Something in us continues to insist that human beings are responsible for their actions.
OK, so we don’t have free will, but we might be free to will whatever we think is best.
As far as I can tell, that about sums up the current state of inquiries into the question of “free will.” The rise of neuroscience, coupled with the “uncertainty principle” concerning just about everything is making it increasingly difficult for scientists to allow for the existence of anything like free will, as historically understood. Nevertheless, something within us continues to hold on to just such an idea.
Writing in the May/June issue of Scientific American Mind Christof Koch summarized the current state of the question. Neuroscience appears to show that, prior to our deciding what we intend to do, our brain has already begun to act. The electricity and chemistry of the brain affect, it seems, not only the doing of an action, but the choosing of which action to do. Forces – cosmic forces? – beyond the reach of conscious choice actually appear to determine our choices for us. In which case, kiss free will good-bye.
But Christof Koch explains that it’s not that easy to separate the act of choosing, from the brain’s sending the signal to act, to actually doing something. These all seem to be integrated activities in the brain, so that, Mr. Koch believes, we are still responsible for the actions we take at any particular time. Whether or not we freely chose a particular action is not the right question, he suggests. But whether we might have exerted more control over the process of acting and, hence, the process and action – that’s the real issue. The brain may stimulate us to choose some action, and send a signal to the eye or mouth or hand to do so. But that doesn’t mean we have to carry the process through.
Mr. Koch adopts, but does not necessarily recommend, a more “pragmatic conception of free will.” He explains, “I try to live as free of constraints as possible. The only exception should be the restrictions that I deliberately and consciously impose on myself, chief among them restraints motivated by ethical concerns: do not hurt others and try to leave the planet a better place than you found it.”
Precisely what Mr. Koch means by “deliberately” is not clear. Nor does he explain either why he chose those particular restraints, or whether such restraints should be considered normative for all humans.
Mr. Koch adds as a second lesson and application, “I try to understand my unconscious motivations, desires and fears better. I reflect deeper about my own actions and emotions than my younger self did.” OK, but does reflecting and understanding necessarily imply that acting in a manner consistent with his chosen restraints will follow? Not necessarily.
Two questions emerge from Mr. Koch’s summary of the state of free will inquiries: First, something in us continues to insist that human beings are responsible for their actions. No matter that cosmic principles and reactions in the brain seem to go ahead of choosing and doing, we’re still responsible for whether or not we act in a socially and morally acceptable manner. But if we’re not “free” to act, how can we be “responsible” for our actions?
And second, the idea that socially and morally acceptable norms should be defined and embraced strikes me as a notion not entirely in accord with a universe governed by random powers and processes. We can’t predict the orbit of Pluto, as Mr. Koch explains. How can we know that doing no harm to others is the best course in every situation?
I do not believe that answers to these questions will ever be supplied through the scientific method. These and many other questions are more metaphysical in nature – they go beyond what physical science or material explanations can supply. Without norms, convictions, and beliefs rooted beyond what we can merely observe and manipulate, we’ll never be able to address this question – and many similar questions – in a satisfactory manner.
Hence, the need for the continuing presence within the conversations of contemporary science of those who seek reliable knowledge from the realms of theology and philosophy. Mr. Koch’s “lessons”, even if applied only to himself, do not resolve the question of free will and responsibility where others are concerned. Mr. Koch’s choice of “restraints” are acts of faith, not of scientific reasoning, and they require other acts of faith for their further clarification, elaboration, and application beyond Mr. Koch’s own experience.
So we’ll need to make sure that whatever “faith” perspectives become involved in this conversation can demonstrate a track record of reliability and viability – however we may choose to define these.
Yet a third question comes to mind: I tend to agree with Mr. Koch that, even though we may be inclined to perform some action or other – regardless of which comes first, brain activity or conscious choice – we still have the power to do the action or not. Hence, the need to understand and scrutinize our motivations. But what is the source of that power? Where does “responsibility” ultimately lie? If not in the brain, which is directing us in one way, then where?
Theologians have answers here, if only the scientists would be willing to hear them.