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.
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?