The Human Truth Foundation

The Illusion of Choice
Free Will and Determinism

By Vexen Crabtree 1999

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Bertrand Russell wrote that "the circumstances of men's lives do much to determine their philosophy" in his "History of Western Philosophy". Our circumstances, in line with the strict determinism of physics and biochemistry, predetermine all our choices and therefore, free will is an illusion.

1. Nothing Escapes the Laws of Physics

Is free will the ultimate superstition?

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci (2007)1

Free will is an illusion. Our amazingly, wonderfully complex brains are comprised of various cognitive systems cycling amongst themselves and generating our thoughts, consciousness, choices and behaviour. These systems and their effects all result from the mechanical, inorganic laws of physics, over which we have no control.

Consciousness is presented to us as a result of our neurones, our brains, our senses. When we lose these, we lose consciousness. These systems are governed and controlled by neurochemicals, hormones, ionisation, impulses: in short, by biochemistry. Biochemistry is in turn merely a type of chemistry, and when we look at the molecules and atoms that make up our chemistry, they obey the laws of physics.

Balls bouncing around a pool table have no free will. The basic chemicals that make up our bodies and minds have no free will. Neurones fire when they should fire, according to their electrochemical properties. They don't randomly fire: They fire when they're stimulated to fire2 by other neurones or by environmental inputs. Stimulation results from a constant biochemical cycle. These natural cycles determine our states of mind and our choices. Through a long and complicated series of cause and effect, our choices are made. As such, all our 'choices' are ultimately the result of impersonal and mechanical forces. There is no "free will force" that causes neurones to fire some times and not at others. They fire in accordance with the rules of physics, firmly beyond our control but not beyond our appreciation. These facts are proclaimed also by none other than the foremost physicist Albert Einstein:

I do not at all believe in human freedom in the philosophical sense. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity.

Albert Einstein (1954)3

Sociologists and psychologists have studied the subliminal, subconscious and external factors that affect our behaviour, and a vast number of studies that have found that our behaviour is determined by outside agency but that we always think it is caused by our own will. This page is littered with case examples taken from published scientific material, such as the following:

We like to believe that we do things we do because we consciously decide to do them. Recent scientific research in psychology, however, demonstrates instances when our actions can be caused by things of which we are not aware (Wegner 2005). For example, imagine that you just completed a computerized driving test. You attempt to notify the attendant that you have completed the test, but she ignores you while she talks on her cell phone about her new shoes. Much to the attendant's dissatisfaction, you choose to interrupt and give her your information. Pausing to explain your unusual forthrightness, you may conclude that your actions reflect your annoyance [...]. You find out later that your directness with the attendant was instead caused by words related to 'rude' being flashed at you on the computer screen so fast that you did not notice them while you took the driving test.

Randolph-Seng & Mather (2009) in Skeptical Inquirer (2009)4

The philosopher E.O.Wilson also brings ties these strands in with each other, in his book dedicated to bringing variant specialist sciences together into a holistic philosophy of everything:

Circuits and determining molecular processes exist outside conscious thought. They [...] reinforce the neurohormonal loops that regulate consequent emotional response. [...] The hidden preparation of mental activity gives the illusion of free will. We make decisions for reasons we often sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully.

"Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge" by E. O. Wilson (1998)5

Although these are the conclusions drawn from physics, biochemistry and neurology, the same conclusions were often arrived at by philosophers, for example, Voltaire and Locke:

You wish to mount the horse; why? The reason, an ignoramus will say, is because I wish it. This answer is idiotic, nothing happens or can happen without a reason, a cause; there is one therefore for your wish. What is it? The agreeable idea of going on horseback which presents itself in your brain, the dominant idea, the determinant idea. But, you will say, can I not resist an idea which dominates me? No, for what would be the cause of your resistance? None. By your will you can obey only an idea which will dominate you more. [...]

When is it that [one] can refrain despite the violence of his passion? When a stronger idea determines in a contrary sense the activity of his body and his soul. [...] Locke was therefore very right to call liberty 'power.'

"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary" by Voltaire (1764)6

If we have the will to resist one urge, then all we are doing is submitting to another urge. These urges, which we think to be the functioning of free will, are of course as Voltaire says, just the causational results of other factors which are equally beyond our control. Any attempt to exercise free will is just yet-another submission to hidden cause and hidden effect.

2. Dualism: What if Our Minds Are Not Physical?

Some people argue that our 'minds' are separate to our bodies. They hold that because of this, our minds are therefore free from cause and effect. However there are some conceptual problems with this idea.

  1. Most thought must follow cause and effect in order to be coherent. Thinking randomly is no more free will than having your thoughts controlled by neurones. So, our minds must still run along lines of logical cause-and-effect, or, in other words, in a cycle of thought-and-afterthought. To break this chain of causality is to break the very flow of consciousness.

  2. Saying that minds are ethereal, non-physical, spiritual or whatever-else does not grant them with free will. If thoughts are not random, there must be factors which influence what thoughts are thought, and what choices are made. We know that most of those factors are purely physical - sex drives, hunger, hormone-driven emotions and the like. They make little sense without a physical foundation. The full emotional range appears to be controlled purely by biology (hence why brain damage can so drastically affect personality). Is there really any room for a non-physical mind?

  3. But nonetheless what if some thoughts are completely non-physical? The philosopher-physicist Paul Davies ponders this in his ""God And The New Physics" by Paul Davies (1984)", and unfortunately realizes that "one can still ask, what causes the mind to decide the way it does? If those causes originate in the physical world (and clearly some do) then we are back with determinism, and the introduction of a non-physical mind is an empty embellishment. But if some of those causes are non-physical causes, then we are no better off than we are with uncontrollable physical causes".

Causality plagues both the physical world and any non-physical minds you care to imagine; if thoughts are uncaused they are meaningless, if they are caused then there is no free will.


3. Neurological Evidence

3.1. The Subconscious and the Illusion of Choice


There is no doubting that it feels like we have free will. Neurologists have often wondered - as the neurones in the brain fire, caused by cascades of previous firings, and themselves causing other to fire in accordance with the laws of biochemistry, do some neurones fire because of free will? Every technological breakthrough in apparatus that can be used to study the brain has found itself being used to attempt to study free will and deliberation. But now "it is safe to say that more and more neuroscientists are gradually coming to the conclusion that free will does not exist"7, writes Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics based in New York, USA. It started with the discovery that the vast majority of all the processing our brain does is subconscious: we ultimately have no idea why we prefer particular actions over others. It seems to be that we are observers more than we are the conscious agents of choice. We become aware of what our brains are thinking but don't have any free will to pre-emptively alter it. Kaku continues: "This means that, in some sense, free will is a fake. Decisions are made ahead of time by the brain, without the input of consciousness, and then later the brain tries to cover this up (as it's wont to do) by claiming that the decision was conscious. [...] The brain is influenced by thousands of unconscious factors that predispose us to make certain choices ahead of time, even if we think we made them ourselves"8. Although he also goes on to say that we are still "masters of our fate".

Book CoverNisbett and Wilson (1977) go so far as to claim that all psychological activities (including social behaviour) are governed by processes of which we are unaware. [...] Emotions can occur with rapid onset, through automatic appraisal, with little awareness and with involuntary changes in expression and physiology; indeed, we often experience emotions as happening to us rather than chosen by us. [...]

Apart from Freud [...] probably the most outspoken person advocate of the view that the person is not free is Skinner. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) he argues that behavioural freedom is an illusion. Just as Freud believed that freedom is an illusion to the extent that we are unaware of the unconscious causes of our feelings and behaviours, so Skinner claimed that it is only because the causes of human behaviour are often hidden from us in the environment that the myth or illusion of free will survives.

"Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour" by Richard Gross (1996)9

It seems that our entire mental world is the result of pre-conscious neuronal action which is beyond our own control. When we think of something, we are only observers becoming aware of our own thoughts, and our own "choices" are the result of our brain trying to explain our actions and decisions. In 1992, Donald Griffin describes this denial of free will "extreme" when referencing an expert on the topic:

In one rather extreme form of this denial, Harnard (1982) has argued that only after the functioning of our brains has determined what we will do does an illusion of [choice] arise, along with the mistaken belief that we have made a choice or had control over our behaviour.

"Animal Minds" by Donald R. Griffin (1992)

But since 1992 our knowledge of neurology has massively increased and it is now certain that choices are made subconsciously and in accordance with the rules of physics and chemistry before we are conscious of them. As neurology advances in leaps and bounds so the chance of discovering "free will" seems to constantly dwindle. Experiments have tested these theories - our brains trick us into thinking it knows the causes of our actions even when we don't know them.

George has electrodes temporarily implanted in the brain region that controls his head movements. When neurosurgeon José Delgado (1973) stimulates the electrode by remote control, George always turns his head. Unaware of the remote stimulation, he offers a reasonable explanation for it: "I'm looking for my slipper." "I heard a noise." "I'm restless." "I was looking under the bed."

"Social Psychology" by David Myers (1999)10

Sarah is hypnotized and told to take off her shoes when a book drops on the floor. Fifteen minutes later a book drops, and Sarah quietly slips out of her loafers. "Sarah," asks the hypnotist, "why did you take off your shoes?" "Well... my feet are hot and tired," Sarah replies. "It's been a long day."

"Social Psychology"
David Myers (1999)10

Stimulation of small parts of the cerebral hemispheres will immediately cause the person to recall certain memories (sometimes ones that they thought they had forgotten), and surgically operating on the frontal lobes radically changes people's emotions and behaviour. This is because our personalities and behaviour are a result of our physical brains, subject to the cold laws of physics, rather than to free will.

3.2. Decisions to Act Occur 0.3 Seconds Before We Are Conscious of Them

Over the years, our knowledge of neurology and cognitive psychology has continued to improve. Scientists have found that they can actually detect the neurological basis of choice. It does not bode well for believers in free will that such experiments find they can detect these moments before patients themselves are aware of their own thought. In other words, biochemical circuits in our brain come first, and our feeling of having made a conscious 'choice' is an illusion which comes afterwards. As a result of this, neurology now provides the greatest arguments against the concept of philosophical free will. The classic studies by Benjamin Libet in the 1970s provided early neurological evidence that this was the case.

He wired people to an electroencephalogram and measured when they reported having a particular conscious thought about an action [...] and when the actual action started. Astoundingly, the latter came first: that is, subjects had actually made (unconsciously) the decision to act measurably earlier than when they became aware of it consciously. The conscious awareness, in a sense, was a "story" that the higher cognitive parts of the brain told to account for the action. It's as if the conscious brain was not the decider but simply the spokesperson.

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci (2007)1

I believe consciousness plays an active and important role in decision-making, but, that the role it plays is beyond our genuine control. So although I believe consciousness has a purpose (i.e., it evolved and isn't just a byproduct), its "purpose" is just as deterministic as everything else science has discovered. The conscious part of us, the part we think makes 'choices', is an interpreter which tries to explain our own actions just as it watches and tries to explain other peoples' actions too. Dr Libet's research concurs:

That something in the brain really is performing the role of an observing self is suggested by the work of Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr Libet used eletroencephalography to look at brain activity during the process of making simple decisions such as when to move a finger. He showed that the process which leads to the act starts about three-tenths of a second before an individual is consciously aware of it. In other words, the observer is just that: an observer, not a decider. This may explain the feeling that most people have experienced at one time or another of having deliberately done something that they had not actually wanted or intended to do.

The Economist (2006)11

3.3. Moments of Insight Detectable 8 Seconds Before They Become Conscious

Moments of insight are detectable with an EEG up to 8 seconds before a person is consciously aware of it. These are moments when the brain comes to realisations and new conclusions when trying to solve an abstract problem. Conscious volition seems to sit on top of this process, accepting it, but not in itself facilitating deep thought processes.

Evidence mounts that brains decide before their owners know about it. A piece of research about to be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, by Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths' College in London and Bhavin Sheth at the University of Houston, in Texas. [...] There is a precedent for such observations of unconscious thought in action. In the 1980s Benjamin Libet of the University of California, San Francisco, showed that simple decisions, such as when to move a finger, are made about three-tenths of a second before the brain's owner is aware of them, and subsequent work has found that the roots of such decisions can be seen up to ten seconds before they become conscious. But this is the first occasion that such a long lead time has been shown for more complex thought processes.

The Economist (2009)12

Neurologist Jonah Lehrer argues that even when it comes to moral decisions, the physical and automatic workings of the brain are in full swing well before we are consciously able to exert any free will on the subject, and that often, the main role of our conscious self is to explain our own judgements, rather than to try and form them:

It's only at this point - after the emotions have already made the moral decision - that those rational circuits in the prefrontal cortex are activated. People come up with persuasive reasons to justify their moral intuition. When it comes to making ethical decisions, human rationality isn't a scientist, it's a lawyer. This inner attorney gathers bits of evidence, post hoc justifications, and pithy rhetoric in order to make the automatic reactions seem reasonable. But this reasonableness is just a facade, and elaborate self-delusion. Benjamin Franklin said it best in his autobiography: 'So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.'

"The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind" by Jonah Lehrer (2009)13

4. Causality

Psychology and physiology, in so far as they bear upon the question of free will, tend to make it improbable. [...] If uncaused volitions do ever occur, they are very rare.

"Religion and Science" by Bertrand Russell (1935)14

When we chose to change our attitudes, or attempt to change ourselves, it may feel like we are exercising free will. However if such changes are themselves part of a structurally determined pattern, then there is none15. The thinking that all things are caused is old, and since the atomists in the fourth centuryBCE there has been a strong strain of determinism in Western philosophy. Theologians such as Calvin and Hobbes have upheld the belief that, even though it appears to be due to free will, all actions are the results of predetermined factors16. Modern science holds that all mental processes are a result of neuronal patterns that are themselves controlled by deterministic physics17,18 and as such cognitive psychologists have also held that all our mental processes are, in the detail, controlled by biochemistry and physics19. If our self-perception is itself is determined by biochemistry, then our conscious choices are only an illusion of agency.

Disregarding neurological knowledge and the laws of physics, a more fundamental principal of causality contradicts the idea of free will. Everything has a cause. Nothing happens for no reason. So, when we make a choice, we do so for a reason. If we freely chose one course of action instead of another, then, the causes of our preference are the determining factors - they dispense with true free will. The opposite is that we don't choose our actions for our own reasons, but that they are made up for us either randomly or by causes outside of ourselves. Thankfully, our minds become made up as a result of specific causes. Yet if you follow all the cause-and-effect chains that cause a person to make specific choices, you will find that you trace the causality of a person's actions to a time previous to when they were actually born. Free will could only exist if it could somehow break the normal chain of cause and effect - as long as we done so for no reason!

People assume that behaviour is caused. When people behave in a certain way, psychologists look for the causes, so do friends and family. We seek to influence peoples' choices through our own actions, sometimes very subtly. All of this only makes sense once we admit that deep down we act as if behaviour is caused directly through events, and not through uncaused free will.

Book CoverEveryone has always believed that it is possible to train character; everyone has always known that alcohol or opium will have a certain affect on behaviour. The apostle of free-will maintains that a man can by will power avoid getting drunk, but he does not maintain that when drunk a man can say "British Constitution" as clearly as if he were sober. And everybody who has ever had to do with children knows that a suitable diet does more to make them virtuous than the most eloquent preaching in the world. The one effect that the free-will doctrine has in practice is to prevent people from following out such common-sense knowledge to its rational conclusion. When a man acts in ways that annoy us we wish to think him wicked, and we refuse to face the fact that his annoying behaviour is a result of antecedent causes which, if you them long enough, will take you beyond the moment of his birth, and therefore to events for which he cannot be held responsible by any stretch of imagination.

"Why I am not a Christian" by Bertrand Russell (1957)20

5. Moral Issues

5.1. Social Justice Requires Causation, Not Free Will21

The doctrine of free will undermines justice. If behaviour had no causes, then punishment could not deter crime. It would be pointless and immoral to subject people to it. Only if we accept that our actions are determined does social justice have moral worth.

Vexen Crabtree

Now it is obvious that, if virtuous volitions are uncaused, we cannot do anything whatever do promote them.

"Religion and Science"
Bertrand Russell (1935)14

An English court of law once saw a defendant plea philosophically that as all actions are determined a person was not "responsible" for their own actions and could not be punished for them. Society at large was to blame. Likewise, the philosopher Robert Carroll, in an uncharacteristically poor argument, argues against determinism and says: "The sum total of the evidence from the sciences seems to overwhelmingly support the determinist hypothesis, yet I can't accept it. [...] I can't accept the idea that nobody is responsible for his thoughts or actions"22.

The judge rejected the defence. If the defence that determinism undermines free will holds up, all justice would be undermined.

I'm going to present arguments that punishment and reward are just in deterministic systems as well as in free will systems. The argument that determinism undermines morality is false and the opposite is true: free will, if it existed, would undermine social justice and the morality of punishment.

Society chooses to impose rules so when its members choose certain actions they are punished, for the collective good. Determinism does not change any of this. It means that the person still chooses but also that his choice is a result of a milliard of factors and processes; a result of natural events. We all know that such events affect the way we make choices and no-one thinks that this undermines our morals in any way.

If we wish to teach our young to be moral people and make the right choices, then, we are assuming that we can change their behaviour through a long chain of cause and effect. If we can't change their future choices, then, attempts at moral upbringing are useless. We might as well leave it to chance. If can provide stimulus that will later form part of the forces that dictate behaviour, then, we should, as decent parents, do so. Of course, everything we do as parents influences our little ones whether we want it to or not. Such the truth in a deterministic world.

The legal system, and social justice, is no different. If it can influence people to improve their behaviour, it has a moral obligation to do so. If there was no way it could change behaviour, then, it would not be morally right for the imposition of any social justice at all. Only because we can change people's minds does it become moral to deliver punishments and rewards. Without determinism, there is no social justice.

The doctrine of free will undermines justice. If behaviour had no causes, then punishment could not deter crime. It would be pointless and immoral to subject people to it. Only if we accept that our actions are determined does social justice have moral worth.

With regards to the morality of giving punishment, there is one more argument. Do not forget that those who deliver justice also do not have a choice. Punishment is determined by the action of the miscreant and by the action of the judge; but we are no freer in our choice to stand for justice than they are for misbehaving. If free will existed, the same systems of control would still be required so it can be said that determinism vs. free will has no practical effect on systems of reward and punishment.

5.2. Altruism and Determinism

Biologists, sociologists, philosophers and above all, psychologists, have held to the "universal egoism" theory: that all apparent altruism is really selfishness in disguise. Most arguments for altruism are based on ignorance of the underlying reasons for behaving good towards others or are purely semantic in nature, not logical. "We are born selfish" writes the eminent biologist Prof. Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene" (1976), and this is why, he argues, we need to teach altruism, to give others good moral guidance, to think about our actions carefully, and that when we understand our motives better, we are better equipped to behave well, and overcome the ethnically-biased altruism that we are born with23.

People behave altruistically for a number of selfish reasons. We are programmed genetically to behave in a way conducive to the sociability of the species: This unconscious species-instinct is the closest thing we have to true selfless altruism and this drive is shared with other social species too. In nearly every other conscious sense, altruism is an illusion. We behave well because social good behaviour fires off pleasant neurochemicals in our brains (the pleasure reward), because consciously or unconsciously we want others to see us as a good person (the social reward) or to feel good about ourselves (for pride and self-esteem). This internal reward system means that while we think we act well towards others' for their own sake, we actually do it for the biochemical buzz that it gives us. Altruism is image and illusion. [...]

Despite the facts of determinism, a doctrine called 'compatibilism' is useful. Compatibilism is the acceptance of the use of the word "altruism", despite its hollowness, because it is nonetheless a useful English word. So, I talk of "altruism" and mean it to refer to the acts that seem selfless. It is a way of still getting use out of the word as a piece of paradoxical English rather than a scientific or philosophical truth. So, many people who actually argue that there really is a thing called "altruism", if they insist despite the facts, are normally arguing from a semantic or use-of-language point of view24. So, we can still work to increase 'altruistic' behaviour and we can still praise it, despite the fact that we know it is a purely caused behaviour. In fact, because it is a caused behaviour, we know that our praising of selfless acts and our moralizing is effective. If altruism was not derived from deterministic factors, it would be useless to teach children to be nice because our teachings wouldn't go on to cause good behaviour.

"Altruism is an Illusion" by Vexen Crabtree (2006)

6. Our Behaviour Determines Our Attitudes

Sociology is famous for expending much research in proving common-sense things that everyone knows. One important counter-example arose in studies of attitudes and behaviour. It was assumed that our attitudes are what determine our behaviour. It is not common sense to say that our behaviour causes our attitude. But, researchers found that changing peoples' expressed attitudes frequently did not change their behaviour. Tentative researchers then tested the unlikely possibility that our behaviour causes our attitude. Since then, a flood of studies have confirmed that our attitudes are caused by our behaviour. What does this mean in practice?

When James Laid (1974, 1984; Duclos & others, 1989) induced college students to frown while attaching electrodes to their faces [...] they reported feeling angry. [...] Those induced to make a smiling face felt happier.

"Social Psychology" by David Myers (1999)25

The self-perception effect: We explain our behaviour by feeling the appropriate emotion.

It means that, "provided they weren't bribed or coerced into doing so"26, people come to believe in what they do. One common-sense thing that has been proved in studies is that people tend to say what others want them to hear. So, when writing reports, people can be pretty harsh if they don't think the person will read their own report. But, if people see their own reports, we tend to write nice ones. Using this effect, sociologists have studied how behaviour determines our beliefs about how nice a person is. If a person writes a good report, they will then like the person that they've wrote the report about. This is because their behaviour of 'writing a good report' is internalized because they chose to write a good report, and this causes an attitude of liking the person. In the future, the report-writer will remember the good things about the person. But, if the person writes a bad report, they will tend to dislike the person, and remember bad things about meeting them. Remember that this all hinged on whether they thought the person would see the report, and not actually on whether they initially liked the person. This is because when we commit to actions, our attitudes follow us. It wasn't belief about the person that led to them writing a good or bad report... but it was the action of writing, that caused the belief. Odd, but true.26

After people are induced to act in an outgoing, talkative manner (during an interview), their self-presentation may carry over into greater self-perceived outgoingness and more outgoing social behaviour (Schlenker & others, 1994; Tice, 1992). Act as if you are outgoing and you may become more so. [...]

Walk for a minute taking short, shuffling steps, with eyes downcast. It's a great way to feel depressed. "Sit all day in a moping posture [...] and your melancholy lingers," noted William James (1890, p463). Want to feel better? Walk for a minute taking long strides with your arms swinging and your eyes straight ahead.

"Social Psychology" by David Myers (1999)25

We explain our behaviour unconsciously, by observing our behaviour and then realizing what the correct attitude is. When this occurs because we simply don't know, it is explained in sociology by self-perception theory. When this occurs because our behaviour is different to our beliefs, our beliefs will begin to change until they match our behaviour, this is explained by dissonance theory, which holds that we like to be self-consistent. Strongly held or rehearsed opinions, though, break this trend, and it is also less apparent amongst those who are more individualistic; those who do not conform to social roles as easily as others, will also have their attitudes changed less by behavioural changes. In either case, free will is clearly threatened by our discovery that much of our psychology is procedural and deterministic, not self-controlled.

This page has so far presented two much simpler examples of behaviours causing behaviour. The first was a hypnotised woman... she was hypnotized to take her shoes off at a certain point. When asked, later, why she took them off, she said it was because she was hot. This is her conscious attitude-adjustment: It is an excuse that she believes, but we know it is not the reason. Her consciousness explains her behaviour by giving a likely explanation, afterwards. Her belief followed-on from her actions, even when her action was blatantly not caused by what she thought it was. In another example, an electrode makes George turn his head... but he seems to randomly make up reasons for why he turns his head. He believes that he turned his head because he 'heard a noise', because his consciousness thinks that that is a likely reason. It doesn't know that the electrode made him turn his head. He says 'I was looking under the bed' because his consciousness tries to explain his actions... not because his actions were determined by his free will. Even in clear circumstances where the subject had no free will in the matter, they think they do... and they even think they know the reasons for their behaviour. Their beliefs about themselves occurred after their behaviour, not before, yet they are completely unaware of it. Free will is an illusion... our 'attitudes' and self-opinions are not the self-made things we think they are, they are determined by cold, hard biochemistry, yet it still feels like free will to us!

7. Religion

7.1. Theological Problems With Free Will

God cannot have free will. A benevolent god always chooses the path that causes most good so therefore has no real choice. Also because an all-knowing god instantly knows all of its future actions and its knowledge cannot be wrong, it therefore has no free will to choose otherwise. However a god with no free will cannot be a moral being; it must be morally neutral. Also, if an all-powerful and all-knowing God exists then this (by a long chain of cause and effect) denies any free will of any living being. Our feelings derive from our personality and character, and our choices are influence by the things we have learned in life: God has the power to change any of the circumstances that form our personality and character, and the things we learn in life are purely down to the providence of God, or, to a long chain of cause-and-effect which did begin with God and no other.

The free will of god is important for resolving the problem of evil. If God has free will, but never chooses evil, then it could have created life in the same way: With free will, but also never choosing evil. If God has no free will but is still good then there was no point creating evil to grant humans free will as it is possible to be good with no free will. If God, angels and other beings in heaven have free will where there is no evil or suffering, then it cannot be true that god lets evil exist because it is a required side-effect of free will.

"Monotheism and Free Will: God, Determinism and Fate: 1. The Theological Problems of Free Will" by Vexen Crabtree (2002)


See: "Monotheism and Free Will: God, Determinism and Fate" by Vexen Crabtree (2002)

7.2. God Negates Others' Free Will

If an omnipotent and omniscient being created the universe at time=0, do we have free will? The answer is no, of course, and the proof follows: God is omnipotent. It can do any (logical) thing. It is a requirement of omnipotency that it also must be omniscient - it knows everything. If it can do anything, then in an instant it can look at the position of everything in the universe and know everything. No problem so far.

When it created the universe, or life, it knew full well what it was doing. Every event that affects a persons have already been laid down and foreseen (and therefore instigated) by this God. It is these events that affect a person's character, etc, and therefore what choice they will make.

Let us presume a person has two choices to make: He can go to heaven or hell. The crux of the matter balances on him doing whatever act is required to get him into heaven. Life revolves around many points so let us consider the exact moment of truth, for this man, when he can finally make the right choice and get to heaven.

How does he decide? It depends entirely on all the information he had gathered through his life and on the current state of his body and memory. All these things were not his doing, not his devising and not his choice, yet the choice he finally makes depends on them. It is for this reason that God has already made the man's choice for him.

God, in setting the seeds for the universe, knew full well, in omniscience, which factors that it was setting would affect this poor man's outcome. When setting up a certain atom, molecule, object, etc, it could foresee the exact consequences. I.e., this slight change here will mean that this event happens slightly differently and the man will experience a slightly difference occurrence and therefore make the right choice. Depending on whether God aligns the object one way or another, the man will make the right or wrong choice.

The theists refutations, the hardest ones to immediately overcome is: "God knows what choice he will make, but leaves it up to the man to make it" - we have already refuted this one, by explaining the way that God has already set up the circumstances of the person's life which dictate his decisions. Causality refutes free will - God's omnipotent sovereignty contradicts free will.

"We still have a choice, though, whether to do the right thing or not" - this is about the final line for the theist. A stake on your conscience, perhaps. It is wrong, because the person's very perception of right and wrong is a result of the circumstances already projected by God. Also, the question of whether the man makes the right decision or not is decided by the same causality-bound things.

The situation is not resolvable: If an omnipotent being created life then we have no free will.

7.3. Free Will in the Christian Bible27

The Bible teaches that there is no free will. Examining Exodus, Ecclesiastes 7, Ephesians 1, Ephesians 2, Matthew 5:45, Acts 13, Romans 8, Roman 9, 2 Timothy, 2 Thessalonians, Titus 3:4-5 and Revelations, we see that God's plan overrides our free will; those that do good do the specific good that God predestined them to do, and all others are ruled by Satan because God sends "powerful delusions" to them. The Christian Bible frequently states that God creates our future and decides our fates, no matter what our own will is. It constantly denies that we have free will. Some of the foremost Christians in history have taught that there is no free will, including St. Augustine (one of the four great founders of Western Christianity28), Martin Luther (founder of Protestantism) and John Calvin.

"Biblical Christianity Denies Free Will" by Vexen Crabtree (2005)

7.4. God's Goodness

Despite the sensible arguments above, some scholars in history have preferred to justify evil by saying that it serves God's purpose (not the Devil's, but God's). Spinoza provides an example of the style of argumentation from the point of view of a theist who believes that God is good, that evil exists, and that there is no free will:

Everything, according to Spinoza, is ruled by an absolute logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation of God's inscrutable nature, and it is logically impossible that events should be other than they are. This leads to difficulties in regard to sin, which critics were not slow to point out. One of them, observing that, according to Spinoza, everything is decreed by God and is therefore good, asks indignantly: Was it good that Nero should kill his mother? Was it good that Adam ate the apple? Spinoza answers that what was positive in these acts was good, and only what was negative was bad; but negation exists only from the point of view of finite creatures. In God, who alone is completely real, there is no negation, and therefore the evil in what to us seem sins does not exist when they are viewed as parts of the whole.

"History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell (1946)29

8. Thinking Further Afield

8.1. Time Travel

The contradictions of time travel have been explored in many films. Time-travel has to be combined with another dubious type of travel - through dimensions into alternate realities - in order to make any action have potential impact. If when travelling back in time we changed the facts of history - however minor - then in the future when we go back, we will not be able to make those changes because they will not have occurred. As we can't make those changes, it means they will always occur as they did originally. This is especially true for time when one imagines intentionally going back to change specific things. If you are successful, then, there is no incentive to have gone back and changed them because they wouldn't have occurred. Therefore you would never do so. Discounting multiple realities, it seems that the contradictions of time travel have implications for free will. The philosopher Prof. Le Poidevin explains two examples but I hope he will excuse me if I quote only one of them, followed by his brief conclusion on this particular matter:

Book CoverDisappointed in love, I wish myself dead. More than that, I wish that I had never lived.[...] Given that I have a time machine, I am in a position to bring this about. So I travel back to some suitably distant moment before my conception, find a relevant relative (a grandparent will do if neither of my parents has yet been conceived) and, with malice aforethought, strike them dead. I thus bring it about that I was never conceived. But now this unsettling narrative must be exposed for the nonsense it is. If my action is successful, who is it who prevents my conception? It cannot be me, for it is now apparently true that I was never conceived, and so never grew up to step into a time machine to prevent my conception. I cannot, then, prevent my conception.

[After another example] They are but two illustrations of the unassailable truth that I cannot change any past fact, however trivial.

This itself may seem to have further worrying implications. For if I cannot prevent my own conception, and cannot prevent the First World War, despite being present at the right time, does this not suggest that I am not, as a traveller into the past, a free agent? If this is an implication, then it extends to our ordinary, non-time-travelling situation. For I am not free to change the future, either.

"Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time" by Robin Le Poidevin (2003)33

As this exploration of cause-and-effect shows, it appears that as long as the present flows into the future (who can then examine the past), free will was impossible at any particular point in the history of time, and in the history of times to come.

8.2. Randomness: Quantum Uncertainty, Chaos Theory and Neurones

Chaos theory holds that the smallest, tiniest events in the physical world can have knock-on effects that are unpredictable and significant on a much larger scale to that on which they occur34. The position that an electron can be found at in its shell around an atom, the spin of certain pairs of particles, the moment of decay of radioactive material, etc, are all examples of the quantum-level behaviours that are sometimes described as 'random'. Random means that they are unpredictable: You cannot make measurements that allow you to predict what these properties will be, and sometimes even they change (apparently) every time you measure them. It may follow (chaos theorists would say so) that these tiny events could, perhaps, cause a cascade of physical interactions in an atom that eventually leads to a biochemical change in a cell. If the cell is a neurone, potentially, quantum 'random' phenomenon could result in a neurone firing. This would mean that sometimes, if the right events (of the billions that would not cause a neurone to fire) lead to the right neurone firing (out of the billions that would not lead anywhere), some of our actions might be the result of random factors, not determined ones.

This is nonsense, not only because we have absolutely no evidence of "quantum fluctuations" (whatever they are) at the brain level but because, even if they did happen, they would - at most - generate random, not free, will. And random is not one of those varieties of free will that is, in Dennett's words, "worth having."

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci (2007)1

If such randomness of causes sometimes effects whether or not a neurone fires then it is still not our choice whether it fires or not. On a larger scale it means that these important possibility-trees are not willed into existence. If these facts of quantum randomness and chaos theory are sound, it merely provides another element of non-choice, another argument for the lack of free will.

Book CoverWe must be careful here. Quantum effects are probably too small to have much influence on the operation of the brain at the neuron level, but if they did we would surely have not free will, but breakdown. A quantum fluctuation that forced a neuron to fire when it would normally not (or vica versa) is surely to be regarded as an interference to the otherwise normal operation of the brain. If electrodes were planted in your brain and triggered at random by an external source, you would regard that form of interference as a reduction of your freedom.

"God And The New Physics" by Paul Davies (1984)35

Not only does randomness result merely in another sublayer of non-choice, but, it is very doubtful if random quantum events have any significance above the smallest scale. Each neurone has between 100 and 10000 synapses that influence when it fires36; it would require millions of spontaneous 'random' cascades of quantum effects to cause a neurone to overcome its position in the network and fire without cause; otherwise, the various inhibitors prevent small sudden biochemical events from causing misfires. Statistically, it is unlikely if quantum randomness has ever made a single neurone fire without cause.

8.3. Multiple Universes

Some physicists have argued that quantum physics has revealed some astonishing truths about reality37; things that are normally the domain of science fiction. One of those things is a multiverse. As a result of quantum effects where it seems that events remain undetermined even after the point at which a final path must have been already chosen, some have thought that at that moment in time, the universe has split in two. In one universe, the electron goes one way, in another universe, it goes the other way. Therefore, there is no "chance" involved in physics; when there are a hundred possible locations for an electron to be at, 100 universes exist where the electron is at each position. Therefore there is no cosmic dice-rolling.

If anything along these lines is true, then, free will remains an impossibility. If you have a choice, for example, what we find in a multiverse is that you cannot choose between any of the options. You choose every option. For every moment, from simple choices of what to eat, to complex moral dilemmas, you don't choose any particular path; from the point of choice a new universe is created where each path is trodden. The you in every universe feels it 'picked' which path it took when in reality, it is pure circumstance that any particular conscious being remembers making any particular 'choice'.

For example. David passes two job interviews and must pick which job to accept. After balancing up all the pros and cons he finds that they are both equally appealing. David A picks job A and David B picks job B. David A reflects on his choice and thinks, "I exercised free will in choosing job A". David B thinks to himself, "I exercised free will in choosing job B". Surely, David's line of thought is incorrect and David A didn't pick job A, it just happened that way. Likewise with David B. The existence of a multiverse undermines and removes any possibility of free will.

9. Why Live?

Somebody asked me what the point of life would be if we had no free will. Why do you go on? The answer is in biology as to why I go on. Because I'm programmed to. I do not want to die, because I am alive. The ultimate aim of biology is to produce organisms that want to live! I want others to live too, because I respect my species as biology compels me to. I have no choice.

The question "Why go on?" is irrelevant for another reason... it implies that to die would be better. Killing yourself is no more a valid course of action that not killing yourself. If you wander "Why live?" and then kill yourself, you will never find the answer to your question.

Why should you eat a chocolate bar to make you happy, when you know that eventually it will all be gone? The answer: Why not? Given that I am predetermined and unfree, why is there any reason for me to kill myself? Pain, excitement, sadness, happiness, love and fear are all part of being alive, and I like it all. Pain is better than death, indulgence is better than abstinence. Respecting life, respecting the processes that allowed me to be alive, is better than the opposite. If I do wrong, it is better that you punish me because otherwise, within my life context, I would be useless. This argument has been made before - 250 years ago!:

Some say to you: "Do not believe in fatalism; for then everything appearing inevitable, you will work at nothing, you will wallow in indifference, you will love neither riches, nor honours, nor glory; you will not want to acquire anything, you will believe yourself without merit as without power; no talent will be cultivated, everything will perish through apathy." Be not afraid, gentlemen, we shall ever have passions and prejudices, since it is our destiny to be subjected to prejudices and passions.

Voltaire (1764)38

10. Compatibilism

Some find that the facts of determinism are abhorrent and difficult to digest. There are ways to view both determinism and free will as aspects of our mental lives. Because, no matter what the causes of our wishes are, we can still act as we wish. Bertrand Russell (1935) describes this:

The wish is the cause of action, even if the wish itself has causes. [...] It seems unreasonable to complain of this limitation. [...] Nor does determinism warrant the feeling that we are impotent. Power consists in being able to have intended effects, and this is neither increased nor diminished by the discovery of causes of our intentions.

"Religion and Science" by Bertrand Russell (1935)14

Another way of looking it is to say that what we call 'free will' is a state of imagination, that because we can imagine different futures, we have free will, even though our attempt to choose between different actions are really determined by underlying factors, at least we think we have choice.

Perhaps the philosopher who has gotten closer to a sensible understanding of free will is Daniel C. Dennett (for example, in his book Elbow Room [MIT Press, 1984]. Dennett rejects any non-naturalistic view of free will, and thinks of the phenomenon [...] as a result of both biological and cultural evolution, "the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes... the power of imagination, to see and image futures." He goes on to say that it is our ability to "see" ahead with our minds, to play in our heads several possible causal scenarios, that "makes us moral agents. You don't need a miracle to have responsibility."

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci (2007)1

It makes no practical difference to ourselves, our sense of justice or self-worth, to admit that our chosen courses of action were determined by sub- and pre- conscious factors. Whatever the underlying causes are, it is still true that the working us chose to act as we did. This compatibilist position is echoed in the closing lines of a clever poem penned for the American Journal Free Inquiry, by Barbara Smoker, president of the UK's National Secular Society from 1981:

Opposing Hume's deterministic view,
Freewill for humankind did Kant infer
To justify God's ire when people err.
Which view is true? Has Hume or Kant won through?
While we may choose to do what we prefer,
We cannot choose what we prefer to do.

"Freethoughts" by Barbara Smoker (2002)39

11. Conclusion

Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

The conclusion reached is the non-existence of free will of all living beings. If you think there is a living Creator, then our free will is refuted twice over, and the free will of the omniscient creator itself is thrice denied. However schematically and morally we are required, philosophically and logically to consider ourselves and others as having free will, and that we behave in life exactly the same whether or not we believe in free will, and behave the same towards others, it makes no practical difference whether there is free will or not.

A peasant thinks that it has hailed on his field by chance; but the philosopher knows that there is no chance, and that it was impossible, in the constitution of this world, for it not to hail on that day in that place.

"There are," they say, "some events which are necessary, and others which are not." It would be very comic that one part of the world was arranged, and that the other were not; that a part of what happens had to happen, and that another part of what happens did not have to happen. If one looks closely at it, one sees that the doctrine contrary to that of destiny is absurd.

Voltaire (1764)38

Current edition: 1999 Aug 09
Last Modified: 2015 Jul 23
Parent page: The Human Truth Foundation

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Skeptical Inquirer. Magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.

The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.

The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See for some commentary on this source..

Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Crabtree, Vexen
(2002) "Monotheism and Free Will: God, Determinism and Fate" (2002). Accessed 2017 Feb 23.

Davies, Paul
(1984) God And The New Physics. Paperback book. Penguin 2006 edition. Davies is a Professor in theoretical physics who has published ground-breaking research.

Dawkins, Prof. Richard
(1976) The Selfish Gene. Paperback book. 30th Anniversary 2006 edition. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2004) A Devil's Chaplain. Paperback book. Originally published 2003 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Current version published by Phoenix of Orion Books Ltd, London UK.

Einstein, Albert. (1879-1955)
(1954) Ideas and Opinions. Paperback book. Published in 1954 by Crown Publishers, New York, USA and in 1982 by Three Rivers Press. A collection of Einstein's writings and texts.

Eysenck, Michael and Keane, Mark
(1995) Cognitive Psychology. 3rd edition. Published by Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

Griffin, Donald R.
(1992) Animal Minds. Paperback book. Published by The University of Chicago Press.

Gross, Richard
(1996) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour. Paperback book. 3rd edition. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London UK.

Harnad, S.
"Cognitive Brain Theory". 1982. 5:29-47 [Via Griffin, 1992].

Hawking, Stephen
A Brief History of Time. Paperback book.

James, William
1890 article in The principles of psychology, reprinted 1950, vol. 2. Dover Publications, New York, USA.

Kaku, Michio. Professor of theoretical physics.
(2014) The Future of the Mind. E-book. Subtitled: "The Scientific Quest To Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK.

Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913).

Le Poidevin, Robin
(2003) Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time. Paperback book. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. The author is Professor of Metaphysics at the University of Leeds.

Lehrer, Jonah
(2009) The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. Hardback book. Published by Canongate Books, Edinburgh.

Myers, David
(1999) Social Psychology. Paperback book. 6th ('international') edition. Originally published 1983. Current version published by McGraw Hill.

Nisbett, R.E. & Wilson T.
"Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes", 1977, in Psychology Review, 84, 231-259 [Via Gross, 1996].

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1935) Religion and Science. Paperback book. 1997 edition. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Introduction by Michael Ruse.
(1946) History of Western Philosophy. Paperback book. 2000 edition. Published by Routledge, London, UK.
(1957) Why I am not a Christian. Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971. Published by Unwin Books.

Skinner, B.F.
"Beyond Freedom and Dignity" (1971). New York: Knopf. [Via Gross, 1996]

Smoker, Barbara
(2002) Freethoughts. 2002 edition. Published by G W Foate Ltd, London. A compilation of articles in the Freethinker. She was President of the National Secular Society from 1981.

Toates, Romero & Datta
(2004) From Cells to Consciousness. Paperback book. Published by The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. A neurology textbook by Frederick Toates, Ignacio Romero and Saroj Datta.

Voltaire. (1694-1778)
(1764) Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

Wilson, E. O.
(1998) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Hardback book. Published by Little, Brown and Company, London, UK. Professor Wilson is a groundbreaking sociobiologist.


  1. Massimo Pigliucci in Skeptical Inquirer (2007 May/Jun) p26-7. Prof. Pigliucci is a professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at Stony Brook University and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The same facts are reported in neurology textbooks, e.g. "From Cells to Consciousness" by Toates, Romero and Datta (2004) p171-172.^^^^
  2. Bloom, Cooper and Roth (1996) ch.3.^
  3. Einstein (1954) p8 and discussed on^
  4. Skeptical Inquirer (2009 Sep/Oct) article "Does Subliminal Persuasion Work?" p49-53. Brandon Randolph-Seng is a PhD candidate in the experimental social psychology program at Texas Tech University. Robert D. Mather is an assistant professor of experimental psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma.^
  5. Wilson (1998) chapter "The Mind" p131. Added to this page on 2011 Jan 06.^
  6. Voltaire (1764) p89-90.^
  7. Kaku (2014) digital location 5673. Added to this page on 2015 Jul 23.^
  8. Kaku (2014) digital location 5687, 5520. Added to this page on 2015 Jul 23.^
  9. Gross (1996) p75, 121 & 875.^
  10. Myers (1999) p137-138.^
  11. The Economist (2006 Dec 23) neurology insert p12. Added to this page on 2007 Jan 21.^
  12. The Economist (2009 Apr 18) article "Conscious and Unconscious Thought: Incognito" p86-7.^
  13. Lehrer (2009) p167. Added to this page on 2015 Feb 08.^
  14. Russell (1935) p163-167.^^^
  15. Kant (1785) p116 & p120, in the Third Section of Transition from the Metaphysic of Morals to the Critique of Pure Practical Reason. Although he supplied the premise that free will can only exist outside of external determination, Kant did still come to the conclusion that free will exists. Added to this page on 2015 Feb 08.^
  16. Russell (1946) p532.^
  17. Hawking .^
  18. Dawkins (2004) .^
  19. Eysenck & Keane (1995) .^
  20. Russell (1957) p39.^
  21. Rewrite. Added to this page on 2013 Aug 02.^
  22. Carroll (2011) p19-20. Added to this page on 2013 Aug 02.^
  23. Dawkins (1976) p2-3.^
  24. Gross (1996) p402.^
  25. Myers (1999) p157-8. Added to this page on 2006 Aug 01.^
  26. Myers (1999) p141-2, 144. Added to this page in 2006 Aug.^
  27. Added to this page on 2007 Feb 21.^
  28. Russell (1946) p335.^
  29. Russell (1946) p554.^
  30. 2004 May: Rewrote "Morals and Social Justice" with notes written a few years ago.
  31. 2005 Jun: The first few sections are rewritten.
  32. 2006 Aug: Added quote from Russell on Spinoza's justification of evil-sans-free-will.
  33. Le Poidevin (2003) p179.^
  34. Dean (1997).^
  35. Davies (1984) p139-141. Added to this page on 2010 Jul 17.^
  36. Gross (1996) p47.^
  37. Known as the 'Everett many-universes interpretation of quantum theory. This view (broadly discussed in chapter 8) has bizarre implications for the subject of free will' - Davies (1984) chapter 10 "Free will and determinism".^
  38. Voltaire (1764) p60-61. Added to this page on 2012 May 08.^^
  39. Smoker (2002) p231. Added to this page on 2006 Sep 01.^

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