Atheism, free will and scientific paradigms
To me, free will is not absolute or limitless. Free will is constrained by physical laws, ethics, and circumstances.
There is evidence that thoughts arise from diverse modules within the brain. These diverse sources of thought, within the brain, are integrated somehow (i.e. in the brain’s electromagnetic field) and passed back for a decision. It’s the decision – yes, no, maybe, I don’t know, not yet, if conditions warrant, keep in mind, that’s interesting, etc. – that constitutes choice and, thus, free will.
Of the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, human intelligence has only existed for one or two hundred thousand years. That's just the blink of an eye in cosmological time.
Until we discover extraterrestrial life, our best understanding says that the universe was over 10 billion years old before the first single-cell life forms arose. Until that point in time, THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE WAS TOTALLY INANIMATE. Then life introduced motility: the ability of animate beings to move about on their own. Life was a major milestone in the history of the universe because, instead of inanimate matter, the universe now had animate beings too. Life is intrinsically and intimately shaped by evolution; an entirely new process in the universe. Pretty major stuff, this life force!
It would be another 3.5 billion years before humans evolved. Human intelligence is the next major milestone in the history of the universe. Instead of living at the mercy of nature (like all other animals), humans had the intelligence to harness nature: which is to say, humans had the ability to understand, anticipate and use causality for their own purposes . . . clothing, shelter, weapons, tools and fire. This expertise with causality is a prerequisite for intelligence and is also demonstrable evidence of free will.
Without free will, nature would be the only source of causation on Earth. But free will rises (modestly) above causality and harnesses it to do our bidding. Nature didn't cause man's achievements . . . man did. The only way that could happen is if man has free will. There's nature; and then there's human nature.
From the empirical point of view, free will is taken for granted: we live, work, play and plan as if we have free will. We don’t experience the horror of watching helplessly as we do things we don’t want to do (unless you suffer from a compulsive disorder).
I’m aware of the usual objections to the notion of free will. Many very educated people – even those in the fields of physics and neuroscience – believe that everything is physical: matter or energy. There are far too many people who treat the current scientific paradigm just like a religion: they actually put their faith in reductionistic physicalism and conclude that EVERYTHING is determined and that free will is an illusion. They believe it absolutely – despite the experience of their everyday existence.
The fact is, science is still maturing. Its history is one of successive paradigm shifts. What was once seen as obvious, develops nagging problems, inconsistencies and contradictions. The problems beget new understandings that usher in a new paradigm that becomes the new obvious answer.
We already know that the existing paradigms are flawed. Relativity doesn’t get along with the quantum world. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle points to a mystical side of quantum physics that stretches credulity and suggests "mind" as a component of the material universe.
Matter emerges from nowhere and disappears again. Subatomic particles can’t both be and be known to be. Matter shifts from existing to only having the potential to exist.
Our human acts affect what is true at the quantum level. The act of measurement distorts what’s being measured. Human consciousness itself seeps into the discussion of quantum physics. Consciousness, mind, data, or whatever you want to call it, is beginning to factor into quantum physics and even black holes. These curious developments are the dissonances that precede paradigm shifts. It appears that the next paradigm will need to accommodate "consciousness, mind, data, or whatever you want to call it".
The question of human consciousness has been relegated to philosophers until fairly recently. As of late, neuroscience has made some amazing inroads to understanding this “emergent property of the brain”. The more they learn, the more it seems that consciousness defies the reductionistic physicalism of science’s true believers. Consciousness (and life and intelligence) is one of the incongruencies revealing the gaps in the physicalism of our current paradigm.
Life itself is a (relatively) new phenomenon in the universe. Life, in turn, has spawned amazing phenomena that never existed before: motility, evolution, instinct, procreation, consciousness, intelligence and, I assert, free will.
Perhaps the next scientific paradigm will pay more attention to the distinct differences between inanimate matter and animate beings (especially human beings). Complex systems also deserve more attention. If you look at the trends in the history of the universe, it appears almost as if everything has been leading up to a universe that acknowledges itself via life: human life. Until the mysteries are resolved, I’ll try to keep an open mind and remember that opinions are a dime a dozen until facts decide the issue.
P.S.Science is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, human endeavor. However, atheists who substitute science for religion are still guilty of faith. Science is the question, NOT the answer. Atheists, to my experience, seem likely to forget that, unlike religion, science has never claimied to be the final word – and, in fact, is not.
© Atheist Exile, AtheistExile.com