Is free will an illusion? According to an recent article in the Guardian, about 12% of philosophers believe this to be the case. They argue that our choices are determined by forces beyond our control – perhaps even predetermined all the way back to the beginning of the universe – and that nobody is responsible for his or her actions.
From their perspective, we act only when prompted by physiological reasons. For example, we choose between eating a banana and apple due to a pattern of neurons firing in our brain that can be linked all the way back to our birth, our parents’ meeting, their births, and eventually, the birth of the cosmos. As evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, says:
“Free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has quietly seeped an undercurrent of violence into our lives. The young children who are isolated in their rooms because a playmate’s father has tested positive. The youth who feel like no one is listening and no future awaits them. The small business owners who are left only with shuddered doors and back rent to pay.
And then there is Roberto (not his real name). Roberto and I met a year ago, and I have fond memories of our chatting away at a conference. Roberto is in his early 60s, a quiet and gentle Italian homeopathic doctor who has healed many people with herbal medicine, massage, and loving care. I was particularly delighted at the time because he knew about psychosynthesis.
Last week I heard Robert Sapolsky being interviewed on the radio. Prof. Sapolsky is apparently a renowned and popular U.S. scientist. He is Professor of Biological Sciences and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University, and a big shot in the world of neuroendocrinology. The New York Times has called him one of the finest natural history writers of our time.
Despite all his knowledge, talent, expertise and fame, Prof. Sapolsky left me chilled when he said:
“Free will is what we call the biology that we have yet to study.”