In my previous post, “The Existence of the Soul: Philosophy, Not Neuroscience,” I discussed one of the logical difficulties that plague physicalism’s claim that we are our brains and nothing more. I now wish to turn to what I believe is an intractable problem for those who deny the existence of the immaterial soul: the impossibility of free will.*
Remember that in the materialist/physicalist picture of the world, there exists nothing other than matter in motion, so there is no such thing as an immaterial soul. The direct implication of this is that every single neurochemical event in our brains must be the result of the neurochemical event that preceded it. Essentially, our thought processes are nothing but chemical chain reactions subject to physical environmental influences. All of our beliefs, desires, emotions, and actions are inevitable and can be comprehensively explained at the molecular level. We cannot really make conscious decisions and we cannot take voluntary actions. We feel as if we do these things with freedom, but that “freedom” is only illusory. Sure, we are conscious that we act according to a desire, but that desire is nothing more than the chemical step preceding the one that produces the related thought or action.
In a nutshell: physicalism entails determinism and determinism eliminates any possibility of true free will; you are an organic machine running on chemical software.
In sharp contrast, the substance dualist holds that there is an immaterial soul that serves as the seat of cognition and free will. While all thought and action involves neurochemical activity, the soul is the “self” that transcends brain function and can direct some of this activity. The soul acts as an operator of sorts, one that can freely choose rational and physical actions. For example, I can choose to examine the evidence related to the existence of God, systematically apply the laws of logic to the information I have, and then choose my conclusion accordingly. But if there is no “I” to which my neurochemistry is subordinate, then my conclusion was the outcome of a chain reaction over which I had no control.
Think of the implications here. If physicalism is true, we can’t justify holding anyone accountable for their actions, because humans don’t really have free choice in anything. It would be like prosecuting a machine for doing what its programming predetermined it to do. Furthermore, the physicalist cannot claim that they reached their view by thinking through the evidence in a rational manner, because such a process would involve the ability to deliberate with total freedom. No freedom, no rationality. What a dilemma.
Isn’t it funny, then, that so many physicalists write books trying to convince others of their viewpoint? If their viewpoint is correct, no one can intentionally choose to believe it. Wouldn’t that make those book-writing efforts utterly futile? ;-)
Prager University has a fantastic short video that explains the relationship between the soul, free will, and rationality. Enjoy!
*By “free will,” I mean libertarian free will.