Free Will Arguments

In the responses to my videos on free will over on Youtube, you will find a couple of different respondents arguing in support of the proposition that science has torpedoed the notion of free will.  Because I am no longer maintaining my video site, I wanted to address their arguments here.  Before we begin, however, I wanted to discuss why the issue of free will is so important.

The Importance of Free will

For a long time, philosophical atheism has been a minority position. Like a minority political party that can get easy laughs by ridiculing the inevitable mistakes of those in power, the tiny fraction of atheists in the general population meant that atheists could easily criticize the beliefs of others without having their own beliefs scrutinized. As atheism becomes more popular, what atheists believe is going to become more relevant and this is going to have a number of interesting consequences. One such consequence is going to be an increasing level of division within atheism. (I discussed one such rift that has appeared over the issue of feminism in another essay.) Another such consequence is that atheists are increasingly going to have to explain human experience in terms of their own worldview.  It was easy to seem rational when all you had to do was pick apart the erroneous beliefs of others.  Where atheism will face its greatest challenges, however, is in formulating a consistent worldview that can appeal to a mass audience and serve as the basis for government and education.  This task is a difficult one. When C.S. Lewis considered the ramifications of atheistic belief, he famously concluded, “Surely some other system of belief must be less wrong than that.”

The fact of the matter is that atheism has no basis for believing in the power of reason, the beauty of love, the existence of free will or the effectiveness of science.  Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were refreshingly honest about one aspect of this in their discussion on free will at Cambridge.  I suspect that they will find that the human need for reason, love and meaning is so powerful that this honesty is unsustainable.  At some point they are going to have to compromise and argue that love,reason and free will emerged or evolved out of a purely materialistic system. You can see the inevitability of this if you watch the talk. Harris and Dawkins were talking in front of some of their most ardent supporters and yet the skepticism was evident in the strained silence.

Before leading atheistic thinkers do their inevitable about face on these issues, however, Christian apologists like me are going to have a field day. Christianity is the most rational available belief system precisely because it gives us a solid basis for believing in love, reason, free will and the effectiveness of mathematical laws in describing the physical universe and it is extremely important to say so as often as we can.

Tony Robbins Free Will

The first argument that my critics use against the notion of free will is to argue against what I would call “Tony Robbins Free Will”. As you know, Tony Robbins is a famous motivational speaker who seems to really believe that if you just set your mind to it and apply the principles of positive thinking, you can accomplish anything. “If I wear underwear on the outside of my pants and jump toward the sky, I will fly to Krypton!” The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is not true. If you put your underwear on the outside of your pants and jump at the sky, you will not fly to Krypton no matter how much you believe. On the other hand, it is not true that your decision will have no effect on reality. You will make a fool of yourself and a video of your stunt could go viral on YouTube.

How can I say that atheists argue against the existence of Tony Robbins Free Will? If you read over the comments on those videos, you will find a number of people saying, “You can choose between available alternatives, but you cannot choose what your choices are.” Or, in another form, “You can choose to respond to environmental stimuli, but you cannot choose your environmental stimuli.” To me, both of these objections sound like these people are debunking Tony Robbins free will. “You can choose to jump around with your underwear on the outside of your pajamas, but you cannot choose to jump to Krypton.”

Whenever I see arguments like this, I am deeply puzzled. All I mean when I say that I believe in free will is the following:

  1. I can consciously reason through an issue.
  2. I can make a decision based on that thought process.
  3. I can act in accordance with that decision.
  4. That act will have an effect on reality. (Though not necessarily, it should go without saying, the desired effect.)

I certainly don’t mean that I have an unlimited power to shape reality. Why is the ability to choose based on a conscious reasoning process not free will just because the available options are limited or the process is done in response to the external environment? It almost seems as if atheists think that the non-existence of “Tony Robbins Free Will” disproves Christianity somehow. Why would that be?

I have thought it over and I believe that the answer to this question can be found in the poor theology broadcast by Christians to the world around us. Christians teach the existence of an absolute hell of literal flames and torment. The only way that such a hell could ever be justified is if you had “Tony Robbins Free will” with regard to being perfectly moral and loving. If you could choose to be perfect and instead chose to be filled with lust, anger, evil, envy and murder then you might deserve the hell taught by the church. Without “Tony Robbins Free Will” it would be unreasonable to punish someone with the hell described by Christians. For atheists, therefore, disproving “Tony Robbins Free Will” disproves Christianity.

If an atheist was to formulate such an argument consciously, the objections would be obvious. Firstly, as I have argued elsewhere, that hell doesn’t have to be literal flames and torment to be horrible. Secondly, that we don’t need “Tony Robbins free will” to be able to choose to be perfectly loving. In fact, the process described in the New Testament is a process of continual struggle, failure and growth culminating with the transformation of our bodies and our environment so that true love and goodness becomes possible for those who have accepted divine help in the person of Jesus Christ. The ability to choose among a limited set of available alternatives and have our chosen actions be completely ineffectual is completely consistent with a Christian worldview.

The Libet Experiment

Others Argued that in my videos I had not mentioned the famous Libet finger movement experiments. They were correct. When I first saw the video of Harris and Dawkins, I thought they were talking about an experiment on involuntary movement that I had read about on the internet. But the primary point of my videos remains the same regardless of which experiment that you consider. As I say in the video, yes it is possible that human beings are wired so that, in particular cases, the conscious process will follow the electrical stimuli that causes a muscle to move. But so what? My planning experiment demonstrates conclusively (unless you think the electrical signals that caused my muscles to move occurred ten seconds before my hand actually moved), that conscious thought CAN precede the action that it contemplates by an arbitrary amount of time. Given this result, the notion that your conscious thought process is a mere passenger that observes and rationalizes what your body decided to do subconsciously is sheer nonsense.

In my essay, “Free Will Illusions“, I argue that one way of reconciling the Libet experiments with our conscience experience is to employ what we have learned about the visual system. Using the existence of “optical illusions” as an analogy, we can easily understand that, in certain circumstances, there are “free will illusions” where our sense of causality is illusory. As I point out in my essay, these illusions could be caused by asynchronous processing in the brain and the illusion of simultaneity. While atheists might dismiss such speculations, multi-core digital processors are the closest thing we have to the human brain and asynchronous processes running on such systems can exhibit behavior that is extremely difficult to understand. Why conclude that all of human conscious experience is an illusion on the basis of a single experiment when such obvious alternatives exist? Are not atheists the ones who argue that a fantastic claim requires a fantastic amount of proof? It is almost as if the thinking of atheists on this subject was driven by some kind of agenda . . .

An Unknown Process

But my primary problem with atheistic arguments that the human experience of conscious control over our actions is an illusion is the following.  In a modern industrial society, there is no straightforward way to map the evolutionary priorities that supposedly control our actions to the commonplace actions we take everyday.  How can blind impulses programmed into our subconscious make me choose between job A and job B?  How can they cause me to choose between living at apartment A vs apartment B?  What process is responsible for making these decisions?  If conscious control is an illusion, then there is no mental process of which we are aware that is capable of doing this extremely complex processing.

The flip side of this issue is a simple question.  What is consciousness for according to evolutionists?  What survival advantage does it convey to have a conscious experience that seems rationally consistent?  Our conscious thought processes do occur, they do consume energy and the processing power of our brains (sometimes to the detriment of animal survival, witness someone lost in thought who nearly gets hit by a bus).  What is all this processing for?

Evolutionists who argue that our ability to consciously control our actions is an illusion, therefore, have a dual problem if they are going to be scientific in their demonstration of this idea.  First, they have to demonstrate that there is a subconscious mechanism that does the complex mapping between evolutionary priorities (food, shelter, social standing, security etc…) and every day actions that is not the conscious process of which I am aware.  Secondly, they must demonstrate that the conscious process of decision making of which I am aware and which they posit is an illusion has some other beneficial purpose.

Undetectable Consciousness

As an interesting aside, a recent experiment demonstrates the difficulty of measuring conscious mental activity.  In that experiment, a patient thought to be in a vegetative state was able to communicate with physicians by thinking of playing tennis (for yes) or moving around his home (for no).  While his conscious thoughts were undetectable, they were still able to have detectable effects on other areas of his brain that allowed him to communicate correct answers about his family. What does this mean for the free will debate?  I don’t know, but it cannot increase our confidence that we understand consciousness when someone we thought was a vegetable was in fact capable of communication.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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5 Responses to Free Will Arguments

  1. “The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the madman is quite sure he is simply and solely a chicken. materialists and madmen never have doubts”-GK Chesterton

    What bothers me about this whole thing is that there is a large segment of the Christian community that would agree that “history has been simply and solely a chain of causation.”
    That fact that they believe God is the one doing the causing is hardly helpful, as it turns God into a puppet master and free will into an illusion and makes the Bible a book of fairy tales, where God is saying one thing and doing another.

    • Wild,

      C.S. Lewis said somewhere that Christians must “admit from the start that we are thoroughgoing supernaturalists who believe that God has intervened in creation”. The quotation is not exact, but the flavor of the quote is correct and I agree with you and him on this issue. If God has not many times intervened in his creation, then Christianity is not true. Those who deny God’s intervention are essentially denying the truth of the Bible. They tend to be liberal Christians who like the principles taught by Christ, but don’t really believe in the Resurrection or the miracles of Christ, let alone the Old Testament.

      I think the reason so many people think this way is that they want to repudiate some of the darker aspects of the Bible (see my essay “The Gibbering Demon Within” where I discuss the “Red Letter Heresy” for my ideas on this subject.) or because they cannot answer questions raised by skeptics like Sam Harris who hammer away at the problem of evil and suffering. These are tough questions and they are not easy to answer. (Though I have tried, my essays on “Throwing Moses Under the Bus” and “Quantum Mechanics in Kindergarten” are attempts to address the darker aspects of the Bible while my essays on “Bad Theology” are my attempts to explain God’s purpose in suffering.)

      Thanks for the comment and God Bless,

  2. Pingback: Atheistic Bedrock | A Thoughtful Christian

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