Free Will Explained – By Barker via Record

Free Will Explained – By Barker via Record February 28, 2019

Editor’s Note: Our resident book reviewer brings a light touch to the weighty topic of free will, tempered by a helping of jazz and nacho fries. Hopefully this will help you understand it, at last. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Alexis Record

Okay Dan Barker, I’m prepared to get Free Will Explained to me.

I thought I was predestined to re-watch One Day at a Time tonight while eating nacho fries, but here we are.

I already have quite a bit of knowledge on the theological debate of free will, so not to toot my own horn (as that would clearly be a sin), but I come to the table fully armed with a wealth of convoluted, highly contradictory ideas on the subject. Will we be digging into Arminianism vs. Calvanism? Predestination vs. Antibaptist choice? Joshua 24:15 vs. Jeremiah 10:23? What will it be?


Dan Barker at the Piano

Really? Okay. Let me just clear my mental browser history and get back to this. (Thanks for nothing, Bible college!)

I know why free will is of utmost importance to the religious world Barker hails from. People need to have the freedom to choose Jesus in order to avoid Hell. If they don’t have that freedom, God is effectively a monster. (Spoiler.) Yet as someone who is no longer religious, I found myself wondering, “Is free will still a thing?” Does it matter outside of the hand ringing over salvation decisions?

It was not until this book that I encountered a logical contribution to the topic written for the layperson that not only quoted philosophers, freethinkers, and scientists, but also included, to my delight, the contribution of one feisty chipmunk (pg. 75). Plus, reading about my decision to read about decisions was very Meta.

Is everything determined by our circumstances? We cannot choose where we were born, what our skin color is, what is contained within our genetic code, or any of the factors that inevitably and irrevocably affect our decisions. To prove beyond doubt that we have free will would require a time machine, allowing scientists to replay choices made under the exact same set of circumstances to see if the outcome ever changes. If you’re imagining a video being repeatedly rewound with the same scene played again and again, you’re likely on board with determinism. This doesn’t seem to jive with free will, though, which is a problem since “Free Will” is part of the title of this book.

Barker broke with my expectation to land in the compatibilism camp by throwing out the whole determinism vs. (libertarian) free will debate entirely. It is no longer a battle between science and philosophy—instead Barker gives each its own track to arrive at the same destination without colliding.

We don’t decide what constitutes beauty with an exact atomic arrangement that can be scientifically determined. Similarly, we can think of free will as another concept that is not confined to the science lab. Or to quote the author, “It’s like asking if a banana is comparable with forgiveness.”

So how does this work? Barker calls his view “harmonic free will,” borrowing an illustration from his experience with jazz. As I understand it, melody on a sheet of music goes left to right, and that’s the observed truth of determinism; whereas free will is the harmony stacked upon this linear model–the Y axis rather than the X. The vertical harmony can change quite a bit of the piece but never entirely violates the rule of melody.

Why do we care about free will as those with a material view of the world? Because we hold values and make judgements, and, to quote Barker, “we want the objects of our judgement to deserve the judgement.” And while most of our behavior is determined by factors outside our control, there is an aspect to life where we seem to improvise.

Would we make those decisions anyway? To Barker, that doesn’t matter. He makes quite the argument for free will being important even if it’s an illusion. Since we do not know the future, we act as agents who make decisions. Then we call those decisions free will.

I have attended an event where Barker played several pieces on the piano that seemed to “come alive.” This image returned to me often during his explanations of harmonic free will. I would have killed for an audiobook read from the behind the keys.

Maybe I was just predetermined to like this book, but I recommend it for it’s simple and clever addition to the topic. I’ve found it pairs well with nacho fries.


Bio: Alexis Record is a feminist, humanist, ex-Christian atheist, and mother to children with disabilities. She devoted the first 30 years of her life to Christian study and service due to indoctrination, and is working to repair the years the locusts have eaten.

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  • Free will has always been a hot topic, to say the least.

    On the one hand, the idea of a totally unbound, “free” will is somewhat ridiculous, since each of us is constantly confronted with tons of factors we have little or no control over.

    On the other hand, though, I think we do have some kind of agency – i.e. learning from past experiences, making comparisons among different scenarios…

    Moreover, today’s scientific discoveries have been giving us more info about biological and subconscious motives behind our behaviours, thus giving us more insight into (and control over) our own mental processes – a development which has been impacting several fields, notably several judiciary issues.

    Still, if even this limited human agency were to be exposed as an illusion, I feel we would need to re-imagine our concept of “meaning” and “purpose”: because a purely pragmatic view on the subject, akin to Barker’s – i.e. free will doesn’t exist, but it’s still socially convenient to act as though it existed – is not that far from some people’s view on religion (i.e. God probably doesn’t exists, but the idea of God must be upheld to keep the masses in line).

    Since I reject the latter, I don’t think I’d be able to embrace the former.

  • Ann Kah

    I want a distinction drawn between “free will” in what one says or does vs. “free will” in what one thinks. I’m an atheist. I see no possibility (save a great mental aberration) of ever believing in a supernatural being of any sort. The argument could be made that the deeply religious could never stop believing in god …but the evidence shows that to be incorrect. A good scientific education, for example, has persuaded many people that their religious beliefs are simply not logical, and a solid knowledge of probability and statistics can remove the “post hoc, ergo prompter hoc” unwarranted attribution of unexplained things to god.

  • Ivan Beggs

    Attention Alexis Record. Your bio shows “Ex Christian atheist.” What is that?

    Interesting review. Thank you.

    • Linda_LaScola

      I’m eager to hear her response. I assumed she was being specific about what her religious history prior to become an atheist — that is, having been a Christian prior to becoming a non believer in god.

      That would make me an “Ex Catholic atheist”, though I didn’t identify very strongly with Catholicism. I’m more of an ex-None atheist.

    • Alexis

      Perhaps a comma is warranted. Linda is correct; I have a long history with Christianity unlike my atheist friends who were never religious. This history informs my views and is included it in my bio as a bias disclaimer. (Ex Christian atheist is like a regular atheist, but with baggage!) I have previously reviewed Ali A. Rizvi’s “The Atheist Muslim” and recognize a group of people who do not hold supernatural views, specifically with regard to deities, yet hold unto the cultural traditions of their former faith. I am not such a person.

  • mason lane

    The idea of how much “free will” is largely illusionary but the human ego seems intent on the illusion. How much free will does the elephant, tiger, alligator, cobra have in the wild? Sure we’re more sophisticated, or think we are, and when we go extinct what role did free will play; the finger that pushed the nuclear holocaust button? We are so directed by our genetics, our brain’s recorded experiences, and instincts at unconscious levels that free will may only be a very minor player, so we give it the inflated illusion. As I’m writing this, the part my free will, if such even exists, is a minuscule role.

  • ElizabetB.

    This is reminding me of Ram Dass’ take on our president, which I just recently heard — in his “The Importance of Inner Social Action” podcast & YouTube —

    Minute 16
    “You see the person you are fighting as a soul –
    manifesting their karma….
    And you should relate to them as a soul
    and not to their karma.

    “I have a picture of President Trump on my altar
    And my attention is placed on that picture
    And I say to him,
    I haven’t known you as a soul —
    your karma is affecting my karma —
    and now I am talking to the soul.
    You have a heavy burden of karma….
    I feel for you….
    And if I meet you as soul to soul
    I feel compassion for you.
    And we will, soul to soul, examine
    where your karma came from
    and we can rid you of that karma.”

    I think ‘a heavy burden of karma’ may be a helpful way to think about that unique manifestation of humanity….