After printing an evenhanded op-ed on neurology and the paranormal (registration required), the New York Times carries a curious story about science and free will . "Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force," says neurological researcher Mark Hallett. "People experience free will. They have the sense they are free."
If that sounds like poorly draped determinism, that’s because it is. Others quoted define free will as simply not knowing what you’ll do next, a hurdle low enough for both humans and computers to clear. "If I ask [a computer] how long will it take to boot up five minutes from now," says mechanical engineer Seth Lloyd, "the operating system will say ‘I don’t know, wait and see, and I’ll make decisions and let you know.’" In fact, machines do not freely "make decisions" the way you and I do (see " The Trouble with the Turing Test " by Mark Halpern). Meanwhile Dr. Silberstein of Elizabethtown College asks rhetorically if behavior isn’t random or deterministic, "It must be¯what¯some weird magical power?" Then comes experimental data of brain signals corresponding to certain actions being recorded prior to people consciously deciding to act. The Times connects the dots: "The conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion…"
And as for the social and moral consequences of denying free will, the Times found scientists prepared to accept them, as unpleasant as they may be. Harvard’s Dr. Wegner says: "We worry that explaining evil condones it. We have to maintain our outrage at Hitler. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a theory of evil in advance that could keep him from coming to power?" That would be nice. But Wegner never explains how the denial of free will would eliminate Hitlers. For that matter, he can’t say why we should maintain outrage at the evil of Hitler. In the absence of free will, "evil" and "outrage" are emptied of all normative content; they become only preprogrammed brain responses to stimuli.
Expect many similar articles in the coming years as new neurological research is published¯much of it aimed, as the Times piece is, at exciting atheists into a belief that they’re closing in on a damning piece of evidence against religion. You’d think simple logic would enter at some point: In the end, human freedom is necessary for all human enterprise, from science to ethics, all the way down to persuading others that free will is illusory.
John Rose is an assistant editor at First Things .