Clockwork Humans?

Most of us get up in the morning believing we have the power to make choices: what shall I wear? what shall I eat for breakfast? shall I decide not to eat breakfast? what’s on my schedule today and what space does my schedule give me for choice? what shall I give my mind to as I walk the dog or travel to work? what plans shall we make for holidays this year… For most of us, this is a no-brainer. We assume without question that we are free agents. Yes, there are constraints on all our lives but there is still plenty of room for decisions unconstrained by anything except personal choice…

Except that apparently an increasing number of philosophers and scientists disagree. They believe that free will is an illusion. For example, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne asserts that:

… free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.

The Guardian article on which this post is based explains the logic of the argument. Whatever happens in the world is caused by things that happened before. And so on backwards in time. It’s cause after cause after cause after cause… This is relatively easy to understand in terms of the world of rocks and rivers and internal combustion engines. But surely the same is true for our decisions and intentions as well:

Our decisions involve neural activity – and why would a neuron be exempt from the laws of physics any more than a rock?

This is not a new idea. In 1814 the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace proposed a thought experiment: suppose some supreme intelligence could know the position of every atom in the universe at a given moment and all the laws that governed their interactions, then he/she/it would be able to predict the future – all of it, forever, every smallest detail, down to “the slightest quiver of a sparrow’s wing” a hundred or a thousand years from now.

C. S. Lewis called this “Naturalism”:

the doctrine that only Nature – the whole interlocked system – exists.

C. S, Lewis, Miracles Chapter 3

Lewis pointed out that:

If Naturalism is true, every finite thing or event must be (in principle) explicable in terms of the Total System.

Lewis went on to argue that in order to make sense of our experience we are compelled to posit another realm above and beyond Nature (which he called Supernature) which is not subject to the laws of physics. There must be something in the make-up of humans which rescues their reasoning processes from being entirely determined by the laws of physics – and therefore not rational at all.

If we don’t do that, then we’re stuck with our neurons being subject to the laws of physics just as much as the flow of a river. And then where are we? What happens to our ability to reason, to arrive at truth? It goes out of the window. We are clockwork humans in an enormous clockwork universe, living out our meaningless, predetermined lives, all the while deluded that we are making free choices.

One way of stating the issue is to say that the mind is more than just the brain. The brain works according to the laws of Nature. The mind is dependent on the brain and will be affected by the condition of the brain but is not reducible to the brain. Scientists and philosophers have been working hard to deny this distinction for a long time, but it seems that more and more are now facing up to the logic of their position. If the brain is all we have, then free will is an illusion. Our brains just go with the endless flow of cause and effect.

If free will is an illusion, then people can’t help what they do, praise and blame are irrelevant, rewards and punishment are no longer justifiable, love, friendship and romance lose most of their appeal, we can forget about morality…

Strawson is one of several scholars now receiving messages of distress, complaint and sometimes violent abuse for destroying people’s belief in freedom of choice. For instance:

I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did… Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.

Strawson responds:

I think for these people it’s just an existential catastrophe… And I think I can see why.

You think?! The armchair academic philosopher coolly preaches catastrophe but fails to consider that some people might actually believe him. Samuel Smilansky, professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel, believes that free will is unreal but this is so frightening that people must go on believing otherwise. In other words, the élite is allowed to know the truth but don’t let it percolate down to the masses.

That free will is an illusion is deeply counter-intuitive. It is almost impossible to believe. If you really believed it you would surely curl up and die, or at least follow the advice of the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Paul:

Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die

Isaiah 22.13, and 1 Corinthians 15.32

Strawson’s comments quoted above indicate that he doesn’t really believe what he teaches. Smilansky admits as much:

I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years.

Who would you rather believe? Laplace, Coyne, Smilansky and Strawson, or the author of Genesis, who tells us that:

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

Genesis 2.7

In other words, we are connected to the physical world which is subject to the laws of physics and chemistry but we also have within us a spark of the divine:

the true light, which enlightens everyone

John 1.9

Logic and intuition, sanity and humanity, combine to make this the only rational conclusion.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

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