Scientists can make a patient’s arm shoot into the air, for example, by electrically stimulating a spot in the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to lift her arm and even invents a reason why: She was waving to that handsome doctor! In his 2002 book The Illusion of Conscious Will, psychologist Daniel Wegner calls these delusional, after-the-fact explanations “confabulations.”
We all confabulate now and then. We passively do what we’re told to do—and believe what we’re told to believe—by parents, priests and political leaders, and we convince ourselves it’s our choice. We subvert our wills by deliberating insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, and by failing to act upon our resolutions. Sometimes we act out of compulsion—out of fear or rage—without thinking through the consequences of our actions. But just because our wills are weak doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
His easy accommodation of free will to eliminative materialism doesn’t really work. For example,
Freedom, [eliminative materialist philosopher] Dennett asserts, can be “studied objectively from a no-nonsense, scientific point of view.” The nonprofit organization Freedom House does just that by charting the ebb and flow of freedom around the world. Freedom House defines a nation as “free” if it meets two criteria. First, it must “elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate.” Second, the nation must allow “freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state.”
But what freedoms a government allows has nothing to do with the question of free will as it is usually discussed. People are free to disobey the government, if they are willing to accept the punishment. Some are:
In North Korea, citizens are forced to follow the state ideology known as “The Juche Idea.” Christians there “are the most persecuted believers on earth,” Foley told Fox. He estimates that there are around 100,000 Christians in the country. The network reports that 30,000 of those Christians “are believed to be locked inside concentration camps, where they are overworked, starved, tortured, and killed.”
In 2009, a 33-year-old woman was publicly executed in North Korea after being accused of distributing the Bible. Kenneth Bae, an American missionary, was arrested in North Korea and sentenced to 15 years of labor for “crimes against the state” in May.
Foley, who is in his late 40s, told Fox that believers in North Korea have a demand for Bibles nonetheless. He and his wife, a South Korean immigrant, first began sending balloons in 2006, from a location in South Korea near the North Korean border.
Free will is more often what happens when the government doesn’t allow freedom. Freedom is never given, it is assumed.
Maybe the only way a Scientific American writer could support free will is to somehow link it with materialism. Better that than embracing tyranny!
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose