Another wave of books has arrived on the subject of consciousness and free will, with some scientists arguing that neurobiology determines what you choose to do. Stephen Cave of the Financial Times reviewed some of these books and concluded that what "experiments show is that even when we have the conscious experience of deciding, our brains have really already taken the decision for us. Free will is an illusion" (March 24/25).
Not everyone agrees. One important experiment conducted by neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s is often cited as evidence of the inefficacy of free will – yet Libet did not interpret the results that way. He reminded people that despite what he saw as their biological makeup, they retain "the power of veto."
Many will find it hard to believe that this was ever in doubt. It seems counterintuitive in everything we do to believe that physical matter, rather than mind, determines our actions. Still, some scientists insist that behavior follows the action of thousands of tiny neurons; that despite what is commonly believed, our actions are more likely to be involuntary than voluntary.
The core issue isn't new. Jesus made this revolutionary statement: "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). Not everyone agreed.
The problem? The implications for those who accept the biological basis of decisionmaking are huge. Many are tempted to gradually surrender to the chemistry and mechanics of matter our deepest-held view of ourselves as free thinkers and as governable by a divine influence, by the spirit of God. That temptation is troubling, since the more you buy into a materialistic basis for everything, the more you succumb to the restrictions and fate of matter. The future starts to look not only spiritually impoverished but even oppressive.
Fortunately there's another choice, one that calls us to rebel.
Defying the belief that we are helplessly tied to material conditions, rather than existing as the outcome of an entirely perfect and limitless Life that is Spirit, God, was – as stated above – originally central to practicing the theology Jesus taught. Each one of the scores of people he freed from the disease and dysfunction of materiality is supportive evidence of that.
That same healing theology, including a scientific method for putting it into practice, is central to the Science of Christianity today. Its discoverer, Mary Baker Eddy, learned from experience the dire consequences of believing that we have no choice and that material conditions have the upper hand. Her heart protested against such a submission.
That protest plays an essential role in Christian healing, as Mrs. Eddy saw in her own health and in healing others. In "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" she wrote: "If God had instituted material laws to govern man, disobedience to which would have made man ill, Jesus would not have disregarded those laws by healing in direct opposition to them and in defiance of all material conditions" (pp. 227-228).
A tall order? Actually, it's realistic and refreshing to defy whatever would strangle mental self-government; to disregard what would ascribe to matter intelligence, health, happiness, or the highest sense of who we are and what we revere.
The bottom-line: Is consciousness biochemical and therefore local, personal, inherently flawed and limited? Or, is what's attributed to the brain actually a faint, poor, and finite misrepresentation of the limitless consciousness that God has given His highest creation?
We can object to the finite view of consciousness, because the infinite idea that comprises the truest sense of ourselves – as the image and likeness of Spirit – won't allow us to live in subjection to material conditions. We weren't made to.
As Benjamin Libet reminds us, we indeed have the power of veto.
Adapted from the Christian Science Sentinel.