How Free Am I? (RJS)

I am in the middle of a sporadic series of posts based on two recent books by Malcolm Jeeves Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience and Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature with Warren S. Brown.

Perhaps the most significant scientific challenge to Christian faith comes not from the age of the universe or the evolution of species, but rather from the findings of psychology and neuroscience.  What is the relationship between brain, mind, and consciousness?

Ch.3 of Minds, Brains, and Gods opens with a question from Ben.

Since the brain is a physical system made up of atoms and molecules, how can there be any room for the top-down processes you have described that enable us to make decisions? (p. 41)

The top-down process was discussed a bit in the previous post Beware Neuromaniacs and Darwinitis. This is a serious question. It isn’t a matter of libertine free will, mind over matter, or determinism. The question is whether it makes any sense to talk about conscious decisions at all. A ball careening down a hill will bounce around with seeming randomness determined by the multitude of factors involved. It makes no sense to talk about a ball deciding to bounce to the left or the right.  This video doesn’t have much to do with this post – but it is an interesting example of the apparent randomness of balls (many balls) bouncing down a hill.

Is a human any different? More complex? Okay. A much wider range of factors involved, including history, nutrition, and education? Fine. But that still doesn’t leave any freedom of decision. It is one thing to realize that we are a lot less free than we’d like to admit. After all, any freedom we have does depend on a functioning brain. It is another altogether to contemplate a total lack of freedom. Yet this is what many claim. As one eminent biologist put it “The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.

Is this the clear and uncontested conclusion of science? In answer to this question Jeeves brings both chaos and the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle into the discussion, although he doesn’t hang his hat on either. These are invoked by some to remove determinism from nature. In a sense this is right, there is an intrinsic uncertainty in the quantum mechanical nature of the universe. Quantum uncertainty, chaos, and the importance of improbable events provides an intrinsic openness in nature. We could have all possible information about now, and still could not predict the future with unerring accuracy.  This is an impersonal uncertainty however, not a decision making mind.

Jeeves then brings up the concept of emergence. The human brain is an unbelievably complex object. “The millions of neurons and their millions of interconnections form an ideal dynamical system. From this point of view, the elements of human neurobiology in the form of the cerebral cortex produce the cognitive properties of a whole person. (p. 45)” New causal properties emerge out of the complex, nonlinear interactions. Consciousness and perhaps a true element of “free” decision making ability may emerge out of this incredibly complex network.

The Evidence from Experiments. The argument so far is based on physics, chemistry, and perhaps metaphysics, but not on empirical evidence. This leads the discussion to Benjamin Libet’s classic experiment and its interpretation (or misinterpretation). In Ch. 5 Ben puts the question like this:

One of my friends, who is majoring in neuroscience, said that a very important paper was published in 1983 by a man named Benjamin Libet, who demonstrated that the conscious decision to make a movement came after the movement had been started. … Doesn’t that mean that any claim to decide to do this or do that is an illusion? That I’m merely reporting what my brain is already doing or has already done? (p. 54)

In reply Jeeves gives a brief description of Libet’s experiments and quotes from one of the original papers “Cerebral initiation even of a spontaneous voluntary act of the [kind] studied here can and usually does begin unconsciously. … The brain ‘decides’ to initiate or, at least, to prepare to initiate the act before there was any reportable subjective awareness that such a decision has taken place.” (B. Libet, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8, 536, 1985)  Perhaps conscious thought is not an initiator of anything but merely a reporter.

This seems to put the nail in the coffin for any real freedom of decision, but Libet’s conclusions are not the end of the story, only the beginning.  Science is an ongoing discussion. No experiment is taken as the ultimate arbiter of truth, rather each result lights the way for future experiments. Jeeves does a good job of providing some insight into the process and into the kind of critical thinking that evaluates and seeks to validate or refute each new claim.

Much research has been carried on to test Libet’s ideas and conclusions with improved methods and alternative questions. Some of these support, or appear to support Libet’s results and his conclusions, but others call into question some of the underlying assumptions. Jeeves refers to several recent papers. Perhaps the most interesting was published in late 2012 by Schurger et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. (PNAS v109, E2904–E2913, 2012 Author Summary p. 16776-7) with the enticing title “An accumulator model for spontaneous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement“. The study is discussed in an article Brain might not stand in the way of free will published in New Scientist which opens  “Advocates of free will can rest easy, for now. A 30-year-old classic experiment that is often used to argue against free will might have been misinterpreted.”  If I am interpreting this paper correctly Schruger et al. propose a model for brain decision making where the signals interpreted by Libet as the brain preparing to move were the background signals necessary for a spontaneous decision to emerge not a prior ‘decision” by the brain.

And the search for understanding continues. The article by Schurger et al. has been cited in six papers published in the year since it first appeared. In one of these, Barking up the wrong free: readiness potentials reflect processes independent of conscious will, published in Experimental Brain Research (v229, 329-335, 2013) Schlegel et al. report no causal relationship between the readiness potential measured by Libet and willingness to move. The other papers explore additional aspects of the complex process of decision making.

Moral vs Inconsequential Decisions. Jeeves also stops to ask another question about Libet’s experiment:

I think we need to pause and ask whether experiments such as Libet’s that studied the timing of a morally neutral, simple decision, such as bending a finger, and its relation to brain processes tell us anything useful about moral decision making. What I’m saying is that there is a fundamental problem with Libet’s studies in the sense that they don’t really have any obvious relevance for the question of free will and moral responsibility.  … The overwhelming phenomenological evidence from our daily lives is that we make conscious, voluntary decisions that influence the activity of our brains and bodies over minutes, days, and years, not milliseconds, and that these decisions bring real world consequences. (p. 58-59)

A handful of simple laboratory experiments are not really sufficient to negate this universal experience. We can’t separate mind, brain, and consciousness – but that still doesn’t mean that they are identical. Most of us are quite rightly convinced that we do have more free will than a bowl of sugar or a cockroach even as we are also constrained by the material and social world in which we live.

More to come … both in this series and in the continuing search for answers to the hard questions.

What questions raised by neuroscience do you find the most challenging for Christian faith?

Is the intrinsic connection between brain function and moral decision making a challenge?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • Tim Seiger

    Very helpful discussion. Thanks! I am glad to hear of the ongoing research and kinds of questions being asked and assumptions being challenged. Chalk one up for science as a self-regulating discipline :)

  • Rory Tyer

    David Bentley Hart has a fascinating / compelling discussion of the problem that the reality of subjective consciousness poses for materialist accounts of existence in his most recent book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Commenting specifically on Libet’s experiments, a quote I highlighted while working through the kindle version:

    “In the end, experiments of this sort might tell us about the connection between certain neural impulses and certain brain events, but the attempt to draw some conclusion from them regarding human free will proves only that ideology often makes us believe that we are seeing more than in fact we are, and that it is insidiously easy to confuse our genuine empirical discoveries with our metaphysical premises. That we are rational agents–that a great many of our actions are not merely the results of serial physiological urges but are instead dictated by coherent conceptual connections and private deliberations–is one of those primordial data I mentioned above that cannot be reduced to some set of purely mechanical functions without producing nonsense. That a number of cognitive scientists should be exerting themselves to tear down the Cartesian partition between body and soul, hoping to demonstrate that there is no Wonderful Wizard on the other side pulling the levers, is poignant proof that our mechanistic paradigms trap much of our thinking about mind and body within an absurd dilemma: we must believe either in a ghost mysteriously animating a machine or in a machine miraculously generating a ghost. Premodern thought allowed for a far less restricted range of conceptual possibilities.”

    This quote, out of context, is more assertion than argument, but it sits amidst an extremely erudite discussion that I think would be beneficial to those interested in the intersection of philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and classical theology.

  • http://juliemwalsh.blogspot.com/ Julie Walsh

    As to what ways neuroscience might challenge Christianity, I’ve only read Dr Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships. But his focus on the intersubjectivity of brains has challenged my individualistic Christian spirituality. Here’s two quotes: “There is no such thing as an individual brain. Transformation requires a collaborative interaction, with one person empathically listening and responding to the other so that the speaker has the experience, perhaps for the first time, of feeling felt by another.” Thompson also points to scripture as illuminating God’s desire to redeem the whole world, and where “we as a body of people, inextricably connected by emotion are being saved in the process.” These quotes, in my mind, point to the dialogical nature of faith and also to Wright’s “cosmic story.”

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    “If I am interpreting this paper correctly Schruger et al. propose a model for brain decision making where the signals interpreted by Libet as the brain preparing to move were the background signals necessary for a spontaneous decision to emerge not a prior ‘decision” by the brain.”

    Simply moving the goalposts? Whence the “background signals”?

  • RJS4DQ

    Chris,

    I don’t think it is moving the goalposts. A brain has to be living, conscious, with some level of attention for a voluntary movement to be even on the table as a possibility. These are the kinds of “background” signals we might consider.

  • Phil Miller

    I think I understand what Chris is getting at, though… Even by using the word “voluntary” in your answer, it’s kind of based on the assumption that there’s somewhere a “you” or “me” that’s serving as a decision maker. If we say that the mind and the brain are one in the same, it’s hard to see how we can get there. Do we have the ability to make choices or are we simply reacting to stimuli in a way that we have no control over?

  • RJS4DQ

    Perhaps I misread what Chris meant by “moving the goal posts.”

    The whole question of the post is whether there is a “me” that is serving as decision maker – and what this could be.

    Libet’s experiment seemed to suggest that the brain was already acting and consciousness only reported on that action (no decision). The new results call this time ordering into question. They don’t prove there is a “me” but they question the disproof of a “me”.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    Since the brain is a physical system made up of atoms and molecules, how can there be any room for the top-down processes you have described that enable us to make decisions? (p. 41)

    1. Nonlocality has dealt a blow to reductionism which the above quotation seems to deny.

    2. If we do away with scientific realism in preference for the more parsimonious instrumentalism, matter and energy merely become one way to model reality. Indeed, the holographic principle, discovered by research into black holes, posits that we can think in terms of information or matter + energy. Neither is necessarily ‘better’ than the other in all circumstances.

    3. Continuing the use of instrumentalism, it is not at all clear that the best way to model all systems will ultimately be through physics. (For example, it may never be prudent to replace chemists with physicists.) It may be that different math than that built on physics will always be more efficiently computable for e.g. modeling weather. If this is the case, then why would we say that the physics math is ‘more real’? Science generally considers the models that work better to be ‘more real’, or ‘more accurate’ if we are instrumentalists.

    4. The very question assumes physicalism, which means it is circular in its very nature. It could be that in addition to particles and fields (matter and energy), mind is also a fundamental constituent of reality. We don’t know enough to rule this out. Some might say that we don’t know enough to rule it in (see ‘burden of proof’), but the very fact that we tend to see other people as having minds should not be downplayed.

  • RJS4DQ

    labreuer,

    Nonlocality or quantum entanglement action at a distance is part and parcel of the quantum uncertainty I mentioned. This has not really dealt a blow to the reductionism of the quote. It does indicate that there is no rigorous determinism.

    And yes – we could replace all chemists with physicists because there is absolutely nothing in chemistry that is not reducible to physics. (This is my area of expertise.) Although the labels “chemist” and “physicist” are somewhat artificial.

    What do you mean by a different math than that based on physics could be more efficiently computable for modeling the weather? Give an example.

    But … it seems to me that the question of this post is whether there is an aspect of reality that goes beyond physicality – your fourth point.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    Nonlocality or quantum entanglement action at a distance is part and parcel of the quantum uncertainty I mentioned.

    Nonlocality (most profoundly indicated by quantum entanglement) has nothing to do with ‘quantum uncertainty’. What nonlocality indicates is that we cannot reduce things to individual particles and say everything that can be said about a system and only that system. Hegel’s holism may be rearing its head through our quantum wanderings.

    And yes – we could replace all chemists with physicists because there is absolutely nothing in chemistry that is not reducible to physics.

    But this is not necessarily true! If for no other reason than this: we do not have unlimited computational power. But this is possibly a twisted way of looking at things, preferencing physics because it seems ‘more fundamental’. If, instead, we were to ask about which models can be simulated with computers, the view changes quite a lot! Your “could replace” is a very reductionist claim, which is the very claim I am questioning!

    What do you mean by a different math than that based on physics could be more efficiently computable for modeling the weather? Give an example.

    The planetWRF model is used to model the Martian atmosphere, and is manifestly not a simulation of an insane number of individual atoms or molecules. It talks about the Martian atmosphere at a ‘higher level’ than individual particles and fields. If we were forced to do the latter, we wouldn’t have nearly enough computational power to do the modeling.

    I don’t know if you know about Folding@home, but it’s a project for simulating the folding of proteins based on a very physics-y approach. One result of this is that it is hugely computationally expensive, which is why Stanford folks designed a system that could be deployed ‘at home’—that is, on millions of computers. One of my friends is working on quantum chemistry, which will hopefully be a different, much more efficient way to do these kinds of computations. So which model of protein folding would become ‘more real’, if they could both predict the same thing?

    Consider Ptolemy’s earth-centered epicycles, vs. Kepler’s sun-centered ellipses. One can add earth-centered epicycle upon earth-centered epicycle and get sun-centered ellipses—see Fourier series—but sun-centered ellipses are quite a bit more mathematically tractable. So we say that planets orbit the sun instead of saying they orbit the earth, even though we can provide equations for the motion of planets with reference to the earth. Which center of planetary motion is ‘more real’?

    But … it seems to me that the question of this post is whether there is an aspect of reality that goes beyond physicality – your fourth point.

    True, but my points #1-3 were meant to show that reductionism is an awfully questionable commitment to hold.

  • RJS4DQ

    labreuer,

    Let’s take this one at a time.

    Quantum entanglement and nonlocality. The entangled state is a quantum superposition state that is produced at a specific time and place. At the time of production the two particles are either indistinguishable or part of some parent or some such. The most common example is two photons that must have complementary polarizations (if one is left the other is right … but we can’t say which is which without a measurement, the state is intrinsically entangled and each photon is in a superposition state of left and right). As they travel apart they remain in the entangled state. A measurement on one thereby determines the result of a subsequent measurement on the other. My comment on “part and parcel the same” comes not from the later part but from the initial production of the entangled state. If there was no intrinsic uncertainty here there would be no superposition state and no entangled state.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    My comment on “part and parcel the same” comes not from the later part but from the initial production of the entangled state. If there was no intrinsic uncertainty here there would be no superposition state and no entangled state.

    The thing is, they’re not “part and parcel the same”. From WP: quantum entanglement:

    Quantum entanglement is a product of quantum superposition. However, the state of each member is indefinite in terms of physical properties such as position, momentum, spin, polarization, etc. in a manner distinct from the intrinsic uncertainty of quantum superposition.

    In other words, you’re trying to assert: { quantum uncertainty, quantum superposition } ⇒ quantum entanglement. This is not at all clear. Furthermore, not all entanglement results in non-locality; Bell’s theorem would not have been decided experimentally if your “part and parcel the same” were true—it would have been decided via deduction from accepted quantum principles.

  • RJS4DQ

    Can you produce an entangled state without some kind of intrinsic quantum uncertainty in the initial generation process?

    I am trying to assert that you cannot have entanglement without intrinsic quantum uncertainty, not that quantum uncertainty and quantum superposition always leads to entanglement.

    You want to argue about precision of language in a comment, fine – “part and parcel” could be interpreted differently by you than in my intended meaning.

    Back to my quote:

    Nonlocality or quantum entanglemen action at a distance is part and parcel of the quantum uncertainty I mentioned. This has not really dealt a blow to the reductionism of the quote. It does indicate that there is no rigorous determinism.

    By part and parcel all I was trying to say is that nonlocality and quantum entanglement action at a distance is part of the intrinsic quantum mechanical nature of things, as quantum uncertainty is a part of the intrinsic quantum mechanical nature of things. Neither deals a blow to reductionism.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    I guess I could stop being a pedantic nerd, but I think it does a disservice to the public to speak sloppily about quantum physics. For example, I’m not sure that quantum uncertainty is a necessary condition for entanglement.

    What entanglement shows is that if you’ve described one particle, in one ‘box’ in the universe, you may have also described something in some other part of the universe—or many somethings! And then you’ve no longer given a reductionist answer that only talks about that one ‘box’. It’s not clear that one could only look in the ‘box’ to understand it. Reductionism must be able to look into inside the ‘box’ in order to fully understand a thing.

    If you really don’t like my example of entanglement, we can move onto other cool physics, like topological quantum computing, which makes use of the fact that one can have two-dimensional ‘quasiparticles’, which sort of ‘superimpose’ onto what we often think of as ‘particles’, but not in a way that you can just ask the particles what their state is and derive the state of the quasiparticle. Now, reductionism could be rephrased in terms of any kind of particle, whether quasi- or traditional, but this threatens the very idea of reductionism.

  • RJS4DQ

    Quantum nerds are ok – I tend to be one myself.

  • RJS4DQ

    On to the second point.

    Replacing chemists with physicists has nothing to do with enough computational power. Most physicists I know work on complex systems where there is not enough computational power to provide sufficiently accurate calculations. Rather it has to do with the fact that chemicals are made up of atoms combined in various ways.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    Let’s go back to Ptolemy’s epicycles. If I can come up with math that allows me to perfectly describe the planets as circling the earth, does that mean I can say that they really orbit the earth? I say no: we prefer to call the simplest/most efficient model which predicts phenomenon down to the noise floor ‘real’, and not more complicated/less efficient models.

    On the above reasoning, I dispute the collapsing of chemistry into physics.

  • RJS4DQ

    I can come up with alternative “basis sets” to describe many things, some simpler, some more complicated. We generally prefer the more simple.

    What does this have to do with collapsing chemistry into physics?

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    What I’m saying is that collapsing chemistry in physics may be tantamount to saying that the planets orbit the earth because we can come up with math which accurately represents the planets’ position with reference to the earth’s position.

  • RJS4DQ

    How do you define chemistry and physics? We may be using different definitions.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    I think I’d generally agree with Wikipedia’s differences between chemistry and physics. If we aren’t careful, we hit the Sorites paradox.

  • RJS4DQ

    Interesting – I am an experimental physical chemist (or chemical physicist) who teaches quantum mechanics among other things. As the Wikipedia article says, this is where the division becomes diffuse.

    We do as little synthesis as we can get away with, but the synthetic chemists use tools developed by experimental and theoretical physical chemists regularly and we use their products whenever we study a compound (not to mention often these days eat, drink, medicate, or just live).

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    Cool! I like it when scientists and engineers try and get seriously into theology. I think a lot is lost when this isn’t done. For example, I’ve found several concepts from science and engineering (and perhaps even some math) which I think can elucidate concepts in theology. The right metaphors and compact symbology are often required to advance the state of the art of understanding.

  • mteston1

    I certainly am no where near fluent in the conversation you are having with RJS4DQ (laughing to myself, no where near does not adequately reflect how far I am from being able to enter your conversation) but . . . I am with you when scientist and engineers get serious about theology. In my initial forays into the quantum world and some elementary reads it is amazing how science “elucidates” many theological concepts. Its real easy for me to get pretty excited about that. Now you guys can talk.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    :-)

    One result of digging into QM—although this exists in the classic world as well—is uncertainty. Too often through the ages, Christians have been too certain in what they thought reality was like and what they thought God was like. God commanded humility and they weren’t, so he resisted them (Ja 4:6, 1 Pe 5:5). One cool result of QM is that you can gain arbitrary confidence in something; for example, the Elitzur–Vaidman bomb tester will probably blow your mind, if you can wrap your mind around it.

    Here’s a not-necessarily-possible scenario which nonetheless is more tractable than ‘quantum bombs’: suppose you want to know the position of a protein in a cell. You get more precision+accuracy with smaller wavelengths, but smaller wavelengths—like gamma rays—can also ‘blow up’ proteins by transmitting a ton of energy to them. But what if you could ask “what if the gamma ray were absorbed?”, without actually having the gamma ray absorbed by the protein? That would be an interaction-free quantum ‘measurement’. Critically, it won’t give you a guaranteed answer, except for when it blows up the protein and thus is useless. But you can get arbitrarily close!

    Now, the more mystical branches of Christianity understand that we don’t have certainty about a lot of things, but much of mainstream Christianity seems to have lost that. It’s very sad, because certainty = inability to learn more. Certainty = boxes from which you cannot escape. Unlike the particle in a box, which can quantum tunnel itself out with some probability. :-p

  • mteston1

    I think I’m following you here. I think you are right on target with the “certainty/uncertainty” issue. Not only is it a box, but it becomes dull, one exists in a space/place where you can never, or at least will never let yourself be “surprised.” I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ book, Surprised by Joy, obviously not same context, but the notion that QM leaves us with is enough “uncertainty” that leaves “room/free space if you will” allowing for free agents to act amidst all this and be stunned, surprised (hopefully joyfully) by what occurs in life and living. Now that’s just my less than scientific ruminating around such matters. Reality at every level made up of all this raw material, seen and unseen, interacting and human agents acting in the midst of it, manipulating it, trying to grasp it, even understand it is well exciting. And I imagine the One who started this whole thing has a breadth and depth to this whole reality that will allow inquisitive minds to dig deeper for eons if they will “wonder” in awe of it all. I think that is as close to a moment of worship as one can get, when you can say, wow. All quite amazing stuff. Thanks for the conversation.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    :-)

    One who started this whole thing has a breadth and depth to this whole reality that will allow inquisitive minds to dig deeper for eons if they will “wonder” in awe of it all.

    I’m curious: have you had the same experience as I, where Christians seem to have denied this perhaps-perpetual promise of being able to “dig deeper”? Theology seems to have been awfully stagnant, but perhaps I just haven’t been properly exposed to what’s out there.

  • mteston1

    I think you mentioned “mystic” above. It has taken me almost 50+ years to nail down who and what I am. I started in a more mystical/liturgical frame of reference as a Christian moving away from it for the last 30 years, feeling more and more frustrated with the “box” as it got more and more cramp as I served local congregations and recognized that most locals were not interested in “uncertainty.” They desired everything to be nailed down and for me that meant providing the hammer and nails. (Interesting image there for a people of the cross) The divide (so called) between science and faith frustrated me. When every time I read or listened to folks like yourself something got stirred inside of me. And I think theology too often became hammer and nails, was stripped of its wonder and became like the measurements about God that we often size each other up with, whether men (biceps, chest, thighs) or women, well you get the point. Theology too often used in the locals limited the parameters of any discussion which for me became stifling. Don’t get me wrong, there are theological frames of reference that allow for the integration of what you do and what I thought I gave my life to almost 30 years ago or longer. I am currently trying to navigate a season where my wife and I can experience the wonder and awe of both our Jesus centered faith and the kind of work you and others do. Hoping for a place where questions beget questions and prayers sound like, Hmmmmmmmm? That’s quite interesting, errrrrr. amazing even though I’m going to have to have a metamorphosis of my mind to fully grasp the implications of many of those ideas and concepts being discovered. Well I could go on but its your turn.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    You remind me of two things: (1) Scot’s Anne’s Wisdom, talking about measuring sticks; (2) catechisms intended to define an ‘us vs. them’, like the Westminster Catechism.(!) Jesus always seemed more interested in heart, while orthodoxy always seems to veer into mind, in a way that is largely devoid of heart. I think Mt 7:21-23 was written to those who worship God with their minds but not their hearts.

    Don’t get me wrong—C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces is a great illustration of love without truth—but I think God ultimately cares about what kind of person we are, and what kind of person we are necessarily evidences itself in our actions. Perhaps the most ironic thing of all is that if we thought in terms of improving the actions that pop out of us, we would realize that we don’t have certainty, and that we do continually have much more room to improve. It’s almost as if we should respect the evidence! But hey, it’s much easier to merely assent to the same beliefs. I like J.K. Rowling’s take: it is not so much a difference between good and evil as a “choice between what is right and what is easy”. We like to make Satan and evil dramatic. This is an error.

  • mteston1

    Much of what you speak of resonates with my own frustrations with the lay of the land in my personal “church local” experiences. And I think it was Jesus who said that it “would be out of the heart” that all kinda things come . . . I imagine the discipleship thing was and still is key. If we take the science seriously that indeed behavior, environments shape the “inner” being in some very bio-physical ways, and those ways become a kind of “automatic switch” not (always) under our direct control (ie. no real freedom) then I think this issue of discipleship is crucial, that is disciplines, habits, and practices done day in and day out will nail down alternative behaviors (actions as you call them) as opposed to just being on auto pilot. I think we can actually take both views quite seriously, that is the amazing capacity of our brain/mind/conscience performing any number of seemingly “auto pilot” decisions or whatever but also take seriously the reality that if we’ll slow down, understand ourselves, allow ourselves to be tutored, trained, and disciplined in “new pathways” then aren’t we developing the same new pathways to “act differently?” at least in my thinking this is what Jesus’ call to follow and his commitment to disciple was an attempt to shape a person’s inner being in order to change those deep actions/behaviors. The typical person today is resigned to the so called theological reality that they are scum, code for sinner, will be nothing more than that, cannot over rule in any consistent way these “auto pilot” responses/behaviors that often lead to less than abundant living. And in my experience “forgiveness” is peddled as the ‘easy’ antidote without any subsequent metamorphosis on the anvil of discipleship. Your quote of J.K. Rowling’s take, ‘it is not so much a difference between good and evil as a “choice between what is right and what is easy”‘ is spot on.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    I imagine the discipleship thing was and still is key.

    Agree 100%. This is one reason that seminary is so terrible: you aren’t “going through life together” with a mentor, you’re getting an education outside of normal day-to-day life and the normal challenges which accompany it. Christians are terrible at discipleship; I was at a church where an excellent pastor who wanted more intentional discipleship was ejected by elders who wanted the status quo to continue. Ouch!

    I think we can actually take both views quite seriously, that is the amazing capacity of our brain/mind/conscience performing any number of seemingly “auto pilot” decisions or whatever but also take seriously the reality that if we’ll slow down, understand ourselves, allow ourselves to be tutored, trained, and disciplined in “new pathways” then aren’t we developing the same new pathways to “act differently?”

    Precisely. At some point I want to look at the ‘cognitive biases’ scientists have established and see just how many of them are exposed in Proverbs, as well as scattered in other bits of the Bible. Hume talked about being enslaved to the passions, which is remarkably Biblical, apart from Hume’s overspecification—something corrected with a bit of Total Depravity (aka We Don’t Work Well Outside of Relationship with God). Jesus said the truth would set us free, and I think this truth includes having increasingly good models of how the brain works.

    In his After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre speaks about the importance of virtue; I’d liken his description to building up momentum. There’s something you can do with high momentum that simply cannot be done if you’re pretending to be one thing at one point in time, and something different at the next moment. Richard Hamming’s You and Your Research is a neat verification of Phil 4:8—when you obsess over scientific problems, you’re more likely to solve them. If you obsess about what is pure/true/noble/etc. (‘the good’, or more properly, Jesus), you can practice righteousness increasingly well and reap its fruits. Then again, that requires patient enduring and suffering for Christ, which is not something many people want to do…

    The typical person today is resigned to the so called theological reality that they are scum, code for sinner, will be nothing more than that, cannot over rule in any consistent way these “auto pilot” responses/behaviors that often lead to less than abundant living.

    I don’t think this is just a “theological reality”; I think it’s also a secular reality, and one that those in power wish to reinforce. Keep heeding the advertisements and don’t try and improve the system except for little changes that can make you feel like you ‘accomplished’ something. I’m reminded of House‘s favorite line, “People don’t change.” Well, they don’t without going about it sufficiently close to the right way.

    And in my experience “forgiveness” is peddled as the ‘easy’ antidote without any subsequent metamorphosis on the anvil of discipleship.

    You mean if I break your arm and then ask for forgiveness and then walk away, your arm is still broken? :-) Contrast this to Nehemiah’s repentance of his sin, his fellow Hebrews’ sin, and the sin of his ancestors.

  • RJS4DQ

    And the third point.

    WRF is not an atomistic modeling of the atmosphere, but it certainly is based on physics.

    If I do fluid dynamics using macroscopic properties, say viscosity as an example, it isn’t atomistic, but it is based on physics. Ultimately there is a connection between the atomistic and these macroscopic properties, but we need not make the connection.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    Let’s take this even further. Let’s say we connect all knowledge, via mathematical constructs which undergird it all. Do we say that everything is physics? Or is everything math and not even ‘physics’? Remember that the claim being inspected here is that understanding of consciousness will reduce to physics. But what if we simply come up with new math which models consciousness? Does that really constitute a reduction? Not clear!

  • RJS4DQ

    Ah – now you are getting to a point where I think we will probably have more agreement.

    No – I don’t think everything is math. (I’ll leave string theory and M-theory out of the picture (not my area).) Math is only useful as a tool to describe reality and it is useful because of very specific relationships that can be written down.

    So the claim of consciousness reduced to physics. I think this is a problem because we move from the realm of matter/energy to a realm that includes ideas. And interestingly enough these ideas have impact on the material system of the brain.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    Ideas might be describable as mathematical constructs which can be realized by any one of many different e.g. physical connections and weightings of neurons. So it’s not clear that ideas are distinct things.

    I guess I still don’t know what is meant by “consciousness reduces to physics”. Chaos theory threatens our ability to use ‘just physics’—instead of working from the math that physicists use, we likely need to find some stability (called attractors, apparently?) in the many-particle system, which doesn’t just depend on arbitrarily precise numerical accuracy.

    But what ought we say when we can’t just reason from standard physical laws, but need to go ‘beyond’ them somehow? Are we no longer dealing with ‘just’ particles and fields? When are we justified in using said ‘just’? I think our current knowledge of science has done a lot to put reductionism into severe doubt. Physicalism will be a harder nut to crack, but I’m not sure it needs cracking just yet.

  • Shane Scott

    Keith Ward has a good discussion of this experiment and what is does and does not demonstrate in his book More Than Molecules. One great point he makes is this: :”The primary intention has been completed before the experiment begins. That intention is to execute a slight and pointless physical movement at some arbitrary time in the near future…The brain has been instructed to do that, so it does.” And later, “Much useful information about the brain can be obtained from such experiments. But it should not be thought that laboratory results show us what really happens in real life, where a huge variety of complex, interconnected, and unmeasurable factors contribute to our conscious experience of acting and intending to act.” see pp126-130 for more.

  • mteston1

    I say this both in jest and seriously, “it’a a wonder that we can act at all” given the “huge variety of complex, interconnected, and unmeasurable factors,” that you note. Maybe its a good thing that the mind, conscience, brain has been created in such a way to take some of the burden of that process off the table every moment. This is an amazing discussion whether I get it all or not.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    I think one can bring up an evolutionary argument for free will (in the sense of conscious causation) in a two steps:

    the conscious experience of a living thing is NOT identical with brain processes:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/on-the-feeling-of-a-lonesome-bat-von-den-gefuhlen-eines-einsamen-fledermauses-des-sentiments-dune-chauve-souris-solitaire/

    2) consciousness cannot be an epiphenomenon on evolutionary grounds:

    http://www.iscid.org/papers/Hasker_NonReductivism_103103.pdf

    Cheers.‎

  • Susan_G1

    I would love to take part in this but must admit that the terminology/concepts puts it out of my league. Clearly my reading has been limited. I can discuss voluntary and determined movement by brain/spinal cord anatomy/physiology, with inhibitory, reinforced and reflex pathways but I’m clearly in the dust otherwise. Off the top of my head (haha) I’ll go with Einstein’s local hidden variable theory. I have very little understanding of this, but (mumble, mumble) counterintuitive (mumble) entangled state sounds good.

    If you want to talk about postsynaptic density and synaptic plasticity, I’m OK there. That’s where the mind is, I think. Or at least, I think so.

  • chris2002white

    I am not sure science can discover the “me” that makes impacting decisions–for that me is a spirit rather than purely a physical entity. Surely my freedom is limited by my physical–and that physical is at many points just reacting to what has come before.

  • Susan_G1

    i think we are getting closer all the time to discovering exactly that, where the “I” resides.

  • DMH

    I think the “I” will always be a ghost that haunts. You know it’s there but…

  • Susan_G1

    I’m not sure you’re right, though it’s certainly possible. Medicine (of which Neuroscience is part) is advancing in leaps and bounds, especially in understanding of disease (if not as quickly in the treatment of same), and with the increased study of the brain, new findings all the time. I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I do believe a major challenge on the scale of evolution to Genesis 1,2 will come to the understanding of the mind to the soul.

  • DMH

    I agree with you about the now and next challenge. You may also be right about the “I”. I… (hey!, who said that?) just think it’s somewhat (though not exactly the same) like the “God” question- I don’t think we can look at/in the physical universe and find God and so I have doubts about finding the “I” there also, though I haven’t sorted it all out.. and I probably never will. “I” am OK with that :)

  • Susan_G1

    :) “Me” too (being OK with it), more or less. Though I still find it fascinating and challenging.

  • Marshall

    Perfect freedom is perfect submission to God’s will. It says here.

    I think your suggestion, that the apparent problem is due to a misunderstanding of the nature/purpose/function of consciousness, is apt.

  • Rick

    If it is all predetermined, is anyone considered sinning, or doing wrong? Should people be arrested if that is their natural course of action?

  • Susan_G1

    That has been marginally addressed in previous posts. If I’m not mistaken, Phil brought up responsibility for crime if the ability to suppress that crime (in the case of an epileptic who had a portion of his brain removed which usually inhibits certain impulses) has been removed. But since we mostly believe in free will, we assume that sin is a choice.

    I am certain that a number of ‘sins’ (eg. homosexuality) have a genetic basis. For example, Post-partum depression can now be predicted in 85% or cases with a blood test for methylated DNA (this is epigenetic). Andrea Yates, the mother who drowned her 5 children, was a completely preventable ‘sin’, in that there was a 100% chance that she would develop major derpession with psychosis if she became pregnant again. She was in a patriarchal ‘church’ and her husband insisted he wanted more children. She obeyed him in spite of her fears, believing it was a sin not to. The result was well publicized and tragic, and while I believe people around her (who could see what was going on, her homicidal thinking very well known to them) sinned, especially her husband (who, against medical advice, left her unsupervised with the children though she was quite vocal in her homicidal psychosis) sinned, I do not think she had free will, that is, I think she did not sin when she drowned her children.

    She was institutionalized, and her patriarchal husband obtained a divorce, and started a new family. I am not Christ, so I will not pretend to know His judgement. But the inequity is striking.

    At the root of it all, though: if there is no free will, there is no sin. Which is why we *must* believe in free will.

  • RMHarris

    So basically the neuroscience is confirming calvinistic, islamic, and hindu fatalism…