Free Will, Determinism and Religion

Posted by on February 4, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 4 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of free will, and how we as humans feel that all our decisions are our own. As mundane as the idea might seem, it’s actually one area that is misunderstood by many, abused by some, and taken for granted by most.

I’m not just talking about the ability to choose my favourite flavour, or what clothes to wear when you go out. I’m talking about the larger space, the free will we think we practice on a daily basis, everything from what we say, do, eat and think, all the way to the freedom to steer our car away from an obstacle, or navigate our way through a shopping centre without running into things. What’s interesting about these decisions, conscious or unconscious, is that every one of them has been predetermined in some sense by the many happenings before the outcome. In fact, every action that ever takes place has been set in motion by the actions of the early beginnings of the universe.

Yes that’s a big claim, but it’s a claim we must make if we agree with the idea of causality in any sense. Everything must have a cause, and many things arise in the brain long before we are even aware of it. Sam Harris says, in The Moral Landscape (and here on his blog):

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.

Interesting to note here, that this should not be mistaken for determinism, but there is a certain amount of determinism involved with our day-to-day lives. If taken to the ultimate reductionist standpoint, as Harris has explored, there is not a single thought which arises in our brain of which we are aware instantaneously. It takes time for these thoughts to arise, and they do appear to rise our of nowhere, or rather from somewhere inside our brains. There is no denying that our brains still, when delivering these thoughts and body commands that they are reacting to outside stimuli, but some thoughts appear to just spring into existence on their own.

The deterministic nature of the universe is not something that we can easily pin down; humans operate on a scale of time and dimensions so that things of this nature elude our senses and sensibilities. The mechanisms behind determinism are not things we can see, just as the mechanisms behind thought are not something we are aware of in our daily lives. Quantum mechanics has shown us that some things just happen (it could also be the case that we are yet to understand why or how they happen). Things pop in and out of existence seemingly randomly all the time. Whether they all have an affect on the outcomes of the universe is still unknown, but it is likely that they have potential to. But just because we don’t fully understand something does not make it a fanciful notion. If, in fact, everything is deterministic, then every action has been determined in advance, because of the way that the universe reacts against itself. This is by no means a fatalistic notion, it may just be that this is the way things are. We will continue to live as if there IS free will regardless of the reality of the situation.

Some people will take this idea of determinism and attach a God to it. For example, “It is God’s will that such-and-such happened the way it did” is a way of saying, though we don’t understand how and why something occurred, but we are comforted by the notion that it’s “All part of God’s grand scheme”. The bible claims in many passages that humans have been give free will by God as a test, serving to back the tenets of choosing Christ over hell, choosing “right” over “wrong”, and choosing to follow the moral dictates of the scriptures. As we are discovering, however, things like “right and wrong”  and morality are subjective to the people who claim it, so the idea of free-will from that standpoint is confusing at best. The one thing that many religious folk find hard to grapple with is the dichotomy of determinism versus free-will, where an omniscient God knows the future (as he knows everything), he is omnipotent (can do anything and has created the universe), and has therefore determined the outcome of any situation. Apologists, while they agree with this statement will say that while God knows the future, he leaves it up to humans as individuals to choose the right path. This leaves us with a conundrum, and the best way to reconcile this position is to leave God out of the equation altogether and just stick to what we can measure.

People wrongly take the idea of a determinism and create a hopelessly fatalistic situation for mankind. This is to say, if what will happen is already determined by the initial state of the universe, then what’s the point of existence? If there is no striving for betterment, and our actions are all reactions against pre-existing conditions, then why not just lie back and see what happens, rather than going about our menial daily tasks? If it’s all predetermined, then why bother acting it out?

The fact of the matter is, whether the universe is deterministic or not, we as humans still operate in our lives as though we can make all our own decisions. We act and react against our environs, our brains offer positive reinforcement in the form of love and happiness, and negative reinforcement in the case of pain. Whether we understand these notions does not affect our humanness, any more than knowing how a rainbow is formed somehow makes it less beautiful. We are humans in the universe, and we have evolved to be this way.

As I write this I am formulating the words in my brain, the brain is also telling my fingers to type, but all of these “decisions” have already been determined, either by the physical deterministic factors of the universe (I move my hand towards the keyboard, gravity and muscle movements pushing the key downward making the computer respond to my movements), or in what most people would consider my “free will” (the brain making the necessary connections to make it happen). Again, Sam Harris has talked about this in his book and on his blog:

It is generally argued that our sense of free will presents a compelling mystery: on the one hand, it is impossible to make sense of in causal terms; on the other, we feel that we are the authors of our own actions. However, I think that this mystery is itself a symptom of our confusion. It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the character of our experience. We do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be ourselves in the world. The moment we do pay attention, we begin to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our subjectivity is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: the illusion of free will is itself an illusion.

Further Reading:

Pertinacious Dogmas: Free Will
Free Will Is as Real as Baseball


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  1. You seem to have most of the bases covered here, though I’d add a possibility suggested by Professor James Hall in his book “Practically Profound. He proposed that we do have free will, or at least, a sort of virtual free will, in a kind of middle ground between strict determinism and random indeterminism: Things in very complex systems (like the macroscopic world) can and do happen randomly, at least from our perspective, but while the causes of ‘what happens’ are often out of our awareness, we seem to have the freedom to act on the options available to us when offered choices as we wish, preferably selecting the most effective options over the less effective ones chance throws our way. While there’s some determinism involved, it is also subject to the randomness of complexity theory, which affects both the outside world and the workings of our brains in terms of their emergent properties. Even if ‘free will’ is an illusion, in the sense of not being what it appears, we still have freedom of choice when faced with competing alternatives.

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  2. A very interesting and quite difficult subject for a blog, and yet, you’ve highlighted the major points. Greatly written.
    The question of free will has been troubling philosophers for over 2000 years, and still occupying minds and labs of neuro and other scientists. Our brains are physical objects and behave within an acceptable range of laws of nature. Of course, like any law allowing some room for random deviations.
    And it seems that religion looses again with its free will. A brain is the most complicated matter, built of different cells that function or malfunction, that ruled by laws with interferences of outlaws.

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  3. Thanks for this. This is a “me, too’ comment. Over and over I find myself getting up on my soapbox and writing something similar to your post in response to someone who has trumpeted the belief in Radical Individuality, in which we “choose” in a vacuum, untouched and unaffected by anything else.

    If you really push this thing (not necessarily in writing to others, but at least in your own mind), really stick with it, you may come to the point where a separate and individual “I” becomes an illusion. It’s a very compelling illusion, perhaps a necessary illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.

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  4. This excellently nuanced view of the Free Will (that which our brain is experiencing between its conscious and unconscious) flies in the face of the compelling pop culture teachings of an outdated body-mind dualism (à la Descartes).

    If we take for granted that a mind can exist outside a brain, we permit the existence of disembodied minds. Say, ghosts (holy or otherwise). Such that unbelieveable characters and incredible books start sounding like reliable eye-witness accounts of beings beyond ordinary human senses.

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