A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter...

Determinism and free will

I offer this piece because I have been feeling a little guilty about making fun of religion, as I have done in a number of recent posts. While I don’t for a moment deny that I find the religious right to be comical and deeply ignorant, this piece is intended to treat what I consider to be an absurd position with respect. To that end, I offer a serious argument. I hope it won’thappen again.

But not TOO deep
To call or not to call. That is the question. Perhaps to bluff….
Patrick Guntensperger
Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
An argument in favour of religion that has some strength is the observation that, if a purely scientific view of the world is adopted as a starting point, the conclusion of any reasoning process will arrive at a purely deterministic existence. That is to say, that a religious worldview has as one of its fundamental principles an assumption of the freedom of human will, whereas a scientific, mechanical worldview is likely to lead to the conclusion that free will is an illusion. This argument has strength, not because it is more rational, more valid, or contains stronger evidence, or more reliable premises, but because virtually nobody wants to accept that his will isn’tfree.
If the choice wasbetween a belief in the absurdities of revealed religion on the one hand and acceptance of empirically verifiable and logically arrived at scientific propositions on the other, but to accept the latter would entail the abandonment of one’s belief in free will, many would opt for the absurd. Free will is the most rabidly protected notion that mankind has ever developed; and yet a closer look at it should make it clear that it doesn’t really matter at all.
To see what I mean, let’s look first at what ‘determinism’ and ‘free will’ actually mean.
Determinism is thedoctrine that proposes that the world is a mechanistic structure; that it is a nearly infinitely complex machine that is running subject to a set of physicallaws from which deviation is not possible. At its simplest, it can be seen as aseries of dominoes set up so that each one falls and sets off the next. The dominoes have no choice but to fall, and the sequence of events is inevitable once the series has been set in motion. On a somewhat more complex level, it is like a computer program that is running; it must finish the sequence, and the binary bits within the program have no say in the outcome.
In a deterministic worldfree will is an illusion. We may think we are making choices, but in fact we are doing what we have been programmed to do; each decision we make is determined by the same laws that cause one domino to fall onto the next, leaving us with the belief that we have freely, even capriciously, chosen any given course of action. Your decision to have the barbequed as opposed to the extra spicy chicken wings is as predetermined as the course of a billiard ball that has been struck by the cue ball. That you chose independently of influence is simply an illusion, and part of the great scheme of things.
In a mechanistic worldview, the mind is merely a function of the brain. The brain, being matter, physical stuff obeying physical laws, operates according to those laws. If our brain is just wires in a box, the choices we make are a function of the information put before it, and each decision is predetermined by those laws. Being a particularly complex set of wires, the fact that each decision is predetermined is not obvious, nevertheless, in principle, if all the variables could be known, the choices – ostensibly free – could be predicted with absolute accuracy. They are determined in advance. If we were to go back in time, repeat the sequence of events with no memory of the first occurrence and all the circumstances unchanged, the choice would be identical, no matter how capricious it feels each time.
Free will, in contrast, is the notion that human beings have the capability of making decisions and selecting from options with an infinite degree of autonomy. It is the common sense view of the world, the one to which we all subscribe, whether we like it or not. I can decide whether to obey a law, go to college, have my steak rare, watch TV, or read a book. If I look at a menu, the choice between the escargot and the oysters on the half shell is clear, and I choose between these first courses with utter freedom. Certainly there are constraints and influences upon my choice; the price, the wine, the season, my past experience…all these come into play. Nevertheless, when I ultimately decide, it is my decision; I know that…I can feel it.
Religious apologists often argue that a purely scientific worldview, in contrast with a religious one, denies free will. Since, sophistry aside, we all know that we have free will, doesn’t this mitigate against the scientific view and favour the religious one?
In a word, no.
Let’s first dispense with the notion that free will is even consistent with traditional religion, let alone necessary to it. Western Christianity (and all Abrahamic religions have a version of this) would have us believe that their god is all knowing; he knows what will happen in the future and is aware of each beat of each wing of each sparrow. Moreover, their god created the world, and when he created it, he knew what he was doing; he made things the way they are in full knowledge of all the ramifications, and he chose to make it that way, including the ramifications. He determined, in advance, the infinite sequence of events that make up the world and its history.
According to this doctrine, it might feel like you have chosen the ham and eggs over the bacon and eggs, but in actual fact, that choice was made for you with the creation of the world, and that choice came as no surprise to god. So too with your decision to break a law. And ditto with your decision to contravene a commandment. God knew you were going to do exactly that; in fact he created the world with that as part of the plan. If there was any choice in the matter, it was his. It seems unreasonable for him to be pissed off about it at this late date.

On the other side of things is what we call the deterministic view.

Our intuition tells us that when we make a choice, we are the active agent and that although external circumstances might influence us one way or another, the decision is ours. It goes against every instinct we can muster when we try to imagine that our choice in any situation is predetermined.
But wait. What was that about instinct? We do, after all accept some determinism in the world.When we really think about it, most of us are willing to concede that free will isn’t absolute. We know we don’t even have complete control over our own bodies; try to stop sweating in a sauna or producing tears when dicing onions. Okay,these are autonomic responses, they aren’t matters of will; we don’t choose to sweat.
What about breathing? We can choose to hold a breath; surely that’s a matter of free will? Perhaps it is when we give it our attention, but when we don’t, it seems to take control ofitself. Pretty much everyone recognises that some events are determined, or at least, even though we might be the agent, are out of our control.
Courts of law make the presumption that human beings have free will; a person can be punished for the choices he makes. If you stomp a person to death, you are liable for your action; if, on the other hand, you fall out of a window and crush a pedestrian,you aren’t; the first was an exercise of free will, the second wasn’t. But even if you walk up to someone and deliberately shoot him, you aren’t considered liable if you were not exercising fee will. If you had a mental defect that caused an irresistible compulsion to behave in that way, it wasn’t an act of free will and you aren’t liable.
Even with a presumption of free will, we are more and more coming to accept that there are times when we act because there is no way not to act. It might seem to the alcoholic, for example, that having that next drink is a matter of free choice, but whether it is or not is certainly a profoundly contentious issue. We recognise already that free will is far from absolute. Just how big a leap would it be to go all the way and accept the proposition that everything is determined in this mechanistic world?
But the reallyinteresting point is: it doesn’t matter.
Let us suppose you completely accept the proposition that each event, every roll of the dice, each flap of the sparrow’s wing, is predetermined and simply an inevitable consequence of physical laws acting on physical objects in the world. Moreover,since mind is a function of brain, and a brain is a physical object, even our choices, as a function of mind, are subject to those physical laws. That being the case, free will is only an illusion.
We might agonise over whether to hit or stand on seventeen, but whichever way we go, that decisionwas made for us when the universe first got started. When we hit, it feels like we are making the decision, but according to a deterministic view, in fact the decision was inevitable, because we could no more stand on seventeen in this instance than a domino could refuse to fall when its time comes.
But it doesn’t matter.
What are you going to do? Cross a busy street against traffic, because the result is predetermined? Okay, but your decision to do so was predetermined as well, so if you become street pizza, that was predetermined. Even in a purely mechanistic universe,the only way you can tell what is predetermined is by an examination of the events after the fact.
Predetermined or not,our lives must be lived as though we have free will. We are hardwired that wayand there is nothing we can do about it. Even radical determinism places ultimate responsibility squarely upon the shoulders of the agent in every action.
Contrast this with the incoherent and essentially contradictory doctrines inherent in the religious worldview.
It is a necessary componentof the religious worldview that our every act was foreseen and launched by thecreator; that our actions were predetermined when the world was created and that god not only knows what we will do at every moment of our lives, but that we were created to act in that way. Nevertheless, the same world view imposes enormous guilt and unspeakable punishment for actions for which we are not responsible; actions which the creator not only foresaw, but caused when he created us.
Thus, as arguments go, any argument for the existence of god that entails free will has insurmountable problems. In contrast, the accusation that atheism, insofar as it espouses an objective, purely scientific worldview, denies free will is specious at best.


Hire Patrick

Want to hire Patrick for a speaking engagement, as a teacher or for a writing project? Send him a message here:



Your Message

To use CAPTCHA, you need Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin installed.

Speak Your Mind