Do we have free will? Modern materialists say, no. This is what I learned watching an episode in a series on science that was hosted by Stephen Hawking on Public Broadcast Television.
Hawking explained the experiments that informed this view. In the experiment, the subjects were told to choose to push a button and to note the time on the clock at which the decision was made. At the same time, the subject’s brain waves were being monitored for activity. Over and over again, the brain waves were measured showing that the uptick in brain waves happened before the subject was conscious of the actual decision being made to take the action.
The experiment demonstrated the following sequence: (1) a brain signal occurs about 550 milliseconds prior to the finger’s moving; (2) the subject has an awareness of his decision to move his finger about 200 milliseconds prior to his finger’s moving; (3) the person’s finger moves.
This was interpreted as evidence by Hawking that we don’t have free will. The decisions we make are actually prompted by brain activity before we are conscious of making the decision. The conclusion is that we are responding to some prior stimuli and only think that we are making independent decisions. Hawking concluded, therefore, that we are determined, as everything is, by natural laws in an endless stream of cause and effect.
But wait, there is more. The scientist who conducted these experiments, Benjamin Libet, actually came to the opposite conclusions. And lest you think this is only an interesting experiment with no practical application, I find some interesting applications to our struggles with sin.
On a typical Sunday morning, I am contemplative, thinking about God, the nature of the world and other ultimate things. I have gotten home from church. The distant rumbling of thunder portends more rain to add to the buckets (more like vats) that came down earlier this morning. (We’ve had an unusual amount of precipitation in the Chicago area for about a year now.)
Though sunlight threatens to break through the clouds, despite the rumblings to the contrary, it’s a good day for reading and thinking.
In that vein, I raed an article from Forbes magazine that came up in my Google feed: Ask Ethan: Can We Really Get a Universe From Nothing? Ethan, is Ethan Siegel, a Forbes contributor. He is an astrophysicist, author and “science communicator” according to the short bio at the end of the article.
It just so happens that I spent my Friday evening this week with another astrophysicist, Hugh Ross, a brilliant man who is a Christian, and also a man of science. In fact, it was science that led him to his belief in God. But I digress. (You can hear the story of how science led Hugh Ross to God in his own words here.)
My meeting with Hugh Ross isn’t really relevant to the topic, other than the fact that our conversation got me thinking about science and ultimate things, things that science doesn’t really address (or hasn’t yet answered). Does God exist? Where did the universe come from?
The article suggests an answer to one of those ultimate questions: where did the universe come from? It suggests that the universe didn’t really come from nothing – at least not the kind of nothing that we usually imagine when we think of nothing. It entices the reader with a title that suggests an ultimate answer, but it doesn’t deliver.
Here is a bold statement: faith is the foundation on which all reasoning proceeds. Tough it is a bold statement, indeed, I believe it is true (pun intended). Let me explain why.
First of all, though, I have to admit that didn’t come up with the statement. Tim Keller did, but it aligns with what I have come to believe is true. That is that we all have faith, even materialists who say they have no faith.
Keller asks us to consider the Enlightenment premise: the only things we can really be sure of are things that are scientifically proven. This is a popular modern sentiment on faith, science and the nature of truth and reality. We have increasingly come to trust science and what science can tell us, and we have grown to distrust faith. But is that a sensible position?
I have recently watched a number of recollections of near-death experiences (NDEs). I also recently listened to a lecture by Gary Habermas, who has studied NDEs for more than a couple of decades. He notes that NDEs have been known for millennia. Some scholars speculate that Plato ‘s Myth of Ur is about a real NDE. There are even near-death experiences recorded in Scripture.
I had no idea NDEs were so common. Habermas says Americans, alone, have reported about 8,000,000 NDE experiences, and they occur around the world in all cultures.
Many NDEs could be made up, though they are many similarities among the reported NDEs. Just listening to a dozen or so of them I could identify the similarities. NDE accounts often don’t fit with worldviews, including the Christian worldview, but naturalists have the most difficult position in respect to NDEs. How do we deal with them? How do we account for them?
In a recent discussion on theism and atheism with the Oxford professors, John Lennox and Peter Atkins representing both ends of the spectrum, the dialogue stopped, and a time of questions and answers began. One person, a scientist, wrote in saying that he is an atheist, but his commitment as a scientist to follow the evidence suggested to him that God does exist. For him, the issue isn’t the evidence, but his own feelings, instincts and emotions.
When this question was put to the two guests to respond, the answers were very intriguing. John Lennox, the Christian, suggested that the man should continue to question and research and to test the position (that God exists) personally, not from afar. The response of the atheist, Peter Atkins, was simple: stick to your “commitment to rationality” (which to him presupposes atheism).
Think about it. Would you suppose the answer, to stick to your commitment, would more likely come from the Christian or the atheist? I would. I think most people would expect that answer to come from the Christian, but it doesn’t in this case. It’s the atheist sticking dogmatically to a presupposition.
Justin Brierley has been doing a series of interviews entitled “the Big Conversation” on his Unbelievable? podcast on the British Premiere Christian Radio. In the latest, and I believe the last, episode, he interviews Daniel Dennett, the Tufts professor and so-called “new atheist” and Keith Ward, the British philosopher, theologian, priest and scholar. Their topic is consciousness. The idea of the “ghost in the machine” comes up about half way through the discussion, and Dennett responds in the segment below:
Among other things, Dennett says that the “ghost in the machine” is nothing more than information. He says, “Information is embodied in the brain”, and “the user of the brain is the brain.” There is no “ghost”.
Of course, to call what Keith Ward describes as the most important aspect of you and me a “ghost” is to minimize it and to reduce it to something of insignificance. Dennett, though would say that the information is the significant thing. There is nothing going on other than the embodiment, transfer and process of information.
So what about consciousness?
Dennett says, “Consciousness is the user illusion of the brain itself…. The brain has been designed to have user interfaces inside it…. Consciousness is a user illusion that is designed by evolution and by learning and by cultural evolution to make our brains capable of getting out bodies through this complicated world.” [Emphasis added]
These remarks are the backdrop for my thoughts today.
Leon Lederman has passed away today at the age of 96. “What’s the big deal”, you might ask. Well Leon Lederman is a big deal around these parts – Batavia, IL where I graduated from high school and where my office has been since 1994. That’s because Batavia is home to the Fermi National Accelerator Lab where Leon Lederman worked and earned a Nobel prize.
Leon Lederman was the director of Fermilab, as it is more commonly known, from 1978 to 1989, and was the principal driver behind the development of the Tevatron, the world’s highest-energy particle collider from 1983 to 2010. He also won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1988 for proving the existence of a new type of neutrino, muon neutrino.
Leon Lederman is a local, national and international legend. He taught for years at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, IL, which is a model for high school education for students from all over the state who are gifted in math and science. The law firm I started my career with and the predecessor to the present firm I am in drafted the legislation for IMSA, and we represented IMSA for many years even after I joined the firm.
On this day, it is more than fitting that I recognize the incredible person Leon Lederman was and the significant contribution he made to the study of physics and science. Among other things, Lean Lederman is the person who called the Higgs Boson the “God Particle” in a 1993 book he wrote by the same name.
On this day, therefore, I honor Lean Lederman by some consideration of that name he gave the Higgs Boson, which stuck somewhat to his own dismay.