I’ve been doing a little research recently into the question of Free Will. Are we really free to choose our own course in life? This has turned up a new line of reasoning (for me) that surprised me a little bit. In its simplest form, it runs like this:
How does the atheist explain free will?
To the atheist, not only does God not exist, but the only things that exist are those that are made of atoms and energy. Thus, there is nothing more to the human brain than the cells from which it is made and the electrical impulses and chemical transmitters that communicate between those cells, all of which we can see and study. Therefore, all human thought, all human emotions, all human intelligence, even human consciousness (knowing that I exist) are all nothing more than the result of the millions of connections in the physical human brain.
Looked at from another angle, this would mean that if we were clever enough, we could in theory build a supercomputer that is the exact counterpart of a human brain – same pattern of connections on its microchips as your brain has between its brain cells.
Would this computer thus be human? Would it have a mind? Would it be conscious? Would it be alive?
I don’t think so. I think that the fact that we have free will is very powerful proof against our mind being nothing more than connections between cells. Here’s why:
All matter and energy must follow the laws of nature. The charge of an electron is always the same, chemical reactions always run the same given the same circumstances and so on. Tossing a coin is not actually random: if you knew the exact starting position, the exact force applied, the exact effect of air friction etc, you could predict whether it was going to be heads or tails with 100% accuracy every time! Imagine what you could do with the Lotto numbers …
In the same way, if our brains are only cells following the laws of nature, then there simply is no free will. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions were all determined for us from the moment of our conception, and there is nothing we can do to change that. Just think about that – who will choose to change your decision? You can’t because all you can think with is your brain, and you have no choice in how your brain behaves – it has to obey the laws of nature. If that were true, then you actually had no choice wheter or not to read this blog.
Now this is a huge dilemma for the atheist. We all KNOW that we have free will. When provoked with the question of free will, the famous Samuel Johnson replied, “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!” But how can free will exist in a universe where the laws of nature cannot be fiddled with?
It seems to me that the only sane and rational answer is to suggest that there is an aspect to our ‘mind’ that is not made of matter or energy. Call this aspect what ever you like (Christians call it the spirit), but if free will exists, then the only thing that can drive it is something that is not bound by the laws of nature. Something that can be genuinely independent, and thus make genuinely independent choices.
Atheists don’t like this, since you can’t examine a spirit under a microscope. We may never be able to pin down what exactly a spirit is. But they will continue, no doubt to search for natural explanations for both consciousness and free will. My reading so far suggests this is not only a daunting task, but may well one day be proved to be a totally impossible task.