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Science Evidence for Free Will
Contrary to myths promoted for decades by materialists, modern neurological studies show that consciousness and free will are not illusions.


Is there really any such thing as free will? Some scientists say yes!

A good science account of human beings should coincide with what most humans know to be true about themselves.

Science has long been associated with the belief that free will is only an illusion and cannot really exist. That is because science has been associated with naturalism and materialism.

And it makes sense, too: If you are really only a material entity, you cannot have free will any more than a brick can. Case closed.

There are a couple of problems with this thinking, however. Quite apart from the fact that it does not square with human experience, the model of the universe that it comes from is outdated.

Isaac Newton, whom many consider the greatest scientist who ever lived, developed the laws of gravitation. We owe him an inestimable debt for figuring out just why apples fall but the moon circles the Earth. The universe he described was tidy and orderly, but it did have a problem. It did not seem to leave much room for immaterial notions like free will. If the apple doesn't have an opinion about whether it falls, why should you truly be thought to have an opinion about whether you will tell the truth or tell a lie?

Of course, you can say that you know by faith that you have a mind or a soul, but if these entities cannot be described scientifically, they will likely be discounted or disbelieved.

And that is a big problem! It means that a science account of human beings becomes quite different from what we humans say about ourselves. Surely there is something wrong with that. A good science account of human beings should coincide with what most humans know to be true about themselves.

The question of whether there can be free will turns, on at least one level, on whether there can be truly undetermined actions in nature. Albert Einstein said no, God does not play dice with the universe. His friend and debating partner Niels Bohr, a founder of Quantum mechanics said yes.

The answer turns out to be yes. At the molecular level—and that is the level that is relevant to thinking, because our brains are operated by molecules passing electrical charges back and forth—there is only probability, not certainty, about what will happen. That does not prove we have free will; it merely provides a possible basis for free will in the real world.

A recent paper by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, and Mario Beauregard, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society offers a basis in neuroscience for free will. The paper can be a demanding read, but it demonstrates that quantum effects provide a science-based—but not materialist—account of free will in the brain.

Essentially, this paper argues that materialist ideas that deny free will are rooted in outdated notions of classical physics. The authors understand the brain in quantum mechanical terms instead. A quantum understanding of the brain does two things: 1) It provides a science-based account of how free will can exist, and 2) the account squares with neurological observations.

Lead author Schwartz, for example, has successfully treated obsessive-compulsive patients by getting them to deliberately refocus their thoughts and reorganize the relevant sections of their brains—something they should not be able to do if there is no free will.

The paper concludes,

"Materialist ontology draws no support from contemporary physics, and is in fact contradicted by it. The notion that all physical behaviour is explainable in principle solely in terms of a local mechanical process is a holdover from physical theories of an earlier era. … In this account brain behaviour that appears to be caused by mental effort is actually caused by mental effort: the causal efficacy of mental effort is no illusion. …
"A shift to this pragmatic approach that incorporates agent-based choices as primary empirical input variables may be as important to progress in neuroscience and psychology as it was to progress in atomic physics."

I would think this should be bad news for those who put a lot of effort into denying free will. Of course, it is bad news for me too because it means that I must accept responsibility for the bad behaviour that I wish I did not have to take responsibility for. Frankly, I would love to blame my bad behaviour on my genes, but I know perfectly well that those genes did not do it. I did.

St. Paul characterizes this dilemma very well, when we writes,

"So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:21-24, NIV)

Paul has the capacity to know what is right and wrong, and the free will to do the good and avoid the evil, but the trouble is—like most of us, he doesn't want to. At least not with a unified mind. He wants to want to do what is good, but he often doesn't. Is there any help for a problem like that?

Yes there is, he says: "Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Divine grace does not usually overrule us and remove our free will; it strengthens us, as it strengthened Paul, so that we can more easily choose the good things that are God's will for us.

Full disclosure: Mario Beauregard is the lead author on a forthcoming book on the spiritual side of human beings, as seen by recent findings in neuroscience. I am the co-author.

Denyse O'Leary is a Canadian science writer/journalist living in Toronto. She can be reached at oleary@sympatico.ca.

By Design or by Chance?: The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe
Do we exist by design or by chance? What does modern science really show? Award-winning journalist O'Leary explains in clear and simple terms why increasing numbers of scientists now accept intelligent design.

 

 
 
 
 

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