Free Will is an Illusion?

I have been moving of late to include some administrative roles in my duties – and this has led me to receive and even read with interest The Chronicle of Higher Education. The March 23 issue of The Chronicle Review has the provocative cover statement …

You may think you decided to read this.

You’re wrong.

In fact, a scientific consensus is emerging:

Free will is an illusion.

The forum in The Chronicle Review contains a brief intro and six short articles by several scholars coming from different angles – biology, neuroscience, philosophy, and law. This forum was precipitated in part by Sam Harris’s new book Free Will, published in early March, but in reality reflects a much deeper and more pervasive discussion including recent books by Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain) and David Eagleman (Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain).

The Chronicle Review introduces the six short essays with a quote from the ever provocative Sam Harris:

What’s at stake? Just about everything: morality, law, religion, our understanding of accountability and personal accomplishment, even what it means to be human. Harris predicts that a declaration by the scientific community that free will is an illusion would set off “a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution.”

What do you think?

Is modern neuroscience capable of proving that free will is an illusion?

Does this cause problems for Christian faith?

Jerry Coyne contributes one of the essays with the claim that free will is ruled out by the laws of physics which require causality, this constitutes proof that free will is illusion. There is nothing in the composition of a human being that is capable of making choices. And he too takes a jab at religion:

The absence of real choice also has implications for religion. Many sects of Christianity, for example, grant salvation only to those who freely choose Jesus as their savior. And some theologians explain human evil as an unavoidable byproduct of God’s gift of free will. If free will goes, so do those beliefs. But of course religion won’t relinquish those ideas, for such important dogma is immune to scientific advances.

Both Coyne and Harris exhibit a rather poor understanding of religion – Christian religion in particular. There is, of course, a long tradition of Christian thought that claims human free will is illusion, at least after the Fall. John Calvin appears to view it as an illusion even before the Fall. The sovereignty of God requires that he knew Adam and Eve would fall before the foundations of the world. Paul Bloom in the final essay of the series in the forum acknowledges this point, referring to the Jewish philosopher, theologian, and teacher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). But the theological debates predate even Maimonides. Given this, it is not terribly likely that these scientific “discoveries” will set off a culture war that can come close to rivaling the conflict over creation and evolution.

Not free will – but reductive naturalism. The conflict Sam Harris predicts will not come over the issue of free will. The real shift, and source of conflict with Christian faith is the implicit assumption of reductive naturalism that underlies the discussion and is permeating our western society.  In this view human beings are reduced to living biological machines – complex computers, not significantly different from ants, with laws and rules which serve to facilitate human survival as a social animal, and with no more free will than a bowl of sugar (an expression used by Anthony Cashmore in his inaugural article in PNAS following election to the National Academy of Sciences).

In his essay Michael Gazzinga from UCSB builds on the idea of the human brain as a machine and compares rules of human society to traffic laws – necessary for the smooth flow of interactions.

The exquisite machine that generates our mental life also lives in a social world and develops rules for living within a social network. For the social network to function, each person assigns each other person responsibility for his or her actions. There are rules for traffic that exist and are only understood and adopted when cars interact. It is the same for human interactions.

People have responsibility and can be held accountable – but only because this is essential for the natural and mechanistic functioning of human society and survival.

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale notes that it is common sense to think that  our decisions are neither determined nor random but something else. But this “something else” is an illusion. He continues on to compare human thought processes with the deliberations of a computer program.

Most of all, the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought. These (physical and determined) processes can influence our actions and our thoughts, in the same way that the (physical and determined) workings of a computer can influence its output. It is wrong, then, to think that one can escape from the world of physical causation—but it is not wrong to think that one can think, that we can mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion. After all, what are you doing now?

But can neuroscience disprove free will? I used “discoveries” in quotes above because I don’t see that any of these claims by Harris, Coyne, Gazzinga, Bloom, or others are anything more than assertions based on metaphysical assumptions. In fact, I don’t see how any experiment can rule out the possibility of free will, and I don’t think any experiment performed to date does.

We are fully embodied creatures. Certainly our choices and our abilities are constrained by our bodies – mind and brain are intimately related. Experiments in neuroscience, case studies such as those discussed by Joel Green in his book Body, Soul, and Human Life,  and even the every day experience of each of us are enough to demonstrate this. But the connection between mind and brain does not, of necessity, eliminate the possibility or the reality of free will.

Scientific elimination of free will as a possibility would require a demonstration that thoughts are nothing but mechanical response, a complex computer algorithm that will, save the truly random input of quantum uncertainty, arrive at the same choice and action every time the program is rerun (if we could rerun the program of life). This has not been proven – it has been assumed by Harris, Coyne, Gazzinga, Bloom and the others.

The Chronicle Review included essays with counter views – and I recommend reading all of the essays on the site. One is worth mentioning here. Owen D. Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt is a bit more restrained and realistic in his view:

This is not to say that degrees of freedom are irrelevant to law. Science hasn’t killed free will. But it has clarified various factors – social, economic, cultural, and biological in nature – that constrain it.

All behaviors have causes, and all choices are constrained. We need to accept this and adapt.

Constraint is real – and an experimentally demonstrable phenomena. This is not a challenge to religious faith. Free will is something different, perhaps not a challenge to religious faith, but a challenge nonetheless. Presented with a cookie there is “something else”  within and I can decide to eat or not – a real choice, not the mechanistic workings of a computer on legs.

Does the connection between mind and brain challenge your understanding of what it means to be human?

Does this have consequences for Christian faith?

Do you think free will is an illusion?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Free Will is an Illusion? at Jesus Creed.

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