Free Will is central to Christianity. The idea that we are held accountable for our actions is only just if we can freely choose our thoughts, words and deeds. It would be monstrous of God to punish us if we are not in control of what we think, say and do. The following posts (this will take a bit to unpack) will attempt to demonstrate that we do not have free will. This will not prove that a god does not exist, but it will demonstrate that a god that punishes us for our actions is unjust and likewise unloving, which would tend to suggest that the Christian God does not exist, or at least not in the way that Christians say He does.

Firstly, it’s important to clarify that I am not saying we do not make choices. We make choices continually, thousands every day. Every second we choose what we are going to do with the next second. But how can these choices be freely made? No choice is ever made free from all influence. What we choose to do with the next second is completely dependent on what we did in the last second (and the cumulative effects of all our previous seconds). All our choices are a product of our personal history, and our genetics, neither of which is in our control. Our genes are provided in equal parts from our mother and father, and it seems straight forward that they are out of our control. Our history, also, is out of reach. It seems obvious that we cannot change the past. And these are the only two things that we have to draw on every time we make a choice. Therefore, as there is a cause for our choices, then we do not have a Free Will. We have a Causal Will.

The Causal Will

Put another way, there is a reason for everything we do. Either there is a thought process involved (perhaps an unconscious one, and more on that in a later post) or there is a bodily process involved. Sometimes there is both, such as when my stomach growls, prompting me to look at the clock and decide to get some type of food based on the time that it displays. And these things will go back into your past. The time you woke up this morning will be dependent on the time you went to sleep last night, or perhaps setting an alarm the night before. The alarm will be dependent on you wanting to arrive at work/school on time. Wanting to be on time will be dependent on past experiences of what happened when you were late, or a sense of responsibility that you have learned, etc.

All of these things can be traced back continuously to the start of your life. You are, at any time, the sum total of your experiences and the genetic make-up that processes those experiences. And the reason for this is that we live in a rational universe, made up of matter and the forces that act on that matter in consistent ways.

The Material Universe – Made of Simple Stuff

The universe is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Those things are actually made up of smaller stuff than that, but we’ll only go that small for “simplicity”. These 3 sub-atomic particles combine in different ways to form everything that we see in the universe. There are 4 forces that act on these 3 particles: the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism and (when these particles are clumped together in large enough quantities) gravity. These 3 particle  and these 4 forces are responsible for everything in the universe. (Well that’s not exactly true either, because of dark matter and energy, but again, we’ll try to keep things simple.) Those three particles combine in a dizzying array of combinations to form atoms, and the atoms combine in even more dizzying arrays to form molecules, and the molecules combine to form the most dizzying arrays of macroscopic matter which includes everything you can see or smell, or taste or touch or hear. Not to mention they form the you that can do the seeing, smelling, tasting, touching and hearing. Living things do not have anything special that non-living things are lacking. We are all formed of those three elements, and everything we can think and do is because of those four forces acting on those three elements.

Now these three particles have no will at all. They make no choices. They just exist. These four forces also have no will. They cannot choose to affect the material world, they just do, reliably and consistently. The universe would be a much stranger place if gravity could freely choose which matter it was going to affect at any particular moment. But it affects everything equally and all the time, as do the other three forces. So the question is, how can free will spring from three particles that have no will, and the four blind forces that constantly affect them?

Can free will arise from life?

I’m confident most of us will agree that inanimate things do not possess a will of any description. The majesty of a waterfall is entirely due to natural processes. The shape and colour of the clouds during a storm and the path the lightning takes through the sky are not based on any choices made by the natural elements involved. But what about living things? Can’t that special thing called ‘life’ spawn Free Will? The answer is no. Because life is not a special thing. Nor is it separate from things which are inanimate. As I said above, absoutely everything is made up of three particles and bound by the four forces which act upon them.

Organic and inorganic chemistry were two separate strands of that particular scientific discipline born from the notion that living things and non-living things were made of two totally separate substances. Today we know that our bodies are made up entirely of elements from the periodic table, all of which can be found as separate inanimate things. There is no separate special element which needs to be added in order to make something live. The fact that a seed germinates, takes in water, nutrients from the soil, Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere and the energy from photons striking it from the sun, and over the course of time converts those things into a woody trunk,branches and leaves is nothing more than chemistry at work. This living, breathing thing is just a reconstitution of those three primary particles as the four forces of the universe work upon them. And without a brain or a central nervous system, and the ability to make choices, I’m sure you will agree that plant life doesn’t have a free will. Let’s have a look at life that moves.

Animals

Firstly, plenty of plant life moves. Flowers bloom at the rising sun and track its movement acros the sky. The Venus flytrap clamps down swiftly on an unsuspecting insect. But these are not choices made by the plant. These movements are just a response to stimuli that the plant receives. Animal movements are exactly the same, and it’s easy to see that when we start with simple animals. Ants, for example, when they go out foraging for food. They leave the nest and move in certain patterns until they find a food source. They then take some food directly back to the nest, leaving a chemical trail as they go. As other ants come across the trail, they follow it, back to the food source, then back to the nest, leaving their own chemical trail as they go, reinforcing the original one. As such this hugely complex hive mind, made up of (possibly) millions of individual animals, works together, all through the use of chemicals. Choices being made, but all driven by chemical processes. Causal choices and not free will.

But this is probably obvious to everyone, and not what anyone thinks of when they say free will. Free will requires larger animals, and larger brains. A memory, reasoning, and the ability to make choices of the mind, based on that memory and reasoning, and having nothing to do with chemical processes. Except … memory and reasoning are entirely based on chemical processes, and they occur in the brain of large animals, in the same way that ants brains get them to leave and follow chemical trails. The brain of any “complex” animal works via electromagnetic and chemical processes, just like the brain of the ant. The manipulation of molecules, made up of the protons, neutrons & electrons, again, just like everything else on the planet.

My children have goldfish. These are animals notorious for having no long term memory. But this is not reflected in my own experience of feeding them. Whenever I pick up the fish food container, a relatively large cylinder,  and take it close to the hole in the lid of the tank, the goldfish swim to the top of the water level, in apparent anticipation of the food that is about to be dropped in. The brain of the goldfish apparently holds memories of this visual cue (maybe there is an olfactory cue as well) and they reason that when they see (and smell?) this object approaching, food is about to become available on the water surface.

These fish have a memory, and they reason. In fact it seems obvious that reasoning and memory are inextricably intertwined. There is no point remembering things if you are not going to reason out what might happen in the future based on past experience. This is an advantage passed on through evolution, in that the ability to react to favourable or dangerous situations will increase the chance that the DNA will be reproduced. But this does not result in free will. Just because the goldfish can recognise the circumstances that will result in the arrival of food, does not mean that their movement to the top of the tank are a free choice. Their movement would be caused by their remembering the visual cue and that it will result in food. Their remembering, reasoning and action are all just a response to stimuli, like the ants movements above. And it is the result of electromagnetic and chemical reactions in the brain and the body of the fish.

Mammals

As you get to more complex animals, with larger more complex brains, you get a larger number of synaptic connections. More memory, more complex and subtle reasoning. and emotions like empathy. But all of it is still the result of the physical laws of the universe acting on matter … the grey matter, in fact. Everything mammals think and feel and remember is the result of purely natural processes. The choices we make, fuelled by those thoughts and feelings are the result of those natural processes. Our will, caused by these natural processes, is a causal will, and can never be free.

My next post will examine the causes for the choices we make in greater detail.

 

5 Responses to The illusion of Free Will

  1. JVpense says:

    “You are, at any time, the sum total of your experiences and the genetic make-up that processes those experiences. And the reason for this is that we live in a rational universe, made up of matter and the forces that act on that matter in consistent ways.”
    On a slightly different tack from this post, I thought this specific quote was rather interesting. For a start, this whole post clearly conveys we have no free will, and I assume that you also believe in no god – therefore surely we are in no way accountable for our actions? If I go shoplifting today, can I really be in trouble because of that? I mean I was just doing it because I had no free will – I was always going to do that, especially because of my GENETIC makeup – which I didn’t get to choose. So how can anyone be accountable for their actions? I personally am of the belief that we all have free will without a god, and thus everyone is accountable for their actions. No doubt there are many other influences to our decisions, but ultimately free will is always a part of the choice. Sure, if you’re allergic to nuts, you are unlikely to ever eat any – but you still do have the free will to eat them if for some odd reason you want to. Sure, the constraints of law and order stop us from doing many things, but ultimately we can, and sometimes do, ignore these constraints and follow our free will.
    Furthermore, if our choices are determined by our genetic makeup and experiences (but our experiences were just based on others or our choices (genetic makeup) – this has an infinite regressive cycle which shows that really it was our genetic makeup which made us do things, not experiences), then surely destiny is predetermined. I mean I was always going to answer this post due to my genetic makeup, so destiny has my fate in its hands. There is a future to be read. Personally I think that is not true. I think that the truth is more complicated, and that every decision we make has a long term impact on the world which shapes our and many others destiny. If one sends their child to school X not school Y, their child may be inspired by a good IT teacher which could cause them to create the next big thing, impacting thousands of people’s lives in all sorts of manners.

    “So the question is, how can free will spring from three particles that have no will, and the four blind forces that constantly affect them?”
    I think here it’s important to distinguish between physical and metaphysical. Clearly, abstract concepts are metaphysical – they have no physical form. Human fear or reason are other examples – they may not be physical things, but my goodness they make people completely change what they do. I believe that thoughts themselves and our mind have to be metaphysical. As I type this I am thinking about my line of argument and what i want to say next. That has one stimulus – reading this. Which is followed by my mind thinking. There is clearly something more than just a brain which makes us alive and conscious and wiphile I cannot really know what It is, it is there. Surely just making a brain with the precise same makeup from the exact same neutrons protons and electrons would not yield a sentient being?

    “Can’t that special thing called ‘life’ spawn a Will? The answer is no. Because life is not a special thing.”
    Really? I struggle to believe this. For a start, I’m going to assume you are talking about life as in “animals, plants, bacteria, fungi etc.”. Because clearly we can spawn a will. When I have a choice, I mentally think about it after I receive an electronic message from my body. Then, having mentally made a decision, I unconsciously send a second electronic pulse back to my body and an action is formed in the basis of that thought process.

    “The Venus flytrap clamps down swiftly on an unsuspecting insect. But these are not choices made by the plant. These movements are just a response to stimuli that the plant receives. Animal movements are exactly the same, and it’s easy to see that when we start with simple animals.”
    Sure, plants simply have stimuli. The Venus flytrap has short stiff hairs which need to be triggered twice for it to close and then start secreting all that juicy stuff which slowly but surely digest the insect. But our decisions are based off thought processes and not just stimuli. There is a difference between a reaction like that of a plant, which in a human we call a “reflex action”, like moving your hand off a burning hot surface, and a thought choice, like choosing what dress you want to wear on a particular day. One involves no brain or thought – literally before your brain knows it your hand has moved off that hot object. But your brain is the one which decides which dress you want to wear on that day. And thought processes occur to make that happen.

    So I guess my argument is that there is something metaphysical, our mind, which allows us to make decisions and gives us a free will. Or maybe that’s just me wanting to believe that I have free will and I was going to think that all along.

  2. Hi JV. Thanks for the post. Will respond in sections for clarity’s sake.

    “On a slightly different tack from this post, I thought this specific quote was rather interesting. For a start, this whole post clearly conveys we have no free will, and I assume that you also believe in no god – therefore surely we are in no way accountable for our actions? If I go shoplifting today, can I really be in trouble because of that? I mean I was just doing it because I had no free will – I was always going to do that, especially because of my GENETIC makeup – which I didn’t get to choose. So how can anyone be accountable for their actions?”

    It’s interesting that you use the word “accountable” rather than “responsible”. It seems to me we are accountable, although we are responsible. Like a CEO of a company who will get the boot if it doesn’t perform, even though she can not be responsible for the actions, or lack there of, of all the employees, the buck will stop with her. She is responsible for hiring the people, who hire the people, who hire the people that will do the work. So even though she can only be responsible for hiring the top level of employees, she is accountable for how the company performs. So two thoughts about your question about accountability?

    1. It is not an argument against the proposition that free will doesn’t exist.
    2. How does it change anything in the real world?

    I will be expanding on this in my third post about Free Will, but essentially it means that people shouldn’t be applauded for their good works, and not blamed for their bad. There should be a punishment for thieving, because we agree as a society that it is bad. Whether we freely choose to think it is bad, or whether the circumstances of our lives lead us to believe it is bad doesn’t change the way we think about it.

    “I personally am of the belief that we all have free will without a god, and thus everyone is accountable for their actions.”

    How can this be in a causal universe? The free will part, I mean. I hope I explained it well enough above to show that I think people should be held accountable, although they cannot be responsible.

    “No doubt there are many other influences to our decisions, but ultimately free will is always a part of the choice.”

    Can you demonstrate that people can make choices free of all outside influence?

    “Sure, if you’re allergic to nuts, you are unlikely to ever eat any – but you still do have the free will to eat them if for some odd reason you want to. Sure, the constraints of law and order stop us from doing many things, but ultimately we can, and sometimes do, ignore these constraints and follow our free will.”

    We make choices all the time. But they are not free choices. They are the result of our life experience at work on our genetic make-up. For example, the words you use to reply to my question are the results of the fact that you were raised by parents who speak english, they way your family interacted with you growing up and the education you received. The fact that you use the word “accountable” for example, instead of “responsible”; do you think that is the result of a free choice you made? Or is it a choice you made because of the life you had lived up to the point when you replied to this blog post?

    “Furthermore, if our choices are determined by our genetic makeup and experiences (but our experiences were just based on others or our choices (genetic makeup) – this has an infinite regressive cycle which shows that really it was our genetic makeup which made us do things, not experiences), then surely destiny is predetermined. I mean I was always going to answer this post due to my genetic makeup, so destiny has my fate in its hands.”

    Yes. If we are living in a causal universe, than the movements of all the atoms is the result of the way the universe was initial laid out. We are, essentially, playing out a movie where the script was written 13.72 billion years ago.

    “There is a future to be read. Personally I think that is not true. I think that the truth is more complicated, and that every decision we make has a long term impact on the world which shapes our and many others destiny. If one sends their child to school X not school Y, their child may be inspired by a good IT teacher which could cause them to create the next big thing, impacting thousands of people’s lives in all sorts of manners.”

    But why would they choose school X instead of school Y? They make the choice because of the lives they lived leading up to that point. If the parents want the best for their child, then they will make the decision based on what they think is best. And what they think is best is based on their knowledge and experience.

    Cheers
    Shane

  3. “I think here it’s important to distinguish between physical and metaphysical. Clearly, abstract concepts are metaphysical – they have no physical form. Human fear or reason are other examples – they may not be physical things, but my goodness they make people completely change what they do.”

    Fear and Reason are definitely physical things. They are the result of processes in the brain and they do not exist without a brain to “process” them.

    Abstract concepts, things that are unthought, might be metaphysical, if you are saying they do not have a physical form. If you are talking about concepts that we do think of, they also are physical things, occurring in the brain.

    “I believe that thoughts themselves and our mind have to be metaphysical.”

    Thoughts are physical things that occur in the brain. “The mind” can be a collection of thoughts, feelings and memories, and all these things occur in the brain. All this stuff is physical.

    “As I type this I am thinking about my line of argument and what i want to say next. That has one stimulus – reading this. Which is followed by my mind thinking. There is clearly something more than just a brain which makes us alive and conscious and while I cannot really know what It is, it is there.”

    Your conclusion doesn’t follow the fact that you “read and think of a reply”. Why does the fact that you can read, write and reason a response to a blog post mean there is something more than physical at work?

    “Surely just making a brain with the precise same makeup from the exact same neutrons protons and electrons would not yield a sentient being?”

    Why not? I believe if you could map the exact location of the atoms that make you right now, and had the ability to manipulate other atoms, then you could make a duplicate that would be identical, memories and all.

    Cheers
    Shane

  4. “Really? I struggle to believe this. For a start, I’m going to assume you are talking about life as in “animals, plants, bacteria, fungi etc.”. Because clearly we can spawn a will. When I have a choice, I mentally think about it after I receive an electronic message from my body. Then, having mentally made a decision, I unconsciously send a second electronic pulse back to my body and an action is formed in the basis of that thought process.”

    My apologies, I meant a Free Will, as opposed to a Causal Will. Thanks for pointing out my mistake. I have edited my post.

    “Sure, plants simply have stimuli. The Venus flytrap has short stiff hairs which need to be triggered twice for it to close and then start secreting all that juicy stuff which slowly but surely digest the insect. But our decisions are based off thought processes and not just stimuli.”

    My argument is that our thought processes, which occur as physical things in the nerve cells in the brain, are responses to stimuli. They are exactly the same.

    “There is a difference between a reaction like that of a plant, which in a human we call a “reflex action”, like moving your hand off a burning hot surface, and a thought choice, like choosing what dress you want to wear on a particular day. One involves no brain or thought – literally before your brain knows it your hand has moved off that hot object. But your brain is the one which decides which dress you want to wear on that day. And thought processes occur to make that happen.”

    Well … I guess that depends on how you want to label your brain. If you want to keep it to just the neurons and synapses in the skull, then I guess so. But the fact is that there are plenty of neurons and synapses in the spinal cord, which is where the action happens when touch a hot object. There is an external stimulus of heat, passed through the skin and the nerves to the “gray matter” in the spinal cord, which responds to the stimuli and causes the reaction in the muscles to protect the body from damage. This “trick” evolved to cut down the reaction time in these sorts of instances; to offer better protection to our bodies; by extending our brain down our spine. Some dinosaurs with huge bodies, like the Stegosaurus, are known to have two brains, one closer to the tail, to help control things.

    The neurons and synapses in the brain work in the same way, but for different jobs, which aren’t so time sensitive, and so can happen over a longer time. They receive stimulus from the look of the dress and the feel of the material, and possibly memories and reasoning about if the dress is appropriate for the place you will be wearing it to. These stimuli feed into the “gray matter” and a response (a choice) is the output. Not as lightning fast like whipping your hand away from a hot surface, but speed is not a necessity in this instance.

    “So I guess my argument is that there is something metaphysical, our mind, which allows us to make decisions and gives us a free will. Or maybe that’s just me wanting to believe that I have free will and I was going to think that all along.”

    Our mind is the workings of our brain, a purely physical thing. How can something made from the physical, break the laws of causality that bound the universe? Your last sentence, I believe, is the truth. 🙂

    Cheers
    Shane

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