By Jonathan Mitchican
On a recent episode of This American Life, David Kestenbaum talked to several scientists who assert that there is no such thing as free will. Human beings are just collections of atoms, no different from anything else in nature. Our apparent ability to make choices is just our neurons firing in response to outside stimuli.
As neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky explains, when we move a muscle, it is because a neuron in our brain tells it to move, and “that neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons only seconds before. And those neurons only fired because they got inputs only seconds before. And back, and back, and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that from out of nowhere decided to say something.”
Our lack of free will worries Kestenbaum, but perhaps it is the only logical conclusion to reach if you take a completely materialist view of the world — that physical phenomena are all that exist. We do not have souls, and our bodies are merely machines. Hope, faith, and love are nothing more than programmed responses. None of our choices matter. We are no more able than a dog or an insect to choose good over bad.
Who cares whether we spend our time feeding the poor or picking their pockets? What does it matter if we vote since all the outcomes are already determined? Why bother to improve yourself at all when the results were never within your control in the first place?
There are moments when I wish that G.K. Chesterton were still alive, because he would know just what to say to this. Of course, if Kestenbaum is right, he would say it merely because he was programmed to do so.
Kestenbaum and Sapolsky might be surprised to learn that all of this points to the reality of God in a strikingly Thomistic way. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas lays out what have come to be known as his five proofs for the existence of God. Thomas was attempting to show philosophically that there are many ways of coming to a natural understanding of the need for God, even if a person has never read the Bible or heard any Christian teaching. Just using reason, the reality of God can be identified, if not explored. Thomas builds on classical philosophy to do this, particularly on Aristotle.
In the first few proofs, Thomas makes a case that sounds surprisingly similar to the one Sapolsky makes to Kestenbaum. Thomas says that every action is in some way contingent upon other actions. Modern armchair philosophers often misunderstand Thomas to say that each moment must follow another predictable moment, like a set of dominoes falling. But his proof has nothing to do with time.
In the here and now, I am typing this article on a laptop, sitting on a couch, which is sitting on the floor, which is sitting on Earth, which is rotating around the sun, and so on. Each move I make is contingent on something else, which is itself contingent on something else. In all of this, Thomas and Sapolsky would agree. But Thomas also insists that, logically speaking, all of this must end somewhere. There needs to be a first mover who puts all objects in motion, or else the whole chain of contingency becomes absurd. It is this first mover, Thomas says, that we call God.
This does not answer all of the questions that are raised by Sapolsky’s theory, but it does point to the larger problem with the approach found in Kestenbaum’s piece. Materialism is not a scientific theorem. It is, rather, a philosophy — and not a well thought out one.
It is a kind of magical thinking in reverse, a way of saying that we need not deal with the strangeness of the world because we can assume that the strangeness is just a figment of our collective imagination. Free will cannot exist because it cannot be examined under a microscope. Love, the soul, and the conscience would suffer the same fate. All of this is about as scientific as the assumption by some of our ancestors that if they sailed far enough they would fall off the face of the Earth.
Once considered the queen of the sciences, theology has become a dirty word among some scientists in the past few generations. That is not news. What is extraordinary is that philosophy is now also looked at askew. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins have suggested that philosophy has nothing to contribute to the modern world and that bright minds are wasted on the study of it. Stephen Hawking said a few years ago that “philosophy is dead.” And Bill Nye “the Science Guy” made a splash by claiming that “humans made up philosophy,” which makes it unreliable, unlike science, which Nye apparently believes sprang fully formed from the mind of Zeus.
Philosophy does not teach us what to think, but how to think. When we study philosophy, we begin to step outside of our patterns of thought and examine our assumptions. Philosophy looks at different questions than science does, questions that science is not equipped to answer. There is no way, using the scientific method, to find out what it means to love someone or how to be ethical and live a good life. This is not because science is bad but simply because that is not what science is for. Science can tell us many things about our existence, but it cannot answer the question of why we exist. Science is a tool that helps us understand the world, but it cannot attach meaning to its findings or it ceases to be science.
Sapolsky can observe scientifically that all our physical actions are in some sense contingent on other actions, but the moment he begins to speculate about how that affects the human will, he has become a philosopher. And that means he needs to make his argument on philosophical grounds, or it becomes just another emotive opinion in the vast echo chamber that is our modern discourse.
Embracing philosophy does not require an embrace of theology, as a number of atheist philosophers have pointed out in their critiques of the anti-philosophy of Tyson, Hawking, and others. Nevertheless, philosophy often leads an open-minded person to wrestle with God. As C.S. Lewis said, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
Studying philosophy does not guarantee that we will come into contact with Ultimate Meaning, but it does help us to see what a meaningful world and a meaningful life would look like. Strict materialists ought to beware the study of philosophy, lest their materialism be exposed for what it is: a worldview borne of closed eyes that vanishes the moment it is exposed to the light of reason.
Since I did not hear the original show, it is hard to know exactly what the scientists said. One thing, though, I choose to move that muscle and my body responds accordingly. There are real differences between social scientists and natural scientists, although many fields are merging. I think much of this article’s characterization of scientists may not be accurate in terms of how we scientists on average view theology or philosophy. I do not concern myself much with what “popular science” spokespeople have to say about non-science things, and I am an active natural scientist. It’s just opinions. But… Read more »