“Philosophers question the assumptions underlying such interpretations. “Part of what’s driving some of these conclusions is the thought that free will has to be spiritual or involve souls or something,” says Al Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University in Tallahassee. If neuroscientists find unconscious neural activity that drives decision-making, the troublesome concept of mind as separate from body disappears, as does free will. This ‘dualist’ conception of free will is an easy target for neuroscientists to knock down, says Glannon. “Neatly dividing mind and brain makes it easier for neuroscientists to drive a wedge between them,” he adds.
The trouble is, most current philosophers don’t think about free will like that, says Mele. Many are materialists — believing that everything has a physical basis, and decisions and actions come from brain activity. So scientists are weighing in on a notion that philosophers consider irrelevant.”
Catholic philosophers would agree with the materialist philosophers on this question: it is not surprising in the least that there are material events which correspond to mental events. It’s not even surprising that material causes can affect the mind. Philosophers have known that since wine was invented. What Catholic philosophers assert is that the material basis of mental activity is in principle not sufficient to explain it. It is not simply a matter of there being a gap in science into which a “soul” is plugged-in. The argument is that intellectual activity is intrinsically the sort of thing that cannot ever be explained by a material explanation, however complete the material explanation may be. An analogy would be the relationship between a word and its meaning. A word cannot exist in a book, say, unless the letters are written down. Yet by themselves, letters are nothing more than spots of ink on a page. You can never add together enough ink spots to get the meaning of the word. Yet it is still nevertheless true that the word’s existence still depends on the spots being there on the page, and that if you change the letters you’ll change the word. The mind is similar — the matter definitely “holds” the soul as a real existing thing, but it is not sufficient enough to account for it. Thus neurological discoveries of any arbitrary level of detail cannot challenge the Catholic conception of the soul.
Now, whether a neurological account could ever disprove free will is another question. In the first place, it is not clear that determinism on the physical level means determination on the level of a spiritual will. It may be that that which appears determined physically is merely the manifestation of willful causation on another level. Secondly, the discovery of indeterminancy at the basic levels of reality (as in quantum physics) has led to speculation about whether this gives us room for free will. Finally, and most importantly, there isn’t even anything like enough scientific evidence challenging free will at all. The brain is still the largest mystery in medicine.
What do I make of the tests that show that brain activity associated with decision-making is measurable even before the decision is made? First, identifying the exact point when the decision is made, when we’re dealing with an organ (the brain) that completes operations on the scale of fractions of a second, seems a bit subjective. Secondly, even if the methodology is sound, it simply shows that decision-making is an integrative process, not an arbitrary isolated event. Support of free will does not mean support of decision-making without input. We still have reasons for the decisions we make. That the brain begins integrating inputs which contribute to the final decision before the decision is made isn’t surprising at all.