Adelaide Chapter

Do we have Free Will?

November 29, 2014

Do we have Free Will?

Most naturalists or atheists believe that the mind is totally the result of the physical operation of the brain. If this is true, then all of our thoughts, emotions and choices are due to the physical movements of atoms and molecules within the brain and are ultimately solely due to the laws of physics. It then it seems to strongly imply that all our thoughts and choices are determined by the motion of particles within the brain and that our perception that we have free will is an illusion. There are some people called compatibilists who claim that determinism is compatible with free will. However, you have to be careful with their definition of “free will”. Compatibilists say that we have free will if our choices are not constrained by any external agent. In other words, our choices are not forced upon us by external pressure. However, “libertarian free will” means something quite different. It means that if we are in any particular, specific circumstance then it is possible for us to make more than one choice, whereas determinism implies that it is only possible for us to make one choice. Thus libertarian free will is incompatible with determinism. If determinism is true then libertarian free will is an illusion. This is the exact line argued by Sam Harris in “Free Will”.

Now there seems to be some support for this. In everyday life peoples’ choices are not random but are often quite predictable. If my wife is offered chocolate, I am pretty sure that she will refuse, because she doesn’t like chocolate. Also our sense of consciousness seems highly dependent on our brains. If we have a full anaesthetic then it seems that time passes in an instant and that we have virtually no consciousness of that time when we were under anaesthetic. Also people can suffer significant personality changes if part of their brain is damaged or disabled. It seems pretty certain that our concept of mind is tightly coupled to the operation of our brains but is it thoroughly determined by it?

The absence of libertarian free will has further significant implications. If all of our choices are determined by our circumstances then how can we be held morally accountable for our actions? “He didn’t mean to do it. He just can’t help it.” This view does gain some traction within law courts. A person may receive a reduced sentence on the grounds of insanity or some other mitigating psychological condition. Also our belief that we actually think is under threat as well. The process of thinking suggests that our minds are over and above our circumstances and that we are thinking independently about things. In philosophy this process of “thinking about” is called “intentionality” and it is widely agreed amongst philosophers that intentionality is incompatible with determinism.

Now some may appeal to quantum mechanics and suggest that our thoughts and choices can have a random and unpredictable component. However, this still does not solve the problem. Random thoughts are not real thoughts and random choices are not real choices.

In addition there is the problem of consciousness. What is it that is behind our eyes that gives us a sense of identity? Consciousness is quite a significant problem for a naturalist and has even caused some naturalists to deny the reality of consciousness altogether.

So we are in an interesting situation. If you are an atheist then you are required to believe in a number of illusions. Richard Dawkins also talks about the “illusion of design”. So a consistent atheist ought to believe in the following illusions:

  • The illusion of design
  • The illusion of free will
  • The illusion of moral accountability
  • The illusion of thinking and rational thought
  • The illusion of consciousness

The following has been said of modern man:

  • First of all he lost his soul,
  • Then he lost his mind,
  • Then he lost consciousness.

However, our experience does strongly suggest that we do have free choice, we are morally accountable for our actions, we do have the ability to think real thoughts and that we are conscious of our own personal identity. This is reminiscent of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am”. Maybe we should apply the duck test.

  • If it looks like a duck
  • swims like a duck
  • waddles like a duck and
  • quacks like a duck,
  • then perhaps it is a duck.
A duck

A real duck

So maybe these facets of our experience are not illusions but are real indeed. Page 1 of Genesis says that we are made in the image of God. This is a personal explanation rather than a scientific one. What it means is never described explicitly, but it does suggest that we really do have the ability to think, choose and make moral choices. This seems to imply that atheism is incoherent and that the belief that we are made in the image of God makes more sense of our experience.


Kevin Rogers

Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide