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Albert Einstein certainly did a lot of thinking!

How Do We Know Things and Exercise Free Will? 

by Dr James Fratzia


Human thought might be seen as a consequence of the processing of numerous inputs. This includes sensory inputs from various body organs, but also input from memory and neuronal processing centres. Decartes in his philosophical ‘mind – soul’ dichotomy considered this to be the role of the pituitary or pineal gland (not sure which he meant). From a purely modern mechanistic viewpoint, this may be seen ultimately as the effect of environmental stimuli on accumulated molecular interactions in the human brain. But neurobiology is only part of the story.

Many experts, both theistic and atheistic, argue that humans have ‘free will’. Many will be surprised to hear that the Bible never uses the term ‘free will’. It is a more modern concept. That people are decision-makers based making their own choices, whether free or coerced in some way, is not disputed from a Biblical viewpoint. Furthermore, the Bible also treats people as responsible for their choices.

But how does a human know things in order to be able to make decisions? This is a very problematic because knowing things is tied up with whether what we know is objectively true. The obvious answer is that we can know things that we experience, and we can know things that we reason. Our experience and reason may not reveal true things, but they do reveal things we ‘believe‘ to be true. Further contributions to what we know may also come from the experience and the reasoning of ‘others‘, particularly from our parents, other authorities (leadership, academic, religious, ideological etc) and tradition and history, both oral and recorded. Again, reason (and experience) tells us these contributions may or may not be ‘true‘. Relativists will argue they are true to us‘, but that does not mean they are objectively true if testing were possible. Furthermore, neurobiology reveals that even our memory recall is inaccurate, so our recollections of our experience provide inaccurate data from which we can reason and know things. This applies to the authorities, traditions and history we rely upon.

Self-evidently, what we do believe we know relies on a store of knowledge from somewhere. And acceptance of the validity (truthfulness) of this knowledge requires ‘believing’ that the data, the reasoning methodology and the reasoning itself, are reliable. This presupposition of reliabilty is not adequately supported by evidence. Accumulated wisdom is therefore, ultimately flawed.

What about knowledge acquired by the scientific method and scientific reasoning. Scientific investigation and reasoning per se is not infallible, and repeatedly we discover that scientific knowledge previously accepted as ‘truth’ is proven to be false. This uncertainty is inherently part of scientific truth because part of the scientific process of accumulating knowledge from which we might objectively know things to be true involves challenging and disproving the scientific truth of the past. Furthermore, when we ask “Can human beings know all things?“, the answer is clearly “No“. There is too much to know but there is a more subtle reason – our instruments (our human physical faculties and those constructed by us) have limitations. This limitation applies not simply to investigating up to the the limits of our physical universe, but beyond. Our intruments will never allow us to know things beyong our phycial universe, for example, “what was there before the ‘big bang’?

It seems to me to be the ultimate example of hubris to believe only what we can see with our eyes and our instruments, and those things passed on to us which rely upon the reasoning and instruments of others. Furthermore, refusal to believe anything to be true outside of the scientific method is illogical if all data available is to be used to reliably know things. Conceptually, refusal to believe anything to be true outside of the scientific method is a belief system in itself, another form of ideology or religion, subject to much of the same ridicule that secularists throw at religious people. It has it’s own prophets, scriptures and priesthood just like religions – they are just not ‘religious’ in the traditional sense, but they function the same way to mediate ‘truth’ that should be believed and in which people put their hope. In my mind, they are one and the same.

What if we had more senses than vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, thermoception, pain, equilibrioception, proprioception etc. Some argue we have many more senes based on physiological categorisation of biological systems. What if we had a sense which allowed us to sense things outside our time-space dimension. What if we could ‘sense’ alternative realities. Human experience, reasoning and tradition has passed on the notion that there is a spiritual reality beyond the physical one investigateable by our traditional sicentifically accepted senses and instruments. Since so much of the human population throughout history, and also today (including modern scientists), refer to sensing this spiritual realm, it would be irrational to reject the possibility. It does not mean that what is sensed is true, because it would have the same cognitive and reasoning problems which afflict our understanding of experience and accumulated reasoning already covered. There are probably even more problems because much that is spiritually sensed could not be objectively tested.

Furthermore, much data sensed from the spiritual realm would be conflictual, or self-contradictory. If humans had this faculty, human reason should be able to make something sensible of it. It would be foolish not to consider the possibility that if spiritual beings are able to use human spiritual senses, they too might pass on inadequate, incorrect or deceptive information which would misdirect human reasoning. Such information may not even be presented as religion, it might simply be presented as ideology, or ‘progressive’ thought. Perhaps that is what we have seen throughout human history with it’s ideological and religious conflicts. Perhaps our Western history of post WWII ‘alien visitations’ falls very much into this category, with particular evidence of cultic suicides based on ‘spiritual guidance’ from ‘alien visitors’.

What if true things could be sensed from a spiritual realm. If they were sensed truly, it doesn’t mean they would be interpreted and passed on reliably. Unless of course a truth is deliberately passed on from the spiritual realm by an all-knowing God that is not subject to a ‘prophets own interpetation’, 2 Peter 1:20. Most human population claim this is recorded in their Scripture(s). Objectively, though all these scriptures may or may not have origins from the spiritual realm, if they are from an all-knowing God they can’t all be true. If an all knowing God did wish to communicate reliable truth, the data would be passed on in a reliable way and recorded in a reliable medium which could be transmitted from generation to generation.

Yet that is still just ‘knowledge’. What if the ‘knowing’ is also spiritual, inherently human spiritual. This is what the Bible argues. A spiritual knowing that is outside scientific testing methodologies, but just as reliable. In fact, more reliable because it comes from an all-knowing God, Ephesians 1:17-19. Such a knowledge is not just intellectual, it is also motivational and holistically transforming. It changes the human heart as well as human wisdom. The bible uses the term επιγνωσει (γνωσει = knowledge; επι = super, or greater than, or qualitatively different, or absolutely reliable/truthful) in Ephesians 1:17, and it leads to a holistic transformation, Romans 12:2.

When we make decisions, where is the neurobiological brain centre or chemical that makes decisions? If such a centre or molecule exists then we are not free but our thoughts and decisions are subject to a deterministic material processes and therefore scientifically predictable and reproducible, like everything else in the material universe. It might be my human arrogance, but for many reasons this neurobiological model is inadequate to me.

Who we are, described as the “I” in some modern psychological models, or as our ‘mind’, or our ‘heart’ or whatever, I would argue is what the Bible describes as our ‘psyche‘ (Greek) or soul (English). It is this ‘psyche‘ that encapsulates who we are, not our physical bodies in whatever state of fitness, disability or degeneration they might be.  From a Biblical viewpoint, it is this ‘psyche’ that defines us as a person, a being (even a moral being) and continues in some manner after we die. Certainly, when made in God’s image according to Biblical theology, it is not our physical body which is on view. Even when we receive a resurrected body, it is united in some way to a pre-existing ‘who we are‘ – which includes that part of us where we make decisions. It is this ‘psyche‘ which engages with God and held to account for our decisions. So it seems to me that it is we who make decisions, not simply a material centre in our brains. Our conscience is a well established expression of our decision-making and, to my reading of the neurobiology literature, still sits outside our neurobiology. And I would argue it is an expression of our ‘psyche‘, our very being or ‘person-hood’.

Our decision-making is also influenced heavily by our inclinations. Such predilictions are an expression of who we are – our ‘psyche’. Unfortunately, historica evidence of human behaviour demonstrate that these are antagonistic to God’s sovereignty in our lives, and in this way render us both immoral, and impaired in making rational ‘free’ choices, Ephesians 2:1-3. We believe we are making ‘free’ choices, but our choices are based on unreliable information. More importantly, we do not have the capability to weigh up data with equipoise. We look at the world around us, we look at the design in our DNA, we look at the mathmatical precision of the laws that hold our universe together, but we don’t see the evidence of God – because we don’t want to see it. We are balanced on the side of our unreliable knowledge. That is, our will is not truly ‘free‘ until we can engage with God by His Spirit and the reliable knowledge God provides transmitted to us in Scripture.

My thesis is that our ‘psyche‘ processes numerous inputs when making decisions. And it is inseparable from our eternal identity. A neurobiological model explains how material events are handled and recognised. But it doesn’t explain how other inputs might be handled, so it is philosophically/ethically unsatisfactory. Are there other inputs, say non-material ones? I argue yes from the evidence of human thought throughout history, regardless of ethnicity, geography or civilisation – it is a ubiquitous element. There is even evidence that other homonids, such as H. Neanderthalis also had a recognition of the existence of spiritual inputs.

I would argue that another input is ‘spiritual‘ input, ‘spiritually‘ sensed, and this too is processed by ‘self’, ‘psyche‘ (or soul), functioning beyond our neurobiogical inputs. This is probably inherently part of being made human, and perhaps reactivity to inputs from the spiritual realm is even embedded throughout the material universe. Here we come up again with another credibility problem which hampers debate. Usually, those who hold to a pure neurobiological view of thought, person-hood, and decision-making won’t accept there is any reality beyond the material, yet some will go ahead and accept the notion of an infinite number of material realities (multiverse or some variation of this) based on mathematical speculation. The Bible clearly describes another reality, a ‘spiritual‘ one inhabited by spiritual powers which have the ability to interact with us in this material world, not least through our thoughts, and thereby influence our decisions. Most people who reject the existence of a ‘spiritual‘ reality will accept a ‘quantum‘ reality which doesn’t operate under the laws that govern the material universe in the standard model of physics. It seems to me that at the very least, they cannot say whether a spiritual reality exists or not. Saying it doesn’t exist is just as illogical as saying a spiritual reality does exist.

Yet I would go further and argue another input which influences our thinking, both the molecules in our neurobiology, and the inputs we discern spiritually. And that is is God who holds all realities together and intervenes in all of them.

So we can know things from experience (both our own and that handed down to us as knowledge), scientifically using the scientific method, we can discern things spiritually using an ability that is inherent in us as human beings created in God’s image, and we can have things revealed to us by God directly through our neurobiology and/or through our spirit. Biblical truth is discerned using all four inputs – and requires all four inputs to be adequately grasped. What we do with that is our own choice, and some call it exercising free will. But whether the neurobiological determinism, and powerful spiritual influences genuinely allow us to make free decisions is another question altogether.

About the Author

James Fratzia

He's not the Messiah - he's just a very naughty boy!

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