The Scientific Debate over Free Will

DNAdeterminismDeterminism 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:

  1. 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”).
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

1. Neuroplasticity

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.”

3. Psychoneuroimmunology

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 alMustarshidin, 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.


About Kashif Zuberi

Student of Knowledge

2 comments on “The Scientific Debate over Free Will

  1. i have a free will to like and comment on this article!!!

    Determinism professes that those parts of the universe already laid
    down, absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be.
    future has no ambiguous possibilities hidden within its womb. The
    we call the present, is compatible with only one totality. The now is
    all. “Time is the eternal present.” Any existence other than the one
    fixed from eternity, is impossible. The whole is in each and every
    part, and welds it with the rest into an absolute unity, an iron
    block, in which there can be no equivocation, or shadow of turning.

    The arrow of time expresses the fact that in the world about us the past is distinctly different from the future. Milk spills but doesn’t unspill; eggs splatter but do not unsplatter; waves break but do not unbreak; we always grow older, never younger. These processes all move in one direction in time – they are called “time-irreversible” and define the arrow of time. It is therefore very surprising that the relevant fundamental laws of nature make no such distinction between the past and the future. This in turn leads to a great puzzle – if the laws of nature permit all processes to be run backwards in time, why don’t we observe them doing so? Why does a video of an egg splattering run backwards look ridiculous? Put another way: how can time-reversible motions of atoms and molecules, the microscopic components of material systems, give rise to the observed time-irreversible behaviour of our everyday world? The resolution of this apparent paradox is due to Maxwell, Thomson and (particularly) Boltzmann. These ideas also explain most other arrows of time – in particular; how do we remember the past but not the future?

    The philosophy of determinism is easily understood if one visualizes
    the universe as the perpetual motion machine that comprises
    everything, nothing enters, nothing escapes. Although obviously
    intricate, it is not mysterious from a scientific standpoint. Every
    occurrence is to be accounted for on the basis of strict cause and
    effect. There is ultimately no such thing as chance. What had happened
    at one moment was the natural and inevitable result of what had
    happened at the previous moment, and in turn determined what was to
    happen at the next moment. The future is entirely determined by the
    past, allowing no freedom of choice. Human beings and all other
    organisms are nothing more than complex machines, since the universe
    is irreversibly determined from, and therefore, for eternity. The
    existence of an organizing, directing, life giving vital force,
    independent of physical laws, would imply a degree of freedom. It
    would imply that living organisms somehow display some independence
    from absolute cause and effect, some ability to flaunt the universal
    mechanism, to overrule the first law of thermodynamics – the law of
    conservation of energy and mass. Such an idea is contrary to
    scientific knowledge.

    Here we come to the heart of the matter, science does not recognize
    the word “freedom”. Science instead deals with mechanical
    If you say that you have acted of your own volition, the scientist in
    theory is able to produce an indefinite number of reasons in reverse
    mechanical order, proving you had to do it; just as a river has to
    flow down hill. If you reply that you can decide whether to
    contradict the scientist or not, or whether to go and do something
    more rewarding instead, that person will tell you that your freedom
    thought is an illusion also. If you accept this, then you hold the
    view that the worlds of biology, chemistry, and physics, are one
    world. The living are therefore distinguished from the non-living,
    only by virtue of their greater complexity. If you decline to accept
    this, then you hold the view that life or freedom, somehow stands
    above, outside, and apart from matter and mechanism.

    When the last sub-atomic particle has been brought into line, as it
    were, some spark of excitement leaves the world. A clockwork
    mechanism can appear very beautiful and efficient, but an image of
    universe cavorting its way to eternity, like some extremely
    complicated musical box, is not particularly reassuring, especially
    we ourselves are part of it. The concept of free will has become an
    obvious casualty. Since the entire past and future condition of all
    matter and energy is uniquely determined by its condition at any one
    instant, then our future is obviously predetermined in every final
    detail. Every decision we make, every so-called random whim, in
    reality has been arranged an eternity in advance, to be the
    outcome of a staggeringly intricate, yet fully determined network of
    forces and influences.

    It is not surprising therefore, that when doubts concerning
    determinism and the laws of conservation appear, the kinetic model is
    in danger also. Any attempt to express any kind of contingentism is
    bound to fail: the corpuscular – kinetic scheme by its own nature,
    resists any such attempt. If people persist, the result will be
    nothing but absurdities and incongruities, such as, “energy
    with dim edges”, “unsharply localized particles”, “particles without
    definite momentum”, and “electrons freely choosing their own orbits,
    due to causeless fluctuations of energy”.

    Not only does indeterminism fail to fit the traditional conceptual
    framework, but when forced into it, it necessarily acquires the
    improbable form of absolute indeterminism. This is natural.
    Indeterminism within a quantitative view of reality, will always appear
    in the form of the creation, or destruction of a certain quantity of
    matter, energy, or momentum. Such absolute creations and
    annihilations are however, characteristic of absolute, that is;
    miraculous indeterminism, which is incompatible with any kind of
    coherent universe.

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