It’s a question that likely has been around since the first human took an imaginary step outside his head and realized he was thinking, something we do all the time but aren’t normally conscious of: Does Man actually have free will, or is he just a puppet whose strings are pulled by circumstance?
Cogito ergo sum, Descartes said. I think, therefore I am.
But are you acting under your own control, or are you just a bit of flotsam on the seas of coincidence, merely hallucinating that you have free will?
Researchers who conducted a recent experiment say that their data suggest that choices are predetermined and that free will is an illusion.
The researchers from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, set up an experiment in which volunteers were asked to focus on a point on a video screen then prompted at some random time to choose to change their focus either to the left or to the right. By measuring the subjects’ brain activity, they hoped to gain insight into how the choice to move right or left was actually made.
By introducing the random timing of the choice, the subjects were unable to anticipate when they would need to make a choice. The researchers determined that the choices the subjects made were actually dependent on the “noise” in their brains in the moments before the choice was prompted and were therefore predictable.
“The state of the brain right before presentation of the cue determines whether you will attend to the left or to the right,” said researcher Jesse Bengson.
Bengson further explained: “(Although) purposeful intentions, desires and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment. 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.”
The thing that is concerning is not so much the research itself as the way it will likely be used.
At the root of what’s been called the “culture wars” in America is the conflict between a biblically based, God-centered worldview and a purely mechanistic, atheistic worldview.
Each outlook offers completely different answers to questions about topics such as freedom, responsibility and the nature of human existence.
The biblical view is that all humans are special creations of God, who has endowed them with life, purpose, rights and responsibilities. In this view, individuals are accountable for their actions, and government derives its authority from the consent of the governed.
In the materialistic view, men are just random assemblages of meat, flukes of evolution, with no more inherent value than your average sea urchin or bunny rabbit. In the mechanistic view, humans are slaves to circumstance and genetics, and they have no real control over their actions. If someone who subscribes to this view allows for the possibility of God’s existence at all, it’s often only to say, “God made me this way” in justification of morally questionable behavior.
Bengson’s research seems like it could go either way, but the media are already latching on to the “no free will” angle, which is crucial to the Left, in this country and elsewhere.
The idea fits smoothly into the liberal outlook. If there’s no free will, then anything goes and it’s not your fault. That is the end goal of modern liberalism, to tear down all norms of behavior and belief, because ultimately people with no deeply held beliefs are easy to control. And if it becomes accepted that people are just randomly generated animal life, then they have no rights other than what the government chooses to give them. The government is the ultimate authority because it has the power of the police and military.
Materialistic atheism leads to one inevitable conclusion: State-run collectivist tyranny.
The biblical view leads to what arguably may be a messier outcome, because each individual is free to cooperate or not based on his own choice. But individuals have freedom, rights and responsibilities. Historically, that combination has led to far better outcomes for everybody.
Bergson’s research seen through the lenses of a biblical worldview raises some interesting questions. Christians and Jews already know our bodies are just temporary vessels for our souls. Bergson’s suggestion of a “carrier wave” inside the human brain is a suggestive model for a soul-body interaction.
Whatever comes of a study like Bergson’s, we do have a duty, I think, to explore our universe and how things work. But in formulating answers to our many scientific questions, we need to be mindful of the ultimate purpose we are serving, for the liberation or enslavement of the human race.