Friday, June 3, 2016

Free Will Or Determinism?

There is a fascinating article in "The Atlantic" about the modern debate over the perception and reality of free will. (

The premise is that science has proven there is no such thing as free will.  If evolution and naturalism are true (and the scientists who are quoted assume this) then humans are no more than very complex meat machines. Each machine operates according to the programming built into the individual through genetic inheritance. There is no such thing as a spiritual component of the human being (or, for that matter, a spiritual reality outside of human beings.)  Decisions are not made consciously, they are made by the meat machine before the conscience is even aware of them.

So the scholars (3x), scientists (6x), philosophers (6x), intellectuals (2x), physiologist(s) (1x), and especially Sam Harris (14x) believe that the truth is that there is no such thing as "free will." They believe in determinism.

Now, some of these "intellectual elites" believe this is a very dangerous truth. They say that if this truth is widely accepted it will undermine any culture and result in antisocial, selfish, unethical and dishonest behavior. The article points to several experiments that supported this idea.

The article explores the various approaches that have been put forward - from hiding this "truth" from the unwashed masses (that is us) and promoting the illusion of free will - to proclaiming the truth while teaching the subtile difference between determinism and fatalism so that people are motivated to be "the best version of themselves they can be." (Harris)

How should a Christian respond to these things?

To begin with, as a Christian, I do not attribute authority to any scientific theorists. They have assumed but have not proven their premises that 1) there is no reality beyond nature and 2) life came from non-life and evolved into higher life forms from lower life forms.  Based on these assumptions, they argue about the implications of their assumptions. Experimental science plays a very small role in their discussions - especially since much depends on the architecture and operation of the most vast and complex structure in the universe - the human brain.

As a Christian, I believe in a supernatural spiritual reality and I accept the authority of the Bible as God's written revelation of himself and his works in relation to mankind. I believe that God is eternal and the universe is created by God according to his plans and purposes. I believe that God created mankind in his own image and gave him the ability (and responsibility) to make real moral choices.

In spite of the musings of the intellectual elites, the vast majority of the world's population of humans believes in their own and other's moral agency and responsibility. It is quite natural for people to talk about what they or others ought to do or ought not do. The Atlantic article mentions this as the source of a human idea of holding people responsible for their actions. This is the basis of any idea of justice, but Harris and others would tell us that such an idea is irrational because of determinism.

As I read this article and similar writings, I am amazed that anyone can take these ideas seriously. The discussion should really be seen as a refutation of the underlying assumptions.  If their assumptions were truly true (i.e., conforming to an objective reality) then there would be no objective reality to the ideas of justice, responsibility, ethics, morality, etc. So it would be ridiculous to argue about a person becoming "the best version of" himself or herself. It would be silly for these theorists to have any concern over how they "ought" to handle the so called truth of determinism.  Given their assumptions there is no "ought" - there is only what is.  Justice, ethics, morals, responsibility and so on have no meaning.

The discussions and arguments about these things disprove the assumptions on which they are based.