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Free Determinism

By Dr. Malcolm Stewart-Morris

This title is obviously meant to sound confusing since it appears to describe a cognitive conflict. However, perhaps like other phenomena of the time in which we live (think quantum theory for example) an attempt to resolve that conflict may open a door to a better understanding. Let's try.

Take the blue pill or the red pill

A problem that has appeared involves neurological research revealing that many and some would say all, of our human choices while apparently unfettered have recently been shown to appear in the brain before we become aware of them. How then it is asked can we claim authorship of our own decision making if our brain was there first?

I would suggest that the solution rests with the duality implied by the words "my brain" And I ask: what is the "my" of this expression? Clearly we experience a sense of personhood that a theologian might call a "soul". However, that term is not substantive in a physical sense. An argument can be made that the "person" who possesses the body a part of which is the brain, is in fact an epiphenomenon of that very organ. If I am in fact a brain then the "my" disappears. This idea tends to make more friends in the neurological community than the theological of course.

To continue, the human brain has evolved within the physical environment. Decisions dealing with gravity, temperature, environmental conditions and such reside in lower levels of our Central Nervous System and are not generally the affair of consciousness. Importantly the same is true of many genetic and cultural precursors of decision making. Most importantly our senses and cognitive receptors are constant sources of mostly unanticipated stimuli and data.

The brain it seems then, is under constant bombardment by micro or mini inputs which dictate sub-selections and which finally provide awareness with the building blocks for conscious decisions. Freud who has been so often disregarded had much to say about these subconscious determinants ideas now increasingly supported by neurological discoveries.

While therefore, a strong case can be made that our mental structuring might be "theoretically" determinable we do not live in a theoretical construct any more than those who propose that if all the data of the universe were computable the future would be predictable.

The conclusion that can be drawn then, is that while "free will" at some extended level may be illusory so too is a large part of our perception as humans. We are clearly not capable of grasping anything that might be called absolute reality and do well enough to struggle with our all too imperfect understanding of what is determinable let alone determined.


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