"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, January 12, 2007

The free-will treadmill

Way back when I was in graduate school (daughter rolls eyes here), discussion of the perennial topic of free will vs. determinism was shifting more and more into the realm of what had recently been dubbed "cognitive science." The assumption seemed to be that the progress of neurobiology and related disciplines would be relevant to determining whether there is such a thing as free will. Of course the deck was rigged from the start: what counted as progress was progress in scientific explanation and prediction of human decision-making, which at best meant delimiting the scope of free will, and was sometimes hoped to mean eliminating the idea altogether. The whole project struck me as rather question-begging. I learn that they're still at it, and still begging the question.

In a succinct piece last week for the First Things blog, assistant editor John Rose summed up and gently criticized a pair of New York Times articles on the topic. I noticed that the scientists quoted seemed unable to make anything of a process that would be neither deterministic nor random: intelligible, even rational, but not necessitated. Accordingly, mental processes whose outcomes we can't predict with current methods must be one of two things: determined, with some of the necessitating causes opaque to us at present, or simply random. Neither would be free will as classically understood and experienced. The notion that we might choose to act for reasons, functioning as non-necessitating causes that do not stand in a strict identity-relation with neural firings we can observe and map, seems beyond their ken. Indeed such a notion lies outside the scope of what is now understood to be natural science. But what that shows at most is that, if there is such a thing as free will, it isn't scientifically knowable. To get to the conclusion that there is no free will, you need to add the premise that what isn't scientifically knowable does not exist to be known. That premise is known as "scientism."

Of course God can't be known scientifically either. In the final analysis, scientism is a form of atheism, whose real motivations are often something else. As Rose says: "Expect many similar articles in the coming years as new neurological research is published—much of it aimed, as the Times piece is, at exciting atheists into a belief that they’re closing in on a damning piece of evidence against religion." I hope they get bored. They're on a treadmill, really: running a race going nowhere on a machine of their own devising.
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