Pablo Stafforini’s Posts

Free will and brain stimulation

A study published recently in Science magazine investigated human volition in patients undergoing brain surgery. Michel Desmurget and his colleagues electrically stimulated the brains of seven subjects awake under local anaesthesia. When the right inferior parietal regions were stimulated, the subjects reported an intention to move their left hand, arm or foot. Stimulation of the left inferior parietal region elicited an intention to talk and move the lips. When regions were stimulated more intensely, the patients believed that they had actually moved those bodily parts, although no movements were in fact performed.

In commenting this study, New Scientist claimed that scientists had found a “possible site of free will.” While one could argue about the wording of that statement, it seems pertinent to consider whether this and similar other studies have implications for the free will debate.

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Born believers?

The latest issue of New Scientist features an article by Michael Brooks on the evolutionary origins of religious belief. Brookes spends most of the article considering the relative merits of the two main contending hypotheses. On one view, religion is an adaptation selected for its role in promoting cooperation; on the other, it is a by-product of other mental modules which are themselves evolutionarily advantageous. Towards the end of his piece, however, Brookes briefly addresses the implications of this research for the epistemic status of theism. As Brookes writes,

if religion is a natural consequence of how our brains work, where does that leave god? All the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods: as Barratt points out, whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.

Barring non-realist interpretations of religious discourse, it is undoubtedly the case that these studies do not impinge on the truth of religious claims. (It is not clear to me what would non-realist theologians, such as like Don Culpitt, say about this research.)  Yet the interesting question concerns, not the truth, but the warrant of theism in light of scientific findings about why people believe in God.

Such findings can, I believe, undermine theism, in at least two different ways. First, they may provide a rival, superior explanation for a belief which was previously thought to be best explained by a supernatural hypothesis. Secondly, they may show that belief in God arises not as a result of attention to arguments or evidence, but as a contingent accident of our evolutionary past. Let us consider these in turn.

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