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Does Science Disprove Free Will? A Physicist Says No

Michael Egnor
Photo: Marcelo Gleiser, by Gleiser, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most disturbing implications of materialism in modern science is the inference that science disproves the existence of free will. Of course, this is not actually the case, but even the mistaken denial of free will has profound and very disturbing implications for our social structure, our criminal justice system, and our way of government. People who are assumed to lack free will are ultimately little more than cattle to be herded and, as philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, the denial of free will — and the denial of individual responsibility that follows on it — is a cornerstone of totalitarianism.

At Big Think, physicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser points to the fallacy that physics and neuroscience disprove free will:

[T]he mind is not a solar system with strict deterministic laws. We have no clue what kinds of laws it follows, apart from very simplistic empirical laws about nerve impulses and their propagation, which already reveal complex nonlinear dynamics. Still, work in neuroscience has prompted a reconsideration of free will, even to the point of questioning our freedom to choose. Many neuroscientists and some philosophers consider free will to be an illusion. Sam Harris, for example, wrote a short book arguing the case.


Several Mistaken Assertions

The argument against free will is based on several mistaken assertions. The first mistake is that nature is deterministic — that changes in the natural world are completely determined by the state of affairs immediately prior to the change, and therefore we cannot make free choices because our choices are determined by our brain state immediately prior to the choice. However, research in physics involving Bell’s theorem over the past half century clearly indicates that, at the quantum level, nature is not deterministic, at least not in a local sense. Determinism in physics is an erroneous assumption, and therefore any inference that physical determinism disproves free will is based on an erroneous assumption.

The second mistake is a failure to see that the denial of free will is self-refuting. If our thoughts and actions are wholly determined by physical processes, then our thoughts and actions cannot be assertions of truth — physical processes are not propositions. If our mental states are wholly determined by our physical brain states, we have no reason to ascribe “truth” to any mental state.

Gleiser points out a third mistake — misinterpretation of neuroscience research on free will.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



Bell's theoremBig Thinkbrain statescriminal justicefree willHannah Arendtindividual responsibilityMarcelo Gleisermaterialismneurosciencephilosophyphysicspropositionsquantum physicsSam Harrissocial structuretotalitarianismtruth