Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Folly of Denying Freewill

With the rejection of the Christian faith, another faith is becoming increasingly attractive – the denial of freewill and human culpability. One freewill denier (FD) wrote:

  • What are some of the benefits of understanding that free will is a myth?... More love, humility, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, understanding, cooperation; less blame, hatred, depression, anger, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, guilt resentment, hurt, jealousy, arrogance, aggression, violence, revenge.

For this FD, the belief in freewill is a psychological burden. There are also other reasons to deny freewill. Even as far back as 1871, Thomas Huxley, a zealous advocate of Charles Darwin, advocated for this position for another reason:

  • Mind is a function of matter [and nothing beyond that], when that matter has attained a certain degree of organization.

Similarly, in his recent book, “Free Will,” atheist Sam Harris writes, “Free will is an illusion.” What feels like freewill is nothing more than chemical processes.

However, there are many problems with the conclusion of the FDs:

A denial of freewill goes against everything we intuitively know about ourselves and our lives. When I make any decision, like flipping through the TV channels, it seems that I am freely choosing one station over another. Of course, like anyone else, I am subject to powerful biological-genetic forces. Admittedly, I am biologically predisposed to not like loud and glitzy programming. Therefore, some will say, “Well, this proves you’re pre-programmed to make certain choices.”

Although there is truth in this claim, it falls far short of proving that pre-programming is the only factor involved in my choices.

Of course, Harris and the other atheists will respond, “Your experience of free choice is just an illusion.” However, if I can’t trust my sense that I am making freewill choices, then I can’t trust my sense that I even exist!  If something that I experience with such clarity is illusory, perhaps my very existence and the existence of this world are also illusory. Perhaps I’m just someone else’s consciousness. Perhaps, as some Buddhists claim, we are just part of one universal consciousness and lack any individual existence.

If our intuitions and perceptions are simply part of this great delusion, then science and all reason are also part of this same delusion, along with Harris’ thinking.

In other words, if I apply such skepticism to my perceptions that I am making free choices to some degree, then I have to be skeptical about everything else in my life!

The extent of freewill differs among people. However, one FD writes that there exist no freewill distinctions among us, since freewill is entirely absent:

  • There are only two types of people in the world. Those who believe in free will and those who do not. There is no grey area or wiggle room… There is no such thing as a little freewill.

However, many recognize that we possess differing degrees of freewill. The heroin addict is more constrained in his free choices than before he became addicted. He can think of little else besides his next fix.

Conversely, Christians report that, in Christ, they have come to enjoy a greater measure of freedom. They are not as constrained by their psychological needs for approval and success as they had been, because they are convinced that they have God’s approval.

If these observations of relative freedom are true, then the narrow, unvarying materialistic view denying any area of freewill is invalidated. From the perspective of the FD, everyone is equally and completely controlled by brain chemistry. Consequently, there can be no room for varying degrees of freewill – the very thing we find!

We can perceive a distinction between purely chemical determination of our behavior and our relatively free responses. Wilder Penfield, the father of modern neurosurgery performed experiments demonstrating that brain activity doesn’t seem to account for all of our mental experience. Lee Edward Travis sums up his findings this way:

  • Penfield would stimulate electrically the proper motor cortex of conscious patients and challenge them to keep one hand from moving when the current was applied. The patient would seize this hand with the other hand and struggle to hold it still. Thus one hand under the control of the electrical current and the other hand under the control of the patient’s mind fought against each other. Penfield risked the explanation that the patient had not only a physical brain that was stimulated to action but also a nonphysical reality that interacted with the brain. (The Mysterious Matter of the Mind, 95-96)

There appears to be a distinction between brain chemistry and a nonphysical reality – the home of freewill. J.P. Moreland commented on another interesting aspect of Penfield’s findings:

  • No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, “There is no place…where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.” (The Case for the Creator, Lee Strobel, 258)

If our mind is no more than a physical brain, then we should expect that electrical charges could stimulate every kind of response. However, this isn’t the case. It seems that our choices and beliefs cannot be entirely accounted for by the physical brain.

There seems to be a nonphysical basis for thinking. Strobel writes:

  • In their journal article, Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, describe their study of sixty-three heart attack victims who were declared clinically dead but were later revived and interviewed. About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. The effects of oxygen starvation or drugs – objections commonly offered by skeptics – were ruled out as factors. (Strobel, 251)

This contradicts the atheistic narrative that thinking and choosing depend exclusively upon brain activity. In order to maintain their narrow materialistic worldview, the atheist is forced to discount this kind of study along with the many accounts of extra-body experiences.

If our brain chemistry compels all of our choices, then we cannot truly be culpable and responsible moral agents. This idea of non-existence of freewill is humanly demeaning. This is very significant because it will affect how we view ourselves, our fellow humans and also how we treat them. If humans are no more than sophisticated chemical machines, there is a greater likelihood that we will use them like machines.

The FD might agree that their view of freewill seriously diminishes our estimation of humanity. However, he often retorts, “I’m more interested in truth than in what feels good.”

However, the denial of freewill goes far beyond the question of a lower estimation of humanity. This denial undermines everything upon which civilization is based – justice, right and wrong, reward and punishment. A world where we cannot do other than what we have been determined to do has no room for virtue of any form.

If biology alone made the rapist rape, then it is not just to punish him. After all, he could make no other choice. Consequently, no punishment is just and no reward is deserved. It’s just a matter of chemistry not morality.

The denial of freewill poses a threat to civilization, and FDs recognize this. Consequently, they are scrambling to resurrect the concept of moral responsibility, which they have undermined. Professor of Philosophy, Chad Meister, writes about Harris’s muddled scrambling:

  • While in Harris’s view we lack free will and moral culpability for our actions, he nonetheless believes that we can still be “blameworthy” for our actions. How so? “Because,” he says, “what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of the our minds” (Christian Research Journal, Volume 35, Number 4, 59)
Oddly, Harris claims that we can be “blameworthy” without being morally culpable and that society can punish us even though we couldn’t have done otherwise! This is a blatant contradiction. If our “conscious planning” and what we do subsequently are strictly the products of brain chemistry, then there is no basis for either “blameworthiness” or moral culpability. They die a common death with the denial of freewill.

Some FDs are candid enough to admit that this is a real problem for their worldview. However, they will bring charges against the burglar. In this, their actions contradict their worldview. While they seek justice, they admit that they lack any just basis for this concept in their pre-determined chemical world.

The denial of freewill seems to also constitute a denial of any meaningful thought. All brain chemistry is subject to the laws of nature and conformable to their formulas. However, formulas and laws produce repeated and predictable patterns, not the nuances of thought. Clearly, the books that we write and the discoveries we make don’t reflect repeated, formulaic, hard-wired, unvarying processes. Instead, these creations reflect something greater – reasoning, the weighing of evidence for and against various paradigms. All of this requires something beyond what chemistry can offer. It requires the subtle and gloriously nuanced ability to freely choose among various thoughts and ideas.

Why are people FDs? Why do we trap ourselves in narrow boxes, which effectively narrow our estimation of self and of life? One FD friend explained to me the great relief he had experienced once he rejected freewill. He was no longer responsible for his behavior, and his sense of guilt became greatly diminished. With his diminished estimation of humanity, he no longer had to blame himself for not living up to his moral ideas. Who can blame him! But what will he say to his wife who has caught him cheating? “I couldn’t do otherwise?” This will not work in the real world.

While I can sympathize with the FD, Christ offers a better way – a way to not only diminish guilt but to obliterate it. Besides, Christ obliterates our guilt in a way that doesn’t infringe upon moral responsibility and true accountability. His forgiveness replaces guilt with gratitude, denial with delight, moral flight with moral responsibility, and the denigration of self with human dignity. We are more than simply a sophisticated computer!

FDs have embraced a religion that might provide temporary comfort, but one which does not correspond with reality. Consequently, it will prove costly.

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