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”
“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..”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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’ ….”
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:
- Because materialism is true, humans don’t have free will, it is an illusion.
- But it is necessary for a our psychological and societal wellbeing that we feel and act as if we have free will.
- Thus we have to live with two different and inconsistent realities – one the unlivable reality and one a comforting delusion.
- 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.