When I first began reading reports that science had in fact proven that free will was an illusion and not real, I was curious enough to try to research a little more into these claims. I was not at all convinced by what I read that science had disproven free will. It was a claim like that of Samuel Clemens’ death, which he later labeled as “greatly exaggerated.” I read two books both written by scientists who dismissed the claims: 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 authors present different, but rather convincing evidence that free will has hardly been disproved by the current discoveries of neuroscience. Gazzaniga takes a position that in fact the existence of self and free will are not provable by materialistic means in any case since they are more issues of philosophy. Science has its limits which are to study the material world not to pontificate on issues of morality and philosophy. Tallis, though a self professed atheist and secular humanist, takes a much more hard line attitude that the scientific evidence against free will is in fact not there. Those who want to claim free will is nothing but a figment of the imagination are practicing bad science as well as bad logic.
So I would like to conclude the blog series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self with a quote from the Septuagint. Written perhaps as early as 280BC, the Wisdom of Sirach offers us a particular pre-scientific insight into what it is to be human. It is a ancient view upheld by Christian theists today. Even if we allow that it is evolution which has shaped the modern human, the humans have evolved with particular traits (consciousness and free willed) which are scientifically observable. From the believers point of view these are traits which God bestowed upon humanity; even if by divine fiat, at some point the physical characteristics which define the human species became part of the natural world and have continued to follow the laws of nature. This is how God designed His creation. We are composed of genetic material like all other living things, and our genetic development continues to unfold according to the processes of sexual reproduction.
The Lord created man from the earth
and returned him to it again.
He gave them a certain number of days and an appointed time,
and He gave them authority over it.
He clothed them in strength like His own
and made them in His image.
He put the fear of man upon all flesh
and gave him dominion over wild animals and birds.
He gave mankind the ability to deliberate,
and a tongue, eyes and ears, and a heart to think with.
He filled them with the skill of comprehension
and showed them good and evil.
He set His eye upon their hearts to show them the majesty of His works.
They will praise His holy name so as to fully describe the majesty of His works.
One can easily see the parallelism of the lines as is typical of Hebrew poetry. But of interest to me in this blog series is that ancient wisdom which does recognize humans as having a uniqueness about them of all the species in God’s creation. Rational thought, consciousness, free will and conscience all contribute to humans having a certain dominance over the other animals. We all may share the same basic material nature, all are taken from the dirt of the ground, but still humans have some qualities which distinguish them from all the other animals and allow the humans to domesticate those animals which can be domesticated and to successfully compete against those that cannot be so domesticated.
What is this difference? Sirach says it is our ability to deliberate and think, for so God has equipped the humans to be able to do these things. We are able to comprehend even abstractions and to communicate our thoughts and ideas however abstract to others. We have a consciousness which enables us to think and act and to create recorded shared memories – history. Consciousness also enables us to create things and to use technology to create even more complex things. We have an ability to create culture. All of these things require our free participation. We are not simply the end effect of previous causes. Humans actually relate to the physical world and can consciously manipulate it, and convey in symbols and abstractions to others what we are thinking and choosing. We have become part of the force which shapes our own genetic development – we are a consciously seeing force which is acting in an otherwise blind material universe. And we certainly believe there is more to the universe than meets the eye – we are not blinded by materialism. We understand there are non-material forces active in the world, and among these are human thought, creativity, morality, social sharing, emotions as well as the forces of culture and society.
Those neo-atheists who embrace reductionist thinking try to dumb down humans to being nothing more than chemical processes like all of the rest of the stuff of the universe. Such a description of humans does not fit the reality we can experience. The very fact that the neo-atheists are creatively producing their arguments against free will seems proof enough that free will in fact exists. Otherwise, why do they bother to resist the fate they say that determines all activity in the universe? Humans do deliberate. For believers, this is a gift from God to us to enable us to deal with empirical creation for our benefit and to the glory of the Creator.
Previous blog in this series: Brain Life and Death
First blog in this series: The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self