The Guardian’s Comment is Free section runs a feature called “The Question” Each week a question is posed and a series of writers offer their thoughts (usually both pro and con) on it. This week, the question is: Can we choose what we believe? Or, to put it another way: How do you believe the things you do, and are they things you can change?
Julian Baggini gets things off to a good start, but as is so often in CiF, we lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous with the next response from Usama Hasan. His opening sentence is a perfect illustration of the begging the question fallacy:
God exists, obviously.
Erm, no, it ain’t obvious. His piece pretty much goes downhill from there. As Baggini concludes in his piece:
The capacity to make free choices is not something we either have entirely or not at all. Rather, choices become freer the more they are the result of our own capacity to reflect on and assess facts and arguments. Beliefs based on ignorance or whim are thus less freely chosen than those held in full knowledge and on reflection. So to take one of the biggest belief choices of all, we do not choose to believe in God or not, but we can choose how much we attend to inconvenient facts, distorting self-motivations, and the rationality of arguments. In that sense, we are responsible for what we freely believe.
There’s been a number of items recently on whether free will is itself an illusion or not. For example, the philosopher Dr. Galen Strawson had a good article in the New York Times recently. His position is that free will is definitely an illusion. Bradley Voytek, over at his Oscillatory Thoughts blog, has some comments to counter the argument. And Jerry Coyne had an item on his Why Evolution Is True blog outlining the surprising results of an experiment to test “free will”. As Coyne writes:
Here’s the surprising result: the brain activity that predicted which button would be pressed began a full seven seconds before the subject was conscious of his decision to press the left or right button. The authors note, too, that there is a delay of three seconds before the MRI records neural activity since the machine detects blood oxygenation. Taking this into account, neuronal activity predicting which button would be pressed began about ten seconds before a conscious decision was made.
Food for thought, and a good deal more interesting than “God exists, obviously”.