I’ve written before that I don’t believe in free will. The article itself needs some cleaning up and clarification, which I’m sure I’ll get to when I have another eight hours a day to work on writing. I’m revisiting the idea today because memes seem to come in cycles, and I’m seeing a lot of dickering about free will lately.
The essence of my argument against freewill is twofold. The first element is the incoherence of the concept itself. Second, I believe what people think they are talking about when they say free will conflates hypothetical and actual possibility. I’ll briefly explain both arguments.
Defining “Free Will” is much more difficult than most people imagine. We speak of choice as if we know exactly what it is, but without getting into the nuts and bolts of brain mechanics, it’s really hard to explain. Superficially, a choice is the selection of one out of multiple options. The thing is, every animal capable of locomotion makes such choices. If you put an ant on a completely flat surface, it inevitably will do one of three things. It will move in one direction, it will stand still, or it will die. If it moves, it will move in one of many possible directions. If it stands still, it will be doing that instead of moving. Only if it dies will it cease to make choices.
Free Will implies something more than that, however. We humans suppose that our choices are qualitatively different than an ant’s because we think about our choices. However, this clarification doesn’t get us out of our quagmire. Ants have rudimentary brains, and their brains process information. The result of this process is the ant’s movement. That’s what humans do, too, right?
Of course, human choices are qualitatively different than ant choices. The difference is twofold — abstraction and second order thought. That is, we can think of concepts, and we can think about thinking about concepts. To be fair, I should note that it is now known that humans are not the only animals capable of abstraction. However, our ability to think about thinking appears unique.
When I decide whether to have fish or chicken for lunch, I am exercising a number of mental faculties available only to humans. I might, in my decision making process, even think about the process I’m using to reach a decision! I could, in mid-decision, decide to change the method I’m using for decision making. This kind of mental maneuvering is what most people think of when they imagine free will.
Still, this working definition of free will leaves out the “free” part. In fact, what’s missing is crucial to Christian theology. There is an assumption that any human can make any decision at any time. But even here, we have a problem. Are we talking about hypothetical possibility or physical possibility? If we are speaking philosophically, we can legitimately say that a human is capable of deciding anything conceivable. However, if we speak of actual possibility, it’s a different story.
My Go-To example of this is simple. If we really are capable of making any decision at any time, then it ought to be a simple matter for you, gentle reader, to decide right now that you have no hands. Of course, you cannot do so. It is impossible for you to decide something that gives every appearance of being completely false.
To use a much scarier example, it is similarly impossible for us to decide to take actions we believe to be the wrong choice. If free will really does exist, it should be a simple matter for you, gentle reader, to decide to never again wear clothes of any kind. Or, perhaps you should decide to buy a gun and shoot everyone you love in the head. Right now. For no reason other than proving free will.
Luckily for us, such free will does not exist. We are bound by our existing beliefs. And this is where Christian theology falls flat on its face.
Beginning with the story of original sin, we are left with nonsensical premises. Adam and Eve “sinned” by choosing to eat of the forbidden fruit. God chose to punish all of mankind for choosing to defy him, and then God chose to offer man salvation if only he would choose to believe that Jesus lived, and was God Incarnate, and was crucified, buried, and resurrected after three days.
All of this sounds nice, but if it is true that we are limited in our available choices, then the reality is that some people simply cannot choose to believe in Jesus.
As an aside, I suppose one could make the argument that some beliefs can be adopted freely by any human, while others can’t. The problem is that there is simply no evidence to support this position. There’s no scientific theory of which I’m aware that suggests that a certain class of claim has the property of excluding itself from the normal decision making process. Indeed, if such a class of claims exist, the proof of its existence would literally cause us to have to completely rethink everything we know of psychology, logic, and philosophy. (And just to throw a monkey wrench into the works, if the proof of such a class was a member of the class in question, how would we ever prove such a thing without having the proof before proving it?!?)
In any case, for any Christians who might be reading this, I can prove to you that neither of us is capable of choosing to believe as the other believes. If it is true that anyone can choose to believe in Jesus, it must also be true that anyone can choose not to believe in Jesus. Also, since choice is free, and we can literally choose any belief we’d like, you can do a really fun experiment that will not affect your eternal salvation. Here’s what you do.
1. Find a nice, safe place where the likelihood of life-ending disaster is virtually zero.
2. Choose not to believe in Jesus for five minutes.
3. After five minutes, choose to believe in Jesus again.
Except that you can’t do it. You can choose to pretend like you don’t believe in Jesus. You can play mental games where you imagine what your beliefs would be like if you didn’t believe in Jesus. You can even decide that you’d really like to try not believing in Jesus for five minutes.
But you can’t decide not to believe. You either believe or you don’t.
The same is true of us atheists. No matter how much I might want to believe in Jesus, I cannot. Imagine if the Templeton Foundation offered me ten million dollars to genuinely believe in Jesus right now. Trust me — I’m no dummy. I would really, really want to believe in Jesus so that I could get ten million dollars. But I couldn’t cash in, no matter how much I wanted to. The same is true for you. If the James Randi Foundation offered you a million dollars to believe that you have no hands, you couldn’t do it.
So what’s left of Christianity?
Some theologians have recognized this dilemma, and rewritten Christianity so that there are two groups — the chosen and the damned. Ironically, this version of Christianity is plausible, at least insofar as free will goes. The problem is that such a doctrine doesn’t have the scare power to control the minds of followers. If I cannot control my own destiny, and am either saved or damned from birth, then I have no particular motivation to do or not do anything at all.
It’s also pretty difficult to reconcile a loving God with a character who would knowingly institute such a system. What would make such a deity worthy of admiration or worship? Nothing I can think of. If man is not free to choose his own eternal destiny, then we have no choice but to place complete responsibility on God for the suffering of millions of humans for all of eternity.
So, on the one hand, we have a God who set up a whole religion around “free will” but forgot to give people genuinely free will. On the other hand, we have an immensely evil son of a bitch who arbitrarily creates and then eternally torments humans. Either God is an imbecile or the most evil creature imaginable.
While it’s true that there are a lot of Christian denominations, and each of them has their own take on salvation, this leaves the religion as a whole without much justification for its existence. Belief in Jesus is not a free choice, so… um… I guess we should all try to be good to each other, and try to live good lives, and … um…
Doesn’t it seem simpler to just admit that the whole story is kind of goofy, and was made up by Bronze Age men who didn’t understand enough science or philosophy to recognize the absurdity of it all? Let’s not be glib about this. Christians are the ones who insist that their entire religion is about salvation and grace, right? They say, “This is what makes Christianity different from other religions.” Well, if that’s the case, then a simple thought experiment has just rendered the core essence of Christianity nonsensical. It doesn’t prove that there’s no god, or that there isn’t a correct religion, but it does prove that if you happen to believe in a religion based upon free will… YOU ARE WRONG.