By Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)
As discussed in previous essays, the degree to which humans have free will is
difficult to ascertain and, evidently, impossible to test scientifically. We
feel as if we have free will, because, in general, we do not feel our decisions
being controlled. Many people attribute human free will to the “soul,” but
uncertainties about what the soul is, how we come to acquire it, and how it
operates in human decision-making reduce the usefulness of the term.
Neither the existence nor the functions of the soul are amenable to
scientific investigation. Perhaps belief in the soul emanates from a human
desire to avoid death by imagining that some component of ourselves will live on
after the body ceases to function. I think evidence for free will, and of some
notion of the soul (the destiny of which is a separate topic), is our own
subjective experience, which is a manifestation of consciousness. Why do we have
consciousness, if not to make choices? Programmed machines can be very complex,
but their “choices” are dictated by their programs and therefore they have no
need for consciousness. Further, where does subjective experience come from?
While most properties of things, such as hardness and color, can be explained at
the atomic or molecular level, we have no idea how a collection of atoms comes
to subjectively feel and think. The notion of a soul offers an explanation, but
the nature of the soul and the destiny of the soul remain unclear. For some,
such a limited explanation of the soul remains unsatisfying.
I cannot prove that any living being other than myself has subjective experience. It is possible that other creatures act as if they have consciousness but are in fact automatons. However, this theory is unreasonable, given that the behavior of other humans, as well as the behavior of nonhuman beings, strongly supports the notion that many other living beings share with me the capacity to have conscious, subjective experiences. If free will is related to consciousness, then it is reasonable to conclude that nonhumans and humans both have comparable degrees of free will. This makes sense from evolutionary, biological, and behavioral perspectives. To deny free will to nonhuman beings, in my opinion, contradicts our best scientific information. If we are to ground justice on truth, then I think we need to acknowledge that we share this world with beings who are much like us and who have moral claims comparable to our own.