Free Will, Meaning and Morality

An interesting discussion came up on one of the online discussion forums. Someone posted the results of an fMRI study where researchers found patterns of brain activity that predict people's decisions up to 10 seconds before they're aware they've made a choice. The poster then asked the question whether this was the end of the belief in free will.

The study itself does prove there's no free will. But it does highlight how disassociated our "consciousnesses" are. We perceive ourselves as an integrated whole when in reality, different parts of the brain attend to different things. We are, as Buddhism teaches us, collections of aggregates.

But even tho this study doesn't disprove free will, if one understands the nature of science, one understands that there is no room for the concept of free will within science, just as there is no room for the concept of God. Let's be clear here. This isn't to say that science says there is no God/free will. Science doesn't say anything about either; it can't by its very nature. 

And so, even if/when in the future neuroscientists map out our entire complex brains and find predictive correlations between neural activity patterns and what we perceive as our "decisions," even when science gets to the point where it says it can explain "choice," there will be no room for free will in there.  Any scientific explanation of "choice" has to be a reductionist, materialist explanation.  The only reason why we can hold onto the illusion of free will is because the decision making process is as of yet unexplained.  When it is explained, it will be in terms of synaptic weights and stimulus strengths - wiring, environment, and chance.

It was this realization that caused me to leave science. Not because I was disillusioned - I still love science - but because I realized that I most wanted was not to be found there.  I want meaning, which for me necessitates free will.  I need to believe that I have a choice (even if highly constrained) and that my choices matter.

My theology is that God and creation work together in partnership to co-create creation. (I am that I am. I am becoming that I am becoming.) In my theology, which is a process theology, free will is that which allows co-creation by us having the ability to choose differently. To create the new, the surprise. Without it, there is no "creation." Just... randomness constrained by patterns playing itself out.

What's more, I can't make sense of ethics/morality without a concept of free will. What does it mean for someone's actions to be moral or immoral if there is no choice? What would it mean to try to cultivate moral character as Aristotle encouraged us to do?  Ethics and morality are based on the assumption that we have a choice in the actions we take. There is no point in delineating what is a moral action and what is an immoral action if, in the end, we have no choice in what we do anyway.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative