Reality used to be a friend of ours?


The purpose of science and philosophy is to explain difficult facts. If our current philosophy or science cannot explain some facts, we consider a new hypothesis or vary the current hypothesis.

But one aspect of reality is proving impossible to reconcile with current science and philosophy, which creates tensions.

Materialism and free will

Materialism is the view that that matter is everything and that thinking and consciousness are actually material. Most atheists would be materialists, and most science is based on an assumption of materialism.

Free will as most people understand it (often called libertarian free will) means that when we make a choice, we could have chosen otherwise.

Most materialists don’t believe we have this sort of free will, and the logic is simple. As biologist Jerry Coyne says: “this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics. …. the outputs of our brain — our “choices” — are dictated by those laws.”

There is nothing non-material in our brains to change the way those laws operate. We choose, and it feels like we could have chosen otherwise, but physics tells us this is an illusion.

Materialism, free will and living life

I have written before on how this conclusion that we have no free will is contrary to how we experience life (see Atheism and freewill – the elephant in the room? and Choosing our religion (1): do we have free will to choose anything?), but here I want to look at how neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers think about this.

We must think as if we have free will, we can’t help ourselves

“It’s an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back”
Daniel Wegner

“the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It’s just that I can’t really live with this fact from day to day..”
Galen Strawson

“As intelligent agents we are compelled to believe certain things, most importantly that our will is free …. beliefs which as individuals committed to science we yet know to be false.”
Karsten Harries,

“We must believe in free will, we have no choice.”
Novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer

Free will is a good illusion ….

“we do not really have free will …. But who really cares for all practical purposes? It’s much more reasonable and practical for my genes to build me believing in free will, and for me to act and think as if I have free will.”
Eric Baum

“human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting, are not free but are as causally bound as the stars in their motions. …. I am compelled to act as if free will existed because if I want to live in a civilised society I must act responsibly.”
Albert Einstein

Inconsistency is good?

These scientists and philosophers are quite clear that free will is illusory, but necessary for us to live, even though that practical belief is contradictory.

“We cannot live adequately with …. a complete awareness of the absence of free will. ….we ought to hold on to those central but incoherent or contradictory beliefs in the free will case.”
Saul Smilansky

“I believe myself and my children to be mere machines …..But this is not how I treat them …. I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs and act on each of them in different circumstances.”
Rodney Brooks

In fact, some would say that not accepting the illusion of free will in our day-to-day lives would make us less human:

“human beings, like all of the other entities that we know about, appear to be robots or zombies all the way down, whether we like that idea or not. …. At an important and ineradicable level, the idea of my daughter as merely a complex robot carrying my genes into the next generation is both bizarre and repugnant to me. …. There may well be individuals who lack this sense, and who can quite easily and throughly conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental and mechanistic terms, but we label such people ‘psychopaths’ ….”
Edward Slingerland

Illusion or delusion?

Psychologists tell us that a psychosis “implies that some inherited sense of reality has broken down, that the person has lost touch with it, or has become engaged in an alternative reality”.

So we can sum up the views of these experts:

  1. Because materialism is true, humans don’t have free will, it is an illusion.
  2. But it is necessary for a our psychological and societal wellbeing that we feel and act as if we have free will.
  3. Thus we have to live with two different and inconsistent realities – one the unlivable reality and one a comforting delusion.
  4. Thus, if materialism is true, all people, religious or otherwise, have to live with a delusion or illusion that we have free will.

Has it come to this?

Christian often get charged with being “delusional”, basing our lives on unreality, believing things for which there is no evidence (some say believing things we know aren’t really true).

But it seems that the boot is on the other foot. If materialism is true, everyone lives with an illusion. The only difference is that materialists know their illusion is false, but they still live it, whereas christians at least believe their illusion is true.

But if materialism isn’t true, materialists are still living an illusion, while christians may actually be living according to the truth. No wonder the eminent participants in the Moving Naturalism Forwards workshop concluded that free will is “a philosophical black hole” that isn’t worth discussing any more, and a new less confronting term should be used.

None of which proves which belief is true. But at least I, as a christian, have the possibility that the way I live may be according to the truth, but materialists seem destined to live an illusion no matter which view is true.

Perhaps materialists can be at peace with their illusion. As Eric Baum concludes: “Thankfully, the fact that I can intellectually understand that my mind is nothing but an evolved computation does not in any way detract from my enjoyment of life or from my desire to live a fruitful and moral life. That enjoyment and that desire are built in, and I feel them as keenly as I was designed to.”

But I think reality is indeed a friend of ours, and can tell us something about life and truth, if we really want to know.

What can we learn from a prominent atheist’s views on “faith”?

Title taken from the PM Dawn song Reality used to be a friend of mine.
Photo Credit: image_smith via Compfight cc.


  1. Easy 🙂
    Lack of actual libertarian free will does not mean lack of choice, lack of decision making, lack of planning capabilities, lack of introspection, lack of self-control, lack of intelligence, lack of rationality, lack of emotions, etc… The inputs we receive from the material world influence our material self. Our perceptions inform our judgement. All of which are properties of the material brain, which allows us to conceptualize the material world and move ourselves in the direction that we want… more or less, since let’s nor forget that we are also evidently really bad, as humans, at changing our habits, pre-conceptions, reflex reactions, tastes, emotions, preferences and beliefs.

  2. Hi Hugo, all that you say is probably true, that’s why I used Jerry Coyne’s definition and discussed that form of free will, which is what most people instinctively believe in, and is what the people I quoted were discussing. So what you say may be true but isn’t relevant to the free will I was discussing.

  3. Hi, it’s just that there is no contradiction, or even illusion; and you are thus not living more of a ‘truth’ as a Christian, because the type of free will you think we have has been refuted. So even if there are gods behind the universe, they built it in such a way that we don’t have that kind of freewill you were talking about. I think that’s why the people you referred to, at least some of them as you mentioned, concluded that there’s not much more to say on the topic nowadays.

  4. I think they agree actually; it’s just that a couple of lines taken out of context can make it sound like it’s an ‘impossible’ contradiction, which is what you think it is, no? Because you said “But I think reality is indeed a friend of ours, and can tell us something about life and truth, if we really want to know.” so you think they are denying reality; they believe something that’s impossible, an actual contradiction.

    At the same time, you hint at what their real beliefs are: “Thankfully, the fact that I can intellectually understand that my mind is nothing but an evolved computation does not in any way detract from my enjoyment of life or from my desire to live a fruitful and moral life. That enjoyment and that desire are built in, and I feel them as keenly as I was designed to.” Here the contradiction is not an ‘impossibility’ but rather a better understanding of reality, which is what you rightly say we should try to know about.

    I looked up just 2 of the quotes out of curiosity. The first one was Karsten Harries’ and it turns out that it’s not even really a quote; I guess you did not pick it up yourself… because it’s actually a paraphrase of what Drew McDermott said. Can’t copy/paste from there so hopefully the link works…

    The second is the most explicit, I think, since it has the word ‘impossible’ in it, from Galen Strawson. But it still fits with what I just said…

    Tamler: That’s true—neurobiologists, cognitive scientists—they all seem to have an easier time at least considering the possibility that there’s no free will.; But philosophers defend the concept against all odds, at the risk of terrible inconsistency with the rest of their views about the world. If it’s a fact that there’s no free will, why do philosophers have such a hard time accepting it?
    Galen: There’s a Very Large Question here, as Winnie-the-Pooh would say. There’s a question about the pathology of philosophy, or more generally about the weird psychological mechanisms that underwrite commitment to treasured beliefs -; religious, theoretical, or whatever – in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. But to be honest, I can’t really accept it myself, and not because I’m a philosopher. As a philosopher I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It’s just that I can’t really live with this fact from day to day. Can you – really? As for the scientists, they may accept it in their white coats, but I’m sure they’re just like the rest of us when they’re out in the world—convinced of the reality of radical free will.
    Tamler: Well, let’s move on to the argument then. There’s a famous saying of Schopenhaur’s that goes like this: “A man can surely do what he wants to do. But he cannot determine what he wants.” Is this idea at the core of your argument against moral responsibility?
    Galen: Yes — and it’s an old thought. It’s in Hobbes somewhere, and it’s in Book Two of Locke’sEssay, and I bet some ancient Greek said it, since they said almost everything. Actually, though, there’s a way in which it’s not quite true. If you want to acquire some want or preference you haven’t got, you can sometimes do so. You can cultivate it. Perhaps you’re lazy and unfit and you want to acquire a love of exercise. Well, you can force yourself to do it every day and hope you come to like it. And you just might; you might even get addicted. Maybe you can do the same if you dislike olives.
    Tamler: But then where did that desire come from—the desire to acquire the love of exercise…or olives?
    Galen: Right — now the deeper point cuts in. For suppose you do want to acquire a want you haven’t got. The question is, where did the first want — the want for a want — come from? It seems it was just there, just a given, not something you chose or engineered — it was just there, like most of your preferences in food, music, footwear, sex, interior lighting, and so on.
    I suppose it’s possible that you might have acquired the first want, that’s the want for a want, because you wanted to! It’s theoretically possible that you had a want to have a want to have a want.But this is very hard to imagine, and the question just re-arises: where did that want come from? You certainly can’t go on like this forever. At some point your wants must be just given. They will be products of your genetic inheritance and upbringing that you had no say in. In other words, there’s a fundamental sense in which you did not and cannot make yourself the way you are.

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