If you don’t think anybody accept dualistic free will, then you’ve forgotten about the huge majority of religious people in the U.S. (and many other places). I’m not saying that the infamous neurosurgeon and creationist Michael Egnor, Friend of the Discovery Institute, has free-will beliefs identical to those of every other faithhead, but he’s clearly a dualist. And although I’m loath to link to the DI’s “Evolution News & Views” site, I’ll make an exception to point you to a particularly opaque argument for pure, dualistic free will: Egnor’s “Free will is real and materialism is wrong.”
His argument is simple but weird: Materialism can’t explain volition because, while concrete objects like apples can have a materialistic origin in neuronal activity, concepts like “the Good”, “intellect,” and, of course, “God” simply can’t have a materialistic grounding. They are free of any constraints of the laws of physics, and so we have dualistic free will.
Got that? If you don’t believe me, here’s the argument:
Our senses present us with particulars. We see and smell the apple, we feel a ring on a finger, we hear a friend. Particulars grasped through sensation and perception, as well as imagination and memory, have an obvious composition with matter. We use our eyes to see, our skin to feel, our ears to hear. There are well-defined regions in the brain whose activity seems to be necessary for the exercise of these sense-perception powers by which we grasp particulars. In that sense, the grasp of particulars is material, or at least depends on matter in a necessary way.
The same is not true of intellect and will. There is not the same intimate link between intellect and will with matter that there is between perception and imagination, etc., and matter. Through our intellect we grasp and comprehend universals, not particulars, and our will carries out decisions made by our intellect. For example, we see (perceive) a picture of Nelson Mandela (particular), we ponder (intellect) injustice (universal) done to political prisoners, and we donate (will) to Amnesty International.
So the fundamental question is this: Are intellect and will material powers, like sensation and perception are material powers?
The answer is no. Intellect and will are immaterial powers, and obviously so. Here’s why.
I couldn’t wait to hear why. After all, when I think of an apple, I usually don’t think of a particular apple, but the concept of an apple, although I could think of a particular apple, like the one I’m eating at the moment (a tart Granny Smith). But in many cases when you think of objects, you think of ideal reifications of those objects, and those are concepts. Further, when I start thinking about “justice,” or “the good,” my mind is often focused on particular situations: “would it be good to do X?”, or “what might be the effect on the world everyone did Y”?, and those also involve representations of the real world. The particular and the universal ineluctably blur together.
But I am jumping the gun. Let Egnor proceed:
Let us imagine, as a counterfactual, that the intellect is a material power of the mind. As such, the judgment that a course of action is good, which is the basis on which an act of the will would be done, would entail “Good” having a material representation in the brain. But how exactly could Good be represented in the brain? The concept of Good is certainly not a particular thing — a Good apple, or a Good car — that might have some sort of material manifestation in the brain. Good is a universal, not a particular. In fact the judgment that a particular thing is Good presupposes a concept of Good, so it couldn’t explain the concept of Good. Good, again, is a universal, not a particular.
He appears to be begging the question here by arguing that the concept of Good simply cannot have a neuronal representation in the brain, as it’s something different in kind from an apple. But that’s not an argument; it’s a dichotomy that presumes the answer without explaining it. In fact, when you think about more abstract things, like God or faith, parts of the brain light up in brain scans. Why should they if such notions are immaterial? Well, here’s Egnor’s only argument that, he says, demolishes any materialistic representation of “concepts”:
So how could a universal concept such as Good be manifested materially in the brain?
The only answer possible from the materialist perspective, it would seem, is that the concept of Good must be an engram, coded in some fashion in the brain. Perhaps Good is a particular assembly of proteins, or dendrites, or a specific electrochemical gradient in a specific location in the brain.
Yes, that’s indeed what it seems to be. For you can demolish people’s notion of the good, and affect their volition, by manipulating or effacing regions of the brain. If those had no materialistic grounding, why would that be?
But Egnor then brings in what he sees as a killer argument, one based on “infinite regress” (my emphasis below):
But the materialist is not home yet. Because in order for Good to be an engram in the brain, the Good engram must be coded in some fashion. How could Good be coded? A clump of protein of a specific shape two mm from the tip of the left hippocampus? Obviously there’s nothing that actually means Good about that particular protein in that particular location — one engram would be as Good as another — so we would require another engram to decode the hippocampal engram for Good, so it would mean Good, and not just be a clump of protein. Yet that engram for the code for the engram of Good would itself have to have some representation of Good in order for it to mean that it signifies the code for the Good engram, which would require another engram for the engram for the Good engram, ad nauseam.
In short, any engram in the brain that coded for Good would presuppose the concept of Good in order to establish the code for Good. [JAC: What???} So Good, from a materialist perspective on the mind, must be an infinite regress of Good engrams. Engrams all the way down, so to speak, which of course is no engrams at all.
The engram theory of intellect and will presupposes that which it purports to explain.
Concepts such as Good can’t be material manifestations in the brain. The intellectual grasp of concepts and acts of will based on universals are inherently immaterial.
Now maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t understand why pondering concepts can’t either be coded in the brain, or be taken in from the environment and run through one of the brain’s computer programs (i.e., what we call “pondering” or “reasoning”). The error in Egnor’s thinking, it seems to me, is twofold: thinking that a concept of Good, or other concepts, must be coded in the brain before you think about them (they well may be, but needn’t be), and claiming that if they were coded in the brain, like any memory, they could not be material because they’d somehow require another material object to decode the concept, and so on and so on and so on.
But that argument can be made for anything. You could say that if the idea of an apple was coded in the brain, you’d need another “engram” to “mean that it signifies the code for the Apple engram,” and so on and so on and so on.
Now maybe I don’t understand what Egnor is saying (after all, I’ve been accused by Sophisticated Philosophers™ like Massimo Pigliucci of being a philosophical numbskull), but there’s a good chance that he doesn’t understand what he’s saying. The second bolded part, about an engram for the Good presupposing a concept of the Good, seems like Sophisticated Gibberish.
Perhaps some reader will understand the argument (though I doubt any will accept it) and enlighten me. But Egnor’s smug assurance that he’s disproven materialism for much human thought, and that concept-based thinking can never be explained by science, is very confusing:
The intellect is influenced by matter (in that case, EtOH), but the intellect, which grasps concepts, and the will, which acts on concepts, are inherently immaterial. And promissory materialism is of no avail here — the inevitable materialist segue to “It may make no sense now, but give scientists time…” The immaterial nature of the intellect and will is not demonstrated by experiment, but by logic. It simply makes no sense to say that intellect and will are material, unless one accepts infinite regress as a valid hypothesis.
This, too, seems like a classic example of begging the question. But I am loath to completely condemn that which I don’t fully grasp, so, philosophical readers, put this argument into concrete terms (which of course means that we can think about it materially!).