Human Consciousness and Free Will

The enormous gulf between humans and animals has been pondered for centuries. What is the real source of consciousness, reasoning and free will?

There is a fundamental conflict of beliefs between scientific materialists and religious believers. The materialist believes that human beings are merely complex material systems—very clever animals. Many religious believers see humans as more than just physical beings, in that the human mind is fundamentally different from all that is purely physical.

Clearly, there is a vast gulf between humans and any other living species. We humans are unique in having the ability to contemplate our role in the universe, philosophically evaluate truth and think abstractly. We design complex mechanical systems and express our thoughts and imagination through the written and spoken word.

Can human consciousness be explained by chemistry and physics?

Why this vast chasm? Both the materialists and the religious share some common ground. Most agree that biology is basically a function of chemistry and physics, that humans are physically similar to animals, and that there is a physical basis for mental activities.

Where the disagreement lies is with the materialist concept that what happens in the physical world is completely determined by physics—the meaning of the term scientific determinism.

The religious view is that not everything can be entirely reduced to the physical, but rather the human mind has spiritual components. Specifically, we have intellect (the power to reason and think rationally and abstractly) and free will (the capability to make rational and free choices). These are both unique to humans.

These characteristics are often referred to as a part of human consciousness. Consciousness broadly includes the capacity for self-reflection, emotional intelligence, moral understanding, perceiving with a degree of controlled thought and knowing one’s inner self.

The fundamental disagreement relates to this question: Is what happens in the physical world, including human consciousness, completely determined by physics?

The answer from the scientific materialist perspective is summarized by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their book The Grand Design (2010) in paraphrasing the 18th-century mathematician Laplace:

“Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God.”

What they are saying is that nothing exists except the material universe, and therefore everything results only from mathematical laws of physics and blind chance. If nothing existed that is not physical, then it would be self-evident that the existence of God would be ruled out. This scientific materialist viewpoint would also rule out humans having free will and the ability to reason abstractly.

The lack of evidence leads to the explanatory gap

The problem with this scientific materialist view is the lack of physical evidence to support it. So little evidence is available, the term the explanatory gap has been coined. Various scientific theories have been proposed, but as Ray Kurzweil stated in his book How to Create a Mind (2012): “The reality is that these theories [about consciousness] are all leaps of faith.”

While research on how the brain behaves has flourished over the past 100 years, we are essentially no closer to satisfactorily explaining the human mind than the ancient Greeks.While research on how the brain behaves has flourished over the past 100 years, we are essentially no closer to satisfactorily explaining the human mind than the ancient Greeks.

Here is a brief summary of some of the developments in human thinking about how we think.

  • Determinism. Does the apparent deterministic nature of the universe rule out a spiritual element for consciousness? Until the early 20th century, the scientific evidence pointed to a physical universe that is completely deterministic. The deterministic laws of nature seemed to provide a strong argument against the existence of a spiritual element in the human mind.

However, there is much that we do not know and cannot explain about the universe through physical laws. For example, how, according to the big bang theory (generally accepted by scientists), did the entire universe originate from nothing?

When examined closely, the gist of the deterministic theory of consciousness is circular reasoning. First, all rational explanations of reality must be in terms of equations and quantities. Since this is sufficient for physics, it must be true for all reality. Why? Because reality is defined as nothing but physics.

  • The collapse of determinism. Surprisingly to some, the established deterministic scientific principles have failed. The culprit was the development of quantum theory. Now scientists believe they have established that not everything is deterministic. On a large scale, deterministic laws of physics do represent nature accurately. However, on the subatomic scale nature appears to be probabilistic. (For a more detailed description, see page 177 of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen M. Barr, 2006.)

Therefore, laws of physics may be based on rules (deterministic), randomness (stochastic) or a combination of both.

  • Can quantum theory provide an answer? Like quantum theory, free will is not predictable. However, unlike quantum theory, free will is not random but is the product of rational choice. Therefore, quantum theory does not logically lead to the answer to consciousness.
  • Is free will a reality? Since free will points to a failure of scientific materialism, some contend that free will is an illusion. This idea is based more on philosophy than science. The basic tenet of scientific materialism is that everything is the result of the strict mathematical laws of physics and blind chance. When carried to its logical extension, free will could not exist.

But, if free will does not exist, how can rewards or punishments be deserved? No one would accuse a tiger of murder for killing its prey. If you apply this logic to humans, a criminal could argue: Don’t punish me; it’s just physics. Without free will, crime (or sin) would not exist. The materialist has a problem accepting such philosophical concepts as free will, rationality, good and evil, truth, love, and beauty since they fall outside the field of physics.

  •  Can abstract thought be part of a deterministic mind? Reasoning requires abstract thinking that only humans appear to possess. Abstract thought transcends the present and is infinite in scope. Thinking of a particular man is not abstract thinking, while thinking of masculinity is.

Higher mathematics is another example of abstract thinking. Numbers are not material things and often do not represent material things. Mathematical processes are mental things that exist in the mind. Materialists suggest that abstract thought is just a certain pattern of neurons firing in the brain. But can the intuitive insights used to create the complex mathematical formulations such as quantum theory or the theory of relativity be reduced to just a set of neurons firing?

Materialists would have us believe that neurons fire the mind, but evidence indicates that the mind fires the neurons.

Other theories have been postulated, but they too are less than convincing. However, there is another explanation found in the Bible.

God’s answer to the difference between humans and animals

The link between physical and mental activity is not contradicted by the Bible. However, the Bible indicates that consciousness, intellect and free will cannot be entirely reduced to the material. The brain is necessary for all mental functions, but it is not sufficient for some mental activity.

Two types of nonphysical effects on the brain are described in the Bible: the spirit in man and the Holy Spirit. “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11, emphasis added throughout).

This spirit in man is what gives humans understanding, thus separating them from animals. “But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding” (Job 32:8). God says that He “forms the spirit of man within him” (Zechariah 12:1). This spirit is something that we can control. “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). This spirit is the source of human intellect and free will (see the article “Spirit in Man: What Is It?”).

Jesus made it clear that humans do possess free will. He said, “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me. If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” (John 7:16-17). We have the free will to do right or not. “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient’” (Isaiah 1:18-19).

When it comes to understanding the rational mind, scientific explanations are unconvincing. The logical evaluation of these various scientific theories, as well as our experience, leads to the conclusion that there is more to the human mind than merely the laws of physics. It brings to mind Paul’s message to the Roman Christians concerning those who rejected the Creator God: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22, King James Version).

The God of the Bible clearly claims that He is responsible for the human mind. It all comes down to this: Where is our faith? In man? Or in God?

By using this great gift of consciousness that God has given us, we can rationally address the questions: “Is There a God?” “Is the Bible True?” and “What Is the Meaning of Life?” The answers are truly satisfying and life-changing!

About the Author

Rick Avent

Dr. Rick Avent is a retired professor of civil engineering at LSU. He is happily married to Sandra with three grown children, and is an elder in the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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