Responding to a reader's question about free will

An Ethical Musings' reader sent me this link ( to an article in The Atlantic. The article's author argues that humans do not have free will. He then asked for my opinion on the article. In response, I provided the reflections below.

First, reductionist anthropologies, in my estimation, fail to explain the novelty humans repeatedly introduce. Inventions, advances in science and other disciplines, and much more do require hard work but appear to be more than chance outcomes generated by brain activity that, if we had sufficient knowledge, could be completely explained in terms of chemistry, physics, etc.

Second, brain activity apparently precedes conscious thought, according to research and as the article argues. However, that research does not seem to exclude the possibility that the potential to introduce novelty into the world results from emergent properties of the brain. In other words, the brain, like many complex systems, has capacities that are greater than the sum of its parts. Reductionism fails to account for this possibility, or so I would argue. Furthermore, I’ve read a significant amount of the research on which the article is based, and agree: the idea that humans possess free will can alter behavior. I suspect that this is another indicator that reductionism is –pardon the pun – too simple an explanation. Of course, many evolutionary biologists would argue that the brain evolved to accommodate the concept of free will because that concept promotes reciprocal altruism and other social beneficial behaviors that are most conducive to human behavior.

Third, I strongly prefer the term “limited autonomy” to “free will.” The latter suggests that humans have a specific faculty or capacity by which they freely make choices. That clearly flies in the face of much scientific evidence about genetics, environmental influences on behavior, and brain functioning. The former phrase acknowledges the many limits that exist on human autonomy while affirming the possibility of some autonomy, e.g., as evidenced by human creativity. Limited autonomy lies on a spectrum somewhere between total free and total determinism, but probably much closer to determinism than to freedom.

Fourth, my consideration of these problems led me, over a decade ago, to jettison the idea of punishment as traditionally understood. Punishment is useful if it deters others from the same offense, prevents an offender from committing additional offenses (e.g., because a child is in time out or a criminal is incarcerated), or is an effective means of behavior medication. From an ethical perspective, all of those are recognized legitimate functions of punishment, but omit the central premise: the guilty should “pay” for committing an offense. This, obviously, has implications for the Christian faith. No atonement is necessary for sin. Instead, Jesus is a manifestation of God's love.

My thoughts about freedom and autonomy continue to evolve. The article’s author is correct: rethinking free will has major ramifications for not only our concepts of moral (as well as criminal and social) responsibility, but also a wide array of other issues.


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