Expanding The  Arc

Do We Have Free Will?

In his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell records a conversation he had with the great eighteenth-century writer, lexicographer, and literary critic about a book on God’s foreknowledge and free will. Johnson says that if he were “well-acquainted” with a man, he could predict with great probability what that man would do in a given circumstance; he concludes that “God may have this probability increased to certainty.” Boswell objects that “when it is increased to certainty, freedom ceases.” Johnson simply replies: “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” Thus Johnson sums up a great bit of the controversy about how “free” human action is—from the time of the ancient Greeks to the twenty-first century.

In ancient Greece the controversy was over the role of chance—do things occur the way they do randomly, or do things occur the way they do because they must occur that way. As Democritus put it: “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” In the middle ages in the West, the discussion shifted to God’s role in the universe He created. For example, an apparent paradox arises if we assume that God is omniscient, that is, he is all-knowing (as in Boswell’s objection above). If God is all knowing, then he knows in advance—before you were even born—where you will wind up after you die, in heaven or in hell. But if that is the case, then you are predetermined and it makes no sense for God to punish you for what you were destined to do. However, you might object, God’s foreknowledge does not preclude my ability to choose; he simply “knows” in advance what I am going to choose.

This problem of free will became entangled with the philosophical debate over what exists. Plato famously proposed that the world we perceive with our five senses, the world of material objects, is only the shadow of true reality, the realm of forms (sometimes called ideas), which can be discerned only through immaterial thought. Aristotle broke with his teacher and denied the existence of this immaterial realm. Ever since, philosophers and other thinkers have lined up on one side or the other. On one side are the Dualists, those who believe in two complementary realities—physical substance and mental substance, body and spirit. On the other are Monists, primarily Materialists, who believe that only matter and energy (things we can see and measure) are real. Of course, there is another possibility, known as Idealism, which says that only spirit exists. This position was taken by the English philosopher and bishop of the Church of England George Berkeley (1685-1753), who famously challenged the dualists’ conception of reality by arguing that all our knowledge of the physical world comes from sensations perceived in the immaterial mind. “To exist is to be perceived,” he said. The source of these perceptions, all mental, was God.

After all, how do we know that there is an “out there” actually out there beyond our mental perception of it? In fact, modern neuro-science tells us that what we perceive as “reality” is a construction, an approximation, of the brain. For example, in a chapter titled “The Invisible Actor at the Centre of the World,” Will Storr puts it this way in his 2014 book, The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science:

The things that you are seeing right now are not out there in front of you, but inside your head, being reconstructed in more than thirty sites across your brain. The light is not out  there. The objects are not out there. The music is not out there. A violin has no sound  without a brain to process it; a rose petal has no colour. It is all a re-creation. A vision. A  useful guess about what the world might look like, that is built well enough that we are  able to negotiate it successfully.

The dualist position, however, fits well with religious belief in the body-soul dichotomy. If you are a religious person, you probably believe in both: the soul inhabits the body, is the source of morality, and survives the body after it dies. This position was set out by the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, who saw the physical body as a machine animated by the soul. Later detractors were to call this position “the ghost in the machine.” In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as scientific knowledge of our world expanded, the materialist challenges to dualism, and with it free will, multiplied. Humans, and human choice, came to be seen as determined by two large forces beyond individual control: heredity and environment. As we all know today, our genetic inheritance plays a huge role in the kinds of persons we become. Our physical looks and susceptibility to disease, as well as our behavior, which is the locus of the free-will debate, are greatly affected by numerous genetic markers we inherit from our parents. Just as a person may inherit a predisposition to certain types of cancer, so he may inherit a predisposition to depression or other mental disorders. These, in turn, can dramatically affect the choices he makes. Likewise, a person’s environment has a large influence on the way he lives and the choices he makes. If you grew up in a very religious family, for instance, chances are you are religious also; if you grew up in a partisan Republican family, chances are you are a Republican; if you grew up in a poor, working-class family, chances are you are poor also. And so on.

A different form of dualism has bedeviled more-recent philosophy: How does consciousness, our non-material sense of self, arise from physical, electrical impulses in the brain? Recent research on the human brain and brain chemistry has shown how the brain, a physical organ, “chooses” to act seconds before we become consciously aware of our choice. So, do we have free will or not? Are our choices determined? And how does non-physical consciousness arise from the chemical and electrical activity of the physical brain? One answer is given by George Musser, a science writer and contributing editor of Scientific American, who put it this way in the article “Is the Cosmos Random?” in the September 2015 edition of the magazine:

Either we are all gears in the clockwork, so that everything we do is preordained, or we  are the agents of our own destiny. . . . “The distinction between determinism and  indeterminism is a level distinction,” says Christian List, a philosopher at the London  School of Economics and Political Science. “If you have determinism at one particular  level, it is fully compatible with indeterminism, both at higher levels and at lower levels.”  The atoms in our brain can behave in a completely deterministic way while still giving  us freedom of action because atoms and agency operate on different levels.

In other words, to try to describe conscious choice by examining the firings of neurons in the brain is to make what philosophers call a “category mistake.” A category mistake is like personification, where we ascribe qualities of living beings to inanimate objects. Below are three essays on Free Will:


Jerry A. Coyne. “Why You Don’t Really Have Free Will.” USA Today 1 Jan 2012.

Eddy Nahamias. “Why We Have Free Will.” Scientific American Jan. 2015.

E. O. Wilson. “On Free Will: And How the Brain is Like a Colony of Ants.” Harper’s Magazine

     25 Aug 2015.