Sunday, August 4, 2013

Why Current Neuroscience Doesn't Show that Free Will is a Myth

John Loftus at Debunking Christianity wrote a post claiming that, "Neuroscience is making it extremely difficult for believers to still claim that by freely choosing to believe we are saved (or condemned), that we freely choose to sin, or that there is a wrathful God who will judge us on the last day." Here is my response:

I think that we need to avoid the two extremes of the positive thinkers, who believe that anyone who sets their mind to something can achieve anything, and naturalists, who view people as no different than billiard balls who are powerless to resist the trajectory they’ve been set on, when interpreting the results of these studies. The former should be avoided because, quite obviously, someone who was born with severe cerebral palsy isn’t going to be a starter in the NFL no matter how badly they want to. The latter should be avoided because the information that we have does not warrant abandoning a properly basic belief in free will.
As my old Sociology professor would say, “Correlation is not causation,” and the crime statistics you’ve provided, John, are a mere correlation. Sure, given a genetic predisposition towards something like alcoholism and the wrong environment the chances that someone is going to become an alcoholic are quite high, but it doesn’t follow that the person is completely powerless not to drink. After all, if free will does not exit, then we could be as sure about anyone’s actions as we are of the velocity of a struck billiard ball, but that’s not what we see. We see alcoholics give up drinking and we see people who know they are genetically predisposed to alcoholism avoid drinking altogether. We also see people with the “dangerous” Y chromosome who grow up in tough environments become upstanding citizens.
Now, you’ve also provided some extreme case studies of people with a more limited free will. Someone with Chorea doesn’t have full control of their body, but it doesn’t follow that they have never made a free choice in their life, and it certainly doesn’t follow that, when I raise my arm, that I couldn’t have done otherwise or that I was destined from the big bang to raise my arm at that moment.
In order to have a defeater for my properly basic belief that I can generally choose to do otherwise we would need clear and conclusive evidence that my seemingly free choices are an illusion. We simply don’t have that evidence, at this point, so I have epistemic warrant to conclude that I do have free will until a true defeater is presented, and quite frankly, I think this should be the position of all rational people.
What we should do with this data from these studies? I believe that we should use it to try to prevent people who are predisposed to violence from making poor decisions. We should do what we can to ameliorate their environments and lives so that they won’t be so prone to violence. We should also make allowances for people, as I’m sure God does, with more limited free will, that truly can’t do otherwise.  

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