The next installment in our series on free will, what it means, and whether it exists
Because I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how parts of the brain work, I have developed an increasingly strong interest in the ethical implications of brain research. A few years ago, I discovered that there was a whole academic field, with its own society,devoted to understanding what has come to be called “neuroethics”, or the study of the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience research. My personal interests had more to do with technical and medical questions rather than explicitly ethical ones, but when I attended my first neuroethics meeting last year, I was very surprised to find that the most central question in the field, and everyone’s favorite conversation topic, was free will.
The wide expanse of research and thinking about the concept of will cannot possibly bewritten in a single blog post, and even if it could, I wouldn’t be the guy capable of writing it. From what I’ve come to understand, the general academic neuroethical sentiment is that neuroscience is drastically altering our societal concept of free will, if not completely ablating it. Some people say that outright, some people say that more tactfully, but the idea is prevalent. For someone who was raised in the Latter-day Saint religion, which teaches that the ability to choose is a central, eternal and critical part of our individual spiritual identities, the idea that there is no such thing as free will was difficult to process. While I’m sure that my thoughts on this are still immature, I have gradually become confident that there is room for the implications of science and the implications of faith to combine and cohabitate within the doctrinal framework of the LDS church,which I believe to be true.
Neuroscience and Free Will
The basic, academic definition of free will, as I understand it, is that the mind of a conscious individual is capable of choosing between any two options at any time; that,while external forces can force actions of the body, no external force can have an absolute control on one’s ability to make a decision mentally. One might imagine extreme scenarios where an individual is forced to choose between life and death, or between something horrible and something horrible, but there is still a choice, some calculation that must be made that is ultimately determined by the individual. This basic idea is central to our lives, and it is an idea that we take for granted. We choose our clothes, our cereal, our careers, our spouses and our social identities assuming that we make those decisions of our own volition. We accept secular and/or religious frameworks of right and wrong assuming that we can choose to follow or disobey those
laws, or at least choose the lesser of two evils. Americans have a country founded on the principle that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable human right, which assumes that individual choice is the principle driver of that pursuit.
Neuroscience, with its branches in psychology and medicine, has introduced a twist into this idea of free will: that the mind may be the seat of our ability to choose, but the brain is the seat of the mind, and the brain can influence our ability to choose in ways that we had not previously considered.
Consider the following cases, all generalizations of real cases:
- An individual is arrested for sexual abuse of a minor. In the course of the investigation, it is revealed that the individual has a massive brain tumor intruding on the frontal cortex. After the successful removal of the tumor, the individual has lost the motivation for the behaviors that led to his misconduct. Years later, those behaviors return, and an MRI reveals that the tumor has relapsed.
- An individual has a genetic condition that drives an otherwise intelligent and conscious person to impulsively begin chewing off his own limbs.
- An alcoholic who has been sober for twenty years is invited to a party at which someone has secretly spiked the punch. Soon, the man escapes to a bar and drinks himself into a blackout, because he “just couldn’t help himself.”
- A volunteer for a research study is placed under the influence of a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine, and, while the machine passively disrupts neural activity in a certain area of the frontal cortex, the volunteer is asked to choose between a set of options; the options he chooses with the machine on are very different than those with the machine off.
- An individual surfing the web is drawn to a set of different advertisements. He clicks on one that seems vaguely interesting. What he doesn’t realize is that the image in the advertisement is flashing at a frequency that was designed to preferentially draw his gaze.
To these, I could add cases that describe how temper, depression, ecstasy, prejudice, sexual orientation and predilections, fear, obsessions and focus can all have their roots in the neural processes of specific parts of the brain, and how these things can be shifted or altered by tweaking those parts of the brain. Many of these things are commonly known and publicly discussed.
These cases raise this important question: do we have really have free will if the biological operations (normal or abnormal) of our internal neural network have such a strong influence on what we decide?
I’m going to disappoint you here and leave that question unanswered so that you can think of this question on your own, though you probably won’t be able to do so without wondering if my outlining of these cases in any way altered your perception. But before I get to the real purpose of this post, I want to make sure to make these points:
- In the history of Homo Sapiens, no individual human has ever made a decision of any kind that did not include a corresponding neural event. The mind has never been independent of the brain.
- The wiring plan of our brain is generally dictated by genetics during our body’s development, but the individual wiring of each of our synapses is dictated and constantly altered by our life experience. The capacity for synaptic circuits to rewire is a process that is central to our ability to learn.
- There is a brain hierarchy that allows for “executive” control over lower level neural processes (easy examples: you can choose to hold your breath, not blink, or hold still while in pain, though it can be hard to do over time.)
- It is ridiculous to think that we ever make decisions completely independently. We are each the sum of our experiences, and we are constantly bombarded by influences of various kinds. It is probably impossible to be completely unbiased, even about things that we wouldn’t claim to care about.
- As a personal observation, it is much easier to claim that we have “will” than it is to claim that we have “free will.”
The relationship of LDS doctrines to these ideas is complex. In the first place, LDS doctrine states that we all existed spiritually before we were born, and that our spiritual selves had consciousness, identity, and the capacity to make decisions, all independent of biological brains (Abraham 3, Job 38:7). The “physiological” make-up of our spirits and how they are integrated into our brains now, is unexplained. But the doctrine is that
there is something in our core spiritual identity that is capable of operating independent of the brains we have.
It is noteworthy that many of scriptural laws of God directly forbid acting in ways that our brains would naturally induce us to do. For example, there are strict scriptural laws governing sexual conduct, anger, greed, frivolity, passivity, addictive and pleasurable substances, and even fear. Obedience to these laws requires that we disregard, suppress, ignore and master natural, neural processes in our brains. In fact, we are commanded to “watch our thoughts” as well as our words and deeds (Mosiah 4:30) and to choose to serve the Lord with our “minds” in addition to our hearts and strength (D&C 4: 2).
The implication of God’s laws is that there are mechanisms in place that would allow us to overcome our brains, otherwise we could never be justly expected to fulfill God’s laws. Such mechanisms exist, and do not directly depend on neural sensory input systems to operate. Among these mechanisms is the power of the Holy Ghost, which has the function of communicating messages from God directly to minds and hearts (as a Book of Mormon example, the prophet Nephi said that “when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.” 2nd. Nephi 33:1). How this process influences the brain is also unexplained.
At the end of this life every person will ultimately be judged based on the amount of knowledge we have about God, how we used our agency, and the degree to which we can be held accountable for our actions. For example, children below the age of eight are not considered capable of sin (knowingly disobeying God’s law) and are not subject to the requirements of baptism. Should they die before age eight, they are considered free from the requirements of the law and are “saved”. The same is true of individuals with severe neurological ailments. Judgment will also take into account any mental infirmities that preclude the conscious use of agency. Incidentally, this final judgment will take place after the spirit and body are reunited in what is called the resurrection, in which the body and all its attributes is restored to its perfect form and functionality (including, it is presumed, the brain, though how it will be different is unexplained).
So, what does this all mean, taken together? Neuroethicists worry about free will because they can see how brain processes affect who we are and what we decide. LDS theology doesn’t deny the facts, but instead emphasizes that there is still are such things as will, growth, learning, and the ability to choose salvation and happiness through the Gospel of Jesus Christ when given the opportunity, despite the fluctuations in our personal neurotransmitter levels. Our brains are powerful and miraculous, but they are not sufficient explanations of who we are, or why we are. Our brains are not the mechanisms that dictate the ultimate state of our souls, but are the mechanisms through which we, by our will, determine the ultimate state of our souls for ourselves.
I believe that, like other apparent science/religion contradictions, the reason the contradiction exists is because we just don’t know enough. Science still has much to reveal (I hope; my career depends on it) and God has revealed very little information about the relevant science of spirituality. I assume that many of my personal questions about this topic will be easily answered as soon as I’m dead, so there isn’t much point in speculating too much now (sorry that I won’t be able to post any of my findings then). What we can do is continue to explore and obtain all the facts as we can, as reasonably as we can, about the brain, the mind, and about God, and hope that all of that accrued knowledge will eventually prompt us to make the best decisions about our lives that we can.
“Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.” Romans 14:5