Determinism is “the [philosophical] theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes.” The debate between free will and determinism is not new. Theologians and philosophers have been arguing about it since centuries. What exactly is mind? Is just a product of the electrochemical circuitry of the brain? Or is it more than that? Philosphers have maintained various philosophical positions on it, as Dr Antony Latham mentions in his article Mind – the gap
Inrecent times, many materialists have claimed that there is scientific evidence for determinism. In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet performed experiments which showed that brain activity (a ‘readiness potential’) could be detected in the human brain a short time before the person reported the conscious intention to move. Some neuroscientists concluded from these studies that free will is only an illusion and sensation of the brain activity that actually comes about unconsciously through physical / chemical processes. Some of the procedural problems with Libet’s experiments were improved upon in subsequent research by Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008), who reached similar conclusions against free will. Other scientists have claimed to produce or affect sensations in people by artificially stimulating their brains, or studied the behavioral consequences of physical damage to specific areas of the brain.
In an article Free Will and Determinism from a Scientific and Religious Perspective, Suheil Laher, writing on Muslim Matters, analyses some of these evidences. He begins by analyzing the Neuroscientific Data that is presented in favour of determinism and lists some of the major objections against (or holes in) the radical neuroscientific theory that free will is an illusion.
1. Causal Closure of the Physical
Scientists with a materialist outlook will tend to believe in causal closure of the physical: the belief that everything physical has a physical cause, and this assumption is more likely to lead to or support the conclusion that human actions are caused only by physical brain processes. Against that thesis, Menuge notes that “consciousness, intentionality and rational agency are irreducible to the physical, yet … all do have a causal effect on the world.”
2. Necessity and Sufficiency of Causes
The fact that certain sensations or states can be produced by artificial stimulations on the brain does not prove that those same effects cannot also be produced by “other, irreducible mental powers”.
3. Readiness Potentials
The existence of a detectable readiness potential in the brain prior to a person’s reported consciousness of intention does not disprove free will, because:
- Even if we assume that this state of affairs is true and accurate, the person still has the ability to affirm or deny the ‘unconscious intention,’ as Libet himself showed in later experiments. This is what has been referred to as the veto theory of free will (or alternatively as “Free-won’t”).
- The individuals who participated in these experiments are given a description of the procedure beforehand. Thus, they have already formed a distal intention before the experiment begins, i.e. well before the readiness potential. We are therefore forced to consider the possibility this distal intention causes the readiness potential, which in turn causes the proximal intention. This theory might be seen as support for those Muslim scholars who believed that a Muslim does not need to consciously intend each good deed in order to earn reward from Allāh, because when he/she chooses to be Muslim, he/she is making a distal intention to do good deeds in general.
- Furthermore, we should consider the possibility that the readiness potential indicates not a decision or intention, but rather an urge, desire or wish. This discussion is reminiscent of classical theological debates over capacity (istita’ah), on which there were two prominent views:
(i) that capacity precedes the action; this is the Mu’tazilite view.
(ii) that capacity is simultaneous with action; this is the Ash’arite view.
(iii) that there are two types of capacity: one preceding the action, the other simultaneous with it; this is the Maturidite view.
Menuge has observed that many voluntary behaviors are automated but require consciousness to negotiate novel aspects/eventualities that may arise during execution of the act.
4. Procedural Questions about the Experiments
- We need to allow for a lag time between actual initiation of an intention, and his/her being able to inform about it. It takes time for signals to travel from the brain, and to bring about motor effects in the vocal cords or other muscles. Given the relatively small intervals of time we are dealing with in many of these experiments, this cannot be ruled out as a source of error. When this factor is compounded with the above uncertainties about what exactly the readiness potential corresponds to, the argument against free will is significantly blunted, at the least.
- The role of a conscious observer in influencing what he observes is a well-known phenomenon in quantum physics (and more generally: the Observer Phenomenon), and may be worth considering here.
- There are potential objections here based on relativity in the perception of time, particularly when small intervals are involved. This, too, introduces doubts about the validity of conclusions based on these data.
- Marcel Brass has commented, about the Masushati & Hallett experiments, that, “one has to say that in some subject [sic], the intention started before the readiness potential but in most of the subjects it started after the readiness potential.”
5. Simple vs Complex Decisions
The experiments that have been performed (by Libet, Masushati, etc) all involve simple decisions under highly controlled conditions: whether to flex one’s fingers, push one of two buttons, or whether to add or subtract. The above sections show that even for such simple decisions, there is not a clear-cut case against free will. When we consider, further, that all these experiments involve decisions much simpler than even such insignificant daily decisions as whether to drink tea or coffee, we realize still more clearly the limitations and tentativeness of neuroscientific theories. To claim that these limitations will be overcome through further research and advances in computation power betrays a clear element of faith and wishful expectation (things for which materialists are often quick to condemn religious believers).
He then goes on to provide scientific evidences for existence of free will.
Cognitive therapies have proven effective in the treatment of neurological disorders, showing that the mind does exert top-down causation on the brain. For example, the use of cognitive therapy in treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has been shown to produce “dramatic physical change to the brain.”
2. The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect involves use of a ‘dummy,’ causally neutral (ineffective) therapy on an unsuspecting patient who believes he/she is actually receiving medication. In a study involving Parkinson’s disease patients, “the placebo effect was at least as effective as the drug apomorphine in treating the chronic underproduction of dopamine.”
Studies have shown that “mental attitudes affect the immune system via the brain,” and that mental attitudes can reduce stress and heart rate, and increase happiness and comfort.
In the end he analyses four particular “alleged determinisms” that can – for some people – pose challenges to belief in free-will.
1. Physical Determinism
“[T]he idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.”
I have already addressed the inadequacies of materialism and causal closure of the physical. We have seen how exertion of the mind can bring about top-down causation, impacting the physical organs (such as the heart and brain) as well as sensations (such as happiness). To add to this, it is worthwhile to make note of a 2008 study that showed that rejection of belief in free will can – at least in the short term – lead people to behave with less moral responsibility.
2. Psychological Determinism
This is the notion that what appear to be our decisions are in fact driven by psychological factors such as drives, purposes, needs, desires and experiences.
This again is a reductionist belief that assumes that knowledge of a single, limited field is sufficient to explain complex human phenomena and behavior. The inadequacy of this is expressed as follows by a contemporary neurologist:
“The view that we are automatons without volition, unable to willfully direct our activities, might be taken to mean that we are virtual prisoners of our natural endowment, guided unalterably by preordained behavioral patterns according to the doctrine of determinism. Nothing could be further from the truth, for the nervous system is still susceptible to all the stimuli arising in the environment. Behavior is the product of a combination of heredity, early instruction, the environment and experience.”
Of course, it cannot be denied that we might have unconscious motives. This is something the scholars of Islamic spirituality warn against and discuss. They advise training oneself to monitor one’s heart and hidden motivations, and to discipline oneself to not succumb to them. One of the pioneering treatises on moral psychology and ethics was Al-Muhasibi’s Risalat al–Mustarshidin, intended as an everyday guide to spirituality.
We cannot forget that we do also have conscious motives and decisions (which may, in some cases, be a cause for later subconscious decisions). Other inputs, such as belief in justice, expectation of reward from God and fear of cosmic or after-death punishment, can play a crucial role in modifying behavior patterns. Once again, top-down causation can work wonders. We also cannot rule out an innate guiding sense of ethics that impinges on human decisions, and makes them ‘feel good’ when they do what is right. While secular evolutionary biologists might try to reductionistically explain this as set of tools for or vestiges of natural selection, a Muslim thinks in terms of the fiṭrah, the natural state or disposition to good that humans are created with.
3. Biological (or Genetic) Determinism
This is “the idea that each of our behaviors, beliefs, and desires are fixed by our genetic nature.”
While it was once believed (by some people) that the mapping out of human DNA would confirm biological determinism, this has proven not to be the case. The Human Genome Project, begun in 1990 and now close to but not entirely complete, has shown that there are not enough genes to support genetic determinism. And, even where particular genes have been identified as being ‘responsible’ for particular diseases, in reality the gene is only one of a number of factors (i.e. at most a pre-disposition, rather than a necessary and sufficient cause) playing into the final outcome. Genetics cannot be used as an excuse for behavior. A recent article observes that,
“Biological determinism doesn’t hold up as a defence in law.”
4. Theological Determinism
This is the belief that, “all events that happen are pre-ordained, or predestined to happen, by a monotheistic God.” Various historical manifestations of this belief have been discussed by Muslim theologians of various persuasions and outlooks, as well as by Arab philosophers (such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes)) and by Christian scholars. In the Muslim world, these debates had started by at least the early second century, and continue to this day, such that a plethora of literature exists on the subject.
Like the other three varieties of determinism above, affirmation of theological determinism does not have to rule out human choice and agency. Nor does affirmation of human choice rule out God’s knowledge of things before they happen. Theologians and philosophers have come up with various explanations of how these two pieces of the puzzle might fit together
Also there are peer reviewed scientific papers that provide evidence against scientific determinism. One such paper is quoted by brother Abdullah Al Andalusi in the debate with Farhan Quraishi over hell. (which I will discuss in my next article)
Thus we conclude that there is not enough scientific evidence for determinism. Scientists have differed on this issue. Infact the evidence at hand seems to suggest that free will exists.