Meeting 4.1 – Free Will

The reading group on Biology and Theology met for the first time (for Spring 2015) on 16 February 2015 and talked about free will as it relates to physics and biology. Here are my notes.


Burkeman, Oliver (2015) Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? The Guardian (online)

Consciousness is about internal awareness
Qualia – the experience of phenomena through your senses
Reason – the experience of processing information
Choice – the experience of determining an outcome

The Platonic approach to modeling the world starts with qualia and uses reason to justify the existence of external objects. [These are probability arguments] “Noumena” > phenomena > mind
“I think; therefore I am.” –Descartes
“I think I exist. If I’m wrong, who’s mistaken?” –Augustine
The Aristotelian approach starts by assuming that external objects exist and attempts to explain qualia. [These are likelihood arguments] Objects à sense data à “consciousness”

The Ontological Question: what exists?
1) Reductionist Monism: only physical substances exist (Hobbes). OR only mental substances exist (Mary Baker Eddy)
2) Open Monism: only one type of substance exists, but not all substances are captured by the categories “physical”, “mental”, etc. (Gassendi)
3) Dualism: both physical and mental substances exist and follow different laws

The Causal Question: how do they interact?
1) Parallelism: mental and objective events coincide but have no causal interaction (Leibniz)
2) Interactionism: each can affect the other (Descartes) “processor” “vehicle”
3) Epiphenomenalism: objects effect consciousness (TH Huxley) “steam whistle”
4)   Solipsism: mind effects phenomena

Note natural selection only applies for causal interactionism. But causal interactionism appears to defy causal closure. Thus science does not give us unequivocal preference.

The real problem is exclusivism – what is sufficient to explain what we experience? At the heart of the qualia problem is this very issue: how can you say what is sufficient to explain my experience? But there is also a social question: what do we as community X (scientists, philosophers, ethicists, theologians, etc.) judge sufficient?

We also have to deal with miscommunication around the words themselves. Monist physicalists insist on physical interpretations for concepts like preference and choice. Dualists insist the words capture a non-physical reality.


Baumeister, Roy F., Masicampo, E. J., and Vohs Kathleen D. (2011) “Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?” Annual Review of Psychology 62:331–61.

What is the relationship between conscious information processing, unconscious information processing, and behavior?

Physical Determinism: the now unpopular scientific idea that the future state of a system may be predicted without error given a complete understanding of the current state.

Physical Stochasticity: the scientific idea that the future state of a system may be analyzed using statistics, but may not be precisely predicted.

Skepticism: future states may not be predicted.

Philosophical Determinism: human behavior is fully determined by environmental and historical stimuli.

Agency: “the ability to have done otherwise” – uncaused causal ability. Multiple potential outcomes exist and the agent acts to direct reality down one path or the other. May be conscious or unconscious.

Will: the faculty of choice – may be agential or not, admits of various constraints.

One can be a determinist in either sense (Agency/Will), both, or neither.

Research is showing that will is far more constrained than previously believed and that the conscious experience of choosing can occur after the choice has been made. Mental states appear to affect behavior (anticipated and imagined futures, organizing past events, focus on concrete solutions, cognitive load, explaining, value quotas). Consciousness may be central in modeling the processing of other processors.
Research is showing that conscious processes are clearly integrated with response to stimulus, particularly with regard to behavior across time, social interaction, and prospect and problem solving.

Discussion focused on where the boundaries were and who believed what. Frequently we ran into imported value judgments – why it is “better” to believe or act in certain ways. We agreed that the moral consequences were significant and speculated on the role of human exceptionalism in the construction of all the categories.

For a longer discussion of these topics: and search “free will”2


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