By Nathan Bierma

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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

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.

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