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.
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.
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.
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