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

11 responses to “Free will: a problem for everyone

  1. Bruce G Charlton

    When a conclusion seems one sidedly inescapable yet (somehow) wrong – or unsatisfactory – then this usually signals that he assumptions are wrong: the reductio ad absurdum argument.

    I think that this applies to discussions of free will. Reason indeed leads to the conclusions you set out – but reasoning is a partial form of thought.

    Reason reasons-about only that which follows reason. Therefore if there was anything which did not follow reason, such a phenomenon would necessarily be invisible to reason.

    So, the argument you make excludes the possibility of free will, from the initial assumptions.


    This is not, of course, an argument in favour of the reality of free will – merely to point out that reasoning excludes free will a priori – reason does not disprove free will.


    This is merely a different version of what happens with science and the supernatural, or miracles. Science, as it evolved from the 17th century, was set-up to exclude religion and all reference to the supernatural. This worked well for science (at least for a couple of hundred years it did – tho’ not so much now).

    People got used to doing science, and thinking within the system of science, and of course scientific thinking can be applied to anything; until science became so natural to them and so pervasive that they forgot the assumptions on which it was based, and began to regard any mechanism that was not permitted by scientific language as non-existent (when it was merely excluded).

    Science has – properly – no impact on religious thought except in this way – in a way of saying ‘we do not ‘need’ ‘ religion because science will suffice. But this could only be true if science explained everything that religion explains and enabled all the things which religion supported; which is obviously not true.

    Likewise the rational argument against free will. At most it might be used to say something like ‘we no longer need the concept of free will, because the work that this concept used to do can now be done by reason’ – but obviously that isn’t true (except fro a stance inside of reason, where reason seems the only valid discourse).

    But reason cannot account for itself – the validity of reasoning is something ‘given’ just as is the reality of free will. Ultimately, they are based on revelation, if the arguent is pushed back – an argument along the lines that we were put on this planet (by God) equipped with the means necessary to survive and seek salvation – and among these means are reason and free will. They are part of our toolkit, like eyes and hands. We must assume something, or we cannot proceed.

    The alternative is that free will and reason evolved contingently, and have no value except to promote reproductive success, therefore both free will and reason are – at root – delusions; mere aspects of psychology in a particular animal.


    At any rate, reason cannot be used to demolish other concepts without considering the question of ‘whence cometh the validity of reason itself?’!

  2. shematwater

    I like the comment, and I like the article. Both are very logically stated and both make perfect sense.

    I agree that Free Will has nothing to do with religion. I also agree that it has nothing to do with reason.
    It may sound odd, but I would say that the existence of free will is a logical necessity for any form of life to exist. While we cannot reason out how it works, we know that life cannot work any other way.
    Simply put, if there was no free will we should be able to accurately predict what every person is going to do, which we are unable to do. The only logical reason for this is Free Will, and thus free will must be true.

    • Shem, our inability to predict people’s behavior does not prove that they have free will. After all, we can’t predict the weather with much accuracy, either. It could be that randomness (which is not the same as free choice) contributes to people’s behavior, or human behavior could be completely deterministic and yet so immensely complicated that understanding and predicting it is beyond our capacity.

      (Bruce, I’ll reply to your comment later. I need some time to digest it. Thanks as always for your insight.)

      • shematwater

        And yet science and math are actually showing that there is little true randomness in the universe.

        We should still have some hint as to predictability.

        Lastly, nothing you have said actually contradicts anything. After all, if we lack the capacity to predict it, is it not also possible that we simply lack the capacity to understand it?

  3. Bruce G Charlton

    I just found this pefect encapsulation of what I think is correct wrt. free will. From Pascal’s Pensees number 110 in the Penguin Classics version:

    “We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is only through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them. The sceptics have no other object than that, and they work at it to no purpose.

    “We know that we are not dreaming, but, however unable we may be to prove it rationally, our inability proves nothing but the weakness of our reason, and not the uncertainty of all our knowledge, as they maintain.

    “For knowledge of first principles, like space, time, motion, number, is as solid as any derived through reason, and it is on such knowledge, coming from the heart and instinct, that reason has to depend and base all its argument. The heart feels that there are three spatial dimensions and that there is an infinite series of numbers, and reason goes on to demonstrate that there are no two square numbers of which one is double the other.

    “Principles are felt, propositions proved, and both with certainty though by different means. It is just as pointless and absurd for reason to demand proof of first principles from the heart before agreeing to accept them as it would be absurd for the heart to demand an intuition of all the propositions demonstrated by reason before agreeing to accept them.

    “Our inability must therefore serve only to humble reason, which would like to be the judge of everything, but not to confute our certainty.

    “As if reason were the only way we could learn! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never needed it and knew everything by instinct and feeling! But nature has refused this blessing, and has instead given us only very little knowledge of this kind; all other knowledge can be acquired only by reasoning.”


    Assuming you have not yet read Pascal (and I hope you haven’t, because he is your best hope), then I would recommend very, very highly the selection and commentary under the title of Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees by Peter Kreeft.

    This is probably the best book about Christianity I have ever seen; certainly the best book to address the perspective of modern intellectual skeptics. It helps that Pascal is a first rank genius – at least that is how I perceive him.

    I tend to wish that I had encountered Pascal years ago (I very nearly read him in 1986, but did not) – although it is likely that I would not have been ready for him then.

  4. Thanks for the excerpt and the recommendation, Bruce. I’ve never read Pascal, but I should. Like Aquinas, he has suffered the misfortune of having his name linked with an extraordinarily bad argument (the infamous “wager”), which has prejudiced me against him and disinclined me to look into his philosophy. I have read a few articles by Kreeft, though, and have some comments on one of them here.

    I’m still in the process of organizing my thoughts on the limits of reason and so on. I may have something coherent to post within a few days.

  5. Pingback: Free will and the limits of reason | Bugs to fearen babes withall

  6. Lou Tychonievich

    I don’t understand the connection between free will and some Ultimate Cause. When I say that a certain crystal is man-made, I’m telling you about its history, not its current state. But surely free will isn’t like that at all. I either have free will or I don’t, and the truthfulness of this statement does not depend in the least on how I got to be the way I am. Whether God created me or I always existed or I was built yesterday in a laboratory affects the question not at all.

    If you intentionally created me as I am, you are indeed responsible for how I am. But if I have free will, I am still responsible for what I decide to do. If I was created/raised such that I have a bad temper, it may be harder for me to master it than for others created/raised differently. But as a free agent, I can still decide to master it. Or not. The choice is mine.

  7. Dad, the basic problem is this: Say you consider two options, A and B, and you opt for A. Is there some reason why you make that choice rather than the other one? If there is no reason, if the choice is not determined by some aspect of your personality, then the choice has no causal connection to you and is not really your choice at all.

    But if it is determined by some aspect of your personality, if it follows necessarily from the fact that you were created (or evolved, or have always happened to exist) in a particular way, then it is also not really your choice.

    If you haven’t already, you might want to look at my post Free will and the limits of reason for some more discussion of this. As I mention in the comments on that post, I am in the process of trying to think through all this stuff more rigorously and should be posting more on it in the near future.

  8. Jal Nicholl

    Certainly, the question whether we have free will of not is a logical one, as you say. But then does it even make sense to say that we do or don’t possess “ultimate responsibility”–as if free will were an intelligible position to be refuted and not simply a nonsensical phrase. If there is not possible universe where freewill and so ultimate responsibility exist, does anything actually follow from the dispelling of a purely verbal-emotional confusion? Spinoza had this pinned when he refuted belief in free will as an “inadequate” idea.

  9. Pingback: The necessity of agency | Bugs to fearen babes withall

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