Daily Archives: December 9, 2010

Free will: a problem for everyone

(This is a repost, slightly edited, of something I wrote in 2006.)

In October 2006, atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and Catholic journalist David Quinn had a debate (MP3) on the existence of God, and both of them came out looking a little dumb. One of Quinn’s main arguments had to do with free will.

Quinn: If you are an atheist, if you are an atheist, logically speaking, . . . you cannot believe in free will. . . . An atheist believes we are controlled completely by our genes and have no free actions at all. . . .

Dawkins: I certainly don’t believe a word of that. I do not believe we’re controlled wholly by our genes. . . . [There’s] environment, for a start.

Quinn: But no, hang on, that also is a product of, if you like, matter, okay?

Dawkins: Yes, but it’s not genes.

Quinn: Yes, okay. But what part of us allows us to have free will?

Dawkins: Free will is a very difficult philosophical question and it’s not one that has anything to do with religion, contrary to what Mr. Quinn says.

Quinn: It has an awful lot to do with religion, because if there is no God there is no free will, because we are completely phenomenon.

Dawkins: Who says there is no free will if there’s no God? What a ridiculous thing to say.

Quinn kept bringing up the subject, and finally Dawkins said, “I’m just not interested in free will.” He never offered an atheistic explanation of it. Of course, Quinn never offered a theistic explanation, either, but many listeners were probably still left with the impression that theists can account for free will but atheists cannot. Dawkins is widely perceived to have lost the debate. (This is a common tactic: “If there’s no God, how do you explain X?” — where X is something nobody can explain, with or without God.)

In fact, Dawkins is quite correct that free will has nothing to do with religion. It is a logical problem, not an empirical one, and is unaffected by the existence or non-existence of God, spirits, or anything else. It’s not that we, being wholly material animals, happen not to have free will; it’s that beings with free will (at least as that term is popularly understood) are logically impossible. The problems materialism seems to pose for free will are problems that exist in every possible world. Perhaps materialism makes those problems easier to see and understand, but they are no less present in theistic conceptions of the world.

The problem

A given action is either caused — determined — by something prior to it, or it is random, or it could be a a combination of causation and randomness. That exhausts the logical possibilities. The idea that free will is to be found in something which is neither chance nor necessity nor a combination of the two is a non-starter.

If my actions are completely random, unrelated to anything prior to themselves, then they are obviously not freely chosen. They are not chosen at all, since I cannot cause or influence them in any way. And if my actions are partly random, then they can at best be only partly free. Despite the fact that “determinism” is popularly seen as the negation of free will, deterministic actions are the only ones that can even conceivably be freely chosen. If my actions are not determined by anything, then they are certainly not determined — chosen — by me. Random events are no one’s responsibility.

The problem with determinism, though, is that though my actions may be caused (chosen) by me, they are not ultimately chosen by me. Trace the line of causation back far enough, and everything I do is ultimately caused by events that took place before I was born. If my actions were predetermined before I even existed, how can I have any responsibility for them?

Yes, but it’s not matter

When Quinn says materialism means we’re controlled by our genes, and Dawkins responds that there’s also the environment, we can all sense that he’s missing the point. “Yes, but it’s not genes,” he says. But of course the problem isn’t genes, per se. It’s the idea that we’re controlled by something — anything — other than ourselves. Whether or not that something happens to be deoxyribonucleic acid is irrelevant. If my actions can be wholly explained in terms of things (such as genes and environment) which are beyond my control, then I am not free.

For Quinn, genes and environment are equally problematic because they are are both “product[s] of, if you like, matter.” Religion supposedly solves the problem of free will by proposing that our actions are caused by something non-material — spirits, souls, God, what have you. But this is also missing the point. The problem is not that we are controlled by genes, not that we are controlled by matter, but that we are controlled — full stop.

Let’s imagine that Christianity is true. Instead of a brain that was created by genes, environment, evolution, and the Big Bang, we have a soul that was created by God. How does that make us more free? God, just as much as our genes, existed before we did and is beyond our control. We are no more ultimately responsible for out actions that we would be under materialism. (Saying “God created us with free will” is no more meaningful than saying “We evolved with free will.”)

Mormonism, the religion I grew up with, recognizes this problem and tries to deal with it by saying that the soul (or equivalent; Mormonism uses different terminology) “was not created or made” by anything or anyone, but has always existed and “was also in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29). This is a step forward for theodicy — it absolves God of ultimate responsibility for human actions (sort of; even if God didn’t create us as we are, he would still presumably have the power to change us and would be responsible for not exercising that power) — but it does nothing to solve the problem of free will. If nothing caused me to come into existence (with a particular sort of mind), then I exist (and have that sort of mind) for no reason, and there is ultimately no reason that I do the things I do. Things which happen for no reason are nobody’s responsibility.


The bottom line is that you didn’t create yourself. Given that a cause must precede its effect, it’s logically impossible for you to have created yourself. No matter what you believe about human nature or human origins, it is inescapably true that you are not ultimately responsible for what you are; either something or someone else made you that way, or you are that way for no reason. No matter how you slice it, it’s not your fault.

(Even if we postulate that time is circular, that causation bends back on itself, and that in some sense you did create yourself, why are you in that particular endless loop of causation rather than a different one? Either that question has no answer, or the answer must lie outside of the loop itself and therefore outside of you. Again, it can’t be your fault.)

Any meaningful conception of free will must deal with the impossibility of being ultimately responsible for one’s actions. This is true whether or not there are such things as gods and spirits. Free will as popularly understood is impossible; other versions of free will (see Daniel Dennett’s Elbow Room) are both possible and consistent with materialism; but I am aware of no conception of free will which is possible only in a world that contains spirits. Richard Dawkins was right: Free will is a difficult philosophical question that has nothing at all to do with religion. It’s not just a problem for atheists. It’s a problem for everyone.


Filed under Philosophy