Religion & Liberty Online

Are We Free to Think About Free Will?

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Are we predestined to debate the free will vs. determinism question forever? Or can we shed light on the nature of the human person such that this vexing question of why we do what we can finally be answered?

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Does God exist, or are we the mere by-products of evolution, simple accidents of the Big Bang? Do we have free will, or is everything predetermined, robbing us of true moral agency? A recent book by philosopher Paul Herrick, Philosophy, Reasoned Belief, and Faith, explores these perennial questions and more in a way that the religious and nonreligious should find engaging and compelling.

In the neuroscience community today, many believe that free will is an illusion. Back in the 1980s, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet conducted a series of now-famous experiments that appeared to prove this. The experiments involved candidates who, while sitting in front of a timer, were told to randomly press a button or flex their wrist and to record the time they were conscious of their decision to do so. Meanwhile, electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes were attached to their heads to monitor brain activity. The experiment revealed the occurrence of brain activity some milliseconds beforethe participants were fully conscious of their decisions, which, free will skeptics maintain, means that our brains make decisions before we are aware of them. It is only after our brain has decided to act that we (mistakenly) attribute these decisions to our conscious intentions to do so. In other words, science has demonstrated that our intended actions are the product of uncontrolled neural activity.

But does this prove what its defenders say it does? Not quite, at least so say philosophers. For one thing, the Libet experiments did not count instances where a participant refrained from acting, so we cannot know whether the neural activity preceding conscious awareness might be the brain gearing up for an action that we decided only later to execute. Perhaps, in other words, the prior brain activity can be “vetoed” by our decision not to act. Furthermore, as philosopher Alfred Mele has pointed out, instead of disproving free will, the early neural activity might instead be likened to how sound registers in our consciousness: “Just as it takes some time for the sounds someone is making to travel to our ears and register in our brain and in our consciousness, it might take a little time for our decisions to show up in our consciousness. But it’s not as though conscious reasoning was completely uninvolved in the decision-producing loop. The loop might just be a tad shorter than it seems.”

Moreover, Libet’s experiments were designed to capture unconscious decisions, so it should not be surprising if it turns out that largely mindless actions (such as randomly flexing or pushing a button) do not arise out of conscious intention. However, mindful acts like choosing where to eat for dinner, what major to study, or which person to marry are categorically different. These acts, as philosophers note, follow from deliberation, often over long periods of time. That is why questions of free will are questions that science cannot in principle ever settle, because scientific results always require interpretation. Free will is therefore the domain of philosophy, not science.

Very well, but are there good philosophical reasons for believing we possess a free will? To answer this, Herrick first leads the reader to see why arguments against free will are self-refuting. Consider, for example, that if our thoughts are not free, they are determined. But if they are determined, the very thought “there is no free will” is itself determined, which means we have no reason to believe it. (After all, could we ever know, for example, what or why it was so determined?) Thus, by formulating arguments for determinism, advocates undermine their own thesis, for they presuppose we are capable of assessing arguments by the standard of reason, and that we should conform our minds to the truth as reason reveals it. But this works only if we have the power to choose reason or to reject reason—in other words, if we have free choice, not to mention a comprehensive understanding of how our “reason” works, or what informs it. “By arguing rationally against free will,” Herrick explains, those who deny free will “implicitly assume that people have the power to choose freely.”

So much then for determinism. But is not indeterminism, or the idea that our actions are uncaused, also riddled with complications? After all, if our actions are undetermined, then we are not the cause of them. That is why some philosophers, like the ancient thinker Epicurus, thought the solution to free will lay in randomness. According to this view, we can assume (like determinists) that we are composed of nothing but atoms, which are themselves simply links in a closed causal chain and therefore determined. Nevertheless, since atoms sometimes spontaneously “swerve” out of their predetermined paths, we can also maintain that we are not entirely determined. Rather, the random atomic swerves in our brain are what give us free will. But, as Herrick makes clear, “an uncaused, random atomic swerve occurring inside your brain or body would be something that happened to you; it would not be something you caused” (emphasis added). So, if determinism, indeterminism, and randomness all fail to deliver an answer to the free will question, what options are left?

Consider a view that has its origins in Aristotle. It is often referred to today as “agent causation.” Agent causation insists that our mind—our intellect in tandem with our will—determines at least some of our actions. This view defies the narrow “determinist” versus “indeterminist” camps presented above. Like determinists, it accepts that all actions are caused. Like indeterminists, however, it denies that all actions are determinately caused. Instead, agent causation maintains that at least some of our thoughts and actions are freely caused—and not random “swerves” of atoms.

This line of thought suggests that the human person is more than merely atoms banging around in space. Rather, it holds that, in addition to the atoms or “matter” that are the constituents of the human body, there is also a “form” that animates and organizes those atoms into a human body (and not, say, a cat body), and that therefore together “matter” and “form” comprise two irreducible aspects of a human being, which is a view known as “hylomorphism.” If this is right, then not only do we have reason to take free will seriously, but we also have reason to suppose that there is more to a human being and the human mind than mere chains of physical causation. Of course, proper treatment of these matters demands much more than can be said here, and indeed Herrick does say more about them in his book. Nevertheless, it is clear that the issue of free will is closely connected to both the nature of the human person and the nature of the mind itself (anthropology and philosophy of mind, respectively), which in turn flow from what the nature of reality is (metaphysics).

This undoubtedly is why the earlier sections of the book cover metaphysics, including “cosmological” questions about existence and whether there is a God, as well as questions concerning “design” and evolution. One especially interesting section concerns the latter. For example, many people today assume that evolution alone provides a complete explanation of the emergence of the species homo sapiens. Now certainly the evidence indicates that our bodies have evolved from lower primates—that much seems clear. But the relevant question is whether evolution accounts for all aspects of the human being, such as the power of our minds to reason universally. On that question there is reason to doubt the adequacy of the evolutionary explanation on its own.

Herrick reasserts an argument first put forth by C.S. Lewis and later developed by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. In brief, the argument says that if the mind is nothing more than the evolved physical brain—that is, if the mind is reducible to the random motions of physical atoms in our skulls—then we have no reason to believe it, because any argument for it (that the mind is simply the physical brain) would itself be the result of nonrational forces and therefore meaningless. Ergo, the mind cannot be cashed out in evolutionary terms alone. Here, in slightly different terms, is how Herrick puts it:

Since no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of nonrational causes, it follows that if naturalism [the view that all of reality, including the human being, is composed of only physical matter] is true, reason cannot be trusted to generally give us truth about the world. But if reason cannot be trusted, then no belief reached by reasoning is justified or valid. But naturalism is a belief reached by reasoning. Therefore, if naturalism is true, it logically follows that naturalism cannot be rationally believed.

Simply put, then, while evidence suggests that our bodies have evolved through physical processes over time, reason indicates that the powers of our mind, indeed the power of reason itself, cannot in principle be the result of mere physical processes on their own. Put differently, evolution offers a valid though incomplete explanation of the whole human being. For a complete account, additional resources, including the resources of philosophy, are necessary. (And for an explanation of the origin of the human soul, for those who believe we all possess one, St. John Paul II had a few thoughts on that.)

If you find this conundrum fascinating and want to dive deeper into matters of both philosophy and faith, check out Philosophy, Reasoned Belief, and Faith. The choice, of course, is yours.

David Weinberger

David Weinberger is a freelance writer and book reviewer on topics related to philosophy, culture, history, and economics. Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03. Email him at