Monday, January 2, 2012

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

The new year always brings a deluge of decisions, doesn’t it. Is this the year I finally quit my job? Is this the year I lose that ten pounds? Is this the year I ask her to marry me? It’s amazing, isn’t it, how a simple act such as turning a page on the calendar can precipitate so many choices.

Or does it? According to Jerry Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago, there are no choices to be made, really. What we euphemistically, and somewhat quaintly, refer to as our “decisions” and “choices” are really nothing more than brain chemistry (see his op ed piece in USA Today titled “Why You Don’t Really Have Free Will”). Working from the latest neurobiology, he argues that we are really just “meat computers” in which our brains are “...programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output.” What we incorrectly call our “decisions” or “choices” are really just the way our brains happen to work, nothing more. There is no supra or extra biological or chemical consciousness warranted...or needed. Our will itself, Coyne argues, may be little more than an evolutionary trick played on us by our brain chemistry to help us to “connect the dots” of our actions which, in reality, are nothing more than unconscious biological and chemical processes. “The ineluctable scientific conclusion,” he writes, “is that although we feel that we're characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we're puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.”

Did you get that? “The ineluctable scientific conclusion....” The fact that he put the adjective “scientific” in front of the word “conclusion” doesn’t make it any less an inference rather than an empirically validated fact. Coyne is using reason to argue that reasoning is merely a material phenomenon. He’s trotted out the same old tired materialistic argument for thought, albeit with a neurobiological twist, that has been repeatedly discredited by thinkers for centuries. Let me put it succinctly. Coyne, like all materialists, argues that everything, including thoughts, are nothing more than effects of some cause. The universe, he argues, exists in a cause-effect nexus so that everything in it is the effect of some cause. Everything that happens, or is, is the effect of some cause which, in turn, becomes a cause producing a new effect, which becomes a cause producing a new effect, which becomes a cause producing a new effect ad infinitum. You get the picture. Hence, nothing that is could have been any other way. Everything in the universe has conspired from the beginning to produce this “effect” which could not have been any other way. Therefore, he argues, there is no free will, no decisions, no choices...nothing except causes which produce effects that become causes, and so on.

However, the materialist has already abandoned his materialism the moment he appeals to reason to prove his materialism. If reason itself is just the effect of some cause, just the byproduct of biological and chemical and electrical processes internal to the brain, then there is no “reason” to trust it. If all thought is merely material, as Coyne insists, then his own thought that all thought is material is also merely material and, therefore, cannot be trusted. The knowledge of a thing cannot be one of its parts. If it is, then it is the proof that proves there are no proofs! In order to think at all, I must claim for my thought validity that is not credible if thought/thinking is nothing more than the byproduct of the way my brain happens to work. The materialist always makes the mistake of exempting his own thought from his theory. “All thinking is pure biology...except my thought that all thinking is pure biology. That thought you can trust as truth.” How convenient.

All knowledge (except the purely sensual) is inferred via reason; and if I cannot trust my reason to give me genuine information about external reality, and not just the way my brain happens to function, then I can know nothing. As C. S. Lewis wrote: “If the value of our reasoning is itself in doubt, you cannot try to establish it by reasoning.” Yet, that’s precisely what Coyne, and all materialists, do.

The Theist (one who believes in God) says that all thinking is but a colony in the universe of the Divine Reason. The human mind, in the act of thinking and knowing, is illuminated by the Divine Reason; it is set free, in the measure required, from the mindless nexus of cause and effect to be determined by what it “knows.” Simply put, it chooses, wills, decides. Our reasoning, far from merely being the effect of some cause, is actually a “thinking the thoughts of God after Him,” as C. S. Lewis described it. That’s why we can trust it. And make no mistake about it, we all trust it, including Coyne who argues for materialism on...get it!...rational grounds! Deepak Chopra put it like this: “Life is to think God’s thoughts after Him; everything else is just detail.”

That’s why some of us this New Years will make resolutions, make decisions, make choices, will to do things differently in 2012 than we did in 2011. It’s part of the God-given power we all have to step out of the cause-effect nexus – which, to be sure, governs much, but not all, of life – to think thoughts not already predetermined by our brain chemistry, to choose paths not already chosen for us in some far-descended evolutionary chain of reality (whatever that means to the materialist), to make decisions that could indeed have been “another way.” That’s because, contrary to what Coyne “thinks,” thinking doesn’t just “happen to us,” we do it.

Of course, if you want to continue to believe that there is no free will, no choice, no decisions, only mindless effects of random causes, that’s your “choice.”

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