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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Free Will – A Conversation

At the end of last week I was party to a conversation on the subject of free will. Let us call my interlocutors Godolphin and Sebastian. They both maintained that recent discoveries in neurology made it impossible to maintain that we have free will. I hope that I am not traducing their argument by summarising it as follows: Any decision we make is the product of a brain state; that brain state is fully caused by a plethora of circumstances which are essentially chemical and physical in nature and which are largely, if not entirely, opaque to us.

I took a more traditional view: that there is an essential me which is non-physical and which, at least, contributes to the decisions I make. I was rude enough to opine that their position was fundamentally insane, that it flew in the face of intuition and the collective wisdom of humanity. This is not a rigorous logical demolition of their position. However, I held at the time and hold now that a human being who is a puppet of his brain states cannot make moral decisions any more than a virus or a machine. That we can make moral decisions is non-negotiable for me.

The conversation continued for a while, with me being the bad-tempered, ungenerous party. I was resigned to going to bed depressed. Both these men are guys for whom I have huge respect – and more.
Then, to my surprise, both of them seemed to retreat from their apparently dogmatic position. I had conceded that I could not possibly deny that there are influences upon my decisions of which I am largely unaware and over which I have little or no control. Among these are upbringing, culture, the quality of my brain and, possibly, the state of my digestion. No, I did not suppose that I could fully account for everything going on in my mind. Yes, a brain tumour might incline me to decisions which its absence would not.

Godolphin volunteered that there might be an element of my decisions which was not wholly determined by brain states. He thought that element was very small. It then seemed to me that he had sold the pass. All that was left to dispute was the question of how small. For him to admit that it was non-zero seemed then and seems now to leave the possibility of free will intact.

I then asked Sebastian what he thought the absence of free will did to concepts like responsibility, guilt, blame and conscience. He replied that they remained where they had always been. He was not prepared to repudiate them. He did not admit that the existence of conscience, for example, is incompatible with the absence of free will. But I think it is. Viruses and machines have no free will; but we do not lay upon them the burden of conscience – precisely because they have no free will.

I certainly do not claim to have won a huge intellectual victory. Nevertheless, I went to bed hugely relieved.
I don’t know much about neurology. I am sure it has much to teach us about the brain and much to contribute to pathology. All the same, scientific discoveries have made no more than small dents on our moral intuitions. There has been no war between Science and Religion. The ancient creeds of the Church have not been shown to require revision in the face of Copernicus or Einstein. Some Darwinists suppose that Darwin’s theory makes it possible to be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. Well, I am far from being prepared to admit that Random Mutation and Natural Selection qualify as a scientific discovery. It is the merest speculation mixed with metaphysical dogmatism.

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