This is the 3rd blog in this series which began with Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (1). In the previous blog, Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2), we began considering a USA TODAY article Why We don’t Really Have Free Will written by respected evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne. Coyne is also ardently committed to materialistic atheism which leads to his denial of a soul, of free will or of any non-materialist force which might act upon material creation. All human behavior for him results from chemical and biological forces – the laws of physics.
Coyne believes that neuroscience has now proven that free will is but an illusion. My question is whether what Coyne claims is proven science is rather merely his own beliefs – his philosophy, or ideology, which colors his science. For it seems to me all that neuroscience can establish is that mental processes have some basis in biological/chemical processes. Since free will is immaterial, how can science whose thinking is limited to materialism, prove or disprove it at all?
We are after all carbon based beings. Our minds, selves and souls have no real existence apart from our bodies – that is the very way we were created. So, yes, at some point all mental and spiritual activities will show some physical signs in our brains or in our nervous system. When we think, our brains are physically functioning. The same is true when we make a choice. What neuroscience can see is the activity of the brain already shaped by experience, and indeed the brain physically goes into action before we begin to act. This does not and in fact cannot disprove free will.
The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.
True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.
I really don’t have much trouble with Coyne’s description of us as biological beings. That is a fact of both Christianity and science. When God created the earth and brought humans into existence, however and whenever that may have occurred, humans were made with physical bodies which do follow the laws of physics, biology, chemistry and nature. Even for those of us who admit to the existence of the mind and soul and self would have to admit that at the moment that humans were created as part of the physical world, any non-material activity (thought, emotion, choice, memories, learning, etc) of the human will have some corresponding physical/physiological activity which can be studied by science. So when we think, decide, choose, pray, hear God, whatever, there will be something happening to our physical brains and bodies. We are created as one human being. We are not dualists. Our spiritual selves co-exist with our physical selves, and when our physical selves cease to exist, our spiritual self departs this earth. Thus Coyne’s assertions about our biological selves pose no threat to ideas about a soul or about free will.
Coyne further declares that “True ‘free will,’ then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works.” I am not sure why he believes that free will requires us to step outside of our brains for he offers no explanation for that claim. It seems based in some dualistic assumption of his that mind and brain cannot be related or that self and brain cannot be related. Since God created us body, soul and spirit, we live as an integrated whole being. The soul/self and body are in-personed in an individual. The exercise of free will thus requires us to use our physical brains to make decisions and choose behavior. (In the Scriptural description of Sheol – the place of the dead – the dead cannot praise God or do anything. Why? Because these dead are separated from their bodies – they exist but without the body aren’t able to do anything. See Psalm 6:5). In choosing to do anything we rely on memories which are mysteriously recorded in the electronics and chemistry of the brain. And also mysteriously we have not only our own memories and learning, but we have instincts recorded within our brains – the memories of distant ancestors also which have become part of us. These things are more mysteriously recorded somehow in our DNA and then brought to life in each being of our species.
Coyne declares science can’t show anyway that “we” can get outside of our brain structures. I would say of course not because science by definition is limited to studying and understanding physical realities. Thought, emotion, memories, creativity, information, wisdom all have non-materials manifestations and so cannot be studied by science. All science can do is study the physical brain but how exactly an old memory exists in the brain is not known even though we can through neuroscience see it coming to life through neural activity.
Further, I ask, how exactly does creative thought come into existence – we create something new, a new sound or technology that never before existed and yet we can imagine it and create it. These are not things recorded in our brains, but our brains being used by us to create new ideas, images, and things.
In imagination, emotion, creativity, wisdom, knowledge, inventiveness, we see the human brain doing things far beyond simply calling on memories recorded in chemical or neural activities. In this way it appears to me that Coyne ignores a great deal of what the brain can do in order to prop up his materialist ideology.
Next: Free Will and Biology (2)