavior indicates that determinism doesn’t rule everything in the human life.  We are not merely following a cause and effect chain of events, but we actually engage life, make decisions and our decisions have an effect on what happens next.  We in fact are marking choices and these choices change what happens next – this is in fact the exertion of free will.  Our empirical brains process input from the world and from other humans; this results in real thinking and decision making.  There is in fact an immaterial aspect to our existence even when our self and free will are always interfacing with the material world in and through our brains and bodies.  What the studies Gazzaniga show is that non-material input received by our brains does translate into changed behavior which can be statistically demonstrated.  This is scientific evidence against absolute materialist determinism.

Tallis goes much further than Gazzaniga and is very clear that the evidence of science is that humans do exhibit free will as part of human consciousness.

“As Carter says: ’The illusion of free will is deeply ingrained precisely because it prevents us from falling into a suicidally fatalistic state of mind – it is one of the brain’s most powerful aids to survival…’     This is an interesting claim because it suggests that our belief  that we are free can (after all) alter what happens in the world: initially, as far as we are concerned, for the better because it helps us survive.  In short, the illusion of free will does deflect the course of events, and hence it is self-fulfilling.  It is not an illusion.  For if we really cannot deflect the course of predetermined events, then the idea that we are free cannot change anything, any more than the idea that we are not free can change it.” (Tallis, p 262)

Beliefs can alter what actions we take.  The immaterial influencing the material.  The material brain is able to make choices which effects what we do, which in turn changes what happens in our lives and in the world.  In other words science is demonstrating that free will exists and that strict determinism is not governing everything that is unfolding in the universe.  Even genetically speaking aberrations and mutations unpredictably enter into genes – we see that record in the human genome.  Absolute determinism based in materialism does not describe reality as we know it anymore than Newtonian physics can describe the quantum world.   There is uncertainty in the world of physics as well as in human sociology and psychology.

Next: Implications of the Free Will Debate

Monday of Holy Week

Orthodox hymns throughout the year give us some insight into how our spiritual forefathers and mothers in the faith interpreted the Scriptures and what lessons they drew from them.   Hymns from the Lenten Triodion do this as well often focusing on particularly Lenten themes.   The Kontakion for Holy Monday focuses on part of the Genesis story dealing with the aged Jacob and his son, Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers  (Genesis 37, 39-46).  [During the weekdays of  Great Lent portions of Genesis are read liturgically, and only a tiny portion of the Jacob and Joseph story is read in the Orthodox Church (small portions of Genesis 43, 45 and 46 are read).]    The Kontakion lyrics read as follows:

Patriarch Jacob's dream

JACOB LAMENTED THE LOSS OF JOSEPH

BUT HIS NOBLE SON WAS SEATED ON A CHARIOT AND HONORED AS A KING!

FOR WHEN HE REFUSED TO BE ENSLAVED BY THE PLEASURES OF THE EGYPTIAN WOMAN,

HE WAS GLORIFIED BY THE LORD WHO BEHOLDS THE HEARTS OF MEN,

AND BESTOWS UPON THEM AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN!

The portion I think of most interest for Great Lent comes from Genesis 39 in which Joseph now a slave to an Egyptian courtier is sexually harassed by his master’s wife.  Joseph refuses her sexual advances but then is unjustly punished due to false accusations made against him.  The hymn  upholds the virtue of Joseph in refusing the illicit sexual advances of his master’s wife.  The story is unusual at this point in the Scriptures because there is not a lot of sexual purity mentioned in Genesis.  Joseph is an exceptionally moral man in a very immoral world.

What the hymn uniquely brings out is that Joseph, though a slave, behaves like a free man.  Joseph is not physically enslaved by pleasure or his own passions, nor by the bonds of his Egyptian master or the passions of his master’s wife.  He behaves with the free will and determination of a king.  He is the perfect example of a Christian during Great Lent.  For the Lenten season is one in which we can demonstrate that we too will not be enslaved by anything, including our own appetites.  Fasting is freedom from bondage to the body or the self.  Fasting enables us to say no to any desire and to live as free men and women, doing as we want rather than as our bodies demand us to behave.  Fasting is a great sign of freedom.

Another hymn from Matins (the Canon Ikos) picks up on this same theme of Joseph and freedom:

Patriarch Jacob

TODAY LET US ADD LAMENTATION TO LAMENTATION.  LET OUR TEARS FLOW WITH THOSE OF JACOB WHO WEEPS FOR HIS CELEBRATED AND SOBER-MINDED SON; FOR THOUGH BODILY JOSEPH WAS INDEED A SLAVE, HE PRESERVED THE FREEDOM OF HIS SOUL AND WAS LORD OVER ALL EGYPT.  FOR GOD PREPARES FOR HIS SERVANTS AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN.

Once again we see Joseph though a slave preserves the freedom of his soul by practicing abstinence.  Joseph doesn’t allow Potiphar’s wife to determine his own morality or sexual activity.  Joseph rules over his body and his passions. Again, a very Lenten message – fasting isn’t self denial so much as asserting one’s free will to rule over one’s own body!

Joseph is said to be sober-minded which gives all of us who live in a self indulgent culture of excessive eating and drinking something to think about.  The scriptural lesson drawn from the Old Testament story is about sobriety, watchfulness, vigilance and virtue.

Sobriety as a spiritual way of living is important for those of us in a church which doesn’t command prohibition.  We can imbibe alcohol but it is our spiritual combat to exercise self control like Jacob did and to free ourselves from passion, intoxication and addiction.     The need for each of us to exercise freedom from drunkenness and intoxication does not get enough emphasis in many Orthodox cultures and parishes.

 

St. Paul and Old Testament Saints

The above Ikos hymn also reflects another interesting element of Orthodox hymnography – namely it doesn’t follow linear time in its thinking.  Jacob is now weeping for his son whom he assumes is dead, and we are to join him in this lamentation.  The hymn doesn’t place Jacob in the past as a distant historical figure, but very much alive today with us (very reminiscent of Matthew 22:31-32 where Jesus says that God is the God of Jacob who was long dead at the time of Christ, but Jesus says He is God of the living and Jacob is alive in God).   Often in Orthodox hymnography linear time is completely ignored as past, present and future are all enveloped in the timelessness of eternity.  I think Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev calls this an iconographic element of Orthodox hymnology because icons at times also ignore “history” and bring together in one icon saints and scenes separated by vast distances and long time periods.

As another example of this non-linear time use, we pray in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

“You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom which is to come.

For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit…”

Thus we offer thanksgiving to God for the kingdom which is to come as if we have already received it!   God granted (past) His Kingdom which is still (future) to come.   We are no longer in the world of linear time, but rather experience in this world the relativity of time as we come to realize time is contained within and by the eternity of God.