June 22, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Choosing to Believe in Free Will

Free will matters to children.  It had better exist.

Neuroscientists have been trying for years to locate the source of free will in the brain.  They have done this freely of their own will.  But if they ever find free will is caused by the physical brain, or has been determined by our evolutionary past, it will cease to be free.  The late Cornell evolution professor William Provine used to insist that Darwinism implied there is no free will.  Apparently he chose to say this freely by his own choice, but he understood that free will is an illusion except in the Biblical world view that he once trusted as a child.  Needless to say, preachers call on their flock to make life choices, because the Bible assumes (despite issues of God’s sovereignty) that people can hear, understand, and respond.

Here is some food for thought on free will from the secular news.

  1. Free Will May Just Be the Brain’s ‘Background Noise,’ Scientists Say (Tia Ghose at Live Science).  Despite the headline, the article does not actually say that free will is brain noise. Instead, UC Davis may think brain background noise may serve as a “carrier” much like a radio frequency on which signal is modulated. Jesse Bergson at UCD explained, “This random firing, or noise, may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio static is used to carry a radio station.”  This would seem to allow a soul to control the signal being conveyed.
  2. ‘Nudging’ people towards changing behaviour: what works and why (not)? (Ben Newell in The Conversation). Drawing on the “Nudge” theory of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaller on how to influence society gradually, Newell points out that nudging doesn’t always work, because people can learn to tune it out.  Regardless of what one thinks about the concept, it’s built on the concept of influencing people’s choices, assuming they can choose.  It also presupposes that the nudgers are making choices on what to nudge.
  3. Political Lies, White Lies and Damned Lies (Steve Ellen in The Conversation).  Accompanying his essay on the ubiquity of lies in politics, Ellen posts a picture of the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone.  Obviously, Commandment #9 “Thou shalt not bear false witness” presupposes free will and the choice to do the right thing.  Even thought he states that lying might be necessary in our complex society, Ellen points out, “There’s some research suggesting lying is bad for your health.”  It would seem evolution would not select for low fitness.
  4. How Our Brains Store Recent Memories, Cell by Single Cell (UC San Diego press release).  Neuroscientists at UC San Diego are finding more clues to how the brain uses its scratchpad memory.  The hippocampus is involved, but there’s no simple relationship between memorized words and the neurons that become active.  “Intuitively, one might expect to find that any neuron that responds to one item from the list would also respond to the other items from the list, but our results did not look anything like that,” they said.  Since the subjects were applying their minds to the experiment, the results do not bear directly on free will.  Neurons may be implements the will is using, like tools on a desk.
  5. Making science cool won’t win over the denialists (Chris Mooney in New Scientist).  This scientific-consensus-loving author whose hobby is to portray Republicans, conservatives and the religious right as “anti-science” is concerned that his foes are not likely to be swayed by gimmicks.  Regardless of political persuasion, though, Mooney’s whole point hinges on free will.  He likes Cosmos and other efforts to make science look cool, but “Now comes the hard part: show us not just that science is cool and fascinating, but that science denial is destructive or even immoral,” he says.  “Show us that it amounts to succumbing to one of the least flattering aspects of the human psyche: putting self-serving beliefs ahead of facts and ahead of people.”  His sermon would be different without free will.  He might want to genetically modify his opponents instead of influencing them.
  6. Context effects produced by question orders reveal quantum nature of human judgments (Wang et al. in PNAS).  Now here are some scientists really out to physicalize free will.  “The findings lend strong support to the idea that human decision making may be based on quantum probability,” they boast, not aware that if that is strictly true, their own decision to do research and write their conclusions were mere quantum events (see self-refuting fallacy).

So goes the recent literature about free will.  It’s physically based, but we choose to believe in it.  Knowing that influences both subtle and overt can “nudge” us, we each feel in control of our decisions in the final analysis.  Reading this article, you know you could turn away at any time and choose to do something else.  These recent speculations about free will are unlikely to significantly modify the arguments pro and con that have carried on for centuries.  One 20th-century surprise, though, is that quantum mechanics undermines the mechanistic determinism that began with Newton.

We end with two articles that show the moral imperative for belief in free will.  One article is encouraging; one serves as a warning.

  • Moral tales with positive outcomes motivate kids to be honest (Medical Xpress). Psychologists at Gill University, unsurprisingly, found that moral stories encouraged children to be honest.  Whether they heard about Pinocchio, George Washington and the cherry tree, or the boy who cried wolf, children gave evidence that they were taking the morals to heart.  The stories did not just go in one ear and out the other.  Especially effective were the stories that showed the positive outcomes of honesty, rather than the negative effects of dishonesty.
  • Minimizing Belief in Free Will May Lessen Support for Criminal Punishment (Association for Psychological Science).  This interesting article confirms that the more people are taught that criminals are not responsible for their behavior, the more lenient they become.  People who learned about neuroscientific research, either by reading a magazine article or through undergraduate coursework, proposed less severe punishment for a hypothetical criminal than did their peers,” the press release says. “The findings suggest that they did so because they saw the criminal as less blameworthy.”

John West’s book Darwin Day in America contains a lengthy section on just this theme: how the rising influence of Darwinism influenced the criminal justice system away from personal responsibility and more toward determinism.  Although there are hyper-Calvinists who might quibble about human responsibility, most in the Judeo-Christian tradition preach responsibility and take responsibility.  The decline in responsibility largely parallels the abandonment of the Bible and the embrace of evolutionary naturalism.

Choose you this day whom ye will serve, Joshua said: “If the Lord be God, then follow Him.”  Jesus said to enter in through the narrow gate.  He beckoned, “Come unto me.”  Choice, the human ability to respond freely by an act of the will, is presupposed throughout the Bible, except for the bent of original sin that makes self-effort to reach God impossible.  We do not wish to get dragged into a discussion of God’s sovereignty vs. man’s responsibility, but suffice it to say that human society must at least “act as if” choice matters, else why vote?  You can choose to believe in determinism, but even that is a self-defeating choice.  Worrying about the neural or spiritual underpinnings of free will are, in practice, interesting but irrelevant.  All bets are off in society if human beings are not accountable.  Criminal justice is but one example; Darwinism has had a pernicious effect on every human institution.  Choose to root it out, lest we perish in the value-free, unaccountable dystopia Paul predicted (II Timothy 3:1-7).


(Visited 113 times, 1 visits today)


  • rockyway says:

    ‘Psychologists… found that moral stories encouraged children to be honest. Whether they heard about Pinocchio, George Washington and the cherry tree, or the boy who cried wolf, children gave evidence that they were taking the morals to heart.

    – The trouble with Dawkins… and what I think explains much of his behavior… is that when he was growing up no one told him the story of Pinocchio.

    Of course it might be true that he was told the story, but then rejected it for not being scientific. (“My dear parental units,” said little Rich, “where’s the evidence there ever was this guy Pinocchio?”)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.