There is no shortage of speculation today as to whether science – most often, neuroscience or quantum physics – has successfully disproven the idea of free will. “Free will might be an illusion created by our brains, scientists might have proved,” or so the commentary would have us believe.
Philosophers and theologians have said much on the topic, it is said, but what is needed is something more concrete, something that can prove the issue one way or the other. In short, something more scientifically testable. The assumption of free will is said to be eroding as “the sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.”
As we are better able to analyze the networks of neurons in our brains – networks shaped by our genes and environment – there is widespread agreement that “the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.” If these neurons are not subject to our will, we must not be free – or so the argument goes.
The issue here is primarily one of methodology.
The methods of science necessarily work in the direction of determinism because science is concerned with the question of causes. If you can only ask about causes, you will without fail end in determinism. Thus, to say that science comes down on the side of determinism is to do little more than utter a truism.
As F.H. Jacobi put it: “Every avenue of demonstration ends up in fatalism.”
Or Paul Roubiczek: “[Determinism] is the natural outcome of the scientific method; it is bound to work in the direction of establishing causality… As the method is designed to disclose necessity, freedom can never be proved in this way.”
Roubiczek’s final point is the clutch of this discussion.
A method designed to disclose necessity cannot prove something defined as being without necessity.
Science – and to a similar extent, rationalism – are focused almost exclusively on the question of causality. When one of the only questions that can be asked is “what caused this?” it should come as no surprise when the process can point only to various causes. Even if science were to discover something which seemed uncaused, the good scientist would proceed on the assumption that the cause was simply unknown or undetectable via the current equipment or processes.
Science has a necessary bias towards causality; this is not a weakness or a fault, but merely a limitation. In the end, science can neither prove nor disprove free will, simply because it is a question which falls outside the bounds of what science can determine.
[This question ends up being less of a theology question and more of a philosophy question. It’s relevance to theology comes in the way that questions about God or ethics similarly simply fall outside the bounds of what science can determine. Those who think otherwise – as Richard P. Feynman put it – don’t “understand science correctly, that science cannot disprove God, and that a belief in science and religion is consistent.”]
A member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society. Ordained PCA. MDiv.
May or may not be a Time Lord.