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« Matthew 7:1-5 (David Rowe) | Main | Why Jesus? »

January 29, 2007


Jamie G

Richard, you are brave (or crazy ;)) to attempt to tackle such thorny philosophical issues of free will in the format of a blog posting.

One of the difficulties here is that we are dealing with different levels of description. The scientific description of how we work, think and feel is largely an unsatisfying one. If we reduce the feeling of falling in love, for example, to fMRI brain scans, it doesn't reflect the richness of the experience. It describes it, but at one level only.

Attempts to frame human relationships in terms of kin selection and reciprocal altruism are equally unsatisfying. Should I choose to act with kindness to a friend, neighbour, or family member, it is because I am choosing to. To suggest that we are all following some sort of program is a cynical and nihilistic worldview that would strip much of the richness, love and hope from our lives together.

The other problem with thinking that a scientific level of description is the only valid one is that there are huge holes in our understanding, and filling them in will prove quite difficult.

Yet we can use science to inform us, as long as we realize this is giving us an incomplete description with limited explanatory power, and that it is just one way of framing issues. If I struggle to lose weight, it is because I'm eating too much. If I eat less, you will lose weight; if I eat more, I may put it on. However, I might have a particular genotype that makes it hard for me to feel sated after eating an already adequate lunch. Or I might have had an early life trauma, which means I have emotional struggles which I numb by eating too much. Or I might have a wife who is a fantastic French cook who likes to use a lot of butter in her recipes. These are genetic, psychological and environmental reasons why I could be overweight, which would make my fat belly excusable - but still it is my choice to raise the food to my mouth and pop it in.

What we need is a worldview that is an accurate synthesis of relavent levels of description. We can't ignore scientific explanations because we don't like them; equally, though, we can challenge scientists who go beyond the data and attempt to reduce everything to a single level of description.

There's a whole lot more to be said about free will and determinism, but this will do for now.

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