Ms. Holli Bragg wrote recently about the “greatest gift--freewill.” I find her writings loving and compassionate, wanting to make a better world.
I wonder if our observations and conclusions about freewill are like the little boy who concluded that Santa Claus is real because of the results he observed – night before Christmas nothing under the tree and then Christmas there is the evidence – boxes of gifts. The conclusions and beliefs we make probably depend upon how deeply we analyze our observations.
I have been through the theological debates about freewill based on biblical writings, and one can make the case either way--for freewill or against freewill. One major theological tradition around us maintains that from the New Testament we humans are slaves to sin with everything we do tainted with sin and therefore not free to act in good will.
Neuroscience is shedding light on this issue, and the evidence suggests a conclusion which is not at all easy nor fun to contemplate. Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet’s studies of brain activity and decisions show that when a person is faced with a decision, that part of the brain (80-90%) that we are not conscious of makes the decision before the person has awareness of making it consciously. And of course, all of the test subjects in the study believed that they acted on their decision after they made the decision; however, the EEG scans indicated that their brains had already been actively deciding before they became aware of what they thought their decision was. Libet showed that the conscious decision to act occurs only After the action, as measured by brain activity already underway. The brain produces motion, but part of the decision to move already had been made before the conscious mind becomes aware of it.
Cordelia Fine’s book, “A Mind of its Own,” is very readable showing tremendous evidence of the brain not always acting in our own best interests.
What we do and believe is deeply rooted in our brain processes and in the needs of the brain itself. We are beginning to understand it better. Therefore, one person can look at the landscape and see organization and beauty and conclude that a divine mind, like the one we consciously experience, is behind it all. Another person can see within that landscape what disgusts--a cat eating a live mouse--and conclude something quite different. We need to become better biologists of the brain rather than better religionists.