Choosing our religion (1): do we have free will to choose anything?

May 26th, 2015 in clues. Tags: , , , ,

Man in cage

Can we choose our beliefs? Can we choose anything, or are we prisoners of the electro-chemistry in our brains? How do we choose?

Pondering these questions can change the way we think, and how we understand ourselves and others.

I am beginning a series of posts on these questions. This post looks at free will and choice. (It hasn’t been an easy post to think through and write succinctly.)

What is free will?

We all experience making choices and we know what we mean by free will, but it is helpful to define it. We choose freely when we choose a course of action among several alternatives, if:

  • we could have chosen differently, and, if the same brain state arose again, we could then choose differently;
  • our choice was not determined or forced by causes outside of ourselves, but originated with us;
  • we are free to act or refrain from acting; and
  • the choice was conscious and intentional.

This sort of free will is often called libertarian free will, to distinguish it from choices that don’t satisfy all these requirements.

Science, philosophy and human experience

It seems to us that many of our choices are “free”, and our law, morality and personal relations all assume this. But science and philosophy question this conclusion.

Neuroscientists conduct experiments on the brain. Some seem to show that our choices are determined by the physical processes in our brains, and some suggest there is more to our minds and choices than the physical processes. So far at least, science cannot settle the question, but it seems that most neuroscientists don’t believe we have free will.

Philosophers too have argued over this question. Most accept that if we are no more than physical beings, then our choices are determined by the physical process in our brains and there is no self outside those processes to change them. Most therefore think that we are only free in the sense of not being under external compulsion, or, alternatively, that our choices are fully determined and therefore not at all free. Only a few believe our choices are not determined, and so we have libertarian free will.

4 possibilities

The options for free will seem to come down to these four possibilities.

1. The world is only physical and there is no free will. Everything we do is determined by physics.

This is the view based on science, which assumes that the world is physical and there are no non-material things that science can’t investigate. However it is contrary to our experience and human cultures around the world.

Experts, even those who intellectually don’t believe in free will, tell us that we can’t stop thinking we have free will in everyday life, for a number of reasons:

  • Humans seem to be made so we cannot help thinking we have free will.
  • Free will is often seen as a necessary assumption for law and psychiatry, which depend on people being responsible for their choices.
  • It is difficult to explain rationality if we have no free will. To be rational, we must be able to decide on a course of action based on our assessment of truth, but determinism says our actions are determined by physics.
  • Studies show that when people stop believing in free will they are more likely to behave unethically, and so free will is necessary for us to be ethical and human.

Some experts say believing in free will is a “necessary fiction”. Therefore this view requires us to live as if we believe what we know is actually false.

2. The world is only physical and there is a very limited form of “free” will where we can be free of external compulsion but still unable to change the course of physics.

This view is more or less the same as #1, except its proponents argue that freedom from external constraint is “freedom enough”. It thus feels a little more livable, but suffers from the same strengths (it is compatible with current science) and weaknesses (it requires us to disbelieve our experience and how we instinctively live).

3. The natural world contains both physical things and immaterial things. Our consciousness and minds are immaterial, not bound by the physics, and so we can make free choices.

This view says that there are non-material realities in the universe, for example, consciousness is as fundamental as matter, and this allows us to make free choices. This accords with our experience of life, but isn’t supported by science, and so far no-one has been able to explain how non-material things came out of the big bang. It thus is to some degree a faith-based viewpoint.

4. A personal God created the natural world so we are both material and immaterial, and so we aren’t bound by physics and we have choice.

If a personal God created us as hybrid physical-spiritual beings, we can have free choice. Again, this view fits our experience and it provides an explanation of how we have free will, but it goes against naturalistic science.

Can we choose which option we will choose?

The choice we all face is whether to believe we have free will, or we don’t. (I will let the apparent paradox in that statement stand without further comment.)

Options #1 and #2 both deny libertarian free will, and they differ only by #2 using words to make determinism seem more palatable. Options #3 and #4 both accept we have free will, but #3 provides no explanation for it.

It seems it is a choice between naturalistic science vs universal human experience.

Naturalism is an assumption

Naturalism is a philosophical view that cannot be shown to be true, or untrue. It is an assumption that provides a basis to do science, and so is useful. It is thus a reasonable assumption to make, at least until we come across a reason to challenge it.

Free will may be that challenge.

Those who deny free will are choosing to go against universal human experience (including their own), and the conclusions of scientists and philosophers alike that we can’t live, make moral judgments, think rationally or do psychology without at least thinking, when we do those things, that we have free will.

In other words, they believe that our brains think falsely that we have free will, but none of us can really avoid that false thinking. And if our brains can produce this strong an illusion, what other illusions are they bringing to us, and how can we trust what we think and observe?

If science had proven we have no freewill, we would be forced to accept this view, despite the necessity of maintaining the opposite illusion. But science can only “prove” this conclusion after making the assumption of naturalism.

So the choice really is between universal human experience and our inability to think differently vs the assumption of naturalism.

God and free will

It seems to me that two conclusions follow from this:

1. We can only choose our religion if God exists

If naturalism is true and we have no libertarian free will, then our “choice” to be an atheist or a theist (or anything else) is not based primarily on assessing the merits and making a rational choice, but is determined by physical processes in our brains that were developed by natural selection based on survival, not (primarily) rationality.

Atheists therefore have no reason to criticise theists for being (as they see it) irrational, because we are all equally irrational on this view.

However if we do indeed have free will, then we can choose rationally. But this makes it unlikely that naturalism is true.

2. This forms the basis for an argument for the existence of God

The question of free will throws considerable doubt on the truth of naturalism, which has the appearance of a self-refuting viewpoint. Theism avoids these problems.

A belief that is consistent within itself and with how we live life is, other things being equal, more likely to be true than a belief that cannot be lived consistently and undercuts our reasons to believe it is true.

References and quotes

I have discussed issues of free will in more detail in Do humans have free will?, which provides in support many references to and quotes from eminent cognitive scientists, psychologists and philosophers.


Can we choose our beliefs?

Picture: MorgueFile.


  1. I have always wondered what really makes up a person. What constitutes one’s soul / spirit. Is it all biochemical? After all, the brain is made up of neurons that function through biochemical processes.

    To me, the quick and simple answer is: we don’t really know.

    Let me however illustrate what I am trying to say….and give you examples that lead me to think about one’s persona, character & soul.

    Take for instance, someone whose character is for the purpose of discussion – hardworking and conscientious. This person, if faced with injury to the frontal lobes of the brain (commonly occurring in severe head trauma) – can turn into a lazy and apathetic person. Alternatively, the person can be extremely disinhibited in his behaviour – leading to a loss of control and emotional issues. Depression, anxiety and anger are often problems that crop up and these can be explained by pathological changes to specific areas in the brain.

    Another example. One of my patients suffered a ruptured aneurysm – an anterior communicating artery aneurysm. Surgery was performed successfully to prevent re-bleeding which would otherwise almost certainly lead to death. This patient has an excellent outcome and returns to work and life independently. But as a result of the initial brain hemorrhage (from the ruptured aneurysm), the patient’s character has changed. This is typical of such anterior communicating artery aneurysms where the disturbance to the brain is to the frontal lobes on both sides. The patient now becomes apathetic and dull in character. His wife tells me that he was previously the most loving husband on earth. After the aneurysm rupture, his character changes for the worse – he is apathetic and no longer the wonderful husband that he was. The wife has such immense difficulty coping.

    Such scenarios are not uncommon. We don’t really think much about it when the disorder or the injury to the brain does not affect one’s character and personality. For instance, if one has a pure ‘motor’ stroke – a stroke to a specific area of the brain that controls power – the person’s character & personality remains completely intact. There is only a loss of strength or power. Mr hardworking & great personality still remains the same person – albeit paralysis on one side of the body.

    However, when the injury leads to character and personality change….a totally different person emerges overnight. That’s when I start to really wonder what makes up at person.

    What constitutes the different aspects of our character that so defines us? When pathological changes occur in the brain suddenly, making us lose bits of our character – often for the worse… it the same old person inside?

    Such personality changes will affect a person’s choices and ultimately his moral code.

    In theory, it could even affect this faith….

  2. Hi Ernest, those are interesting and challenging questions. The two main questions I get from your comments are, if physical changes to the brain make our behaviour different (1) are we the same person and (2) does that mean we are only physical or biochemical?

    I think questions about something being the same are very difficult to answer definitely. If I lose a leg, no-one doubts I am the same person, even if I lose all four limbs. If my face had to be completely re-modelled after an accident, I would still be the same person. Even if I have a stroke and can’t remember anyone, we still think I’m the same person. And even if I become a vegetable and can’t communicate, I am still me.

    So what is the bare minimum to be the same? It seems it is our consciousness and memories, which doesn’t help much because the stroke victim may not still be conscious to test this or may lose all memories. So then we judge by the outward appearance, but we know that is only a substitute for what we are really testing.

    It seems to me these are extreme cases which are hard for us to judge, but the principle seems right. Using an analogy,”we” are the software that plays on our hardware of the brain, but the software can get bugs in it.

    But these thoughts indicate to me that we are not just biochemical, for if we were our identity would depend on our bodies and brains, and not our minds. Determinists think the software of our minds is all in firmware, hardwired in, but I think we all know that there’s really a person “in there”.

    Another analogy would be a TV set. We watch a program on it, but we can’t if it isn’t plugged into the power, or the aerial breaks apart, or there is a thunderstorm, or a circuit in the TV fails. But that doesn’t mean that the program was just the TV. Rather, it meant that the program depended on the set and is affected by a faulty set.

    So I think we are our consciousness, but that is transmitted physically and is affected by our bodies. And it would die when our bodies die, except if we are resurrected by the grace of God.

    That’s my first thoughts.

  3. We are in luck this Saturday there is a presentation about wree will etc be some folks who study that stuff =

    norman jenkins,
    World Science Festival has invited you to watch their next live event: Mind Over Masters: The Question of Free Will

    Mind Over Masters: The Question of Free Will
    May 30th
    Mind Over Masters: The Question of Free Will
    Saturday, May 30th, 2015 at 8:00 PM EDT on WorldScienceFestival

    Do we make conscious decisions? Or, as many scientists and philosophers argue, are all of our actions predetermined? And if they are predetermined—if we don’t have free will—are we responsible for what we do? These are questions that have been debated for centuries, but now neurotechnology is allowing scientists to study brain activity neuron by neuron to try to determine how and when our brains decide to act. With neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers we’ll use the latest findings…

    View Event

    Set your notifications for us to email or text you when the event begins, or add the event to your calendar:

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    World Science Festival

    The World Science Festival’s signature event is an annual celebration and exploration of science that launched in 2008. The World Science Festival also produces year-round programming throughout NY…


  4. Dear uncleE

    Yes, you summarised it well. If external physical changes occur – it is very easy to conclude. You are still the same person inside.

    However, if physical changes happen that change the ‘person that we are’, then it does not become so straight forward.

    For instance, as a person, I may be known to be honest, hardworking, helpful and selfless. That perhaps typifies me or defines me. But if a physical change occurs in the brain that changes my personality – makes me dishonest, unhelpful and selfish…..then I become a ‘different person’.

    Consciousness, to me, is different. If I lose consciousness….I’m just not awake. But if I lose the character that defines me and embodies me…..its hard to see the real original self. It changes me to someone or something different.

    Change in character, behaviour, temperament and ultimately values and morals….that can be very difficult to accept.

    It makes you wonder

  5. Hi Norm, thanks for that advertisement. It looks interesting. But neurobiology only tells us what it can study, which is the brain. If there is a separate mind, I’m not sure how neuroscience can say much. What do you think?

  6. Hi Ernest, yes what you say here makes sense. If a loved one’s character changes, it can be disconcerting. But if a friend was a drug addict with some terrible behaviour patterns as a result, and they got off the drugs and their behaviour and character improved dramatically, we might say they were a “different person” but we would know they were actually the same person with a new character.

    So I’m thinking when the behaviour change goes the other way as a result of an accident, the same applies. Their character might change for the worse. but surely there would be many, many things still the same, probably including memories?

    Nevertheless, these are deep questions and I wouldn’t pretend to be sure. Your background gives you a much better chance than me!

  7. I can’t discuss anything that can’t be established as factual. The only way that has been proven to be reliable is the scientific process which always been physical. I shall change my mind as soon as anything non-physical effect can be proven to exist = The alternate is to consider all and anything = – especially recognized mythologies = and worthy of time consuming extensive and in depth discussions .. These discussions have been going on long time before the scientific process was developed with no real progress. = The proposal or conjecture that there is a non-physical component of human mind may be interesting, just prove it – or at least produce some evidence that can be tested.. Prayer has been tested and it did not produce positive evidence ..

  8. Hi Norm, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?

    “I can’t discuss anything that can’t be established as factual.”
    Do you apply this principle in all of your life? Can you give me an example from everyday life?

    “The proposal or conjecture that there is a non-physical component of human mind may be interesting, just prove it – or at least produce some evidence that can be tested.”
    Did you read Do humans have free will? What do you think of the thought that if naturalism is an assumption which leads to determinism, yet we seem unable to live without thinking we have free will, then there is a prima facie case that dualism may be a better assumption than naturalism?

    “Prayer has been tested and it did not produce positive evidence”
    What studies are you referring to here? My reading indicates that if you test prayer as it is rally prayed, there is plenty of evidence, and even if unrepresentative forms of prayer are tested, there are mildly positive results.


  9. The problem with science, evidence & facts is: it is not necessarily absolute.

    Especially when dealing with life & nature.

    Take evidence based medicine for instance. Sure, we do things based on evidence. We have to. On the other hand, we have to admit that there is so much we do not know.

    For example, in the Management of severe head injury – till this day there are only 3 Level 1 Evidence Statements. They are all negative statements. Everything else we do is Level 2 and below……so really, there is a lot in life & science that we do not understand.

    Importantly, many facts and evidence can be interpreted in several ways.

    There is no real proof in a lot of things we claim are ‘facts’.

  10. UnkleE, I thought that the four options (materialist hard determinism, materialist compatibilism, materialist-non-materialist emergentism and theistic non-materialist libertarianism) were a bit few, despite our basic agreement on the topic. For example, one could be an atheist and a non-naturalist at the same time without relying on a type of emergentism. And I think that on the more theistic end of the spectrum less personal forms of divinities could at least be options for people.

  11. Yes I agree there are more options, or more subtleties. I don’t think my #3 specified emergentism or not, so I think your first suggestion fits there. People like Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers fit in here, as do (probably) most lay people who are not religious.

    I agree that there are many people in the west these days who hold to some form of spirituality or theism without being highly specific, and I haven’t really covered them specifically. I could have omitted the word “personal” before “God”, but I’m not sure if a non-personal God is capable of free will itself, and so maybe not capable of granting it to us. I think these people probably also fit under my #3, which didn’t specify any view about God.

    So I think I’ll plead “half guilty”. 🙂

  12. Yes, you are right that 3 was not specifically emergentist, that’s my mistake. I’m not sure whether they would see the immaterial as part of the natural world (which threw me off on first reading, assuming that the immaterial aspects arose within a naturalist system), but it is reasonable you used that phrase for that as opposed to supernatural agents.

    I’ll change my charge accordingly and plead the same for me. 😉

  13. Hi folks,
    I’m behind on all projects but I’ll try to catch up – or at least post as soon as I get organized on the topic that UnckleE started. So I’ll apologize for my delay .however, it may be interesting to ask for response to my postings. The question I’ll answer now is where is the study – (PAID STUDY) – about the efficacy of prayer on the results of medical problems.

    If there is any physical (real) results for prayer it should show in testing the proporsition or conjecture. If a claim is made, it is up to the claimants to prove the claim. The following postings is on sites that are open to critical review. .

    Prayer and healing: A medical and scientific perspective on randomized controlled trials

    Since the scientific process has been the only way that mankind has been to generate the usable facts to make leaps in dealing with our problems of living. Explore the World Science Festival sites = It shoud provide lots of interesting discussion and results .

    Have fun, if you have the gonads to explore =


  14. Hi Norm,

    I think you are right that it would be good to discuss the efficacy of prayer for healing. As far as I can see, there are two quite different methodologies available to do this.

    The first methodology is to conduct trials under controlled conditions, and your first reference is a review of many of these studies (thanks for that reference, it is very useful). I too have investigated these, (see Intercessory prayer and healing), and arrived at similar conclusions. Overall, more studies report modest positive response to prayer than report no or negative response, but the results aren’t spectacular. The authors give methodological reasons why this is so.

    To those reasons I would add that this is not how christians pray (I note the authors are Indian, but I suspect it isn’t how Hindus pray either). So what is being tested is something vaguely like christian prayer, but too far removed to be very useful. They have chosen this method to try to improve the methodology, but it doesn’t work and it is testing the wrong thing. Note too that what is being measured is whether prayer results in some quite “natural” but slight improvement over people who aren’t specifically prayed for, not whether prayer can lead to “miracle” healings.

    The second way is methodologically far more difficult, but actually measures what christians do when they pray for the sick. Medical documentation (before and after) for people who are apparently healed is examined by medical professionals, who verify that the person was indeed sick or injured, they did indeed make a rapid recovery, the recovery has persisted, it occurred after prayer for healing and there is no obvious medical explanation. These studies are less rigorous, but they do indeed measure the real thing.

    And while many people are not healed, some are, quite spectacularly. I have outlined a few (with some references) in Healing miracles and God, but there are many others which I am gradually following up.

    So there is the answer to your challenge. The evidence is there, but it is not as definite as we would like. But in common with some other matters of human behaviour, what they lack in rigour they make up for in number.

    Perhaps you’d like to take a look and see what you think.

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