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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