Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Do We Have Souls? Free Will?

Do humans have souls? This is a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries. Aristotle, for example, believed that plants have vegetative souls, animals have slightly more advanced souls and humans sit at the top because they have intellect and reason. But Aristotle believed the soul and body are one thing – not separate.

Descartes, on the other hand, believed that the body and soul are different – that the soul exists apart from the body. To Descartes, the mind must be different than the body because we can doubt that our bodies exist but we can’t doubt that our minds do.

Yet the mind (or soul or free will) and the body interact. We think of things and make them happen by telling our bodies to perform the necessary acts. I want that ice cream cone so my hand reaches out and grabs it. The mind (insubstantial) tells the body (substantial) to act and the body obeys.

Is that what really happens? How does a non-material entity cause a material entity to move? What is the mechanism at play?

When we measure physical movement, we see the causes at the microscopic level – how the electrons, protons and neutrons act in concert to lift the finger or pet the dog. It’s all quantifiable. But we can’t measure anything beyond the physical. We can’t determine whether an insubstantial entity (like God or the soul or free will) is directing objects in the material world to move.

Even stranger, many scientists now believe that when we act, we do so before we consciously decide to do so. In other words, when I decide to lift my right arm, the parts of my body that are needed to move my right arm begin to work toward lifting my right arm prior to my brain transmitting the signal to the body. In the 1980s, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that electrical activity builds up in the brain before the person consciously decides to move the arm.

Every action we take can be explained by observation of physical processes. So if that’s true, where does the soul come into it? Or free will?

Libet’s experiments seem to suggest that there’s no such thing as free will, because if we have free will, we must intend to act before we do, and our bodies, as shown by his research, instigate movement prior to our minds being aware of it. So how can we have free will if we act before we know we’re going to act?

What apparently happens is that our brains create a story to explain our actions after our bodies have already set the wheels in motion. Thus, the “free will” that we have is actually the sum of our genetic makeup and environmental experiences up until the point where our bodies decide to act, at which point our brains decide to explain to ourselves why we acted the way we did.

It’s important that we think of this as free will because studies have shown that when we believe we don’t have free will, we become less moral, less creative and less grateful.

So even if we don’t have free will, we should act as if we do. As for souls, the jury is still out on that one.


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