Wednesday, 3 September 2008

free will?

Most of us don't even think about it. We just go about our lives, making choices and accepting responsibility for them (and sometimes trying to avoid responsibility for them!). But do we really have free will, or are we just programmed?

what is free will?

Free will means the ability to choose between two or more alternatives, without being predetermined by our genes, our brain processes and cause and effect to make a particular choice - the ability to initiate an action, or be a cause of an action, that wouldn't have occurred otherwise, and which we were not compelled to cause.

The Oxford Handbook of Free Will says: "we believe we have free will when (a) it is "up to us" what we choose from an array of alternative possibilities, and (b) the origin or source of our choices and actions is in us and not in anyone or anything else over which we have no control."

Some have defined free will in "lesser" terms, as the absence of external compulsion. However, if we have no inner free will, then our entire selves are the result of external actions leading to our birth and genetics, over which we had no control. So this definition doesn't seem to be what most of us consider to be free will.

do we actually have free will?

No-one doubts we are in many things not free to choose (e.g. to fly unaided), nor that our genes determine much about us. The question is, do we have any choice?

We seem to have free will. We make choices, blame people for their choices, present arguments we expect to influence other people, and have legal systems that make people responsible for their actions as if they had true choice. But is all this an illusion?

Naturalists, who believe that the space-time universe is all there is, find it hard to avoid the conclusion that everything is determined by the laws of the universe and cause and effect. Our brains function on simple and deterministic laws of physics, and there is no "us" outside our brains to control our thoughts. For naturalists, our brain processes seem to be predetermined.

Biologist Francis Crick: "You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Professor William Provine, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University: "Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent."

"Compatibilists" believe that although our brains are determined, we still have free will, though I cannot see how that can be. "Incompatibilists" believe that because our brains are determined, we have no free will, which seems like a logical conclusion to me.

Some theists believe that God's sovereignty, especially in setting up the universe, means that we cannot have free will either, but most believe God gives us the dignity of free will, and thereby holds us responsible for our actions.

Most theists would also be dualists, that is, they believe God has made us as spiritual-physical beings, and our minds or selves have a dual nature, which allows us to escape from the determinism of naturalism.

what can we live with?

It is one thing to have a theoretical view. Most people seem to be natural dualists, believing we have genuine free will and moral responsibility. But this seems inconsistent for those who are naturalists and atheists. But although it may be inconsistent, it may be difficult to get away from.

One option for naturalists could be that we have evolved to think we have free will even though we don't, because it is advantageous to think so. For example, one study has shown that those who believe we lack free will are more likely to be dishonest (perhaps showing the link between free will and moral responsibility).

So if an atheist believes there can be no true free will, can they actually live as if this is true, or will their minds revolt at the thought?

And does our common perception indicate that there is more in the universe than some people say, perhaps even pointing to God?


  1. So if an atheist believes there can be no true free will, can they actually live as if this is true, or will their minds revolt at the thought?

    I can't speak for everyone, but here's how I deal with that issue (I think I'm close enough to an atheist to give an opinion, at least it's a non-religious one).

    I think there is a key distinction to be made here, between two questions which are often bundled together:
    1. Do we have "true" free will?
    2. Do our choices matter?

    You can relate #1 to #2 in several different ways.

    You could say that if we don't have free will, God and/or physics controls everything and our choices aren't really our own. We're not responsible for our own actions, and apathy/hedonism is just as "good" as any other action, because it's all down to God/physics anyway.

    On the other hand, we know for a fact that what we do has effects for the future state of the world, even if how we are going to act is predetermined. We also admit if we're sensible that it's possible we have free will, and it's possible we don't (although how likely free will is could be debated). A third thing we know is that if we have free will and we choose to be apatheic/hedonistic, that choice is NOT as good as it could be. And we can agree that we have at least the illusion of choice, and even if the future is predetermined we don't know what it's going to be. With these facts in place, we can look at the outcomes of people who have adopted certain strategies, and see that the ones who do not take personal responsibility seriously tend to have worse outcomes in life, and on that basis choose to act as if our choices matter. If everything is deterministic, we are inclined to believe in free will because it makes us successful, so it would not be unreasonable to go with this impulse. Either way, there is nothing against acting as if our choices matter, and something against acting as if they don't, even in a deterministic universe.

    So, step 1 is to seperate "Do we have free will" and "Do our choices matter", and step 2 is to ask if these are the right questions to be asking. The real question we ought to be asking (in my view, if we are looking for principles to guide our actions) is:
    2. Should we act as if our choices matter?

    If we do this, the answer to #2 is clear regardless of the answer to #1, and the mental conflict that comes from acting against your beliefs goes away.

  2. "So if an atheist believes there can be no true free will, can they actually live as if this is true, or will their minds revolt at the thought?"

    Indeed they can, and giving up belief in free will has many advantages. You might be interested in the work of the Center for Naturalism, which promotes naturalism as a science-based worldview.


    Tom Clark, Director
    Center for Naturalism

  3. Thanks guys for interesting comments. Yet I don't feel you have answered the question, which is actually quite personal, do you find it easy to live, think, talk as if there is no free will? The tenor of your comments seems to me to suggest genuine choice, especially using words like "ought" (which implies both choice and ethics), "debated" "choose to act" and "giving up", so perhaps it isn't that easy at all.

    Tom, thanks for dropping by, less than a day after I posted. Isn't it amazing how quickly we can sometimes find things on the web?

    I've been to your site, and will look further. I note there the claim that believing in determinism encourages "compassion and humility". Do you have evidence for this? There are at least two pieces of evidence against it.

    1. Studies show that believers are more altruistic than non-believers (see #4 in this blog).

    2. The study I quoted above shows those who disbelieve in free will are more likely to cheat.

    If you haven't got evidence, then perhaps your site is counter-productive. Even if you were correct it would be better for all of us if you didn't try to persuade us to believe it, because then we would not behave so well! That is an interesting thought!

    Thanks again.

  4. do you find it easy to live, think, talk as if there is no free will?

    There is a difference between cogntiive ease (not feeling as if I'm lying when I talk about determinism, or as if I can't live my life if determinism is true) and ease of correctly expressing what I think. I would agree with you that it is difficult to talk as if there is no free will. Because the belief in free will is so pervasive, our language assumes and implies that it exists. I think the point you make about our language is similar to the point the womens movement made about sexism in language. Male dominance was (and in some ways still is) built into our language, and it takes a long time to change that sort of thing. But just because people unthinkingly use sexist language doesn't mean they have cognitive difficulty with the concept that we should treat women and men as equals. Similarly, it would not be correct to take my using language which implies free will as meaning that I have cognitive (rather than merely expressive) difficulty with the concept of determinism.


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