Wednesday, July 19, 2017

WEEKLY COMMENTARY: Can We Continue to Believe In "Free Will"?

I recall that in my younger years, when I was really beginning to understand the Christian faith, the "free will" in each of us was said to be basic to understanding the human condition.  We were taught that each of us has the God-given freedom to make conscious choices between "good" and "bad".  Furthermore, that if we were to choose merely to serve ourselves, and not God, that would be sin.

Scholars and church people have generally believed that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will ---- and that losing this belief could be a disaster.  More broadly, our various codes of ethics assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong.  Christians have always pointed to and encouraged the human capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely taking an action compelled by one's appetites and momentary desires.

Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from provision for the poor and homeless, to criminal law.  We judge people every day on the assumption that they have made their daily life choices freely.  It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American belief that anyone can choose to make something of themselves, no matter what their start in life.

I had always taken my free will for granted, until I read a surprising article in The Atlantic magazine. It was written by Stephen Cave, a philosopher and author on the subjects of science and religion. Cave's questions were:   Are our actions merely the result of our genetics?  Or, are they the outcome of what has been imprinted on us by our physical and social environments?  Or, are they merely the result of the logical and emotional experiences of our lives?  Some people call this the debate between nature and nurture.

In recent decades, says Cave, research on the inner workings of the brain may have helped resolve the nature VS. nurture issue.  Advanced brain scanners have shown that networks of neurons are shaped by both genes and environmental factors.  But many scientists seem to agree that the firing of neurons determines not just  some or most, but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.  We now know that changes to brain chemistry can alter behavior ---- otherwise neither alcohol nor anti-psychotics would have their desired effects.

The 20th century nature VS. nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control.  But they never said we are robots!  I believe we are left with some room for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances (or our genes) to become the author of our own destiny.  However, the challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical ---- it describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we can no more will it to operate in a particular way, than we can will our heart to beat.

These developments raise tough questions.  If moral responsibility depends on our own "free will," but "free will"  becomes seen as a delusion, will we become morally irresponsible?  What will happen to all those institutions that are based on "free will"?  There is evidence that when people stop believing that they have free will, they will stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions.  Therefore they act less responsibly and more often give in to their baser instincts.

Ironically, to the extent one's actions are not sourced in free will, but are pre-determined, it not only undermines blame ---- it also undermines praise.  Imagine that I risk my life by jumping into enemy territory to perform a daring mission.  Afterward, people might say that I had no choice, that my feat was merely pre-ordained by my physical body, not my will. Therefore, that my action was hardly praiseworthy. 

In the same manner, undermining blame removes the obstacle that might block me from acting wickedly.  Likewise, undermining praise removes all incentive to do good.  Our heroes would seem less inspiring, and our achievements less noteworthy.  So, is "free will" an illusion.  I hope that "good" behavior and "true" science can be reconciled convincingly.

However, Stephen Cave notes that we currently use the threat of imprisonment as a crude tool to persuade people not to do bad things.  But if instead we accept that human behavior arises partly from neurophysiology, then we can better understand what is really causing people to do bad things, despite the threat of punishment ---- and how to stop them.  We need to know what are the levers we can pull as a society to rehabilitate people to be the best version of themselves.

People often confuse determinism with fatalism, Stephen Cave believes.  Determinism is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.  Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don't really matter because whatever is destined to happen will happen, despite our efforts to avoid that fate.  Perhaps we should reject both of these theories. People are not robots ---- they still have an important decision role to play.

I suggest there is still room for us to willfully over-ride bad choices.   Similarly, there is room for us to consciously support good choices.

That means to me that God's Word, the Bible, and the example of Jesus, remain relevant to the choices in our lives today.  We just need to understand that the background process underlying our choice of "good" or "bad" is a little more complicated than we had realized before.

Perhaps a good metaphor for our use of "free will" in decision-making is this:  When I am driving my car, I don't need to know what is happening under the hood (the source of the car's motion), to know that it is a bad use of my "free will" to "run" a red light at a busy intersection. 

These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this summer at CPC.