“All This an Illusion”: A Reflection on Determinism and Free Choice

This humdinger comes from Jim McNeely: I recently listened to episode 93 of the Partially […]

Mockingbird / 5.12.14


This humdinger comes from Jim McNeely:

I recently listened to episode 93 of the Partially Examined Life podcast (you can listen to it or read about it here). It is a fascinating listen; these are not rabid militant “New Atheism” people, just fun and thoughtful agnostic/atheists who love philosophy. I have found that it is where I go to get the current conversation “on the street” about important philosophical issues. In this particular episode they grapple with a problem that we have been looking at from a theological perspective for millennia — free will vs. predestination (in some ways similar to what they would call “determinism”). What stuck out in my mind after listening to this is that there is a real question, given a naturalist materialist perspective, as to whether free choices are even possible. They are using three texts, mainly from P.F. Strawson and his son Galen Strawson, but this is a much wider discussion these days.

Interestingly, when you hear the words “free will” in philosophical circles it ends up meaning “moral choice.” This is because if there is no possibility of moral free will then there is no possibility of responsibility. This is no small or obscure problem. A purely secular society needs to establish the possibility of responsibility while maintaining a purely naturalist (physical or non-supernatural) perspective, because this has enormous implications for justice, law, society, interpersonal relationships, and a whole bevy of other things. It seems preposterous to think that even the most basic levels of human choice are under dispute, but look at these quotes from neuroscientists working in the field:

“It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do… It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion.” – Daniel Wegner

“You seem to be an agent acting of your own free will. The problem, however, is that this point of view cannot be reconciled with what we know about the human brain.” – Sam Harris


(via XKCD)

Why is the possibility of free will a question at all? It would seem that the hallmark of atheism is that there is no God to tell you what you must or mustn’t do. We see this in an ad campaign in Great Britain, endorsed by Richard Dawkins, which says, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The chief benefit of atheism then is the freedom (!) to throw off antiquated moral restraints and enjoy life. Of course most atheists would say that they are atheists because science indicates that atheism is true. However, there is tremendous controversy swirling around this notion now, more and more. The fine-tuned universe, the big bang, the information-rich nature of even the first appearance of life, the non-gradualistic explosion of life in the Cambrian period, and the sudden meteoric appearance of intelligence and moral sense all point emphatically to a different answer. Their apologetic and resistance to the preponderance of empirical evidence indicate that the emotional value of freedom from restraint is far more important than empirical science as the foundation of their position. I think this is the correct reason to hold their views; it is not a criticism.

The reason for the question of the possibility of free will is that the naturalistic perspective suggests that there is a non-metaphysical, material cause for all that we experience. If we love someone, it is because some convergent sequence of physical phenomena from the big bang until now have emerged to cause us to love them. Human history, culture, genetics, mutation, adaptive survival instincts and other things came together to cause all that you are: your aesthetic opinions, your attractions, your moral proclivities, your career, everything. There is no real “you”; you may think you are making certain choices and decisions, but you are not. This is called “determinism”.

If you are a “compatibilist”, it means that you think that determinism and free will are compatible. It is quite difficult to understand how one might make these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas compatible, but there are various ideas that are being proffered. The question of the possibility of compatibilism is a hot-button topic of contemporary philosophy, for obvious reasons. Consider this quote from Eddy Nahmias in his New York Times article from 2011:


Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

This seems to me to be a very weak and specious argument. The naturalist neuroscientist is bound to come back to say that there is no such thing as the exercise of our decisive capacities apart from external or internal pressure. Internal and external pressures are the only things that exist. For the naturalist, random events and non-teleological emergence remain existentially foundational. The presence or absence of an outside force in the equation which could be identified as a “self” is a question that could not be resolved empirically.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose we have a robot arm, attached by wires to a control glove. If a person puts the control glove on, then however they move their fingers and hand and arm, the robot arm imitates it. Suppose an inquisitive person comes along and tries stimulating the arm without inserting their hand. They apply sensors to the wires to analyze the signals going back and forth to the robot while someone is controlling it, and then they apply charges in a similar sequence to the wires attached to the robot arm, and it moves as if someone’s hand were animating the robot. Have they discovered some kind of truth about the working of the robot arm? Yes, of course; they have uncovered the physical means by which the robot arm is animated. Have they explained why the robot arm works as it does? No; the arm is no more than a puppet, even if moved by artificial means. So even though we have discovered some of the physical clues to the workings of our neuro-chemical construct, it does not mean that we have answered the question as to what is truly animating these constructs. It remains a metaphysical question, if compatibilism is true. Naturalism, which claims to be held on a purely empirical basis, itself still necessitates metaphysical assumptions.


I think we are created in the image of God as free will rational beings. The forbidden tree in the garden was all about allowing choice – interestingly, moral choice. However, whether in atheist or theist circles, the question of determinism and responsibility is no small issue. We find this passage in Romans:

What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?

Romans 9:14-22

Let me paraphrase that: “If God has made men deterministic, then how is there any possibility of moral responsibility?” It is a question that should sound very familiar to philosophers wrestling with determinism and moral responsibility; the only difference is the source of the determinism. Of course, the source of the determinism is all-important. As theists we have an outside intelligent referent, who is the ultimate arbiter of what is determined and what is chosen: God. Paul’s answer here is, this is all a mystery, to be left to God’s arbitration. It is truly beyond us. In some way that is beyond the ability for humans to comprehend, we cannot plumb the depths of our logical ability to say that we are deterministic beings while still being morally responsible beings. He is not saying that there is some balance between the two positions. He is not even giving an answer. He is really saying that determinism and moral choice are both fully true at once and that we ought not try to understand it.

It is even more fascinating that naturalistic dialogue about human freedom and escape from arbitrary moral restraint go straight down these same paths. What you find in these discussions is that people construct all kinds of strange theories about the nature of moral responsibility under a deterministic system, and then quickly discard them when it comes to real life. This dynamic is actually an explicit part of the ongoing philosophical discussion; it isn’t simply my personal criticism. Many theologians would join atheists in saying that, in a way, we are completely under determinism. In naturalistic philosophical discussions, there end up being a lot of very strange and impractical theories, and then a lot of reliance on extreme examples so you can figure out what one should really do. That is why people ultimately resort to stories (“suppose someone raped your daughter…” or “what about the Holocaust?”) to sort this out, which they then try to extract principle from. But you can always find a new example that you somehow know the answer for intuitively which breaks your extracted principle. It is really a huge clue to the nature of being human.


Theists are clear that we are created as free will beings in the image of God. The power of the idea of “sin” is that we freely choose evil, and bear moral responsibility. People presume that the essential Christian message is that there is a uniquely strict and enormously consequential moral burden placed upon us. I applaud the courage of some to see the implausibility of this, and to seek at least a false grace in the arms of a random uncaused universe. Some Christians presume that the message is that our deterministic nature is so overwhelming that we truly have no genuine free will. However, I believe that it is a Christian observation that our actions are predetermined, and born of free will, both fully at once. It is a mystery born of God — and this is the straight message from Romans 9. Further, the true Christian answer is that one way or another, we sin; we abuse our free moral agency. In fact the way we exercise our free will is to abuse it. The final Christian solution is that our deterministic/free will nature is redeemed, our sense of moral good is reunited with our sense of aesthetic good, in the unqualified grace that comes through cross of Christ. As Christians who actually believe the gospel, we have a powerful answer for determinism, moral responsibility, and genuine freedom. One-way unearned unbreakable love from God despite our moral choices, good or bad, is the new determinism. We are destined to be loved from the beginning of time to the end of time.