Wherefore Art Thou Free Will?

Free Will is fascinating. Well to me at least. As a Christian I believed that all humans have free will, God given, because without that free will we could not make the choice to have faith.

As an atheist, I still believe that the choice I made to abandon my faith was a conscious decision based on a rational response to evidence.

However, it is not all that clear cut. Experiments on Free Will and our conscious brain are questioning what we understand as Free Will and the conclusions are fascinating. In essence, it seems that what we think of as Free Will is just an illusion and what we think are conscious decisions are simply our conscious brain being made aware of a decision that has already been dictated to it by subconscious process that are simply the result of our brains chemical and biological makeup.

The Why Evolution is True blog has many posts on the subject and the latest one is here (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/the-no-free-will-experiment/), its worth popping over too even if its to watch the 5 min embedded video. If Free Will and the puzzles surrounding it are of interest to you, then the wider discussions on Free Will at WEIT are worth digging out.

It’s the definition of Free Will that I find most challenging, which is rightly raised here too (http://prairienymph.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/the-cost-of-no-free-will/). One definition I have seen (I think it was on WEIT) is that if you could present someone with the exact same scenario again and again, they would make the same decision each time. Now this brings about massive logistical problems and I am not sure there will ever be a way in which such an experiment could be done because once the decision has been made, a repeat of that decision brings with it the memory of the previous decision and so the scenario is not identical.

Personally I am very reluctant to give up on the concept of Free Will and if I am brutally honest, I will go so far as to say that I find the idea a little bit concerning, frightening even; even if it is intellectually fascinating. I mostly understand the reasoning behind the suggestion that Free Will is just an illusion; however, it currently does lack the slam dunk that is absolute proof.

But what about morality?

If you accept that Free Will but an illusion, then I guess the only conclusion to come to regarding morality is that is also not chosen for us either. This brings about the discussion of responsibility and the consequences of our actions. If what we do is pre-determined by chemicals in our brains and we have no control over the decisions that are being made for us, how can we be punished for our actions when they cause harm?

My answer is that even if there really is no such thing as Free Will that should not change the existing ideas of actions, consequences and punishment.

How do we prove it either way?

For me, this is the far more interesting question. Until we knew for certain, all discussion on the consequences are largely academic. I know some have already embraced the idea that it is all an illusion. For me I need something more concrete than fascinating experiments. The suggestion that some rudimentary decisions appear to be made in the subconscious brain long before we know about it needs to be more nailed down for me and I also need convincing that the same is true for significant decisions, those that we ponder about and weight up in our conscious minds before deciding. Is the thinking process also just an illusion?

I don’t know how we can prove it and I will continue to follow the discussions and the science because on a personal level I think it is important. If it does in fact turn out that Free Will is an illusion then it pretty damning for religion. Hence I am not at all surprised to see that religious commentators and apologists are resisting this idea.

Personally, I think it is not something that is going to be nailed down anytime soon and the philosophical arguments will continues for a long time to come. I also think that its not a simple ‘yes it is’, ‘not its not’ conclusion. I think that what we consider as Free Will is far more likely to be a mixture of conscious and unconscious processes and that some decisions will appear to be consistently made for us by our biology, while others will be not so clear cut and show evidence of being far more conscious involvement. My prediction is that its not at as black and white as some blogs and articles would have us believe, rather the Free Will concept will be a varying scale of grey between illusion and cognitive thought.

6 thoughts on “Wherefore Art Thou Free Will?

    • Thanks for the link Ahab.

      He makes an interesting point. What I would like to see is someone go back to the original language of the verses he quote and see if the English meaning that he reads into those verses actually matches the original meaning.

      A comparison with verses that appear to support the free will concept would also be interesting.

  1. As an atheist, I still believe that the choice I made to abandon my faith was a conscious decision based on a rational response to evidence.

    Yes, I agree with that.

    It’s one of the strange things in the “free will debates”. Some scientists argue that the scientific evidence disproves free will. But they don’t seem to see that a lack of free will would also causes problems for science, if the lack of free will means that you cannot make rational decisions based on evidence. At the very least, that should cause them to question whether science could actually disprove free will.

    For myself, I believe that we have free will and I don’t see any scientific basis for claiming otherwise.

    It’s the definition of Free Will that I find most challenging, which is rightly raised here too (http://prairienymph.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/the-cost-of-no-free-will/). One definition I have seen (I think it was on WEIT) is that if you could present someone with the exact same scenario again and again, they would make the same decision each time.

    There, you make another good point. The definitions that people give of free will are all over the map. If you check various posts on the topic at WEIT, you will see that Jerry Coyne has trouble keeping his definitions straight. (Perhaps that is to be expected, if he does not have free will).

    The particular definition that you gave, and that I just quoted above, seems to me to allow that we do have free will. Given that there is apparent randomness at the quantum level, we might expect that to cause us to make random decisions if we did not have free will. But if we make the same decision over again, in spite of that randomness of background events, that would suggest that the decision comes from our own personal nature rather than from the world outside us. And if the decisions are primarily coming from our nature, then we are making decisions. That we can even change our nature, as you did when you rejected YEC, further strengthens the case for free will.

    At other times, Jerry Coyne seems to say that free will is the ability to violate scientific laws. That seems to me to be a poor definition. Most believers in free will, even theistic ones, don’t expect that free will would allow them to violate scientific laws.

    By the way, thanks for your blog.

    You might want to take a peek at the thought experiment on consciousness and free will that I recently posted on my own blog (click on my user name to find the blog).

    • Thanks for the comment Neil. The free will discussion is not something that’s going to go away any time soon and I look forward to seeing how it will go.

  2. Thank you for the post. I have a different approach to “the free-will puzzles” that is consistent with my Christian spiritual principles. I hold that “Laws of Physics” are limited and approximate and fail to describe or control important natural phenomena, especially how brains work. “Free will” is a failed attempt to make freedom fit the form of Laws of Physics.

    I have published an essay that shows that “Laws of Physics” are forms based in space, specifically geometrical space. I show how forms based in time, e.g., forms of a beat and jumpy forms, can overcome limitations of “Laws of Physics” through new kinds of technology.

    The main presentation is posted at

    Spiritual purposes are posted at

  3. Free will. Did I have a choice in replying to this? Do I have a choice in what I write now? If not, then is there in fact an ‘I’ in any case? I think the question has little to do with the discoveries of science, but whether the dogma that everything is material is correct. The materialist religion cannot allow free will, and will use our understanding of the mechanics to explain it away. If free will (and thinking, and all those other things we think we do and experience) are delusions, what is it that is being deluded? If we follow the line of thought backwards we surely have to reach Descartes “I doubt therefore I am” – the only thing we know is that we think/experience/are, and any argument based on everything in the universe operating on strict laws is bound not to be able to explain ‘us’. So to deny free will is to deny that there is an us – to deny ourselves.

    So why deny it? Surely it is simply because it implies something that does not operate according to the laws of physics. It implies something about each of us that is what some call ‘spirit’. And that’s bad news because if we have something called spirit then it opens the possibility that there is a spirit apart from us.

    Of course, the last para may be contentious, and sounds a bit like the god of the gaps argument – maybe so, although I think the gap is pretty big there. However, I think as a whole we have lost sight of what we mean by God, and tend to try to make him a god-of-the-gaps, which is of course not rational and misleading. I’ve a couple of posts on what God actually is:

    But in the end I’m sure people will choose to discuss this for a long time to come.

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