Does free will exist?

I believe that yes, I do have free will.  By this, I mean I make genuine choices, not predetermined either by God, by the laws of physics, or by some combination of nature and environment.  I felt it was an important question to answer on this blog (because other questions I’ve addressed, such as this one, are related to it), but I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive exploration of this question here, for three reasons.

First, the question has been around so long and so much has already been written about it (for example, start here and branch out), and I don’t think my thoughts on it are especially original.

Second, most of the evidence that I find convincing is internal to me; it is not scientific data, and is not going to be persuasive to you.  I can really only be convinced that *I* make choices.  I think it is extremely likely that all people make choices, on the commonsense basis that “people are people”, but I suppose I am a tiny bit less confident in this conclusion as it applies to any particular person other than myself.  If free will is a feature of a non-physical soul, then science cannot prove or disprove its existence.  Theoretically, something could have all of the biological attributes and behaviors of a human being but not be alive on the inside, and I would have no way of knowing that.

The issue of free will is closely related to whether non-physical consciousness (what I call “the soul”) exists. As I’ve discussed in other posts (frequently linking to this analysis), I do believe that consciousness is something supernatural, something we could not, even in principle, create from scratch or bestow upon a computer, no matter how intelligent.  If we compare what humanity has accomplished by design over just the last century or so to what biological evolution has produced by chance over the last two billion or so, it’s not clear which is more impressive.  Man has produced jets faster than any bird, skyscrapers taller than any tree, and computers that can do arithmetic millions of times faster than we can (and beat us at chess too).

In some areas, nature still has the edge.  Computers can’t use language or recognize items visually as well as a human can.  Certain natural fibers, chemicals, and medicines are superior to all synthetic alternatives.  But in all of these areas, it seems only a matter of time before the artificial surpasses the natural.  All but one, that is.  Consciousness, the experience of being alive, is far remote to human design.  Neither in theory nor in practice can we come close to manufacturing anything like it.  To me, it is implausible that such a thing somehow the product of evolution, since every other product of chance evolution has been or is soon likely to be overtaken by the human intellect.  The best explanation is that we receive consciousness from a supernatural source.

I believe free will and immortality to be features of the soul.  I believe in free will because I can observe it directly on the inside.  I consider the results of science to be extremely reliable, but only because of a chain of logic.  It starts with the observations of the senses; I can observe in certain cases that scientific predictions are accurate.  Based on this, I can trust the practice of science as a whole, and trust in those institutions which practicing scientists trust in terms of peer review and such, as reflecting mainstream science or the scientific consensus.  If I can have confidence in such indirect conclusions, I suppose I can be even more certain about the reality of things I observe directly in the mind, such as consciousness and free will.

Immortality is of course not observable, but I do think that if we conclude the soul is supernatural, based on the consciousness and free will that we do observe, then it is reasonable to suspect (even before we look at anyone’s scriptures) that the soul does not necessarily die along with the natural body.  Furthermore, anyone who has ever loved another human being can likely understand the following thoughts offered by John Adams shortly after the death of his beloved wife:

I know not how to prove, physically, that we shall meet and know each other in a future state; nor does revelation, as I can find, give us any positive assurance of such a felicity. My reasons for believing it, as I do most undoubtedly, are that I cannot conceive such a Being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe a future state, I should believe in no God. This universe, this all, this τὸ πᾶν [totality] would appear, with all its swelling pomp, a boyish fire-work. And, if there be a future state, why should the Almighty dissolve forever all the tender ties which unite us so delightfully in this world, and forbid us to see each other in the next?

— Letter to Thomas Jefferson, Dec. 8, 1818 (text) (scan)

The third reason I’m going to try to keep this post short is that I’ve found that discussions on this topic to rarely be fruitful.  If someone is convinced they don’t have free will, their worldview is in many regards self-consistent, difficult to poke holes in.  It is in many regards similar to the rigid approach of the religious fundamentalist, whose beliefs often include the inerrancy of the Bible and predestination (the idea that God foreordained everything that happens, including all of what we mistakenly think of as our own choices).  Among major church figures, Luther and Calvin figure prominently in this strand of thinking.  In principle, both predestination and hard determinism can explain anything.  There is nothing really that one can throw at either one in argument that is likely to change anyone’s mind.  I can understand the appeal of both systems; paradoxically, a system that denies the reality of choice sounds quite “liberating”, as a person not responsible for his own choices can choose to do anything!  Nonetheless, for me personally, the direct internal evidence that I do make choices is simply too strong to ignore.  In fairness to the other side, of course, my system can in principle explain anything as well, so I’m sure someone trying to convince me of being wrong about free will feels they are running into an equally rigid wall.

If direct argument is useless, the best I can hope to offer on this topic is to make a few offhand observations about it, in the hopes that they might help someone to look at things for a different perspective.  Most of the posts on this site are intended to show that belief in God or in Christianity does not require adopting all of the viewpoints that have been held (or that an outside observer might have assumed were held) by prominent Christians or by a majority of the faithful.  If one’s intellectual journey towards rejecting the concept of free will and their own soul was not really based on their observing themselves from the inside far differently than I do but instead has been bound up with the existence of God, the historicity of the Gospels, the idea of science and religion in conflict, or simply the observation that most of the other smart people seem not to believe in God (or free will), then hopefully something I say on these topics will have more hope of making an impact than anything I could say directly about free will.

I’d also direct the reader’s attention to my post about the effects of parental religious belief on children, which expands upon what free will means to me.  It does not mean denying the giant impact that nature and nurture have on our ideas and our choices.  It does not mean that people with very different backgrounds and experiences are going to be judged by God without reference to these things.  What free will means to me is that there is *some* capacity inside each of us for choice, where we can listen to animal instinct, diabolical pride, or the Holy Spirit.  The cartoonish image of a man with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each advising different paths, is not without merit, although I think it would be more complete if a third character (an ape) were added to the picture.  It does feel to me like most of my impulses and inclinations are not my own, but are being bombarded at me from these three sources.  Nonetheless, I do feel like choosing among them is at the very heart of who I am on a daily basis, and who I am becoming over time.

Finally, I’d like to offer a couple of remarks on the increasingly popular idea that modern neuroscience has somehow disproven free will.  These claims are based on a few different types of experiments, summarized here.  The most famous experiment, by Libet, asked test subjects to choose a random moment to move and note the time on a clock.  Libet noted a half-second difference between when brain activity increased and the time when subjects reported experiencing the decision to move.  Follow-on experiments varied the idea to asking subjects to choose which hand to move (with researchers being able to predict the choice).  I haven’t read the original papers and am not claiming that they contain any scientific errors, or that they do not have any practical applications.  Rather, I don’t see any of them as having resolved the related philosophical debate over free will.  It is common experience that most people are not particularly gifted at unpredictably randomizing behavior (easiest to observe by playing rock-paper-scissors). It is also clear that a whole set of brain and body processes are involuntary.  The one that always gives me a chuckle is the ability of my fingers to input a password that I can’t consciously remember, but I’m sure that those of a more athletic bent have similar tales to tell.

What science is doing with “free-will” experiments is piling up examples of situations like this where people may appear to choose to do something, but some kind of involuntary physical process is involved.  A similar line of attack on traditional philosophy comes from psychology and sociology, where predictions are made (as in the parental religious belief example) that circumscribe the role of “choice” to explaining a shrinking portion of the variation in behavior. This type of evidence is bound to keep moving in one direction and should not surprise anyone – the more variables you add to any model of anything, the more you can statistically explain.  It is a common mistake (see here, for a familiar example from finance) to come to believe that an increasingly detailed and useful model of reality approaches the actual reality.  In a similar vein, science piles up evidence that by manipulating one of the predictive factors of human behavior, a researcher can influence behavior.  The more clever experiments of this sort involve things like subliminal advertising and magnetic manipulation of the brain.

These results are often presented as having sweeping philosophical implications.  I would agree that to the extent that popular discussion of these results leads to changes in beliefs, the implications for culture and history are indeed serious (see here, or here).  But it seems to me that the experiments themselves haven’t introduced anything fundamentally new to the philosophical issue that man didn’t already know for centuries.  The effects of alcohol on judgment, for example, have always served to make the point that physical factors can play a role.  “Free will” has never been properly understood as completely free but rather in constant struggle with other physical (and spiritual) forces, which in some cases are overwhelming.  St. Paul gives a heartfelt description of this predicament in Romans 7:14-25.  The “soul”, with its capacity to “experience” (and to “choose”), appears to me to be in some very mysterious way “grafted on” to the brain.

Skeptics point out that we have no way of observing a “disembodied mind”, and claim that this means the brain and the soul are the same thing.  To them, every experiment that fails to detect free will, or the soul, or God, is simply one more strike against these old-fashioned ideas.  It’s reminiscent of the old story of Soviet cosmonauts orbiting the earth and confidently reporting back that they found no God there.  To the believer, these things are not to be found in the physical universe, and we should not expect science to see them, any more than Hamlet should expect to find Shakespeare by searching Denmark (see “The Seeing Eye”, by C.S. Lewis).

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