Does neuroscience contradict the belief of free will or an Afterlife?

Hi, I was wondering if neuroscience can explain away life after death,dualism,or free will
This question is probably my biggest roadblock to faith and I’m not sure if I can be convinced that the brain and mind are separate or not. I know humans are mostly energy and energy never ceases to exist but I’m still unsure. Thank you in advance for those taking the time to help me.

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Those are three discussions with a lot of differences, though perhaps a lot of philosophical overlap too, I suppose. Science does not provide any real basis for philosophy or theology (contra the insistence of some science enthusiasts today). It is the latter things that provide the foundation for the former (science). So I don’t think science will be explaining any of those things, much less explaining them away. What it can do is help refine or cull away ideas that it can weigh in on with some empirical purchase. But such issues as these don’t lend themselves to scientific methods. Neuroscience showing areas of the brain lighting up during certain ostensible religious experiences doesn’t explain away those any more than thinking acoustical analysis and wave behavior explains away the human experience of music. That’s my two cents.


You can be a Christian and a physicalist. Many are and it’s starting to be a more common position. I can recommend books if you’d like.

Neuroscience hasn’t ruled out dualism. Though the evidence seems to be against it. Everything we would expect to be true if some type of physicalism is true has proven to be true. But let me be clear, neuroscience has not shown how conciousness arises and probably
Never will. But it’s a double edged sword. Dualists haven’t shown how a substance creates conciousness either.

Free will. There are physicalist accounts of free will as well. I can recommend more reading here. I’m agnostic about free will myself. These aren’t really issues that would make me lose my faith. The findings from
Neuroscience that are in tension with theistic belief are things like neurological moral
Handicaps and neurological non-belief.


Sure You can recommend a few books if you want, I would certainly appreciate it.

Check out neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s research on mind brain connection. Many fascinating studies.

I’m essentially a physicalist as well. That’s the point of the second resurrection in my opinion. To bring us back into life. The idea of a conscious intermediate stage is just to messy to me. I believe free will exists. Often to me the idea of free will existing or not reminds me of a story centered around Zeno of Elea is expressing motion is fake. It’s a illusion to think we can move. Why? Because there are indefinite rational numbers between any two integers. That is between 1 and 2 there is 1/9, 1/99, 1/999, 1/999,999,999 and so on. So if we were to stop at each fraction we would never be able to begin because there is always a smaller number. Always a bigger number.

But then a friend called him a fool and stood up and walked several steps and said something along the line of ,”well I’ve just taken a indefinite stride”.

So when I hear about no free will I just think of how I can make choices. Though not possible, I imagine if Groundhog Day was real and we woke up starting the same day over again and again, even if we could not remember it, we would make different choices. Some may be the same. But not all by any means.

With that said I do believe that patterns can be developed that we don’t complexly understand or have control over. Such as why do you like strawberries more than blueberries. Why do you like country more than metal and ect… somethings are obviously biologically and socially influenced. We almost all like cold water compared to warm water to drink when it’s summer and we are outside working in a garden. We almost all prefer not to be bullied by a stranger.

I understand my answer is more on the anecdotal and philosophical side rather than a scientific answer but that’s because I have never really studied to much of this. I’ve listened to several podcasts and read a book at one time about the evolution of emotions that covered choices and free will but I am not by any means even a amateur hobbyist on this subject. Did not even have a fling with it really. I chose to look into other things… ehh

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Neuroscience, like atheism, comes parsimoniously, rationally first. It doesn’t have to explain away anything, To proliferate other entities, like the three you mention, isn’t warranted. Evolution within physicalism pre-empts all.

I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum on this question compared to most others here. About 20 years ago, I embarked on a journey as a mystic with a strong, daily, voluntary experience of God’s presence. Within 2 years, I was being guided by God to learn about neuroscience if I wanted to deepen my understanding of the brain-soul nexus. I had an academic background in the hard sciences plus some lay experience in the mental health field, so I was able to delve into the topic in some depth.

There are legitimate researchers who are looking into the overlap between neuroscience and faith (not just everyday religious choices, but experiences that would fall under the umbrella of mysticism). It’s a complex topic with many different strands that tend to be oversimplified and conflated by theologians and neuroscientists alike.

Nothing from the field of neuroscience has contradicted my experience of faith, so you don’t need to worry on this score. On the other hand, findings from the field of neuroscience have corroborated many impressions I’ve had about problematic church doctrines that interfere with, rather than uplift, our ability to be in relationship with God during our lives as human beings.

So basically, if you don’t want to have your doctrines challenged, you should stay away from the intersection of neuroscience and faith. Once you head down that path, you’ll find that your comfortable beliefs are being constantly uprooted.


You might be interested in the TheoPsych project at Fuller Seminary:

We had three podcast episodes in relation to the TheoPsych project that you might enjoy, also. While not directly related to neuroscience, they’re about psychology, and might give some of the insight you’re interested in:

Also, Science Mike talks a little about mysticality and the brain.


Thank you for showing me this

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I was thinking especially of Justin Barrett’s talks when I posted above, but didn’t have time to hunt for the link. So thank you for posting these podcasts. :grinning:

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Neuroscience does not contradict either of these things. Since it only measures material existence, then if spiritual existence is beyond and pre-exists the universe, neuroscience can only observe part of the story. I find on this topic scientists are divided: those who hold the presupposition of materialism tend to deny that free will can exist and interpret all according to this presupposition. Of course. Many very good scientists see difficulties with this view. My argument below does NOT presume spiritual existence because i was talking to a materialistic atheist - yet it still supports the view that free will exists.

This is a response I made leaning on neuroscience and philosophy to someone on another site. The ‘you’ is in response to him, not you. Surprisingly, (for that site!) he shifted from mocking and accepted this case against his deterministic presuppositions as being a strong case. You have to respect people who can do that:

Free will isn’t provable - in the same category as the a priori proposition that our entire experience of everything is actually a dream. Like determinism, it’s logically possible and impossible to disprove. But the evidence doesn’t really support either ‘dream’ or ‘determinism’ for me.

1. Free will is affirmed by the human experience, across all cultures (phenomenality of agency) - Human behaviour and descriptions of our experience affirm that we experience (introspective evidence of) making choices and changing our mind. It is evidenced by the preponderant existence of human phenomema directed directly at influencing the exercise of choice and responsibility for using it: rules, teaching, punishment, morality, ethics, justice, arguments, blame, plans… None of these ‘determine’ because all can be ignored or followed, which further affirms free will. We conceive an plan, we implement, we change our plans. We regret decisions - we change our behaviour. We teach our children responsibility. All this is pointless if we can only make one choice. (For occurrences of human belief in determinism, see ‘contradiction of behaviour’ below number 8.)
2. Affirmed by rational process: Effective agency is presupposed by all scientific inquiry (rational enquiry) and so cannot rationally be doubted. (I didn’t make that up.)
3. It is confirmed by neuroscience. The famous, oft-quoted 1964 experiment affirms that some decisions are made ‘automatically’, giving the illusion of choice. This is System 1 thinking. However, we now affirm that system 2 thinking is based on complex processing and is conscious (cf, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist.) Interestingly, System 1 thinking - useful for efficient, quick responses - begins as system 2 thinking until automated or intuited - and more recent research suggests that the interpretation of that experiment was skewed. (
4. Free will is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. If we can ‘only make one choice’ then we are not responsible for our choices. This is a quite solid piece in philosophy. Moral responsibility is distinguished from Causal responsibility. Making judgments about whether a person is morally responsible for her behaviour, and holding others and ourselves responsible for actions and the consequences of actions, is a fundamental and familiar part of our moral practices and our interpersonal relationships.
5. Affirmed by all legal systems - All legal systems are based on personal accountability for decisions/actions. Moral responsibility. ‘The universe made me do it’ is not deemed an adequate defence.
6. Weakness of deterministic arguments - Almost all the arguments against free will are based on an a priori assumption that free will is incompatible with causal determinism. The assumption is used to dismiss evidence in favour of the assumption - as you did before. It can’t be true, otherwise my presupposition would be wrong. The two major arguments, Consequence and Origination, are circular reasoning. Here’s a classic example of Origination (
1. An agent acts with free will only if she is the originator (or ultimate source) of her actions.
2. If determinism is true, then everything any agent does is ultimately caused by events and circumstances outside her control.
3. If everything an agent does is ultimately caused by events and circumstances beyond her control, then the agent is not the originator (or ultimate source) of her actions.
4. Therefore, if determinism is true, then no agent is the originator (or ultimate source) of her actions.
5. Therefore, if determinism is true, no agent has free will.
Try using this as a defence in court: ‘My wife started the argument and made me cross so when I killed her she is the ultimate source of my action.’ Yeah, right. The logic is true, but it has a gaping gap in its armour in step 3. “Ultimately caused” inserts an unproven assumption. It might equally read, ‘If something an agent does is only influenced by events and circumstances, then the agent is the originator (or ultimate source) of her actions.’
7. It is affirmed by consciousness and phenomenality: Determinism makes us observers, not actors. This means there is no personal responsibility for action, as the action was inevitable.
8. People who believe in determinism contradict it in their behaviour: ‘Blame’ is evidence that you believe the person had a choice. This means that if you get angry about someone’s action and hold them responsible, or demand justice or are disappointed that you don’t receive justice - your actions demonstrate that the way you live in the world contradicts your stated belief. Drunk people at parties insist that there is no free will, no morality and everything is determined. Until you pour your drink all over them. Enter contradiction, stage left.

So - you can argue against all of these to hold your presupposition true. I could even make those arguments for you. But you as a person will still act and plan and decide, and get cross with people as if they are responsible for their actions rather than that they, ‘could only make one choice.’ Enter contradiction, stage left.

No, but it is likely to contribute information which excludes some ideas about these things. For example, the evidence tells us that traditional dualism doesn’t work. The evidence tells us that the mind is as physical as the body – alterable by external physical interference. Because of this when it comes to the mind-body problem, I am a physicalist. But that doesn’t mean I am a physicalist in the broader metaphysical sense believing that the physical is all there is – I do not. Thus I believe in two other sorts of effective dualisms which is not ruled out by this evidence.

  1. The first is a dualism between mind and body as two very different forms of life each with their own sets of desires, needs, and inheritance. This accepts that the mind is physical but not simply a function of the body, but a living organism in its own right. To borrow the “meme” terminology coined by Dawkins, this is meme or memetic life rather than gene or biological life.
  2. The second is a dualism between physical (natural) and spiritual. All things physical (natural) are part of the space-time continuum governed by mathematical laws of nature. Spiritual things are not. And the system governing the physical is not a causally closed system thus we cannot rule out causal effects from the spiritual to the physical, although there are considerable limitations in this regard.

When we insist on fitting everything into the framework of the scientific worldview of time-ordered causality then any free will or spiritual causality is going to look like events without causes which determine the outcome. And this is exactly what we see in quantum physics.

Even if you accept the idea that the mind is a form of life in its own right, as I do, in the substance of human language as opposed to the chemistry of biological processes. This doesn’t mean that the mind and body are separable in any way except conceptually. Different living organisms are often so intertwined and interdependent that separation is impossible.

That is like saying that books are made of words and if I sort the words of the book in a word processor then the words all still exist. But of course the book is destroyed. However the book isn’t entirely dependent on the words in that word processor. Someone with photographic memory could have read the book and thus the book is not destroyed, but continues to exist in a different medium.

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I would just point out that whatever it is which exists in addition to our conscious deliberations -and I definitely think there is something- need not “pre-exist the universe” in order to have great significance to the meaning one finds in life. “Spiritual” seems contaminated by association with so many fringe belief systems that I would prefer another word. But whatever we may call it there is no justification for packing into it more than we can directly experience.

Regardless, I think worrying about the existence of free will is silly and frankly a personal afterlife seems to me equally silly. But that’s just one man’s opinion. I don’t think either free will or an afterlife will ever be established or ruled out by anything neuroscience will discover. Same goes for the existence of God along anyone’s notion of what that must be, it will never be proven nor ruled out by neuroscience or any other branch of science. At most it will be aspects of people’s cherished notions about what they expect from God which may become less tenable, but the mystery itself will endure, never to be pinned down or ruled out.

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None of that false dichotomy which, Brett, demonstrates free will, which is a superfluous concept. Does God have it? It is not synonymous with agency.

The obsession with free will is a Calvinist distinctive although it emerged from Cartesian dualism. It suits damnationism, which, again, has Western Catholic roots and Biblical ones.

Yeah thats I was thinking too.

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Agree totally Mark. In my answer to the guy on the other forum I didn’t include this little preamble that really just reflects my own presuppositions.

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Blockquote[quote=“Klax, post:15, topic:43445”]
None of that false dichotomy which, Brett, demonstrates free will, which is a superfluous concept. Does God have it? It is not synonymous with agency.

The obsession with free will is a Calvinist distinctive although it emerged from Cartesian dualism. It suits damnationism, which, again, has Western Catholic roots and Biblical ones
Free will and agency are closely connected:
“Agency is contrasted to objects reacting to natural forces involving only unthinking deterministic processes. In this respect, agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined.” (wikipedia - Agency).

Whatever we want to call it, God has both agency and freedom to act - cf. 900+ verses where he says and even emphasises precisely that.

My thoughts about free will don’t emerge from Calvinism. They come stripping the evidence and arguments back to their roots, part of which I posted above. And mostly from watching the inherent contradiction between those speak as if determinism is true, but act every single day as though it isn’t. So I don’t see how it’s a superfluous concept if we hold ourselves and others responsible.

If we call it agency that doesn’t enter in to the false dichotomy engendered by the meaningless, imparsimonious concept of free will and endless rhetoric. We can add the qualifier ‘moral’ for social purposes.

God manifestly has no freedom to act in the eternal, infinite material as He doesn’t act in it beyond grounding being, incarnating in every inhabited world and ineffably by the Spirit without breaking the mirror perfect surface.

Here’s a start:

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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