Free will

Belief in a god rests on a foundation that requires one to postulate the existence of a mind/soul that can exist independently of the body (after all, the soul is assumed to live on after the physical death of the body) and freely make decisions. The idea that the brain is all there is, that is creates our consciousness and that the mind/soul are auxiliary products of that overall consciousness, strikes at the very root of belief in god.

So what about the role of free will? Where does that fit in with this? If the mind is an entity that exists independently of the brain and which can influence the brain, then one can think of free will as a product of the mind. But is free will compatible with the idea that the brain is all there is?

The idea that we have free will came under attack with the development of materialistic models of the universe. With the success of Newtonian physics in explaining and predicting the motion of celestial and terrestrial objects, and with the rise of a materialistic philosophy of nature (that everything consists of matter in motion under the influence of natural laws), it became inevitable for people to suppose that the mechanical universe was all there is.

According to the Newtonian model, all you needed to be able to predict the future state of an object was (1) exact knowledge of the current state of the object (known as the initial conditions), and (2) the forces of interaction between the object and its environment, because it these forces, and only these forces, that influenced its subsequent behavior. Since there was no reason to think that these two types of information were unknowable in principle, that implied the future of that object was predetermined. If everything that existed in the universe (including the brain and mind) had this same material basis and consisted of objects in motion, then the logical implication is that the future is predetermined.

Of course, the mere fact of predetermination did not imply that the future was predictable in practice. Since any object other than a few elementary particles is composed of a vast number of constituent elements such as atoms, no program of prediction can be actually carried out, simply because of the enormous complexity of the calculations involved. Since we are not able to predict the future with 100% accuracy in the absence of perfect information, the belief in an undetermined future for anything but elementary particles can be preserved from actual experimental contradiction.

But at a philosophical level, the fact that predetermination existed in the deterministic Newtonian word pretty much killed the idea of free will and the existence of an independent mind, and hence god. So in order to preserve those concepts, one has to find flaws in either or both of the two underpinnings of the Newtonian system given above.

One approach is to argue that we can never know all the forces acting on an object. This is essentially the idea behind the concept of god (or intelligent designer, which is the same thing) whose actions does not conform to any natural laws and hence can intervene in any system in unpredictable ways. There has been no real evidence that such an unknown and unpredictable force exists.

The other approach is to argue that we cannot know, even in principle, what the initial conditions are. This latter view actually has experimental support (at least in some situations) in quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which says that there is an underlying limit (inherent in nature) that limits the precision with which we can know the initial state of a system. The quantum world is not totally unpredictable of course. In fact, there exists a very high degree of predictability but it is a statistical predictability that says that we can state with some certainty what will happen on average, but each individual event is unpredictable. A classical analog is the case of tossing a coin. If I toss a coin a million times, I can predict with a very high degree of confidence that the number of heads will be very close to 50%, but I have only a 50-50 chance of guessing the result on any individual toss. And as I said before, almost everything in nature is made up of a vast number of constituent elements so it is the average motions of all these things that actually matter. This is why the predictions of science tend to be so accurate.

But the fact that there is even this small inherent uncertainty in nature has led some religious scientists to argue that quantum mechanics provides a non-deterministic niche that allows god to act and they have seized on it. For example, Brown University biology professor Ken Miller is a devout Catholic who has been a very strong opponent of the intelligent design movement. In his book Finding Darwin’s God he reconciles his belief in god with his belief in the sufficiency of natural selection by invoking the uncertainty principle as the means by which god can act in the world and yet remain undetectable. He doesn’t actually suggest a mechanism, he just asserts that quantum mechanics allows a window through which god can act.

So in some sense, the uncertainty principle is playing the role that the pineal gland played for Descartes, providing a point of intersection for the intersection of the nonmaterial world with the material world.

Those, like Jeffrey Schwartz and William Dembski, who are looking for new ways to preserve their intelligent design idea, have also tried to use the uncertainty principle to create room for it.

Frankly, this is not convincing. Although the uncertainty principle does assert an inherent limit, set by nature, on some kinds of knowledge, the limitation is highly restricted in its operation, significant only for very small objects at very low temperatures, and does not allow for the wide latitude required to believe in the kind of arbitrary intervention of god in the physical world that is favored by religious people. As the article Religion on the Brain (subscription required) in the May 26, 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Volume 52, Issue 38, Page A14) says:

Last year Dr. Schwartz and two colleagues published a paper on their quantum theory in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. They are not the first to try linking quantum mechanics to concepts of consciousness, but such efforts have failed to win over either physicists or neuroscientists, who discount the role that quantum effects would play at the size and temperature of the human brain. In discussions of consciousness, “the only reason people involve quantum mechanics is because of pure mysticism,” says Christof Koch, a professor of cognitive and behavioral biology at the California Institute of Technology.

Using the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle to sneak in god into the world is not tenable. Those who know anything about quantum mechanics, even those sympathetic to religion, see this as a futile maneuver, serving only to awe those who are intimidated by quantum mechanics.

Many other scientists have been highly critical of Dr. Schwarz; even some researchers interested in exploring spirituality discount his theory. The Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to forging links between science and religion, rejected a grant proposal by Dr. Schwartz, says Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president of the foundation. A cosmologist by training, Mr. Harper says the proposal was turned down because “it had to do with a lot of hocus-pocus on quantum mechanics.”

So that is where things stand. To retain a belief in god and free will and soul requires one to postulate not just one non-material entity (god) interacting with the material world, but to suggest that each one of us also possesses a non-material entity (the soul/mind) that exists independently of us and interacts only with our own material brain (and with no one else’s brain) in some unspecified way. The mind-body interaction must have a blocking mechanism that prevents such cross-over since, if one person’s mind/soul can interact with another person’s brain, that can cause all kinds of problems.

Is this a plausible picture? Again, plausibility is something that each person must judge. For me personally, it just seems far too complicated, whereas assuming that the brain is all there is makes things simple.

In my own case, I had already begun to seriously doubt the existence of god before I even thought about the brain/mind relationship. When I started looking closely at how the brain works, I became convinced that the idea of a mind that has an existence independent of the brain was highly implausible. The dawning realization that the brain is all there is sealed the conviction that there is no god.

POST SCRIPT: Running on empty

Money was hard to borrow in Sri Lanka when I was growing up. So we got used to the idea that we had to live within our means or have to (embarrassingly) borrow from friends and relatives. One of the things that took me a long time to get used to in the US was the ease of credit and that people would go so willingly and easily into debt, even for things like unnecessary luxury goods or taking vacations. I am still not used to that actually, even after all these years here. I cannot imagine borrowing money except for absolute necessities.

As we all know, the saving rate in America is non-existent and even (by some reports) negative, which means that as a whole, the people in the nation are spending more than they earn. We also know that the government is racking up huge budget deficits, and record-breaking debt.

Why is this happening? How long can it continue? Why is everyone seemingly oblivious to this?

Danny Schecter has created a new documentary In Debt We Trust: America before the bubble bursts (coming out in June 2006) where he talks about how the rise in debt is being deliberately driven by people who make money off increasing indebtedness.

You can read about it and see the trailer here.

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