Free Will is an Illusion? (RJS)

Free Will is an Illusion? (RJS) April 10, 2012

I have been moving of late to include some administrative roles in my duties – and this has led me to receive and even read with interest The Chronicle of Higher Education. The March 23 issue of The Chronicle Review has the provocative cover statement …

You may think you decided to read this.

You’re wrong.

In fact, a scientific consensus is emerging:

Free will is an illusion.

The forum in The Chronicle Review contains a brief intro and six short articles by several scholars coming from different angles – biology, neuroscience, philosophy, and law. This forum was precipitated in part by Sam Harris’s new book Free Will, published in early March, but in reality reflects a much deeper and more pervasive discussion including recent books by Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain) and David Eagleman (Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain).

The Chronicle Review introduces the six short essays with a quote from the ever provocative Sam Harris:

What’s at stake? Just about everything: morality, law, religion, our understanding of accountability and personal accomplishment, even what it means to be human. Harris predicts that a declaration by the scientific community that free will is an illusion would set off “a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution.”

What do you think?

Is modern neuroscience capable of proving that free will is an illusion?

Does this cause problems for Christian faith?

Jerry Coyne contributes one of the essays with the claim that free will is ruled out by the laws of physics which require causality. This constitutes proof that free will is illusion. There is nothing in the composition of a human being that is capable of making choices. And he too takes a jab at religion:

The absence of real choice also has implications for religion. Many sects of Christianity, for example, grant salvation only to those who freely choose Jesus as their savior. And some theologians explain human evil as an unavoidable byproduct of God’s gift of free will. If free will goes, so do those beliefs. But of course religion won’t relinquish those ideas, for such important dogma is immune to scientific advances.

Both Coyne and Harris exhibit a rather poor understanding of religion – Christian religion in particular. There is, of course, a long tradition of Christian thought that claims human free will is illusion, at least after the Fall. John Calvin appears to view it as an illusion even before the Fall. The sovereignty of God requires that he knew Adam and Eve would fall before the foundations of the world. Paul Bloom in the final essay of the series in the forum acknowledges this point, referring to the Jewish philosopher, theologian, and teacher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). But the theological debates predate even Maimonides. Given this, it is not terribly likely that these scientific “discoveries” will set off a culture war that can come close to rivaling the conflict over creation and evolution.

Not free will – but reductive naturalism. The conflict Sam Harris predicts will not come over the issue of free will. The real shift, and source of conflict with Christian faith is the implicit assumption of reductive naturalism that underlies the discussion and is permeating our western society.  In this view human beings are reduced to living biological machines – complex computers, not significantly different from ants, with laws and rules which serve to facilitate human survival as a social animal, and with no more free will than a bowl of sugar (an expression used by Anthony Cashmore in his inaugural article in PNAS following election to the National Academy of Sciences).

In his essay Michael Gazzinga from UCSB builds on the idea of the human brain as a machine and compares rules of human society to traffic laws – necessary for the smooth flow of interactions.

The exquisite machine that generates our mental life also lives in a social world and develops rules for living within a social network. For the social network to function, each person assigns each other person responsibility for his or her actions. There are rules for traffic that exist and are only understood and adopted when cars interact. It is the same for human interactions.

People have responsibility and can be held accountable – but only because this is essential for the natural and mechanistic functioning of human society and survival.

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale notes that it is common sense to think that  our decisions are neither determined nor random but something else. But this “something else” is an illusion. He continues on to compare human thought processes with the deliberations of a computer program.

Most of all, the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought. These (physical and determined) processes can influence our actions and our thoughts, in the same way that the (physical and determined) workings of a computer can influence its output. It is wrong, then, to think that one can escape from the world of physical causation—but it is not wrong to think that one can think, that we can mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion. After all, what are you doing now?

But can neuroscience disprove free will? I used “discoveries” in quotes above because I don’t see that any of these claims by Harris, Coyne, Gazzinga, Bloom, or others are anything more than assertions based on metaphysical assumptions. In fact, I don’t see how any experiment can rule out the possibility of free will, and I don’t think any experiment performed to date does.

We are fully embodied creatures. Certainly our choices and our abilities are constrained by our bodies – mind and brain are intimately related. Experiments in neuroscience, case studies such as those discussed by Joel Green in his book Body, Soul, and Human Life,  and even the every day experience of each of us are enough to demonstrate this. But the connection between mind and brain does not, of necessity, eliminate the possibility or the reality of free will.

Scientific elimination of free will as a possibility would require a demonstration that thoughts are nothing but mechanical response, a complex computer algorithm that will, save the truly random input of quantum uncertainty, arrive at the same choice and action every time the program is rerun (if we could rerun the program of life). This has not been proven – it has been assumed by Harris, Coyne, Gazzinga, Bloom and the others.

The Chronicle Review included essays with counter views – and I recommend reading all of the essays on the site. One is worth mentioning here. Owen D. Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt is a bit more restrained and realistic in his view:

This is not to say that degrees of freedom are irrelevant to law. Science hasn’t killed free will. But it has clarified various factors – social, economic, cultural, and biological in nature – that constrain it.

All behaviors have causes, and all choices are constrained. We need to accept this and adapt.

Constraint is real – and an experimentally demonstrable phenomena. This is not a challenge to religious faith. Free will is something different, perhaps not a challenge to religious faith, but a challenge nonetheless. Presented with a cookie there is “something else”  within and I can decide to eat or not – a real choice, not the mechanistic workings of a computer on legs.

Does the connection between mind and brain challenge your understanding of what it means to be human?

Does this have consequences for Christian faith?

Do you think free will is an illusion?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]

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  • phil_style

    Free-will is more Greek in origin that biblical isn’t it?

    A pretty quick cursory read of Paul kinda puts free-will (at least libertarian free will) on the edge.

    Free-will was co-opted by Christianity as a useful tool for justifying a God who judges (after all, responsibility only comes from free-will right?). It’s a legal argument more than a religious one.

  • RJS

    phil_style (#1)

    Body-soul duality is more Greek than biblical I think. But free will is something different. The argument against free will really is an argument that we are nothing more than very complex computers. Decision making in humans is as deterministic an algorithm as any computer program we could write.

    The responsibility issue comes up repeatedly in the essays in the forum, but I think this is something of a red herring, not the real troubling issue.

  • Joe Canner

    It’s definitely useful to realize that our free will is circumscribed by our upbringing, our genes, our circumstances, etc. This fosters humility regarding our accomplishments and keeps us from looking down on the failures of others.

    I agree with RJS that scientifically disproving free will would be difficult. Certainly we have (or will have) the measurement tools at our disposal, but the problem is that the very act of measuring human responses changes the outcome (something akin to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle).

    Even if it were possible, it seems like a pointless exercise. Harris and Coyne may be correct that such a thing would have implications for religion, but that would be the least of our problems. If followed to its logical conclusion, its effect on law and personal responsibility would be to produce chaos.

    On the other hand, if such studies could uncover ways to intervene on causal variables and produce better choices, that might be something worth doing…or at least debating about.

  • Jordan

    I think, or I thought, the idea of a person being just a machine, the brain a computer, had been refuted by Heidegger in Being and Time, and Dreyfus when he applied this at MIT. He told people why and how their AI experiments wouldn’t work, and sure enough, the researchers encountered the problems he predicted.

    So..I wonder if this is being ignored, or what is going on

  • Scientific determinism creates quite a few ethical questions.

    Establishing determinism as scientific law seems like a really easy way for a scientist to circumvent philosophical questions and set up a platform from which a scientist can cary on any study regardless of ethical or sociological questions. By reducing humanity to a high-functioning organic computer it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to justify the mis-treatment of humanity. It feels like fertile ground for fascism and racism to flourish with a scientific foundation.

  • Rick

    RJS wrote:
    “Scientific elimination of free will as a possibility would require a demonstration that thoughts are nothing but mechanical response, a complex computer algorithm that will, save the truly random input of quantum uncertainty, arrive at the same choice and action every time the program is rerun…This has not been proven – it has been assumed by Harris, Coyne, Gazzinga, Bloom and the others.”

    Coyne, on the other hand, states:

    “To assert that we can freely choose among alternatives is to claim, then, that we can somehow step outside the physical structure of our brain and change its workings. That is impossible. Like the output of a programmed computer, only one choice is ever physically possible: the one you made. As such, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that we can make alternative choices, for that’s a claim that our brains, unique among all forms of matter, are exempt from the laws of physics by a spooky, nonphysical “will” that can redirect our own molecules.”

    I agree with your stance, RJS, but it appears, in regards to proving their postions, that Coyne just wants to “pass the buck” back to you.

  • Percival

    I have to wonder what is the impetus for this materialistic determinism. Do those who push the theory do so because it just makes more sense and accounts for more of the facts? Or, is there some other reason that they believe that reconstructing man as machine will bring some benefit, personal or social? Personally, I am skeptical that this convergence of opinion is coming together out of some new neurological or psychological discoveries. Those studies can only build the case for constraint on free will. They can’t eliminate it.

    Excellent post RJS and perspicacious as well.

  • Jayflm

    As a pastor and a sociology major (28 years ago), I agree with Owen Jones’ affirmation. We are constrained, pre-disposed to certain behaviors by both biological and cultural influences, but not determined. And we can change through self-discipline and the influence of both human and divine assistance.

    If the sort of thinking in this book spreads from the academic realm to popular thinking and even the judicial system, Lord help us! I shudder to think what a world where people come to think that the only reason to restrain their desires is the fear of incarceration will be like. Flip Wilson used to say “The devil made me do it,” and everyone laughed. Few will be laughing when there is no compelling answer to the protest, “I couldn’t help myself”.

  • I’ve been having this debate with an atheist friend much influenced by Sam’s new book. I’m perfectly able to accept that the ‘decisions’ of an earthworm are determined, ie based on its limited nervous system wiring, and external sensory inputs, its incredibly complex set of sensors for light, temperature, humidity and much else will (apart from any random quantum effects), produce certain movements. Data in, data out.

    I’m prepared to agree with my friend that though I may see various genuine choices at any one time, I may be predisposed to only one, so it was perhaps not a real choice.

    I think he finds it attractive because if people are truly totally determined in their actions, he feels they cannot be held morally responsible for them. (Therefore, God cannot exist.) I note that some determinists still do believe in moral responsibility. Certainly in a society that believed its members were determined, it would still have to apply sanctions when those members infringed appropriate behaviour. So of course those sanctions would become part of the input data that might restrain them from similar action in future.

    I have pointed out to my friend that people (eg with chemical abuse) need to take responsibility for their actions. And that, perhaps in one sense, Christianity is the solution to the limited determinism of lacking the power to make morally right choices.

    We both agree that determinism is totally unprovable one way or another. I also think that’s probably the hallmark of a bad theory!

    If anyone has further arguments I can put forward to him, I’d be grateful.

    Certainly, to me, consciousness is the deal-breaker. We aren’t even sure, scientifically, what it is. But it is the one certainty we can know about ourselves – that we exist as independent beings. I think consciousness does allow me to make freewill choices despite what my genes, character, brain wiring, previous experience, external inputs, etc might predispose me to. But I guess that is no more provable than determinism.

  • Luke Allison


    I’ve never heard any proponents of this mindset give a good explanation as to why any of us should take their findings seriously IF indeed their findings are true.

    There always seems to be a subtle assumption underlying their thinking that they are immune from the very constraints they lay on people. That is, they see clearly, while we all are floundering about in the dark. I don’t see how that makes sense if their brains are limited to the same rules.

    Anyway, I may be missing something here.
    I read Sam Harris’ little ebook, and it’s compelling to a certain extent. I just think he overstates the world-shaking nature of this research. Certainly, this is not a theory that is accepted 100 percent across the board in neuroscientific circles, right?

    I’m bothered by his using the Petit home invasion as an emotional lever. His knowledge of that case indicates that he merely read the wikipedia article on it or something similarly shallow.

    Joshua Komisarjevsky is a classic narcissistic sociopath with zero empathy. His upbringing was hardly “rigid and abusive”. If anything, his adoptive Christian parents were too lax with him. It seems as if his claims of sexual abuse at a young age are very debatable as well. His father and mother were more sad and naive than rigid and fundamentalist.

    We can say that he was born this way and had no choice but to rape and murder a 12 year old girl (in which case we need to be testing at a young age and locking up children for the good of society…good luck with that one), or we can say that he developed into this through abuse (which is his claim, but seems to be iffy given the evidence). Harris seems to try and essentially pin abuse and upbringing on his “lack of free will”. Which makes sense, since Harris’ entire purpose in living is to get rid of the dangerous “religious virus”.

    A third option exists: Komisarjevsky chose to do something that he knew was wrong because he wanted to do it.

    In my deepest points of sexual addiction, I had thoughts and potential actions floating through my consciousness which would have gotten me locked up had anyone seen them. All it takes to carry those thoughts forward is the development of a will to do so.

    Certainly there are more potent examples for Harris to use than this particular crime. If anything, this crime strengthens my belief in free will.

  • Jonathan

    It has always seemed to me that “free will is an illusion” is self-defeating. If it’s true, it can’t be true, because in that case there isn’t such a thing as “true”.

    If our minds are purely biochemical machines, then what we call “ideas” are simply the output or internal states of these machines. How could these outputs be said to be “true” or “false”, “right” or “wrong”, “correct” or “mistaken”? They simply “are”, and not much more can legitimately be said about them.

    For that reason, it seems to me the idea that free will is an illusion undermines the very concepts of, well, “concepts”, “ideas”, “proof”, “thought”, “persuasion”, “argument”, and “reason” itself.

    If Harris, Coyne, et al. are correct that free will is an illusion, then isn’t their claim that free will is an illusion merely the deterministic output of their genes and environment? They may “think” they “believe” the “idea” because it’s “correct”, but that can’t be the case. On what basis would their “argument” then be “convincing” to my “mind”?

  • phil_style

    @Jonathan, the argument you present about rationality is an old one, and quite a good one, but it’s not a defeater.

    RJS quotes the direct response in her article, from Paul Bloom “Most of all, the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought”.

    Computers can be programmed to make “rational” decisions, that is, to weigh the probability of events and “chose” an outcome based on the rules (i.e. the desired outcome) they are subject to. This, it is argued, is just the same (albeit less complex with respect to the mesh of governing rules) as a human brain.

  • Kyle


    I believe John Searle has posed, from a philosophical angle, serious problems for determinists who desire to untilize rationality in the quest for a clearer picture of reality. How does rationality interact with entirely determined neurological states? How can this rationality be trusted? How can a determined rationality meaningfully reflect upon determinism? And what in such a case would be the evolutionary advantage of consciousness and rationality? These are not small issues. Did anything in these essays touch upon as much?

  • HgsDctr

    here’s the comment I posted on Coyne’s article:

    You are right if mind-body physicalism is true. However, the substance dualist view holds that causes can be either physical systems or persons (whose actions may be mediated through physical systems). Thus, I have free will because I am a person with a spirit/soul/mind/whatever that is not purely physical. You also forget that the end of free will rips the rug out from under epistemology; you can’t have a justified true belief because you were determined to believe what you do. Thus, your position is self-refuting. “I am justified in my belief that there is no free will” is as valid as “There are no English sentences.” Justification requires free will–that you could have believed otherwise had you considered other evidence and arguments and CHOSEN a different belief!

  • Luke Allison

    phil_style #11,

    I do find it interesting that there is a rather sizable backlash against determinism in a theological paradigm (I am particularly reactionary against this idea), but folks might be perfectly okay with the kind of determinism outlined by Harris and others.

    Harris particularly lashes out against the immoral notion that God might send some people to hell for things they can’t help (like being born in the wrong country) while he blesses others.
    But it seems that if naturalistic determinism were true, the only recourse for society would be to limit the freedom of those who are most likely to be violent. In which case, “god” is effecting somebody for something they can’t help.

  • Kyle

    Also, how would one ever discover or prove a faculty divorced from all constraints, such as free will? Doesn’t scientific inquiry presuppose that phenomena have boundaries that meaningfully and predictably interact with one another in definable ways? I think the risk we run is heading into an either/or here. Complete freedom is of course absurd and would have surreal pragmatic implications, but determinism proper is a theory that doesn’t quite tie up all its loose ends, either. Reality refuses both somehow, which to me is a symptom of the first and last question in all these conversations: What/who do you love? Scientific understanding of reality is a tool meant to further the ends of love, and yet somehow these misguided understandings strive to preclude the meaningfulness of this love.

  • Jonathan

    @phil_style, I suppose it’s true that computers can be programmed to make “rational” decisions, if that’s the intent of the programmer.

    If the “programmer” is natural selection, whose “goal” is reproductive fitness, then the rules could be argued to serve that goal, but not the goal of being correct in the abstract. If our brains are just playing the game they have been programmed to, what do they “win”?

    I guess now I’m sliding into Plantinga’s materialist-evolution-self-defeating argument.

  • DRT

    I like the language of constraints, but that is not enough. There really are causal factors at work in the biology and environment. It constrains, and frequently determines.

    Luke Allison, there are quite a few studies that show we can indeed change our brains through thinking. That does not mean it was not determined to do so, but it does show that we can have the tail wag the dog too.

    I am quite against the extreme reductionism of the articles. I also believe that this problem is largely definitional and not reality. Coyne’s definition of free will simply says that we would make the same choices given everything else is exactly the same. I think that may be true, but it does not mean we don’t have free will, it only means that we are not arbitrary or random.

  • phil_style

    @Luke, #13,

    “Harris particularly lashes out against the immoral notion that God might send some people to hell for things they can’t help (like being born in the wrong country) while he blesses others.”

    Spot on. I think the divine justice issue is where this all boils down.

    However, I do have some tentative thoughts on why this shouldn’t really be a problem for the Christian anyway.

  • Tim

    Anyone who wants a strong scientific argument for the existence of free will should read “The Mind and the Brain” by Jeffrey Schwartz. It reexamines the Libet experiment, causal closure, and a whole bunch of other stuff in light of the new discoveries in quantum physics.

  • DRT

    And lots of this also get out to the point of trying to determine what we are, ontologically. The western world defines us as somehow being within the bounds of our physicality and causality. That we can somehow wall off a person and be able to examine what is left.

    But we are not that. We are not what is within our bodies. We are the relationships between our physical selves and our surroundings and our interactions. We are inherently empty in and of ourselves. Try to imagine yourself without anything else. Spend enough time there and you will see that there is nothing there.

    So, just because we have interdependent existence with our surroundings does not mean that we live in a reductionistically deterministic existence. It is a co-existence of interdependence.

  • Luke Allison

    DRT #19

    These are all interesting thoughts…any recommended reading on how you came to these conclusions?

  • phil_style

    @Luke, #20,

    I would recommend to you Nancy Murphy’s book “did my neurons make me do it”.

    It sort-of aligns with DRT’s comments. It uses the systems metaphor/ understanding to describe the human – arguing for town-down as well as bottom-up causality with respect to the mind.

  • greg huguley

    I find it a real irony that our Calvinist friends have been promoting this conclusion for years–just a “supernatural” source of determination as opposed to a “natural” one.

  • Jayflm –

    I shudder to think what a world where people come to think that the only reason to restrain their desires is the fear of incarceration will be like.

    It might not be all that different from now. As H. L. Mencken said, “People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police.”

  • If the physical world were completely deterministic then it is hard to see any leverage for ‘free will’ to act. However, our best descriptions of how the world actually works – variations on quantum mechanics – are completely indeterminate: the best you can do is assign probabilities to various outcomes. Einstein hated this, many other physicists hate it too, but if you leave aside the ideology a non-deterministic universe is what we experience. That doesn’t in itself require free will, of course, but it certainly leaves plenty of room for it.

    Provocative comments about neurological experiments ‘disproving’ free will have been popping up in the scientific press for some years now. As far as I can see, all they actually prove is that decision making is a far more complex, and interesting, process than we had previously realised. Most models still end up with some sort of executive function to balance competing impulses, and real life human decisions are just too difficult to make any sort of testable predictions on. Without testable predictions it’s all just pseudo-science and opinion.

    Biblically, without free will it’s hard to see any meaning to passages such as Deuteronomy 30:19, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live”.

  • Sam

    I used to be concerned by provocateurs claiming “free will is an illusion.” I can recall the times where I’d honestly wonder if I was just a glorified robot, receiving inputs from both neuronal signals and environmental stimuli. At this point, though, I’m much more relaxed about it all.

    I think a good case can be made, philosophically at least, that indeterministic free-will is real (even if we don’t fully understand how it comes about). For myself, the theologian/physicist John Polkinghorne has been very helpful on the topic. Philosopher/neuroscientist Eliezer Sternberg has also put forward interesting thoughts on the defense of free-will. However, as RJS stated, such a free-will is obviously constrained; I can’t entirely help my own temperament, intellectual abilities, physical abilities, etc. I would like to believe, though, that even if we can’t help the cards we’ve been dealt, we have a significant and worthwhile amount of freedom to choose how those cards are played.

  • DRT

    Luke, most of my knowledge is from eastern study, for instance

    but the generic term, I believe is neuroplasticity and there continues to be work in the area

  • Sort of going off ad-hoc here:

    I think the existence of art itself is an example of free will. We have intentionally bound ourselves to logic and reason within our society, and yet we have people who intentionally step out of that way of thinking into abstraction, chance, noise, and serendipity. We have people who, like Dali, reject reason for a more surreal existence.

    I think free-will is an illusion to those who are so reasonable they can’t find more than one or two reasonable things to do. They’re just too closed minded.

  • DRT

    BTW, this is exactly why I choose to change something in my life pretty much every week. I do things in totally different ways today than I did a few years ago since I have changed everything from how fast I walk, to electric shaving vs blade vs eating, nearly everything. Exercising the brain is important.

  • Kyle


    “I think the existence of art itself is an example of free will. We have intentionally bound ourselves to logic and reason within our society, and yet we have people who intentionally step out of that way of thinking into abstraction, chance, noise, and serendipity. We have people who, like Dali, reject reason for a more surreal existence.”

    What guarantee is this that these people are escaping determinism as much as the awareness that their decisions are determined? There are serious problems with determinism, to be sure, but I don’t think your expression of the will or suspension of logic looks much different from animalistic impulse, even if this suspension was “intentionally” selected. Could it be that obsessing over the reasonable course of action reduces the resources at one’s disposal (sub and unconscious understandings of the world)? Yes, but this is thematically set apart from determinism.

  • crawfish

    I guess I’m built to think this is all bunk.

  • MatthewS

    Luke Allison, this is a total sidetrack but:

    Joshua Komisarjevsky is a classic narcissistic sociopath with zero empathy. His upbringing was hardly “rigid and abusive”. If anything, his adoptive Christian parents were too lax with him. It seems as if his claims of sexual abuse at a young age are very debatable as well. His father and mother were more sad and naive than rigid and fundamentalist.

    Where in the world do you get this information? They were in Bill Gothard’s program, something I am all too familiar with. Too lax? Where do you get this? The sexual abuse claims were debatable? You know this how?

    I don’t for a minute accept his excuses for what he did, but I find it amazingly dismissive to declare out of hand that his background was not rigid and that there is such doubt for his sexual abuse claims. I found the claims quite believable and tragic.

    This link has a small commentary on the story, fwiw:

  • MatthewS

    I believe that humans effectively live in an open universe, where, for example, Scripture can give moral imperatives and people are able to make a choice to at least attempt to obey them. We effectively live in a universe where we make decisions and experience consequences.

    There seem to be paradoxes where Divine foreknowledge and will interact with human decisions. The pages in God’s book may look a lot different than the pages in mine, but I can’t see God’s book from here, I can only see the pages in my book. And in my book, as a metaphor for my experience, I make decisions and experience consequences. So even if I am foggy on many details, it still behooves me to act “as if”, to behave as if I do have free will and then use that free will to make wise choices.

    Degrees of constraint do seem to make sense, but even there it can be amazing how far away from their constraints some people manage to travel. But some constraint would seem to be acknowledged in saying “to whom much is given, much is required.”

  • Luke Allison


    I’ve read a lot about the story, and the defense claims he was abused (based on his own story), while the prosecution claims he’s making it up. The foster brother who he claims abused him has been ambiguous, from my knowledge.

    My point is that his parents were portrayed as terrifyingly cultish, more like Carrie’s mom from the movie Carrie. I know plenty of people involved in Gothard’s programs who, while conservative, were certainly not insane or abusive. In the trial, they just seem like tired old people.

    Consider this: Komisarjevsky put up pictures of “satanic” symbols and bands in his room, probably knowing fully that this would distress or intimidate his parents. I would suggest that, like the mother of many criminals, JK’s mother was a complete enabler of his behavior…hardly the physical or emotional cause of it. The fact that JK consistently snuck out and hung out with “bad influences” indicates that he was hardly intimidated or fearful of his parents’ reprisals. On the contrary, all the testimony about his younger years (including the 27 burglaries IN ONE COUNTY involving stalking and thrill-seeking home invasion) indicate that he saw his parents as pathetic barricades to him doing what he desired. Again, hardly a cowed abused child looking to lash out the first time the weight is lifted off of him.

    I’m not going to get into a huge argument, but I’d encourage you to read some of victim’s advocate (and abuse survivor) Laurel O’Keefe’s commentary on the subject:

    We can’t afford as a culture to blame violence against women (and little girls) on religion, no matter how distasteful we may find it.

  • Jeff

    So if I were to punch Mr. Coyne in the nose he shouldn’t press charges against me because I had no free will, correct?

  • RJS


    Read the essays. He should press charges, because you are still responsible and would need to be either trained to follow societal rules or segregated from society. No free choice doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed.

  • Andy W.

    This Atlantic Monthly article about criminal acts and how the brain functions is very interesting. Certainly make you think. I know my Psychologist brother is an agnostic/universalist because of this very thinking, which I find ironic.

  • MatthewS

    I know plenty of people involved in Gothard’s programs who, while conservative, were certainly not insane or abusive.

    So do I. Your friends prove very little about JK’s home life. I also know some extremely screwed up situations. Prison, divorces, molestations, people who hate God with a visceral hatred stemming from emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse — all Gothardite families.

    His parents are tired *now*, sure. He became completely rebellious, yes. What about earlier when he claims he was being traumatized by a foster child and was being ignored by his parents? What about when he obviously needed help and they refused it? Gothardism created exactly that situation many times over, and many times over children were deeply wounded by it. If JK is telling the truth here (,0,547171.story) about sexual and physical abuse, then he was truly deeply traumatized. I reject that as an excuse but to dismiss it out of hand that he experienced it seems high-handed to me.

    Your claim that the parents were too lax actually makes me angry, bro. Believe what you want. I won’t say more on it, other than to say I know of literally hundreds (as in literal literally, like you can count them) of students who were in the program who find his account completely believable based on their own experiences. Wow, you really pushed a button for me, sir!

  • Scott Gay

    I take issue with Harris that this form of determinism is reductive naturalism. Philosophically this determinism forked down two roads. One type was prescribed by Francis Bacon and the empiricist tradition steeped in data. The other was the purely deductive and sometimes mathematical tradition of Rene Descarte and continental rationalism. Both of these separated the rational and empirical, in contrast to traditional scholasticism. They were, in fact, in contrast to naturalism and not a reductive form.
    It must be noted that the major theorists and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries were not professors. Rather, they were pamphleteers, businessmen, wandering aristocrats, and public officials. I am saying that there is really nothing new under the sun, and the internet has introduced this reality again. One of the major reasons for the integrity of the Jesus Creed blog is because it is anchored in the classics and the understanding of them. It is, in a way, a scholastic method reality. And I quote Murray Rothbard about traditional scholastic philosophy-“Truth is built up by reason on a solid ground in empirically known reality. The rational and empirical are integrated in one coherent whole”.
    Rational and empirical support show that historically more important than disputes over free will/predestination was a shattering of unity. Converting the Reformation and the traditioal Catholic scholasticism into an un-reformable tradition seems to be the position of some. But this reader freely believes this blog is on a better trajectory.

  • I recommend Marilynne Robinson’s book, Absence of Mind as an incisive set of essays into the major assumptions behind at least the most assertive of the assertions about determinism. One of the commenters above put it well (and I paraphrase): bad metaphysics masquerading as science.

  • Just Sayin’

    There’s no more cringeworthy result as when scientists discover philosophy.

  • Luke Allison

    MatthewS “Wow, you really pushed a button for me, sir!”

    It’s a tense topic. Whenever we’re dealing with the torture and murder of women by a career sexual predator it gets testy.

    Read JK’s “diary”. He denies rape despite the DNA evidence and then blames William Pettit for not saving his daughters (when he’d lost enough blood from being beaten in the head with a baseball bat to kill him)

    What makes you think his accounts of his childhood are anything more than an attempt to save the only thing he cares about: his life? It’s his word against everyone else’s. Why does his word carry any weight?

    It sounds as though his parents revolved their whole life around trying to help him. I’m not saying that they weren’t ignorant and rigid in their worldview. But they consistently showed up at his hearings for numerous criminal behaviors and consistently worked to give him chance after chance. Without their pleading on his behalf, he very likely would have served more jail time.

    Again: I don’t think they were right, and I don’t think Gothard’s right, but it seems that they were a far cry from the Children of God cult.

    You obviously have more experience with Gothard specifically than I do. So I may be completely wrong. I’m willing to believe that it could be possible! 🙂

    I’m just going off of the endless coverage of the trial that I followed from way back before Hays was sentenced. JK’s defense were slime. The victims were victimized further by petty attacks and accusations. And all along, the only thing that seemed to bother JK was the fact that he might die.

  • RJS

    Stephen (#41)

    I’ve read and posted on Marilynne Robinson’s book. The posts can be found through the science and faith archive on the sidebar. I second your recommendation of the book.

    Just Sayin’ (#42)

    This isn’t scientists discovering philosophy. This is an entirely scientific question of cause and effect. If there is nothing but the material world there can be no free will. Free will would imply a material effect with no material cause.

  • DRT

    My last thought on this after all day…

    I do believe we have free will, and also believe that we do not exercise it all that often. It take effort to exert free will.

  • DRT


    I am quite bothered by your comment ” If there is nothing but the material world there can be no free will.”

    It almost seems that you are thinking of the material world in a Newtonian sense, and I understand that and think it is good. But don’t we know that the phrase, material world, is quite a misnomer? I would think your usage is just as it relates to common experience. Are you simply using material world to mean the world we commonly experience?

    The reason it bothers me is that I am continually fascinated by the increases in scientific understanding of what the material world actually comprises. It is far from the common experience and that points the way, at least to me, to realities and emergent properties that we cannot predict…..

    I am just surprised you said that.

  • RJS


    No – not just a Newtonian sense. Quantum uncertainty is random within constraints and provides a natural material cause for subsequent events. There is no evidence for immaterial control and it doesn’t really help with the idea of a free will. And of course everything i said is prefaced by “if” – an if I don’t really accept.

  • Chris White

    Recollecting a previous Jesus Creed post about the low percentage of conservative religious (CR) folk believing in the trustworthiness of science or recent scientific positions–if the OP gets to them-even in the form RJS presented–it will solidify their idea that science is going away from God. This will widen the gap between the CR and evangelicals seeking to accept all truth as truth because it is God’s truth.

    On the other hand–and this seems at least possible–could science get off track because it continues to accept a metaphysical base that does not line up with reality?


  • RJS


    One of the reasons I bring up topics like this – and interact with these kinds of claims – is to try to dig beyond the rhetoric and look for and evaluate the basis for arguments. There is no way to stop others, Harris, Coyne, or anyone else, from making their opinions and conclusions known, so we have to learn how to evaluate them.

  • Dennis

    Even if there is no spiritual reality, and all there is is the matarial world, free will is still possible.
    If I understand Nietzsche correctly, self awareness allows at at least the possibility of self actualization. This has to do with the power of the will, and the ability to make the determining factor of action your own will. Self awareness allows a person to recognize those forces that drive them, and thus, by stepping outside the box (so to speak) through an action of the will, take charge of themselves by understanding the forces.
    But, being a CHristian, I find the whole argument superfluous: I believe in spiritual reality, God’s guidance and providence (however that works), the soul/spirit of persons, the empowerment of the Spirit, and the call to action as befitting human beings created in God’s image. I don’t think a debate on free will vs. determinism is really benificial to pursuing the Christian life. Nor do I see how it fits in to all the above mentioned

  • John Guyton

    Free will is a philosophical idea, not a scientific one. I agree with your point that the atheists derive their denial of free will from philosophical and not scientific considerations. But it is also true that will or spirit must work through skull-bound computers.
    My first rule for philosophy is this: Every sentence is first-person. That is, every declaration, question, hypothesis, or exclamation (every sentence) can be preceded by “I/we declare… ask… posit… shout… or the like” without changing the actual meaning of the sentence at all. Even the hypotheses and results of science come from an assumed “we” – a community of observers and experimenters who agree to agree.
    If the premise that every sentence is first-person is accepted, then any attempt to deny free will falls apart. How so? It falls apart because it is a willful attempt to deny that willful attempts are legitimate.

  • RJS


    Suppose 100 rocks are released at the top of an uneven hill and go bouncing down some winding up on the left side of a barrier, some on the right side. Along the way each rock was faced with several choices which collectively determined the side they wound up on. A cause-and-effect chain can be traced backwards, and could (with enough input info) have been predicted initially.

    Now add a random number generator to introduce a truly random kick at a few places along the path of each rock (this is analogous to a bit of quantum uncertainty). A cause-and-effect chain can still be traced backwards, although it forward motion could only be predicted initially in aggregate as probabilities, not for each individual rock individually.

    So the argument is that if the natural world and physical laws describe all of reality there is no such thing as free will because everything including brain function is as deterministic as these rock (with the addition of quantum uncertainty) going down the hill. There is no real choice at any juncture. There can be no real choice unless there is something that transcends the natural. My perception of an “I” or a first person is irrelevant to the scientific argument because that apparent perception of “I” is simple another part of nature, a natural and determined brain function – a tag-a-long I expect that achieves an “optimal” solution to a material problem.

  • Patrick

    That the brain operates in a mechanically deterministic manner to make choices does not rule out free will per se, but it does rule out libertarian free will (as another commenter observed above).

    We now know that when someone has made a choice, they simply could not have chosen otherwise.

    Now I’m sure that someone’s devising on some kind of quasi-Molinisitic work-around, perhaps to suggest that God actualizes the physical world according to the prior libertarian choices of our libertarian free wills, but this would stretch credulity.

    First, there is no basis for this in revelation or in the physical sciences. But more importantly, it’s just absurd on its face that the unchanging physical laws of the world would happen to perfectly coincide with each person’s prior metaphysical choices in a LFW framework.

    At this point, compatiblism is the only live option for those who want to affirm any kind of free will or moral responsibility.

  • Mark Z.

    RJS: There is no real choice at any juncture. There can be no real choice unless there is something that transcends the natural. My perception of an “I” or a first person is irrelevant to the scientific argument.

    Surely that depends on what we mean by “real choice”, yes? It sounds like Harris is (and you are) defining it as ‘a choice that can’t be explained, even in principle*, in terms of physical causality’, which presupposes (for him) that there is no “real choice” because he’s a pure materialist.

    But I’m accustomed to thinking of machines making “real choices”, even though I know that they’re constrained to execute a series of instructions. I even put comments in my code like “Choose the best order to do the joins in this query.” By Harris’s definition, it’s not “choosing” at all–the code fully constrains the outcome, and the construction of the machine fully constrains the interpretation of the code. But it’s my code, and I say the machine is making a choice.

    The issue seems to be complexity. My fellow engineers probably wouldn’t say that a NAND gate “chooses” what voltage to output, or that the camshaft in your car “chooses” to open the intake valve, because those are simple devices** and their behavior is very easy to understand. (We probably wouldn’t say that a single neuron “chooses” when to fire, either.) But when we get a billion of those together and stack up enough layers of abstraction and encoded behavior, we have, if not “real choice”, at least the same illusion of real choice that applies to our own actions.

    * Harris can guess that my choice of which pair of pants to wear today consisted of a series of electrochemical reactions, but he doesn’t have electrodes in my brain, so how does he know? Of course Reformed theology has long made the argument that God watches these processes, and all of our actions are not just predictable but actually predicted–and therefore free will doesn’t exist. It’s somewhat amusing to see Harris and Coyne stumble into Calvinism through the back door.

    ** There is a more subtle category judgment in labeling all of these as “devices” while the rocks rolling down a hill would probably not be called a “device”, but I don’t want to get into that.

  • RJS

    Mark Z.,

    Now we get into more of the nuance here. Nice comment. I agree that it is amusing to see Harris and Coyne stumble into Calvinism through the back door – and claim it undermines faith. Personally I am not Calvinist, and I think there is a real element of freedom for choice; but the Calvinists I know are certainly faithful Christians.

    I will add catapults appropriately designed at the bottom of the hill and then my rocks are part of a device.

  • DRT

    RJS#52, ” There can be no real choice unless there is something that transcends the natural.”

    I still find this language quite unsatisfactory. Natural, well, what do you mean by that? I expect that you mean that it is of the observable or quantifiable, or is there something more?

    As I said in another post, I do consider god to be natural, by definition. So, I take it you would just say that god, and potentially ourselves that engage in free will are supernatural?

    Again, I find the use of supernatural to be unsatisfactory because it almost begs the definition of not being real. I think the language is self defeating.

    Could I say, instead, there is no choice unless there is something nonreducable , or emergent, or …

    Do you see why I feel this way? I believe that the emergent or synergistic or ethereal properties of our existence are natural and should be expected. It is what we experience.

  • DRT

    ..and I like Mark Z.’s comment. If we choose via free will, it almost seems that our programming could be said to be making the choice. But if we throw caution to the wind and say that we will be arbitrary to avoid the programming, then we are still being programmed to be arbitrary. So we have to have a history of making arbitrary and thought out decisions without a firm basis (!) to approximate free will. Perhaps choosing the programming option based on a whim..

  • RJS


    Emergent and non-reducible are rather useless concepts in terms of this discussion I think. The composite is more than the sum of the parts – but all properties of the composite are still completely described by the same physical laws that describe the parts. Emergent properties are just as deterministic as the properties of the parts.

    I also think describing God as “natural” is rather dangerous … and makes the mistake Dawkins often makes in his argument against the existence of God.

  • John Guyton

    RJS#52, ”There can be no real choice unless there is something that transcends the natural.”

    I agree with your statement above – up to a point.

    The example of rocks cascading down a hill with some random kicks reminds of something Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett would say. I’m looking at the cover of “The Mind’s I” by Hofstader and Dennett on a bookshelf above me as I write. (And a friend and I, both Christians, went to hear Dawkins speak here at Duke last week. Dawkins was dull, but the audience showed the fervor of an old-time revival. It was really something to watch!)

    When you say “something that transcends the natural,” you run the risk of envisioning a parallel world of supernatural objects that stands alongside the palpable world of natural objects. In that parallel world like a grandfather in his workshop stands God, happily presenting for our (supernatural) observation a cleverly and beautifully constructed thing called free will. But free will is not a thing. It is a little better to think of it as a process like breathing. Yet even this breaks down, because we can study the mechanism of breathing. If we try to look for the mechanism that underlies free will, we come up against the problem that to “try to look for” anything is an act of will. It is like turning your eyeballs around to look back into the nerves and the brain to determine the mechanism of your own sense of sight.

    But “something that transcends the natural” is much closer and more readily demonstrable than any of this, if what you mean by “something” is flexible enough. At least it is demonstrable according to my own “practical metaphysics,” and you may find that it suits yours as well. “Something that transcends the natural” is my subjective surprise at finding myself invited to this grand banquet that we call “the natural world.” The existence of the world is shocking enough and delightful enough for Richard Dawkins to carry on for 35 minutes in reasonably entertaining fashion. But to be there listening to him was just damn weird. Come to think of it, to find myself placed anywhere in this world is weird. That this particular point of view exists to which I am attached is “something” without scientific explanation. Science has no way of testing any particular thing, but only that which is reproducible from time to time and from one observer to another.

    Rudolf Carnap was a bold and thoughtful positivist. For Carnap, if science had no answer to a question, then there was no answer. Carnap made this memorable statement aimed at refuting Descartes: “What follows from ‘I am a European’ is not ‘I exist,’ but ‘a European exists.’ What follows from ‘I think’ is not ‘I am’ but ‘there exists something that thinks.’” (in Logical Positivism, A.J.Ayer, Simon and Schuster, NY 1959) For Carnap, the little word “I” could be dispensed with. At best, “I” is a word that one hears from people who think they have free will, but “we” (the community of science) know that they really don’t. And I think Carnap is correct about this – from the point of view of science.

    I confess to having exaggerated something. I don’t really feel “weird” in the world, not for more than a couple of seconds anyway. It’s a close and comfortable experience to be typing this, and to know that I am typing it. My “natural world” therefore is only partly explained by science. The part that is not explained is my part in it.

    I think that your phrase “something that transcends the natural” reaches too far and is not necessary for a better understanding of free will. We do not have to postulate God in order to affirm free will. Our affirmation of free will is not by defining or observing it, but by using it.

    To the person who asks, “Does God exist?” perhaps the best reply is a question in return “Do you exist?” And if your interlocutor stays around, then “Do you think that I exist?” and eventually “Is there anything that we together can choose?” In the progression from “I” to “you” and “we” is something that not only transcends science, but thrills the soul, or simply makes life fun. Think about it, maybe this progression is God’s greatest creation. This progression from “I” to “you” to “we” – all making use of free will – is something accessible, natural but not scientific. Does it lead to God? Maybe.

  • CGC

    Hi John G,
    In light of what you said, how do you understand Hebrews 9:23-24?

  • Mark Z.

    RJS: “The composite is more than the sum of the parts – but all properties of the composite are still completely described by the same physical laws that describe the parts. Emergent properties are just as deterministic as the properties of the parts.”

    Part of what I was getting at with the above is this: If it’s deterministic, why don’t you determine it?

    I assert that there’s a difference between saying, like Laplace, “In principle, the output of this machine could be predicted by solving a sufficiently huge system of differential equations” and actually solving those equations with enough speed and accuracy to know what will happen.

    I’m inspired by the Kelly definition of information: it’s what enables you to place fair wagers on a series of unknown events and win more than you lose. My choices are deterministic, to you, to the extent that you can win bets on those choices. The more often you win those bets, the more deterministic I am. Because your ability to simulate my mind inside yours is very limited, you won’t win with any consistency, and I am mostly a free agent to you.

    Some other entity–Calvinist God (who wins 100% of the time and then gets mad when nobody wants to shake his hand), or Deep Thought (the Second Greatest Computer in the History of Time and Space), or Professor Charles Xavier–might be more successful at this game and could rightly think of me as deterministic.

    But if we did build Deep Thought, I would still claim that human choices are non-deterministic relative to me, because I only have the experience of being me, not the experience of being Deep Thought. I could ask Deep Thought which pair of pants Barack Obama intends to wear tomorrow, and it could tell me, but I could also call Obama and ask him directly. From my viewpoint they’re both freely choosing agents: Obama chooses his pants, and Deep Thought chooses its expert opinion on what Obama will do. I am still outside the curtain.

    … to the extent that there is an “I”, because as Carnap and the Buddha both argued, there’s not any scientific evidence to support this conscious viewpoint’s claim to be an “I”. What they wouldn’t say, though, is that there is an “I” and it’s just a robot following its programming. “I” am a boundary drawn around a subset of a deterministic universe. The view from inside that boundary is that many (but not all) subsets of the deterministic universe make (more or less) free choices.

    Now if we draw that boundary around the entire universe, there’s still not enough material in there to build a simulation of the entire universe, so the “I” that is the universe makes free choices also. Calvinist God might still be able to bet on what it will do and win*, but Harris doesn’t believe in Calvinist God, and neither do I.

    * Though Calvinist God still can’t simulate himself–Satan or Eris or Captain Kirk would come along and show him Turing’s halting paradox and that would be the end of that.

  • CGC: “In light of what you said, how do you understand Hebrews 9:23-24?”

    Hebrews 9:23-24 is the clearest expression of Plato’s doctrine of Forms in the Bible. “Copies of the heavenly things” are compared with “the heavenly things themselves,” and “a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one” is compared with “heaven itself.”

    I don’t want to pose as a Biblical scholar. I’m a physician and medical scientist, and for 28 years a Sunday School teacher in the moderate Baptist tradition. From this limited theological perspective, I would say that Hebrews 9:23-24 expresses a minor theme in the Bible and by no means a major theme such as human responsibility, God’s distance and closeness, Jesus’ sacrifice, etc. I think that Hebrews 9:23-24 is there to say something that Platonists (and there were plenty in the early years of Christianity, but few today) would understand. I do very much believe in heaven. To suggest, however, that free will on earth represents an imperfect copy of the true form of free will in heaven doesn’t give me any cogent reason to act differently from how I would otherwise act, so it has very little meaning to me.

    My firmest stance is a rejection of the positivism in which my grandfather waded and my father swam. I wrote about that a few months ago in an initial blogging effort at and I hope to have something more in August when a writing retreat gets me away from medicine for a couple of weeks.

    I really liked Mark Z’s last comment, especially his illustration of the limitations of our communication with each other. I want to thank RJS for a very stimulating blog.

  • Michael Krause

    RJS, I’d love to follow up with you directly and privately on this issue, but the email address noted above does not seem to get me there. Any other ideas? 🙂

  • RJS

    I just sent you an e-mail. If it doesn’t get through let me know here.

  • Michael Krause

    I got your email, but was unable to respond. Hitting “Reply” got the email bounced back to me. Then I tried from my gmail account, which informed me that your address does not exist. Frustrating.

  • Michael Krause

    Let’s just do some of this here.

    I just got back from lunch with a neuroscience student at our local university for whom the issue of free will is THE predominant issue stalling his spiritual journey. He has no conceptual models for how the mechanism of free will might work biologically and, hence, is inclined to deny it based on the evidential value of his training in neuroscience. Where can I point him to, beyond your two blog posts on this issue, in order to help him begin to process the possibility of free will as a legitimate and viable way to think about human cognition? Is anybody writing about this from a Christian perspective? Are there so-called secular sources defending the possibility of free will?

    I’d love to shoot him some suggestions of stuff that perhaps we could even read together to process some of this. What would you recommend?

  • Michael Krause

    You may have guess, if you didn’t get my previous note (which I don’t see here), that I was unable to respond to your email. Sorry about that.