From time to time we return to the question of free will. And rightly so. Without free will there is no possibility of moral choice and an important pillar of rational support for our belief in God is removed. So far so good. But I thought that it might be interesting to look at some problems which come with the concept.
The first one concerns how we know that any particular action is actually free. We do not need to be deeply read in psychology to realise the large number of factors which can modify our decisions. Our personalities and our temperaments vary a great deal, and influence our approach to decisions. But since we, so to speak, live inside our personalities we are limited in our ability to identify these factors.
(As it happens, some new research which came out from embargo at 4pm today – I like to keep you up with the latest news! – shows that the brains of conservative people differ from the brains of liberals. Conservatives have a larger amygdala – and the amygdala is associated with the processing of fear. So it is hypothesised that this influences conservatives to seek safety in the avoidance of change. Conversely, changes in the cingulate cortex of liberals are associated with tolerance of uncertainty and conflicts. (Current Biology 7 April). So it may be that some of the differences expressed in discussions on this Blog are more the result of our brain structure than rational thought.)
Then we are likely to share characteristics which are common to human beings. It may be recognising authority more easily in tall people than short, taking to (or taking against) people who resemble our parents in ways which are important to us, or being less likely to find attractive people guilty in court. And, to take a dramatically trivial example, having had two cataract operations this year I no longer regularly wear glasses. Thereby I lose 12 IQ points. How do I know that? Because studies have shown that we, on average, rate people who wear glasses as 12 points higher on the scale than those who don’t.
Since we are clearly as daft as brushes, and are quite unaware of it, how can we repose confidence in the idea that any particular choice is truly free? My father took the view that mortal sin was impossible for the English. Their lack of mental focus precluded the possibility of making decisions which were truly free. (But was he truly free to come to that conclusion?)
You may well have read of experiments in which the brain neurons fired before a decision was made. A new study has just been published in which it possible to measure this rather accurately. In brief, the neurons anticipated the decision by one and a half seconds. And more than half a second before conscious decision, the scientists were able to predict the arrival of the decision with 80% accuracy. So how can it be a free and conscious decision if our brain makes it before we do? You will be helped here by looking at an overview of the experiment.
The third example is one that has always interested me. Is Heaven the one place where we have no free will? Aquinas teaches us that the will is always drawn to what presents itself to us as good. Even wicked people have to see their proposed evil act as a good, at least in some perverse way, before their wills can turn to it. So, what happens when we get to Heaven and receive the full light of the absolute goodness of God? Clearly our wills have then no choice but to turn towards him – and so we are no longer free. Or are we? (You may think that to be a ridiculous question, but it is as well to remember that issues related to this have caused great disputes in the Church’s history. For those well versed in theological disputes, I speak of the question of “sufficient” versus “efficacious” grace.)
So it might interesting for us to see whether these arguments against free will hold water. And perhaps we can think of other examples.