By Suheil Laher
The debate over free will, already two millennia old, is still ongoing. Academic conferences, books and journal articles continue to address these issues, with different ‘experts’ arguing for often radically different theories. Modern science and data have introduced new elements and angles, but they have not, by any means, disproved the existence of free will. I felt it is appropriate to start out with some preliminary, more general comments about science and faith. Then, I proceed to discuss the neuroscientific data (experiments by Libet, etc) that is often cited against the existence of free will, followed by a presentation of additional evidence in favor of free will. Finally, I briefly discuss determinism (including genetics), and how subscribing to it does not rule out personal responsibility.
1. Science and Faith
C.S. Lewis astutely observed that, “what we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.” Indeed, scientific theories might often be predicated on philosophical or other underpinnings and assumptions. Every scientist, including the atheist and the agnostic, has a worldview and belief system which impinges on the conclusions he/she makes from empirical data. The beliefs of atheists might well be more fantastic and wishful than those of religion. An academic methodological study has even argued that, “scientists are slower to change their views in the face of new data than preachers are.”
In particular, many scientists nowadays subscribe to a materialistic philosophy, believing in nothing beyond matter, and hence adopting reductionist approaches that try to explain everything in material terms. If instead of materialism, one subscribes to an idealistic or dualistic worldview (for which philosophers and religious believers might well have good, even compelling reasons), then the same results might be seen in quite a different light. A recent book makes the case that materialism is waning, and it has even been claimed that quantum physics has disproved materialism.
Philosopher and computer scientist Dr. Angus Kenuge has made some important observations concerning the limitations of materialism; among other points, he notes that,
“inflexible adherence to materialism could prevent us from finding the truth,” just as it is not reasonable for a crime detective to say, “”the murderer can’t be in the cellar, because I’m afraid to look there.”
He also observes that materialism is in epistemological conflict with the rationality of science, because “if evolutionary naturalism is true, our minds are equipped with useful guides for survival, but cannot be relied on for truth, especially on theoretical matters. Monotheism, on the other hand, justifies the scientific endeavor, because it holds that God is the creator both of human minds and of the phenomena and laws of science, and also because it upholds teleology. Indeed, the “universality, coherence and elegance” of the universe point to a “supernatural” underlying plan.”
It is true that science has taken man to the moon, and to a (limited) depth of the oceans, but it cannot show us how to live as decent human beings. Science, by definition, cannot comment on things beyond its (empirical) grasp, but this does not rule out the validity of believing in things beyond science. Proof is not restricted to the scientific and empirical. Even in science, much knowledge is inferential. So, too, the existence of God can be proved by rational inference (such as the principle of cause and effect). However, we need to beware that there are also many psychological, intellectual and other obstacles (idols) that a person might allow to stand in the way, for whatever reasons.
Despite the great advances of modern knowledge, science has not penetrated the mystery of consciousness, nor even been able to define it, nor to explain where it ‘goes to’ and ‘returns from’ under anesthesia. Science is unable to fathom qualia – the indescribable inner experiences that appear to be integral to consciousness and life – nor to explain why these should be subjective if they are merely ’emergent properties’. Machines, robots and AI software can algorithmically simulate some limited aspect of human reasoning, language or even consciousness, but cannot duplicate them, for humans can handle unlimited problems, recognize non-literal language, and sense ‘degrees of weirdness’. Humans can imagine, they can experience qualia, but machines cannot.
So, there is clearly something here that is beyond science. The existence of human souls can thus be posited as a plausible theory. There are some neuroscientists today who make a case for the existence of a human soul. They cite studies that found 18% of brain-dead people reported conscious experiences from the time of their brain death onwards, including seeing (and later being able to describe) details of the operating theater. For a Muslim, who has reached conviction (on sound grounds) that the Qur’an is communication from God, the fact that the Qur’an affirms the existence of souls is then sufficient reason to believe in this. The possibility that in the future, science might be able to tell us more about consciousness does not preclude belief in the soul. Whether the soul is something material or not has itself been disputed among philosophers. Furthermore, we note that the possibility of science being able to explain consciousness is precisely that: a mere possibility. We cannot be sure whether, instead of that, there might instead be some unexpected and paradigm-breaking discoveries in future science that would throw even current scientific assumptions into disarray, just as quantum physics did to Newtonian physics. We conclude that it is quite rational and tenable to believe that the human being has a soul, and that this soul is the difference between a living person and a corpse. Theologically, a Muslim is not required to make any commitments as to what exactly the nature of the soul is.
2. Interpreting the Neuroscientific Data
In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet performed experiments which showed that brain activity (a ‘readiness potential’) could be detected in the human brain a short time before the person reported the conscious intention to move. Some neuroscientists concluded from these studies that free will is only an illusion and sensation of the brain activity that actually comes about unconsciously through physical / chemical processes. Some of the procedural problems with Libet’s experiments were improved upon in subsequent research by Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008), who reached similar conclusions against free will. Other scientists have claimed to produce or affect sensations in people by artificially stimulating their brains, or studied the behavioral consequences of physical damage to specific areas of the brain. Nevertheless, the sum of results in the field of neuroscience is not strong enough to negate a belief in free will. The issue is still hotly contested among neuroscientists, philosophers and theologians alike, and below I will present, in brief, some of the major objections against (or holes in) the radical neuroscientific theory that free will is an illusion. In a later section, I return to show that, even if one does believe in an illusory free will, this still does not directly translate to a negation of personal responsibility.
1. Causal Closure of the Physical
Scientists with a materialist outlook will tend to believe in causal closure of the physical: the belief that everything physical has a physical cause, and this assumption is more likely to lead to or support the conclusion that human actions are caused only by physical brain processes. Against that thesis, Menuge notes that “consciousness, intentionality and rational agency are irreducible to the physical, yet … all do have a causal effect on the world.”
2. Necessity and Sufficiency of Causes
The fact that certain sensations or states can be produced by artificial stimulations on the brain does not prove that those same effects cannot also be produced by “other, irreducible mental powers”.
3. Readiness Potentials
The existence of a detectable readiness potential in the brain prior to a person’s reported consciousness of intention does not disprove free will, because:
- Even if we assume that this state of affairs is true and accurate, the person still has the ability to affirm or deny the ‘unconscious intention,’ as Libet himself showed in later experiments. This is what has been referred to as the veto theory of free will (or alternatively as “Free-won’t”).
- The individuals who participated in these experiments are given a description of the procedure beforehand. Thus, they have already formed a distal intention before the experiment begins, i.e. well before the readiness potential. We are therefore forced to consider the possibility this distal intention causes the readiness potential, which in turn causes the proximal intention. This theory might be seen as support for those Muslim scholars who believed that a Muslim does not need to consciously intend each good deed in order to earn reward from Allah, because when he/she chooses to be Muslim, he/she is making a distal intention to do good deeds in general.
- Furthermore, we should consider the possibility that the readiness potential indicates not a decision or intention, but rather an urge, desire or wish. This discussion is reminiscent of classical theological debates over capacity (istita‘ah), on which there were two prominent views:
(i) that capacity precedes the action; this is the Mu’tazilite view.
(ii) that capacity is simultaneous with action; this is the Ash’arite view.
(iii) that there are two types of capacity: one preceding the action, the other simultaneous with it; this is the Maturidite view.
Menuge has observed that many voluntary behaviors are automated but require consciousness to negotiate novel aspects/eventualities that may arise during execution of the act.
4. Procedural Questions about the Experiments
- We need to allow for a lag time between actual initiation of an intention, and his/her being able to inform about it. It takes time for signals to travel from the brain, and to bring about motor effects in the vocal cords or other muscles. Given the relatively small intervals of time we are dealing with in many of these experiments, this cannot be ruled out as a source of error. When this factor is compounded with the above uncertainties about what exactly the readiness potential corresponds to, the argument against free will is significantly blunted, at the least.
- The role of a conscious observer in influencing what he observes is a well-known phenomenon in quantum physics (and more generally: the Observer Phenomenon), and may be worth considering here.
- There are potential objections here based on relativity in the perception of time, particularly when small intervals are involved. This, too, introduces doubts about the validity of conclusions based on these data.
- Marcel Brass has commented, about the Masushati & Hallett experiments, that, “one has to say that in some subject [sic], the intention started before the readiness potential but in most of the subjects it started after the readiness potential.”
5. Simple vs Complex Decisions
The experiments that have been performed (by Libet, Masushati, etc) all involve simple decisions under highly controlled conditions: whether to flex one’s fingers, push one of two buttons, or whether to add or subtract. The above sections show that even for such simple decisions, there is not a clear-cut case against free will. When we consider, further, that all these experiments involve decisions much simpler than even such insignificant daily decisions as whether to drink tea or coffee, we realize still more clearly the limitations and tentativeness of neuroscientific theories. To claim that these limitations will be overcome through further research and advances in computation power betrays a clear element of faith and wishful expectation (things for which materialists are often quick to condemn religious believers).
3. Evidence for Free Will
Cognitive therapies have proven effective in the treatment of neurological disorders, showing that the mind does exert top-down causation on the brain. For example, the use of cognitive therapy in treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has been shown to produce “dramatic physical change to the brain.” 
2. The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect involves use of a ‘dummy,’ causally neutral (ineffective) therapy on an unsuspecting patient who believes he/she is actually receiving medication. In a study involving Parkinson’s disease patients, “the placebo effect was at least as effective as the drug apomorphine in treating the chronic underproduction of dopamine.”
Studies have shown that “mental attitudes affect the immune system via the brain,” and that mental attitudes can reduce stress and heart rate, and increase happiness and comfort.
Determinism is “the [philosophical] theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes.” Four particular “alleged determinisms” can – for some people – pose challenges to belief in free-will:
1. Physical Determinism
“[T]he idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.”
I have already addressed the inadequacies of materialism and causal closure of the physical. We have seen how exertion of the mind can bring about top-down causation, impacting the physical organs (such as the heart and brain) as well as sensations (such as happiness). To add to this, it is worthwhile to make note of a 2008 study that showed that rejection of belief in free will can – at least in the short term – lead people to behave with less moral responsibility.
2. Psychological Determinism
This is the notion that what appear to be our decisions are in fact driven by psychological factors such as drives, purposes, needs, desires and experiences.
This again is a reductionist belief that assumes that knowledge of a single, limited field is sufficient to explain complex human phenomena and behavior. The inadequacy of this is expressed as follows by a contemporary neurologist:
“The view that we are automatons without volition, unable to willfully direct our activities, might be taken to mean that we are virtual prisoners of our natural endowment, guided unalterably by preordained behavioral patterns according to the doctrine of determinism. Nothing could be further from the truth, for the nervous system is still susceptible to all the stimuli arising in the environment. Behavior is the product of a combination of heredity, early instruction, the environment and experience.”
Of course, it cannot be denied that we might have unconscious motives. This is something the scholars of Islamic spirituality warn against and discuss. They advise training oneself to monitor one’s heart and hidden motivations, and to discipline oneself to not succumb to them. One of the pioneering treatises on moral psychology and ethics was Al-Muhasibi’s Risalat al–Mustarshidin, intended as an everyday guide to spirituality.
We cannot forget that we do also have conscious motives and decisions (which may, in some cases, be a cause for later subconscious decisions). Other inputs, such as belief in justice, expectation of reward from God and fear of cosmic or after-death punishment, can play a crucial role in modifying behavior patterns. Once again, top-down causation can work wonders. We also cannot rule out an innate guiding sense of ethics that impinges on human decisions, and makes them ‘feel good’ when they do what is right. While secular evolutionary biologists might try to reductionistically explain this as set of tools for or vestiges of natural selection, a Muslim thinks in terms of the fiṭrah, the natural state or disposition to good that humans are created with.
3. Biological (or Genetic) Determinism
This is “the idea that each of our behaviors, beliefs, and desires are fixed by our genetic nature.”
While it was once believed (by some people) that the mapping out of human DNA would confirm biological determinism, this has proven not to be the case. The Human Genome Project, begun in 1990 and now close to but not entirely complete, has shown that there are not enough genes to support genetic determinism. And, even where particular genes have been identified as being ‘responsible’ for particular diseases, in reality the gene is only one of a number of factors (i.e. at most a pre-disposition, rather than a necessary and sufficient cause) playing into the final outcome. Genetics cannot be used as an excuse for behavior. A recent article observes that,
“Biological determinism doesn’t hold up as a defence in law.”
4. Theological Determinism
This is the belief that, “all events that happen are pre-ordained, or predestined to happen, by a monotheistic God.” Various historical manifestations of this belief have been discussed by Muslim theologians of various persuasions and outlooks, as well as by Arab philosophers (such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes)) and by Christian scholars. In the Muslim world, these debates had started by at least the early second century, and continue to this day, such that a plethora of literature exists on the subject.
Like the other three varieties of determinism above, affirmation of theological determinism does not have to rule out human choice and agency. Nor does affirmation of human choice rule out God’s knowledge of things before they happen. Theologians and philosophers have come up with various explanations of how these two pieces of the puzzle might fit together.
5. Closing Remarks
One of the things I realize more deeply, in light of all the above discussions, is how deep and multi-faceted the issue of free will really is, and how it is inadequate and even dangerous to assume a single field holds all the answers. Each field of science has its own perspective on things, and operates on certain assumptions and within limited parameters. For example, Michael Gazzaniga, a prominent contemporary psychologist remarks,
“Neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans – to people – not to brains…. Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has, but cannot tell us when a person is legally blind or has too little vision to drive a school bus.”
He also writes, “Responsibility has not been denied; it is simply absent from the neuroscientific description of human behavior. Its absence is a direct result of treating the brain as an automatic machine.”
Marcel Brass, “one of the leading researchers in the brain science of free will and intentional action,” candidly remarked,
“I do not really think that neuroscience will solve the old philosophical problem whether free will exists or not. And I’m not even sure whether any science will solve this problem.”
Brass also points out (and he is not alone in this) that even those who theoretically deny that free will exists, must, by necessity, behave as if it does exist, and that otherwise serious pathological problems result. Whether we attribute this to the fiṭrah, or to necessary instinctive knowledge of free will, or try to philosophically couch it in some way, at the end of the day the fact remains that free will is something inherent to the human condition. Despite the changes in scientific knowledge and theories, there is still a powerful resonance in the words of thinkers from the past who have reflected deeply on the matter. French philosopher Rene Descartes (d. 1650 CE) ventured that, “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained”
A century or so later, German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (d. 1804 CE) posited that free will is “the one sole original inborn right belonging to every man in virtue of his humanity.”
Genuine religious faith, firmly grounded in reality, reason and true scripture (allowing us to tap into transcendent reality), continues to offer a firm intellectual, moral and practical anchor to which to meaningfully bind oneself amidst the welter of competing contemporary theories and postmodernist skepticism.
And Allah knows best about what is unclear to us!
“And to Allah prostrates whoever is within the heavens and the earth, willingly or by compulsion, and their shadows [as well] in the mornings and the afternoons.”
 Timothy O’Connor, Free Will in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/, accessed 09/03/11, 22:53.
 The following are recent examples I found:
- Walter Sinnott-Armstrong & Lynn Nadel (Editors), Conscious Will and Responsibility: A Tribute to Benjamin Libet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). (288 pages).
- Friedrich Toepel (ed.), 23rd World Congress on Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (Kraków, Poland), Free will in criminal law and procedure : proceedings of the 23rd and 24th IVR World Congress, Krakow 2007 and Beijing 2009, (Stuttgart : Franz Steiner Verlag, c2010). (122 pages).
- Kerri Smith, Taking Aim at Free Will in Nature, vol 277 (1 September 2011), pp. 23-25.
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, (New York, Harper Collins, 2001), p. 2.
 Consider, for instance, Ray Kurzweil’s belief that in the near future, humans will be able to load their brain into a computer, live a purely virtual life without any need for a body, and thereby achieve immortality.
 Kevin Dunbar, How scientists build models in vivo science as a window on the scientific mind in Model-based reasoning in scientific discovery (ed. Lorenzo Magnani, Nancy J. Nersessian, and Paul Thagard), (New York : Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, c1999), pp. 89-98, as cited by M. Gazzaniga, The Ethical Brain (New York : Dana Press, c2005), p. 147.
 Robert C. Koons and George Bealer (ed.), The Waning of Materialism, (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010).
 Angus Menuge, powerpoint and summary of a debate he had with P.Z. Myers, http://www.arn.org/docs/menuge/am_doesneuroscienceleaveroomforgod.ppt and http://www.arn.org/docs/menuge/am_myersdebatereport.pdf respectively, last accessed 9/1/11, 12:06am.
Ninian Smart also remarks on the affinity between monotheism and science, in his Dimensions of the Sacred, (Berkeley: University of California, 1996),107.
 e.g. what is it like to be a bat? To see red? To think? To think about thinking? These examples come from Eliezer J. Sternberg, Are You a Machine? : the Brain, the Mind, and What It Means To Be Human, (Amherst, N.Y. : Humanity Books, 2007).
 My summary of selected points from Menuge’s Powerpoint, and Sternberg’s book.
 Beauregard and O’Leary: The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, 2007.
 Cited from Beauregard and O’Leary by Menuge in his Powerpoint.
 albeit, while emphasizing that human knowledge of the soul is limited. See: Qur’an, 17:85.
 The exact lag-time found has varied in different experiments, between a few hundred nanoseconds to a few seconds.
 Despite their refinements, other uncertainties and sources of error still remain, as I return to below.
 Timothy O’Connor, op. cit., writes, “Interpretation of the results is highly controversial,” and that “Mele (2009) and O’Connor (2009b) argue that the data adduced by Libet, Wegner, and others wholly fail to support their revisionary conclusions.”
 Angus Menuge, Does Neuroscience Undermine Retributive Justice?, in Free Will in Criminal Law and Procedure, p. 75.
 Ibid., p. 80.
 Ibn Rajab, Jami` al-`Ulum wa’l-Hikam.
 Menuge, Does Neuroscience…., p. 83.
 Ibid., p. 85.
 Kerri Smith, op. cit.
 Menuge, Does Neuroscience…., p.86-92.
 Ibid., p. 92.
 Ibid., p. 92-3.
 Determinism in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/159526/determinism, accessed 09/03/11, 23:15.
 O’Connor, op. cit., informs us that, “For each variety of determinism, there are philosophers who (i) deny its reality, either because of the existence of free will or on independent grounds; (ii) accept its reality but argue for its compatibility with free will; or (iii) accept its reality and deny its compatibility with free will.”
 Carl Hoefer, Causal Determinism in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/, accessed 09/03/11, 23:07.
 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=free-will-vs-programmed-brain&print=true, last accessed 09/04/11, 00:12.
Jesse Kalim, Determinism, http://mb-soft.com/believe/text/determin.htm accessed 09/03/11, 00:20.
Chris Herb, Psychological Determinism, http://engl352.pbworks.com/w/page/18970030/psychological%20determinism, accessed 09/03/11, 00:23.
 C. M. Fisher, If there were no free will in Medical Hypotheses, Volume 56, Issue 3, March 2001, Pages 364-366.
The extent to which I agree with Dr Fisher’s list of factors should be clear from what I write below, as well as the rest of my write-up.
 The treatise has been translated into English and published. For details, including a more descriptive overview of its contents, see: http://www.zaytunacollege.org/store/treatise_for_the_seekers_of_guidance/
 “So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people.” [Qur’an, 30:30]
The following article (which I have not yet read) looks interesting:
Yasien Mohamed, Fitrah and Its Bearing on the Principles of Psychology, http://i-epistemology.net/attachments/408_V12N1%20Spring%2095%20-%20Mohamed%20-%20Fitrah%20and%20its%20Bearing%20on%20Islamic%20Psychology.pdf, accessed 9/5/11, 10:24.
 Determinism in Wikipedia.
 For example, “the central regions of each chromosome, known as centromeres, are difficult to sequence using current technology.” accessed 09/03/11, 23:48.
 Robin McKie, Men and women behaving badly? Don’t blame DNA in Guardian Observer, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2001/feb/11/genetics.humanbehaviour1, accessed 08/31/11, 11:37pm.
 Kerri Smith, op. cit..
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theological_determinism, accessed 09/03/11, 23:35.
 Gazzaniga, p. 101.
 Muehlhauser, op. cit.
 As, for example, some Muslim theologians did by saying “the human being is compelled, in a free-willing form.”
 Passions of the Soul, I, art. 41, as cited by O’Connor.