Free will: illusion or reality?

How free are you? Free to choose what to watch on Netflix? Are you free to choose your height even if you are now free to choose your gender? You didn’t choose your genes whether they blessed you or cursed you – how responsible are you for the things you had no choice over? And how responsible are you if those things were a causal factor in the committing of a crime?

Much of society is built upon the premise that an individual bears responsibility for his or her own actions. That there is such a thing as real choice. It underpins our ideas of democracy, education and justice. Each person, then, has free will. As Sam Harris points out

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment — most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasised punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.

But what is free will? John Piper in his beginner’s guide to free will offers up three different definitions. The popular:

Our will is free if our preferences and our choices are really our own in such a way that we can justly be held responsible for whether they are good or bad.

The technical

We have free will if we are ultimately or decisively self-determining, and the only preferences and choices that we can be held accountable for are ones that are ultimately or decisively self-determined.

And the Biblical:

The human will is free when it is not in bondage to prefer and choose irrationally. It is free when it is liberated from preferring what is infinitely less preferable than God, and from choosing what will lead to destruction.

Accordingly there are three differing views of human freedom and the Biblical view (according to Piper) is that humanity is far less free than it thinks it is and only truly becomes free when liberated by God.

Most people however operate with a notion of freedom much more akin to the popular definition. The scientific consensus on this idea, however, is wobbling. In a fascinating article in The Atlantic Stephen Cave writes,

The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behaviour can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect.

But why?

In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.

The result has been that there are genuine questions over the extent of our freedom. This might all sound theoretical but they are arguments that have found their way into the courtroom.

The number of court cases, for example, that use evidence from neuroscience has more than doubled in the past decade—mostly in the context of defendants arguing that their brain made them do it. And many people are absorbing this message in other contexts, too, at least judging by the number of books and articles purporting to explain “your brain on” everything from music to magic. Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency. The sceptics are in ascendance.

The impact of this idea on individuals, as JD Vance points out in a recent discussion about rural poor communities in America, can be serious.

Believing you have no control is incredibly destructive, and that may be especially true when you face unique barriers.  The first time I encountered this idea was in my exposure to addiction subculture, which is quite supportive and admirable in its own way, but is full of literature that speaks about addiction as a disease.  If you spend a day in these circles, you’ll hear someone say something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumour, so why judge an addict for drug use.”  This view is a perfect microcosm of the problem among poor Americans.  On the one hand, the research is clear that there are biological elements to addiction–in that way, it does mimic a disease.  On the other hand, the research is also clear that people who believe their addiction is a biologically mandated disease show less ability to resist it.  It’s this awful catch-22, where recognising the true nature of the problem actually hinders the ability to overcome.

Now, no scientist is going to ascribe this in-built determinism to the fall of Adam but essentially what we have here is the scientific consensus moving closer, from the popular to the Biblical notion of human freedom.

In an ironic twist it means that the atheist Sam Harris and John Piper have more in common here than might seem apparent, both think that free will in the popular notion is illusory. The agreement, goes even further than that, because Harris is not fatalistic but deterministic and so is Piper, although for different reasons.

As Cave, again, says

When people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference. But this is a mistake. People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives.

Sam Harris would argue that this new stimuli could be anything,

A creative change of inputs to the system — learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention — may radically transform one’s life.

Piper on the other hand states that this stimuli can only be, if it is to be ultimately beneficial, the work of the Holy Spirit.

The remedy for this condition is the free and sovereign grace of God bringing about a root change in our fallen nature…The effect of this miraculous, Spirit-wrought change is that we are no longer blind to the supreme beauty and glory of Christ.

We remain responsible however for the choices we make, whether we were responsible or not for the nature we have inherited. This, is both true in theology as it is in law.

*The video below is a beautifully shot accompaniment to a talk by Harris on the subject of free will. Worth 10 minutes. Plus he sounds a lot like Tim Keller, must be a NYC thing.*

Photo by A.Davey

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