As the study of the brain deepens, more and more atheists tend to believe that free will is an illusion; that it does not exist.
Here is a video by Sam Harris talking about his book “Free Will”:
Jerry A Coyne, another popular atheist, also seems to have arrived at the same conclusion, viewing humans as biological meat-ware without a disembodied soul.
Jerry also argues that there’s not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. He envisions (without providing any evidence for such extra-ordinary claims) a post free-will society in which we can treat criminals differently if we think their crimes resulted from a reduction in their “choice” by factors like mental illness, diminished capacity, or brain tumors that cause aggression.
In this excellent debate on the foundations of moral principles between Sean McDowell and Dr. James Corbett, Sean McDowell makes the case that the foundations of any moral system designed for human beings must necessarily include:
- An objective moral standard
- Free Will
- Objective moral value of humans
There is accumulating evidence that societies that abandon the notion of free will do not become ‘utopias of empathy’ as Jerry Coyne envisions, but rather criminal cesspools experiencing social decay. In his excellent book Life at the Bottom1, Theodore Dalrymple (Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of Dr Anthony Daniels, who has worked as a prison doctor in UK) argues that Marxist Cultural policies filled with empathy towards the criminal underclass have not resulted in a safer or a more just society but rather the opposite, because it allows criminals to rationalize their actions. In his view, it is spiritual poverty, not material poverty that leads to violent behavior. He also argues that a Marxist Cultural world view without free will undermines self-reliance, resulting in broader definition of mental illnesses, such that everyone can be diagnosed as being mentally ill.
In such a circumstance, what would a Natural Philosopher do? Would he advocate the non-existence of free will, thereby encouraging social decay? Or would he propagate the perceived lie of free will? This presents a conundrum because a Natural Philosopher, like Thomas Jefferson, should believe that “There is not a truth existing which I fear… or would wish unknown to the whole world.”
The key problem here is that Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are both searching for free will in the wrong place. They are like the fool who has lost his ring inside a dark cave, but searches for it outside in the sunlight because he does not have a torch to help him illuminate and examine the cave. They have the tools to examine the brain but not the mind; so they ignore the mind completely, using their tools to examine only the brain and finally conclude that free will does not exist.
But, it is entirely possible for the mind-construct to possess free will, while the underlying brain-stem is deterministic (i.e.) Monistic determinism need not necessarily lead to Materialistic Physicalism (the worldview that the brain is the only thing that exists), but can also lead to the dual-aspect view of Meta-physical Naturalism.
Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who propounded the monistic deterministic worldview in his magnum opus Ethica, believed in the dual-aspect theory – that Existence had two aspects, God and Nature. A remarkably similar concept had also been expressed previously by Shri Adi Shankaracharya and his guru Shri Gaudapadacharya in the Hindu monistic meta-physical treatise Advaita Vendanta.2
However, neither Spinoza nor Adi Shankara were mind-creationists (i.e.) they did not believe that the conscious mind-constructs flowed from an external separate entity [that would violate their monistic worldview]. They were both rationalists who equated God with Nature (different views of singular Truth3) and the mind-construct as a view arising on top of the brain-stem.
The dual-aspect theory of Meta-Physical Naturalism can be easily illustrated with an analogy more suited to our era: The mind-construct is analogous to the software that is running on top of a deterministic meat-ware based brain-stem. The mind-construct displays the following properties:
- Persistent self-identity through time – The concept of “I” is a mind-construct; dualists like Descartes also understood this phenomenon, resulting in his famous quote “I think, therefore I am”. A low-level organism without a well-developed mind-construct (an amoeba or an insect) will not have such a concept. This self-identity persists through time, even as the body changes (cells are being shed; we become older etc). This is analogous to software that remains the same even as the underlying hardware gets modified.
- ‘Stream of consciousness’ experience – This is analogous to the computation (thought) that is performed by software. Memories of previous inputs (sensory perceptions), outputs (actions) and computations (thoughts) can be stored and retrieved, to create a synthesized ‘stream of consciousness’ experience.
- Mental properties, which cannot be perceived as physical objects – Just as you cannot guess what desktop background image is shown by an operating system by examining the hardware under a microscope, the mental properties (thoughts/ images etc) of a mind-construct cannot be perceived by studying the brain. Specialized tools may be required for either task.
- Free will – Many software functions require random numbers for their operation; however, the underlying hardware is deterministic. Generation of pseudo random numbers effectively solves this problem. Such generated numbers are not truly random from a hardware perspective; yet they can be considered truly random for all practical purposes from a software perspective. Similarly, the mind-construct exhibits pseudo free will from a materialistic brain-stem perspective; yet from the perspective of interactions between mind-constructs, for all practical (social, economic, political, legal) purposes, the pseudo-ness of this free will construct is irrelevant and free will can be considered as being truly real4. This is a key point that both participants in this debate on God, Monism and free will seem to have missed.
- Degrees of Control – The mind-construct was naturally selected on top of the brain-stem, because it results in significantly better decision-making abilities which contribute to survival. However, the mind-construct is not completely uninhibited in its decision-making; it is guided by the impulses generated by the brain-stem. Such materialistic brain-stem impulses are biologically hard wired and have been naturally selected for short-term individualistic survival [seven deadly sins of Christianity or the Tamas/ Rajas gunas of Vedanta], but such impulses are not focused on long-term survival and succumbing to such impulses does not result in a moral, rational or civilized society. The evolution of the mind-construct, which experiences the impulses generated by the brain-stem but has the power to override such impulses in its decision making, enabled higher-order organisms to make better decisions focused towards long term survival. This is analogous to a software program that receives hardware interrupts, but has the power to override them if necessary.
Marxist Materialism vs Meta-Physical Naturalism
1. View of a person:
Marxist Materialistic view of a person is physicalist; Marxists view a person as a deterministic brain-stem, with a poorly developed (or absent) mind-construct. The meta-physical naturalist view of a person is as a (pseudo)free-will enabled mind-construct.
2. View of equality:
Marxists believe in the notion of the blank slate (i.e.) equality at a brain-stem level. However, the Marxist blank slate theory has been widely discredited. The meta-physical Naturalists believe in the notion of mind-construct equality (i.e.) all sane mind-constructs have the ability to overcome the base hardwired materialistic impulses generated by the deterministic brain-stem to make moral decisions.
When Thomas Jefferson, who was heavily influenced by Spinoza’s monistic philosophies, drafted the U.S. constitution with his immortal words (“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”), he was referring to Spinoza’s notion of equality of mind-constructs; not the Marxist materialistic notion of equality of brain-stems.
The key mistake that Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and other atheist physicalists are making is that they are ignoring the mind-construct and equating personhood with the underlying meat-ware. Yet, in all day to day interactions of sane adults, it is the mind-constructs that interact with one another (software programs interacting with each other). For such interactions, equating personhood with the mind-construct is the logical approach; equating personhood with the underlying meat-ware is a fallacy, which will have disastrous consequences for society.
Take a neural network running on a computer system. There is some randomness in the system; let us remove the randomness and replace the calls to getRandom() with a pre-defined set of numbers that are known already. In this setup, it is possible to predict the behavior of the neural network, quite easily by simulating the behavior of the neural network using another neural network. Using such a simulation, with the randomness removed, with the same set of training inputs offered, the simulator should achieve 100% predictability.
Yet, the neural network can override hardware signals and take decisions from a higher level perspective. This is Spinoza’s definition of free will.
By defining free will as something that exists beyond the Universal Laws of Nature, Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne are setting a tautological trap; Nothing can really exist outside of the Universal Laws of Nature, else such Laws cannot be ‘universal’.
The mind-construct is bound by the Universal Laws of Nature, just like the brain. The mind-construct cannot conquer Nature (or God); but the mind-construct can certainly conquer the brain, as the brain is also bounded by the Universal Laws of Nature.
1: His entire book is available for free as columns published here.
2: The 19th-century German Sanskritist Theodore Goldstücker was one of the early figures to notice the similarities between Spinoza’s religious conceptions and the Vedanta tradition of India, writing that Spinoza’s thought was “… a western system of philosophy which occupies a foremost rank amongst the philosophies of all nations and ages, and which is so exact a representation of the ideas of the Vedanta, that we might have suspected its founder to have borrowed the fundamental principles of his system from the Hindus, did his biography not satisfy us that he was wholly unacquainted with their doctrines… We mean the philosophy of Spinoza, a man whose very life is a picture of that moral purity and intellectual indifference to the transitory charms of this world, which is the constant longing of the true Vedanta philosopher… comparing the fundamental ideas of both we should have no difficulty in proving that, had Spinoza been a Hindu, his system would in all probability mark a last phase of the Vedanta philosophy.”
Max Muller, in his lectures, noted the striking similarities between Vedanta and the system of Spinoza, saying “the Brahman, as conceived in the Upanishads and defined by Sankara, is clearly the same as Spinoza’s ‘Substantia’.”
Helena Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society also compared Spinoza’s religious thought to Vedanta, writing in an unfinished essay “As to Spinoza’s Deity—natura naturans—conceived in his attributes simply and alone; and the same Deity—as natura naturata or as conceived in the endless series of modifications or correlations, the direct outflowing results from the properties of these attributes, it is the Vedantic Deity pure and simple.”
3. It should be noted that neither Spinoza’s Deity (natura-naturans) nor Adi Shankara’s Deity (Brahman) is a prayer-answering entity that is outside of Nature. They viewed Nature and God as different views of Truth, which was singular. God and Nature were not the same though. Nature was considered a finite manifestation of God, while God was considered infinite (i.e.) in both their worldviews, God was not the mere corporeal matter of the cosmos; God could have infinitely many other attributes that may or may not be expressed in the cosmos, and of such attributes which are expressed in the cosmos, humans may or may not have the ability to perceive all such expressions. They both hypothesize that there could be no empirical evidence of attributes of God beyond Nature because humans, being bounded by Natural Laws, can only perceive attributes of God within Nature.
4: Adi Shankara in Advaita Vedanta performs a ying-yang perspective shift and claims that just as free will can be considered as an illusion (a pseudo concept) from the materialistic point of view, matter can also be considered as an illusion from the mind-construct point of view. He calls this matter-as-illusion perspective as ‘Maya’. The movie Matrix is based on the perspective of Maya expounded by Adi Shankara.