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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Free will and neuroscience: Why free will must be a foundation

Jonathan Kay's wrote a decidedly unenthusiastic column (January 23, 2007) about the recent anti-God crusade, spearheaded by arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins. Kay, an agnostic, noted,
It's something to think about, even if you're not sitting in prison or mourning a loved one. Life finds a way to break most of us long before death arrives. People get divorced; they watch relatives die; they lose their health, their friends, their money. According to my (admittedly casual) observation, the people who snicker loudest about God are either young or lucky -- usually, both. And so they still labour under the conceit that mere cleverness will be enough to see them through life.
The atheists may be right about God. Who knows? But God or no God, it's clear that something in the human soul requires a belief that life has a purpose that transcends the material plane. One would think that a more-rational-than-thou empiricist such as Dawkins would recognize this unchanging aspect of human nature. Our Western faiths provide that spiritual nourishment -- and in their modern form, do so without inquisitions, holy wars or, for that matter, suicide belts. For all his smirking dinner-party arguments against God, does Dawkins really think this world would be a more humane place if we all looked to The God Delusion instead of The Bible for truth and comfort?

A Nathan Pila wrote in response, disagreeing. (For some reason, I cannot find any reference to the post online, but if I ever do, I will link to it.)

Which prompted a response in turn from a colleague of mine, Don Waller, who said:
Re: The Problem With Atheism, letter to the editor, Jan. 24.

Letter writer Nathan Pila's response to Jonathan Kay's column (Thy Rod and Thy Staff, Jan 23) is essentially an assertion of a worldview commonly known as physical naturalism. Specifically, in this case, that there is no mind or soul independent of the brain; all thought and behaviour is purely the result of neurochemical synapses in the brain.

It is true that some biologists have proposed this view, however, it is by no means a commonly held view. There are serious scientific and philosophical reasons why physical naturalism cannot be tenable. One philosophical argument is based on the idea of free will.
Human beings are known to exhibit what is known as libertarian freedom, that is, they can literally choose between bona fide options... A or B.

If all thought and behaviour are indeed only the result of the biochemistry of the brain, then free will cannot exist, and all we have left is pure determinism.

Furthermore, any concept of moral obligation and responsibility is also nonsensical if determinism is true. But we do not live this way because we do not believe this way.
Mr. Pila concludes by asserting that God's existence is irrelevant. If neurochemical determinism is true then one could also argue that indeed nothing truly exists including Mr. Pila -- he and his letter are just a fabrication of my biochemical synapses. Such a position is indefensible. God's existence is therefore a possibility, and if so, that existence is not irrelevant.
- Don D. Wallar, M.Sc. (Neurochemistry), Newmarket, Ont.

Also, here's an article by Andrew Higgins, originally in the Wall Street Journal, on the European version of the atheist crusade.

My next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).

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