While many families were discussing classical sources at their Passover Seder this past year, my family somehow ended up getting into an hour long discussion on the relationship between Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Free Will. As a family that deeply values both Judaism and Science, this conversation was the epitome of trying to truthfully balance these two different parts of our lives.
In the last several years, the field of neuroscience has made great strides in understanding how the human brain functions. While our knowledge of the field is no where near complete– and there are still many open-ended, unanswered, questions about how we understand the brain– the field of neuroscience is growing and I believe that the findings of neuroscience potentially strike at the very core of all religious beliefs.
It does not take a genius to realize the massive blow to any sort of Religious Objectivity that may exist in the universe if neuroscience can seemingly reduce consciousness– and thereby all of our thought processes and decisions– to physical and electrical signals in the brain. As someone who is fascinated by consciousness and the brain, while simultaneously attempting to search for Truth in our Universe, this is a question with which I have struggled for a while.
I wish to give a brief history of these ideas, present some of the problems, and entertain some possible answers that I have either come across or thought about in some form or another. Since this is a very important and loaded conversation I will be dividing up this topic over the course of a few articles.
In the year 1814, a French Mathematician named Laplace published an essay describing his shocking theory of Physical Determinism. Physical Determinism is basically a theory that posits that if the position of every atom in the Universe is known, taken with knowledge of every force in the Universe, the future can be determined via the laws of physics. Laplace summarized his theory as follows:
We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes. (A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities).
This theory, soon to be known as Laplace’s demon, is completely irreconcilable with Free Will. Just as (according to the laws of physics) a ball thrown upwards will come down at some calculable speed– and no one would say that the ball had “Free Will” or “chose” to fall — according to Laplace’s demon everything that happens, or will happen, to an individual, or the rest of the Universe, is also technically calculable; thus, it cannot be said to have “Free Will.” If the future status of an individual, or the entire universe for that matter, can be completely calculable or reducible there is no room for free will or even the soul for that matter.
Before moving on, I find it necessary to point out that the advent of quantum mechanics into the scientific world makes belief in complete material determinism very difficult. While I will return to the subject of quantum mechanics sometime later, for now it is sufficient to understand that at the quantum level, things work via probabilities instead of certainties. For instance, if I drop a rock I am certain that it will drop to the ground via the laws of physics, but if a particle on the quantum level is fired at a wall, the exact location that this particle will end up is truly random– due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Quantum mechanics, however, can only help us so far in the realm of free will. Although there have been many theories circulating about how the laws of quantum mechanics may give rise to free will, most of these ideas are simple illogical (as will be discussed later). Quantum mechanics may teach us that the laws of nature are fundamentally random, so at best we would have to argue that our decisions are not predetermined, but still completely random.
If our brains, which are just as subject to the laws of nature as everything else in the world, operate according to strict laws of physics–where the movement of all of our brain cells can be predicted either to an exact solution, or even just percentages– where is there room for free will?
Interestingly enough, thousands of years earlier very similar questions were being debated by both Greek and Jewish philosophers. In a paradoxical statement, the Rabbis of the Mishnah remarked that:
All is foreseen (by God) but freedom of choice is granted (Mishnah Avot).
This statement shows the difficulty of trying to simultaneously believe in the omniscience of God and Free Will. Summarized by the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, the problem is as follows:
Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If thou sayest ‘He knows’, then it necessarily follows that [that] man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand he would act, otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect (Shemonah Perakim).
In trying to answer this question many ancient thinkers argued that God’s knowledge of something is fundamentally different than our knowledge of something. If only we understood what it means that God “knows” the future (which we cannot), we would realize that Divine foreknowledge does not contradict our free will.
However, when trying to bring ancient philosophical answers into this discussion, we are immediately presented with a problem. Within religious philosophy, the ongoing assumption– and therefore the starting point of many different thinkers– is that humans (along with the Universe) are inherently Dualistic. Dualism is the philosophy that teaches: within the Universe or (more importantly to our conversation) within an individual’s brain, there is both physical “stuff” (matter, or physical structure of the brain) and non-physical “stuff” (the mind or soul). Within this framework it is much easier to rationalize that God’s foreknowledge does not contradict our free will since both of these beliefs are not within the realm of physical reality, rather an abstract spiritual one.
When it comes to modern neuroscience, however, the attack on free will is based on an assumption that the brain is the mind. Meaning that the only thing that actually exists is your physical brain stricture, rendering any concept of free will or even consciousness an illusion. This position, called Materialism, is the opposite of Dualism, as it posits that there is only matter in the Universe.
At this point our question has come full circle. If strict Materialism is true, it would mean that there is no room for “non-physical” concepts such as the ‘soul’ or even ‘god’. As simultaneously religious and rational persons, how are we to balance the two sides of this argument? Are our minds indeed synonymous with the biological substate that sits within our skull; or, is there something that reaches beyond the material?
These are just a few of the questions upon which I have spent hours upon hours dwelling. In the next post or two I will try and give some of my initial thoughts on the matter!
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