Free Will Is Real, But Not so Simple

The free will debate is one of those issues that feels a bit worn out to me; it seems no one is saying anything new. But people can say old things in new, more interesting ways. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has done that. He’s written an excellent article in Slate, in which he argues both that we have free will and that our ability to make choices does not violate any laws of nature. That’s a fairly unpopular thing to say these days. By doing so, Baumeister is going against the current trend of fashionable thought, which I find quite refreshing. Baumeister affirms the common sense view of free will, while also attempting to show there is no incompatibility with his view and science. I appreciate that kind of holistic, interdisciplinary way of thinking. And while I don’t agree with everything he says (more on that in a moment), I do think his article is full of insight and wisdom that Christians (and anyone, really) can learn from.

First, Baumeister claims that the major difference between humans and other animals in regard to free will is that humans can rationally choose to inhibit their impulses for the benefit of society, or themselves, or both. As I read that, I was reminded of something C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain (paraphrasing), “To be a complete human is to have your passions obedient to your will.” It is encouraging to be reminded (by science) that we are capable of practicing self-control, instead of hearing the usual “indulge your appetites,” “we ain’t nothin’ but mammals” slogans we are constantly bombarded with to get us to buy chocolate, shampoo, or pop albums.

Second, Baumeister makes the very interesting claim that free will is based in the unique human activity of culture. “If you think of freedom as being able to do whatever you want, with no rules, you might be surprised to hear that free will is for following rules,” Baumeister says. What he means is that free will is designed to help uphold the fabric of human society, not just your own autonomy. In an age of rampant individualism and rights entitlement, we need more affirmations like this of the scientific value of culture and community.

Third, Baumeister has done everyone a service by critiquing reductionism and by identifying free will as a phenomenon based in the natural world. He says:

“There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall…. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges.”

There are a number of outspoken cultural thinkers who currently say we cannot have free will because our actions are ultimately determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. Baumeister points out that rational choices do not violate physical laws, but they do invoke causes beyond those laws—such as psychological, social, and rational causes. While he’s not the first person to say that, it is still refreshing to hear it said.

Even still, Baumeister may be a little too optimistic. The dispute over free will is not as simple as he makes it sound. For instance, materialists who deny free will often do so based on the assumption of two philosophical principles. One (the “completeness principal”) says that every physical effect has a physical cause. Since human behavior is a physical effect, then it must have a physical cause. The second principal (known as “no overdetermination”) states that positing a psychological or rational (or supernatural) cause of human behavior is unnecessary (since physics and chemistry can supposedly explain it all), and therefore we shouldn’t do it.

Non-materialists who affirm free will deny these principles and claim that some physical effects have non-physical causes. An example they would give is to argue that many of our actions are determined by our intentions, or the “propositional content” of our thoughts, or by laws of logic; none of which are physical things. Materialists might retort that scientific studies show our brains are acting toward a choice before we consciously decide to make that choice. Non-materialists respond by pointing out logical fallacies in the assumptions underlying these studies. And it goes on and on.

All that to say, free will is complicated. Baumeister’s article is a welcomed and delightful surprise in an otherwise weary and exhausting debate. He’s right that our choices do not violate physics, yet they point beyond physics. He’s right that free will is not for doing whatever you want, but is designed for a social purpose. And he’s right that free will is not magic. But he might be a little too cheery, if he thinks the free will debate is going to be resolved any time soon.

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment