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A materialist account of the human mind that allows for free will?


In “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience” (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 18, 2012), Hilary Bok attempts to provide a materialist account of free will:

As a philosopher, I often find speculation about the implications of neuroscience for free will perplexing. While some neuroscientists describe free will in ways that I recognize, others, including some distinguished and thoughtful scientists, do not. Thus Benjamin Libet: If “our consciously willed acts are fully determined by natural laws that govern the activities of nerve cells in the brain,” then free will is “illusory.”

Most philosophers disagree.

His perspective is compatibilism, and he explains it asfollows:

A person whose actions depend on her choices has alternatives; if she is, in addition, capable of stepping back from her existing motivations and habits and making a reasoned decision among them, then, according to compatibilists, she is free.

Whether this view provides an adequate account of free will is not a problem neuroscience can solve. Neuroscience can explain what happens in our brains: how we perceive and think, how we weigh conflicting considerations and make choices, and so forth. But the question of whether freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with free will is not a scientific one, and we should not expect scientists to answer it.

Bok offers a good, stirring answer but, surely, he is whistling in the dark?

The Darwinian materialist argues that “consciousness,” “free will,” and “moral responsibility” are illusory concepts that help us survive and pass on our genes; on that view, Bok may as well be shadow boxing with hallucinations from taking a medicine to which he had a bad reaction.

If Bok is one of Darwin’s men, he will have to agree with the Master:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

Essentially, horrid or not, that is what Darwinian evolution entails, and later Darwinists have never been slow to point it out – except when calming people’s fears about teaching Darwinism in the school system or from the pulpit.

It’s a good thing that there are other ways of looking at evolution.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allan at Brains on Purpose


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