Video: Do we have free will?

posted at 2:41 pm on October 8, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

I haven’t had an opportunity to link to the excellent Prager University videos, produced by my friend and Salem colleague Dennis Prager, which like his radio show are intriguing, intelligent, provocative, and very meaningful.  Today’s, however, strikes a particular chord with me — and relates to another interesting story from Newsweek, which I’ll get to in a moment.  In today’s release, theologian Frank Pastore tackles the question of free will, and what it means for how we view the world.  That has deep implications not just for our interior lives, but also for our view of the role of government and the individual:

Western civilization and American jurisprudence are built on the embrace of free will — and the concept of personal responsibility for choice and consequences.  The concept of free will requires also a respect for personal liberty and the proper role of the individual as the presumed expert on his own choices.  If we dismiss that and insist that we are nothing but a collection of learned reactions to stimuli, then no one can be fully responsible for their own actions.  That leads to the impulse to have individual choice removed by government, and the belief that elites have to make choices for us, as people can’t be trusted to resist the Pavlovian outcomes of stimuli sets.  We see this impulse play out in nanny-state agendas that ban Happy Meal toys because parents can’t be trusted to say “No” to their children, and so on.  And if free will truly doesn’t exist, then those policies would make some sort of sense — except, of course, identifying the elites who could possibly be trusted to make choices for themselves, let alone for others.

If free will does exist, though, it implies that humans have a consciousness that rises above the physical, as Frank Pastore argues here.  It implies, although does not necessarily prove in the scientific sense, that non-physical consciousness comes from a greater consciousness outside of the physical world.  Coincidentally, Newsweek offers a look at a unique experience from neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who nearly died from a rare E. coli infection that completely shut down his cerebral cortex — and sent him on a remarkable journey:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

But that dimension—in rough outline, the same one described by countless subjects of near-death experiences and other mystical states—is there. It exists, and what I saw and learned there has placed me quite literally in a new world: a world where we are much more than our brains and bodies, and where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.

I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.

All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

Alexander provides a very clear account of his experience:

For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. She was young, and I remember what she looked like in complete detail. She had high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes. Golden brown tresses framed her lovely face. When first I saw her, we were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, which after a moment I recognized as the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us—vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the woods and coming back up around us again. It was a river of life and color, moving through the air. The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

“There is nothing you can do wrong.” …

Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself.

“There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness …”

That was it exactly: an inky darkness that was also full to brimming with light.

Be sure to read it all.  Frankly, I was a little surprised to see this in Newsweek. That in itself might be an example that free will exists.

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Humans are animals and probably no more special to God than any of the others, on earth or elsewhere. Man thinks he is the creator’s favorite pet. What a quaint notion.

VorDaj on October 8, 2012 at 6:38 PM

Call me on that when animals set up human shelters at great expense.

Since you suppose what God thinks–read the Bible. Man is calle dby God to dominate/subdue the earth and all the living creatures and then

Don L on October 8, 2012 at 6:48 PM

If free will does exist, though, it implies that humans have a consciousness that rises above the physical, as Frank Pastore argues here…

That statement implies that there is no randomness to the sub-atomic structure of our bodies. That’s an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary proof. Science is not yet capable of even testing that, much less proving it.

Any sub-atomic randomness in us would propagate through the atomic, molecular and biological structures that support our mind, making our thoughts unpredictable and therefore uniquely ours. Without “rising above the physical”, that is by definition free will.

elfman on October 8, 2012 at 6:57 PM

It’s interesting to ponder;

I wonder how many of those folks out there who would deny free will, are the very same folks who would argue to their death about a woman’s right to “choose?”

Don L on October 8, 2012 at 6:43 PM

Don L, a brilliant thought.

If there is no free will, then the choice of abortion is no choice, just either genetics or education.

itsspideyman on October 8, 2012 at 7:02 PM

When dolphins start building hospitals for their sick and injured, I’ll start believing we’re no better than animals.

itsspideyman on October 8, 2012 at 7:04 PM

Even Obama has better rebuttals than that, probably even Biden too. So that places you pretty much at the bottom.

VorDaj on October 8, 2012 at 6:31 PM

Moron, I can call you moron? The bible does not say any of the things you said it says, not a single one, so what is to rebut? I read the bible. I know what is in the bible. There was nothing there that you said was there. So it is a total rebuttal of your statement.

astonerii on October 8, 2012 at 7:19 PM

Impossible to prove one way or the other.

The point is moot.

Pablo Honey on October 8, 2012 at 2:47 PM

To whom is the point moot? Why do you presume to speak for everyone, instead of just yourself?

Debating disbelievers of free will is identical to debating people in denial, because that is who they are. These people, who don’t understand the significant difference between alcoholics and recovering alcoholics, or contented fatties and dieters, beclown themselves into ridicule by their incredible lack of discernment between feelings and thoughts.

Anti-Control on October 8, 2012 at 7:42 PM

That great defender of the faith, Adam Clarke, takes care of any confusion in regard to the will. I realize what the video speaker is trying to convey, but there is no need to give any ground to the false prophets who have abused the subject to the destruction of multitudes, turning them into fatalists. Without a will, we cannot be judged for choosing to love sin rather than obeying Jesus.

“Will is a free principle. Free will is as absurd as bound will, it is not will if it be not free; and if it be bound it is no will. Volition is essential to the being of the soul, and to all rational and intellectual beings. This is the most essential discrimination between matter and spirit. Matter can have no choice; Spirit has. Ratiocination is essential to intellect; and from these volition is inseparable. God uniformly treats man as a free agent; and on this principle the whole of Divine revelation is constructed, as is also the doctrine of future rewards and punishments. If man be forced to believe, he believes not at all; it is the forcing power that believes, not the machine forced. If he be forced to obey, it is the forcing power that obeys; and he, as a machine, shows only the effect of this irresistible force. If man be incapable of willing good, and nilling evil, he is incapable of being saved as a rational being; and if he acts only under an overwhelming compulsion, he is as incapable of being damned. In short, this doctrine reduces him either to a punctum stans, which by the vis inertiae is incapable of being moved but as acted upon by foreign influence; or, as an intellectual being, to nonentity.” (Adam Clarke)

Jude4 on October 8, 2012 at 7:46 PM

Mr. Alexander is free to believe what he wants to, based on his experiences. However, as an evangelical Christian, I am free to be discerning in my examination of it; and I personally find the results of his afterlife trip to be directly opposed to the main message of Christianity: that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and “no man comes unto the Father except through Me.” Mr. Alexander appears to believe some things that are radically opposed to Christian teaching:
1. God was once human like us (Mormonism teaches the same)
2. We are all “one” (his phrase: “all joined energetically, manifestations of Om – One Consciousness, or Creative Essence, gives rise to our sense of individual consciousnesses – the apparent boundaries between individuals are an illusory, emergent property, and these ultimately give rise to our notion of “self” and “ego” existing in this realm, along with all of our perceptions of “physical reality.”
3. We have a “spark of divinity” within us (very new agey)
The whole thing is spelled out here: http://eternea.org/My_message_from_beyond/My_message_from_beyond.htm

Nowhere is there reference to the existence of sin or the payment for sin, particularly that paid by Christ.

My point being, as far as Christians examining Mr. Alexander’s book, let the buyer beware. A tiny bit of truth is mixed in with a lot of deception. To my ears, it reads like darkness trying to disguise itself as light.

theotherone on October 8, 2012 at 7:46 PM

listens2glenn on October 8, 2012 at 4:19 PM
.
I dunno. Free will?
Cleombrotus on October 8, 2012 at 4:36 PM
.
Meaning . . . . . what ?
listens2glenn on October 8, 2012 at 4:50 PM

Just joshing with you, l2g. I really don’t want to get too serious with this this evening.

Cleombrotus on October 8, 2012 at 7:48 PM

My point being, as far as Christians examining Mr. Alexander’s book, let the buyer beware. A tiny bit of truth is mixed in with a lot of deception. To my ears, it reads like darkness trying to disguise itself as light.

theotherone on October 8, 2012 at 7:46 PM

Pretty much.

astonerii on October 8, 2012 at 7:52 PM

In Graduate school I had a teacher I admired who was a strict determinist, who believed there was education and biology and nothing else, that there was no free will, only our reaction based upon these two things. I argued the central core of Christian faith, and also our lives, is that we have free will choose our destiny.

He smiled and said I believe that because I have no choice.

I said “if we are simply a reaction to our stimuli, does this mean that Jesus is the same as Hitler”?

He said nothing, and went on to another question.

itsspideyman on October 8, 2012 at 6:29 PM

You nailed him good, and he knew it, but, like a typical leftist, he arrogantly refused to acknowledge the error of his way, choicelessly (according to him!) remaining “blissfully” and stupidly ignorant instead!

Anti-Control on October 8, 2012 at 7:54 PM

Numerous experiments in neuroscience has shown that the conscious mind only becomes aware of decisions after they have been made. This means that questions like guilt and ‘sin’ need serious examination. For those who have the time this presentation is interesting. (The speaker has a PhD in neuroscience.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g

Annar on October 8, 2012 at 3:49 PM

Yes, we need to scientifically experiment to figure out if someone at a bar, who would ask herself, “Will I, or will I not regret ordering another Guinness, knowing that if I do, imbibing it will push my BAC above the legal limit, and I have to drive home in 1/2 hour?” is showing true signs of conscious, intelligent, pre-determined thought, don’t we?

How do people like you take yourselves seriously? lol

Anti-Control on October 8, 2012 at 8:12 PM

Free will only exists in the physical world, like everything else that actually exists. There is certainly no valid claim for any alternative state of affairs.

Steve Stoddard on October 8, 2012 at 8:46 PM

Free will only exists in the physical world, like everything else that actually exists. There is certainly no valid claim for any alternative state of affairs.

Steve Stoddard on October 8, 2012 at 8:46 PM

What does this even mean, really, and what is your point for expressing it?

Anti-Control on October 8, 2012 at 9:05 PM

Flatfoot raises a very valid (and long-lived) theological conundrum.

If that were the case — why would our ‘spiritual selves’ ever consent to being here in this craphole world full of ugliness and hate and unbridled pain in the first place? The only possible way would have to be having been forced here against our will — and that opens a whole other can of worms entirely because that God given right of ‘free will’ is truly and completely non-existent then.

FlatFoot on October 8, 2012 at 3:54 PM

However, the bolded conclusion is false, as force is only one possible path into mortality.

Akzed realizes this, although his/her reply mis-states the LDS doctrine on pre-mortality:

You’re assuming that the soul pre-exists the material world. Mormons believe that each person chooses the life he will lead as a spiritual child before incarnation, but Christians don’t believe this.
There are two schools of thought among Christians regarding the soul: it is created directly by God at conception (Creationism), or that it is passed on from a parent (Traducianism).
Akzed on October 8, 2012 at 4:19 PM

Mormon doctrine teaches that every person existed in a spiritual (non-mortal) state prior to being born on earth, and that before this earth was created ALL of the spirits were given the opportunity to accept or reject what Latter-day Saints call “The Plan of Salvation” which was proposed by our Heavenly Father and implemented through the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As part of this Plan, everyone born on earth has the further opportunity to choose good or evil and experience the consequences of their choices, which ultimately result in their salvation or condemnation.

Basically, this world is full of ugliness, hate and pain because some people have chosen to behave in ugly, hateful, painful ways.

Mormons believe that some individuals might have been given specific information about their mortal condition prior to birth (there are, in fact, a substantial number of anecdotes about people given a choice to be born into abusive families because they could be the ones to break the cycle), and that prophets(such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses) knew their assignments ahead of time, but this is not precisely the same as every spirit en masse choosing “the life he (or she) will lead”.

“Creationism” and “Traducianism” are late philosophical constructs. A third concept more closely aligned (although not identical to) the LDS position (bolded in the fourth block below) was still viable enough in Catholic thought to be pronounced “heretical” in contrast to RC orthodoxy, as demonstrated in this excerpt from the “Traducianism” article (** denotes material from other articles linked therein):

The Church Fathers ** (dating mostly from the 1st through 5th century)** universally agreed that the soul of Adam was directly created by God. Tertullian **(c. 160 – c. 225 AD)** actively advocated traducianism (that is, the parental generation of souls), while some of the later Fathers — most notably Saint Augustine, at the outbreak of Pelagianism — began to question the creation by God of individual souls and to incline to the opposite opinion, which seemed to facilitate the explanation of the transmission of original sin. …

There was a diversity of opinions among the remaining Scholastics **the academics (scholastics, or schoolmen) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500**. Some held that the soul of a child is produced by the soul of the parent just as the body is generated by the parent-body. Others maintained that all souls are created apart and are then united with their respective bodies, either by their own volition or by the command and action of God. Others again, declared that the soul in the moment of its creation is infused into the body. Though for a time these several views were upheld, and though it was doubtful which came nearest the truth, the Church subsequently condemned the first two and approved the third. …

While there are no explicit definitions authoritatively put forth by the Catholic Church that would warrant calling the doctrine of creationism de fide **”of the faith” is a “theological note” or “theological qualification” that indicates that some religious doctrine is an essential part of Catholic faith**, nevertheless, there can be no doubt as to which view has been favored by ecclesiastical authority.

That the soul sinned in its pre-existent state, and on that account was incarcerated in the body, the Catholic Church regards as a fiction which has been repeatedly condemned. Divested of this fiction, the theory that the soul exists prior to its infusion into the organism, while not explicitly reprobated, is obviously opposed to the doctrine of the Church, according to which souls are multiplied correspondingly with the multiplication of human organisms. But whether the rational soul is infused into the organism at conception, as the modern opinion holds, or some weeks subsequently, as the Scholastics suppose, is an open question with theologians.

The Wikipedia article only addresses Roman Catholic belief, so it seems gratuitously general to say that “all Christians” believe in one concept or the other. From the above, it looks like there is enough space in Christendom to hold the Mormon view of the relationship of spirit and body, which is inseparable from the LDS doctrine of agency or “free will”.

AesopFan on October 8, 2012 at 9:09 PM

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

revolutionismyname on October 8, 2012 at 9:26 PM

And while free will actually exists, the supernatural (aka “God”) doesn’t.

Free will is inescapable; God is impossible.

Steve Stoddard on October 8, 2012 at 9:33 PM

Free will only exists in the physical world, like everything else that actually exists. There is certainly no valid claim for any alternative state of affairs.

Steve Stoddard on October 8, 2012 at 8:46 PM

What does this even mean, really, and what is your point for expressing it?

—Anti-Control on October 8, 2012 at 9:05 PM

You need to read the article at the top, not just the comments that follow. I was expressing disagreement with part of that article.

Steve Stoddard on October 8, 2012 at 9:42 PM

Humans are animals and probably no more special to God than any of the others, on earth or elsewhere….

VorDaj on October 8, 2012 at 6:42 PM

You certainly are not talking about the God who revealed Himself through the Scriptures:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:29-31, emphasis mine)

bandarlog on October 8, 2012 at 10:39 PM

… the God who revealed Himself through the Scriptures

Since God is a fictional character, that is a somewhat odd way of putting it.

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 1:15 AM

Since God is a fictional character, that is a somewhat odd way of putting it.

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 1:15 AM

Since you aren’t God, who could prove what He says about the supernatural beyond a reasonable doubt, why should anyone who has a different understanding/experience with spirituality accept your opinion about God’s nonexistence as fact?

Why do you take yourself so seriously and superiorly? What leads you to believe that you are capable of accurately defining and recognizing “sense of humor”, and “arrogance”, anyway?

It looks to me that someone who denies God’s existence as you do suffers from the same type of mental dysfunction you accuse believers of having, which is a common occurrence with people in denial, isn’t it?

Anti-Control on October 9, 2012 at 4:55 AM

Can we be trusted with our own choices?

Then why can’t we legalize opium?

Observation on October 9, 2012 at 9:03 AM

Man thinks he is the creator’s favorite pet. What a quaint notion.

VorDaj on October 8, 2012 at 6:38 PM

Wrong on all three counts. Man is told he is the creator’s special creation. And it’s very serious, not quaint at all. How sad for you. I will gladly lay out the reasons for the above statements, if you can listen.

GWB on October 9, 2012 at 10:11 AM

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 1:15 AM

Your life must be very sad, indeed, if you can deny the existence of the creator all around you in his incredible, beautiful creation.

GWB on October 9, 2012 at 10:17 AM

Since you aren’t God,…

Indeed, I’m not. But of course nobody is.

Note, also, that it is not a matter of proof one way or the other, since “the supernatural” is impossible by the very setup of the issue. “The Supernatural” is like a square circle, i.e., naturally out of the question.

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 2:04 PM

God makes for better fiction than square circles, of course.

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 2:06 PM

God makes for better fiction than square circles, of course.

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 2:06 PM

You, a mortal, are projecting, and you’re babbling as you define a straw man version of God that no one besides you is talking about. Since that’s the case, there is no common ground about God to discuss here, is there?

Anti-Control on October 9, 2012 at 3:02 PM

there is no common ground about God to discuss

There is no ground at all for talking about God, not even of any kind. God is pure fantasy, totally ungrounded in reality. Regarding God, there is literally nothing to discuss (beyond the confines of fantasy fiction).

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 6:22 PM

And don’t forget: in fiction, faith can move mountains.

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 6:23 PM

… a straw man version of God …

All versions of God are basically variations on a “straw man,” since there is no actual, original, authentic God. God is pure fantasy, entirely made-up, not-really-there. (That’s the whole point of claiming God to be supernatural.)

Steve Stoddard on October 9, 2012 at 10:36 PM

There is no doubt that humans have free will — since the concept would not exist and could not be questioned if we didn’t have it.

Free will is inescapable; God is inexpressible.

Steve Stoddard on October 10, 2012 at 12:26 AM

The next step is for someone to try the argument that “God must exist because we have the concept of Him!”

But that doesn’t work in practice, because there is no actual concept of God — there are only vague negations of reality. That is, the claim is that God is not real, but rather supernatural!

There is no actual referent for the “concept” of God. There is only blind faith.

Steve Stoddard on October 10, 2012 at 12:34 AM

And faith is only a short-circuit destroying the mind.

Steve Stoddard on October 20, 2012 at 3:06 AM

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