The Norfolk and Norwich Christian community website

Freewill concept explained at Norwich science event

Have neuroscientists disproved freewill? This question was addressed by Dr Daniel De Haan at the latest Science and Faith in Norfolk event on July 18. Revd Dr Patrick Richmond reports.

Freewill has been important theologically in explaining why we are responsible for our sin and wrong-doing, and in explaining why there might be evil in a world created by God. In a meeting attended by 75 people on Monday July 18, Dr Daniel De Haan explained the philosophical concept of freewill and experiments by scientists like Benjamin Libet that have been used to argue that free will is just an illusion. Dr De Haan holds a joint position as a research fellow in both the departments of Neuroscience and Theology at Cambridge University and had recently returned from a conference on freewill at the University of Edinburgh.

What do we mean by ‘freewill’?

Freewill has traditionally involved the ability to make the sorts of choices for which we can be morally responsible. Many have suggested that it requires alternative possibilities, e.g. the freedom to choose right or wrong. It is also common to claim that one must in some way be the ultimate source of one’s actions in order to be free and responsible, so that the “buck stops here” and is not passed to sources of actions existing before one was born or beyond one’s control.


In the past, many scientists and philosophers have suggested that natural laws somehow determine everything that happens. Such determinism would mean that there were no alternative possibilities and every choice would be the inevitable and necessary consequence of the laws of nature and of realities that were fixed before we ever existed. The advent of quantum physics has reduced confidence in determinism, but may not create more room for freewill. For example, it might be argued that, if quantum events are just a matter of random luck, then how can we be responsible for what happens in our brains?


In considering determinism, many philosophers have argued for compatibilism: this states that, when understood properly, freewill is compatible with determinism. Often, they will interpret the alternative possibilities conditionally, so that one would have chosen differently if one’s reasons were different, or argue that responsibility involves one’s character, desires, or reasons being the source of one’s actions, even if they are ultimately determined by factors beyond one’s control. Many other philosophers argue that compatibilism seriously revises our intuitions about freewill, rather than respecting them.


In contrast to determinists, compatibilists and others denying freewill, most Christian philosophers have defended some form of libertarianism, the idea that we are truly free and responsible in a sense incompatible with universal determinism.
Understanding Libet’s experiments

With these philosophical distinctions in place, Dr De Haan then came to the neuroscientific experiments of Benjamin Libet. Performed in 1983, these and subsequent experiments found that, when asked to move one’s finger “spontaneously”, activity in the brain predicting the movement could be detected before the subject was consciously aware of an “urge” to move. From such results, some scientists have suggested that our brains have determined our action before we make our conscious decision. One can see that generalising in this way creates problems for libertarians, since, even if determinism isn’t true universally, our actions might be determined by unconscious brain processes with our conscious decisions following afterwards.

Against this, Dr De Haan noted that these experiments were looking only at spontaneous, arbitrary and capricious actions, not at the sort of conscious deliberations that take place in serious moral choices. The sorts of urges that Libet was studying are not typical “profound” free choices but rather they involved relatively trivial urges to move that happened to the subject in a contrived experimental setting. Based on such special and trivial cases, it would be very hasty to conclude that all our choices are illusions predetermined by our brain.
When we look at human action more widely, we see that there is a variety of ways that something can be voluntary and under the control of the will, so the fact that an isolated action is caused by unconscious brain processes does not mean its ultimate source is beyond our control and not subject to our freewill.

Report by The Revd Dr Patrick Richmond, vicar of Christ Church Eaton and Chair of Science and Faith in Norfolk.

Next Science and Faith in Norfolk meeting - Monday September 19

Experimental physicist Dr Peter Bussey will talk on “Quantum Spirituality - is there such a thing?”
He will explain some of the basic ideas of quantum mechanics and discuss whether this offers a new way of thinking about the workings of the mind and the spirit.
Monday 19th September
7.30 – 8.45 pm
The Meeting Place, Holy Trinity Church, Essex Street NR2 2BJ 

Day course at Norwich Cathedral: Exploring Science-Faith Interactions - Saturday November 12

On Saturday November 12, there will be a day-course “Exploring Science-Faith Interactions” at Norwich Cathedral Hostry: This will be organised by the Faraday Institute (Cambridge), together with Science and Faith in Norfolk. Registration will cost £10, with 50 places at £5 reserved for students, teachers and clergy.
To pre-register and to receive a registration contact the Dean’s Secretary (Alison Porter dean.pa@cathedral.org.uk; 65, The Close (01603 218308).

For further information about the Science and Faith in Norfolk group contact Professor Nick Brewin (07901 884114); sfnorfolk1@gmail.com or see https://sites.google.com/site/scienceandfaithinnorfolk/

To submit a story or to publicise an event please email: web@networknorwich.co.uk