There be dragons!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Free will vs. Juices

    • Mr. L,

      I have been struggling with a question posed to me by my philosophy teacher this past year, and I thought what better person to ask than you (and what better setting to have a philosophical discussion than Facebook!). Perhaps it would also be an interesting question to raise in one of your classes as well.

      If all of my decisions are based on a series of chemical or electrochemical reactions in my brain, at what point do I truly have free will? For example, when I see a car driving at me, a signal is sent to my brain which sets off a series of chain reactions telling my muscles to move me out of the way. Those chemical reactions, though I may not understand them, were in fact bound to happen, and I was bound to move out of the way. But, to say I have free will implies that I could have done something other than what I did, that by some miracle, the laws of chemistry were broken and I made a different decision. However, it seems unlikely that every time anyone makes a decision the laws of nature are broken. So, how do I have free will?
    • - A.E.

  • My response:

    • Thanks, A. The question is a Kobyashi Maru (lose/lose) question b/c it is predicated on an assumption of what we are talking about when we say free will.

      The vision that we are nothing more than juices squirting in the head is a basically materialistic vision of the world and is in direct opposition to any worldview that posits a soul, afterlife, metaphysics et alia. The vision that we have free will, however, is not in direct opposition to the fact that we are to a large extent material creatures governed by the juices squirting in our heads. Rather, this second vision is a narrative or myth or context (call it what you will) that allows us to understand better what it means to be human. While the first vision (materialism) is in direct opposition to free will, free will is not in direct opposition to the fact of the material world. The first vision is deterministic and suggests that there is no metaphysical existence to anything (and thus no symbolism, no abstract emotions, no point to language, and no point to human thought) only an entirely predictable outcome to any situation. It is fatalistic, claustrophobic, and ultimately self-defeating and it offers a narrative that doesn't provide meaning or comprehension to our experience of the world.

      NOW whether such a gloomy pagan outlook on life necessitates that the narrative of soul / free will / metaphysical existence is a reality I'm not sure. But I am sure that the fatalism of the materialistic worldview offers no context for understanding and no laughter or love. It is a world without without beauty. The world of free will, God, soul, the afterlife is a world of beauty and sorrow and joy, friendship thought and art, culture delight and conversation, introspection reflection and love and is, therefore, a much greater world.

      I am reminded of the story of a man in my neighborhood who, when I was a boy, killed himself by running his car headlong into a semitruck. He was smashed like a bowlful of eggs & even as a young boy I was horrified by the fact that he had chosen to do this after months of conversing with someone who did not believe in any afterlife or meaning to the world. He had been counseled to believe in a purely materialistic world where even our experience of honor and love were no more than chemical reactions.

      The question of juices vs. free will isn't nearly so powerful a question, I think, as is the question of whether juices or free will might give us the stamina to face with manliness and courage that imminent crash, whether juices or free will might allow us to have something for which to swerve out of the way, and whether juices or free will might prompt us to give thanks for our lives and the lives of all those little ones in the back seat that we so narrowly saved from disaster.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that this professor is beginning with a false assumption: that matter is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be (Arthur C Clarke?). This is the starting point of materialist scientists and it is often conflated with "science" itself. However, to use the scientific method to understand the physical universe of matter and energy in no way eliminates the possibility of the super natural, e.g. the spiritual human soul. Stephen Barr calls this belief a unquestionable materialist "dogma", which is ironic coming from those who view dogma as shackles of the dark ages. I recommend Barr's book Modern Physics, Ancient Faith.

    But, looking at the brain from a purely physical perspective, it is acknowledged today that brain chemistry is not obviously purely deterministic, in that a single outcome is necesssarily required from the current state of one's brain. Because quantum mechanics is probablistic, it is impossible to know the future state of a brain (or any system) with certainty by knowing its current state. There is much debate about how much of the human mind is explainable in terms of our brain's "juices" and how much requires the faculties of a spiritual soul. But saying that all of human behavior is determined by chemistry is a simplistic, outdated materialist dogma.