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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

This Week:

  1. Dialogue: Faith and the science of free will
  2. Places & Culture
  3. Weekly Digest


When I find myself in a philosophical quandary and don't have anything written by Nicholas Wolterstorff handy, I turn to a brain trust of philosophical friends of mine from college. So when I found this essay on the science of free will in the New York Times, written by John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism: Dispatches From the Border Between Science and Spirituality, I knew whom to call: Andrew Chase-Ziolek, Patrick Jones, and Sara VanderHaagen. Andrew and Sara are recent graduates of Calvin, and Patrick graduated from Northwestern College in Iowa. Horgan's words appear in italics below. The full version of our e-mail roundtable is at NBierma.com.

Horgan: When I woke this morning, I stared at the ceiling above my bed and wondered: to what extent will my rising really be an exercise of my free will? Let's say I got up right … now. Would my subjective decision be the cause? Or would computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld actually set off the muscular twitches that slide me out of the bed, quietly, so as not to wake my wife, and propel me toward the door? …

A couple of books I've been reading lately have left me brooding over the possibility that free will is as much a myth as divine justice. The chief offender is The Illusion of Conscious Will, by Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard. … We think of will as a force, but actually, Dr. Wegner says, it is a feeling—"merely a feeling," as he puts it—of control over our actions. I think, "I'm going to get up now," and when I do a moment later, I credit that feeling with having been the instigating cause. But as we all know, correlation does not equal causation.

PJ: My response to this is based on The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will, edited by Benjamin Libet (Imprint Academic, 2000). As I understand it, Libet was actually one of the scientists involved in the experiments that Dr. Wegner refers to. The fact that Libet's position is nowhere mentioned makes me very suspicious of Wegner's agenda.

The conscious will appears to be initiated by an unconscious brain event. If the experiment is correct, then this calls into question free will. But Libet says the conscious will can veto these subconscious decisions (see page 51 of The Volitional Brain). The conscious veto may itself have a preceding unconscious process. But this would become an unconscious choice of which we become conscious rather than a consciously causal event (52). The conscious veto is a control function, not just simply becoming aware of a wish to act. The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. The ethical implications of this are actually consistent with most ethical and religious systems. Most of the Ten Commandments are thou-shall-not commandments (54). The experiments cited by Wegner give us no indication that actions cannot be consciously controlled.

Horgan: Perfectly healthy people may lose their sense of control over actions their brains have clearly initiated. When we are hypnotized, playing with Ouija boards, or speaking in tongues, we may feel as though someone or something else is acting through us, whether a muse, ghost, devil, or deity. What all these examples imply is that the concept of a unified self, which is a necessary precondition for free will, is itself an illusion.

SVH: While these findings may illustrate that we do not have ultimate control of ourselves (because we do live in a world we can't control), they do not seem to indicate much of anything about the self, except the fact that self-communication is a very tricky business. This writer's individualistic concept is clearly very Western and Americanized; the concept of "control" was created in part by our obsessive individualism, which seeks any proof for its justification (talk about post hoc).

God acting through us does not destroy the "unity" of the "self"; it is what unifies the self in the first place. The scientist's comment reveals an either/or mentality about selves in general—that the individual human self and the possibility of interaction with a greater self are mutually exclusive, that divine intervention sabotages free will. In fact, it seems to me that people recognize (deep down, though many wouldn't say so) that divine intervention merely sabotages our ideas of free will and wisdom.

Horgan: To me, choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Moreover, our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society.

ACZ: This is utilitarian, and the author doesn't seem to care if his view is true or not. Moreover, the statement, "Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society," is incredibly culturally biased. Tell that to a Chinese person who believes that his whole life is governed by "joss." Guess his society inherently stinks. Plus, we never see a justification for why we need to 'take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God.'

PJ: Metaphysics is the study of the nature and structure of reality. There can be no "metaphysical justification" for anything that doesn't really exist. If ethics and morality don't exist, and free will and accountability don't exist, then justice of any sort doesn't exist either. This is exactly what moral relativism asserts. If human courts are the highest form of authority in the universe, then morality and justice are reduced to mere power—either power of the government or the power of majority. Right and wrong are merely matters of opinion. Mother Teresa and Hitler merely had differences of opinion regarding human life. There is no way we can say that one was more "right" than the other because no objective standard exists regarding morality.

Horgan: Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a "God of the gaps," who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.

ACZ: 'God of the gaps' is a term pejoratively used to describe the God that some theologians allow to be pushed out of all interaction with creation (or perhaps was wrongly put into some areas of interaction, and then was justly removed.) Basically, the author is claiming that in our epistemic doubt, we can believe in free will, but really, we don't have it.

SVH: I think that the experimental "gap" could be the gap between intuition (or primal action or Kantian basic thought or whatever) and our ability to translate that intuition into action. Language is not quite as quick as thought, and sometimes in order to think things that require words, it takes us longer than our intuition to think them. Make sense?

Horgan: As I lay in bed this morning, however, my faith in free will wavered. Scanning my mind for something resembling will, I found a welter of roiling thoughts and antithoughts, a few of which transcended virtuality long enough for closer inspection. One thought was that, no matter what my intellect decides, I'm compelled to believe in free will. Abruptly my body, no doubt bored with all this pointless cogitation, slipped out of bed, padded to the door, and closed it behind me.

ACZ: Sounds like Descartes. And sounds like Reformed epistemology. So what would he say if I said, "Scanning my mind for something resembling God, I found a welter of roiling thoughts and antithoughts, a few of which transcended virtuality long enough for closer inspection. One thought was that, no matter what my intellect decides, I'm compelled to believe in God"? Does the author believe that compulsion to believe something makes it true, or is it just a statement about his internal state?

PJ: The deeper question here is of free will and determinism. Remember that the goal of science is ultimately to find the laws of cause and effect. If this is the definition of science, then the only way we could have a science of humans (i.e. psychology; cognitive science) is if humans also operate under the laws of cause and effect. … However, free choices are not predictable, even if they are determined. … The bottom line is, there is a gap between the category of physical phenomena and the category of subjective phenomena. We could know every physical thing about the brain and still have absolutely no insight to the subjective phenomena.

SVH: This article left a bit to be desired in terms of practical application. It would be a pity for all science to turn out like some of the nihilistic philosophy that basically died of impotence—it can't produce pragmatic fruit. Even if our decisions were dictated to our brain cells by myriad external and internal stimuli over which we have no control, we would be hard pressed to conduct a society around attempting to understand and predict the seemingly random movements of these stimuli.


From the Washington Post:

NAIROBI –As music boomed through the colorful, poster-plastered CD shop, Penny Mungai, one of the sales clerks, mused over the offerings on Kenya's television stations. "I enjoy watching 'Divorce Court.' It is one of my favorite shows," said Mungai, 24, whose designer jeans, funky top and head-hugging knit cap suggested a decidedly Western fashion sense. "It shows true-life situations, and even though it is made in the U.S., the men are so similar to here." Her co-worker, Liz Wanjiku, 26, agreed. "I love 'Friends' and 'Martin,' " she exclaimed, laughing at the mere thought of the comedies. "They are so real. … They show it how it is." Mungai and Wanjiku are among the many young Kenyans whose tastes in fashion, music and everything trendy mirror a culture that is at once 7,000 miles away and as close as their living rooms. Though the number of TV stations available in Kenya has jumped from one to seven in little more than a decade, the high cost of original programming means broadcasters in this desperately poor nation rely on relatively affordable reruns of "Ally McBeal," "The West Wing" and daytime soap operas from the United States. As a result, some Kenyans warn that this country's 31 million people—at least those with access to television—are losing touch with their own culture. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles …
Related:New hope amid the AIDS crisis in Kenya
CAÑON CITY, Colo. – It looked at first like a classic story of the "Erin Brockovich" genre: A feisty young lawyer and her long-suffering clients took on the local uranium mill—and won big. In a series of trials, local residents who say they were poisoned by toxic runoff won more than $40 million from Cotter Uranium Corp. But Hollywood-style happy endings are hard to come by in this hardscrabble canyon country. Last month, a federal appeals court in Denver threw out all the verdicts against Cotter. The court ordered the trial judge to start the cases over—a dozen years after the litigation began. While the judges gave Cotter a clear legal victory, the company, which helped create the nation's nuclear age, has suffered severe political setbacks in this city of 16,000, partly because of publicity from the court cases and partly because of corporate plans to bring in toxic waste from other states for processing here. Even the Cañon City Daily Record, long a Cotter supporter, concluded on its editorial page that "Cotter's time has come and gone." … Cotter executives say their current business plan is to get out of uranium processing as soon as possible. The plaintiffs in the lawsuits—there are nearly 50 and many of them are aging, sick, or both—seem to be losing whatever hope they had. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles …


For links with an * you can log in with member name and password of "bcread"

  • In February 2001, President Bush visited Mexican president Vicente Fox's ranch in Guanajuato, Mexico, where the two laid out an ambitious agenda for relations between their two countries, touching on issues ranging from trade and drugs to energy and immigration. At the time there were other hopeful signs that the Bush administration would have strong ties not just with Mexico but with Latin America as a whole. Since September 11, 2001, though, the U.S. has all but forgotten about Latin America, argues Jorge Castaneda, recent Mexican foreign minister, in Foreign Affairs. This seeming indifference to recent political turmoil in Venezuela and economic turmoil in Argentina, along with the conspicuous emptiness of embassies in Latin American capitals, Castaneda argues, reflect a level of neglect that has undermined the post-NAFTA momentum of economic and democratic reform in Latin America.
    http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20030501faessay11220 …
  • Urban sprawl is alive and well outside Washington D.C., says the Washington Post. Census figures released last month show that the metropolitan area is growing at an even faster rate than it did in the 1990s despite slightly slower growth in 2002. Two-thirds of the increase in the region, where more than 5 million people live, has come in the outermost suburbs, the Post says, with the type of sprawling energy cities experienced in the 1950s. "Increasingly, census figures show, the area's growth is sprawling 35 miles or more from the District, on former farms where townhouses and mini-mansions now sprout."
    Meanwhile, pockets of poverty worsen in D.C, says the Post.
    Elsewhere, the news on urban poverty is better, says USA Today.
  • Farms and farmers are disappearing rapidly. Male farmers, that is. Female farmers represent a rare growth area in American agriculture, says the Washington Post. Women are buying the most small farms, and for the first time government agencies are predicting that in twenty years, the majority of the nation's farmland will be owned—and much of it operated—by women.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles …
  • What is it like to be one of the first links in the emergency room chain in Georgetown, Connecticut? And how much harder is it if you're a hypochondriac, with a compulsive fear of both disease and driving? Before volunteering to work in ambulances in Georgetown, Jane Stern's couldn't stand to watch "E.R." and came to the point where she couldn't summon the will to leave the house. Now the life of an on-call emergency response worker brought an entirely new rhythm to her life. "As a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT), I wait for my call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," writes Stern in a new book excerpted in AARP magazine. "It pulls me out of deep sleep, out of showers, away from dinner, from my favorite TV shows, and from long, loving embraces."
    http://www.aarpmagazine.org/people/Articles …
  • Where have you gone, Our Town? School plays are getting grittier as students use the stage to probe some vexing issues of adolescence, says the Washington Post. Thousands of schools have put on a play about school shootings called Bang Bang You're Dead. Dozens more are performing The Laramie Project, which is based on interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming, where five years ago Matthew Shepard was tortured and left to die because of his homosexuality. A bastion of innocence to the point of parody in popular culture, school plays today are more self-conscious about being "socially relevant," observers say.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles …
  • If ever the need for public broadcasting were in doubt, cable news blares at us until the urgency of PBS' prime-time oasis is unmistakable, writes Nancy Franklin in the New Yorker. The shouting heads on MSNBC et al., Franklin says, pander to "our idle curiosity [without] engaging our active curiosity about the world or about history. … Thoughtfulness has fallen through the cracks." Even though the Discovery Channel and History Channel have put a dent in PBS' purpose, and even though PBS can seem overly eager to please a mass audience with occasional watered-down documentaries, three current exceptions remind you of how good television can be when it sets out to "reward your patience" rather than bellow at you, says Franklin. This piece follows a long line of media critics' laments over the prime-time din of cable "news" (and indeed, appears in the same issue as a less-than-glowing profile of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes), but Franklin is one of the few writers original enough to avoid beating a dead horse. Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune is another; see his story on upcoming Frontline world news specials here.*
  • My thoughts on media and curiosity at NBierma.com/journalism.
  • Can information on travel in cyberspace at the speed of light? A good place to ponder this is none other than the Internet, with the publication of Albert Einstein's writings on a new Web site, says Reuters. The site, www.alberteinstein.info, is a collaboration of the California Institute of Technology and the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
    http://reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml …
  • Browsing: The rise of conservatives on college campuses in the New York Times Magazine, the Weekly Standard on the need for another NYT-like paper of record, and more from Slate's "In Other Magazines."

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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