Is Free Will Really An Illusion?
It’s important to note before we debate the existence of free will that one should not reject what is a properly basic belief unless they have every compelling to do so. A properly basic belief is one we hold by default to be true, something that is common to virtually all human life (assuming we aren’t instructed otherwise) and something we come to know through experience alone. For example, the reality of the external world is a properly basic belief because that’s something we just (rightfully, I might add) assume to be true. So is the notion of a cosmic creator. And finally, free will. All these things we by-default believe to be true through personal experience, and are only rejected by adopting a particular–indeed, I would say, peculiar–philosophy.
The reason we ought not abandon these properly basic beliefs without every compelling reason to do so is because they are not only difficult to override, since people accumulate them more or less automatically, but also because they’re often the very foundation upon which every functional (or at least every mostly functional) society is built. Deny the reality of the external world and you’ve panicked people into thinking they’re all hooked into The Matrix. Deny God and wash away the basis for objective morality, value, and meaning. Eliminate freewill and there goes any call to responsibility or sincerity of relationship. Of course, none of the inevitable, rational consequences of denying these so-called properly basic beliefs provides evidence that these properly basic beliefs are true, only that these properly basic beliefs should not be put aside so long as we still have reasons to believe they are true. Because properly basic beliefs, are, indeed, favorable beliefs, because they are also functional beliefs. They make living in society something we can actually do and something we might also enjoy.
All that said, free will is not only a properly basic belief, but one that is far more plausibly true than its opposite determinism. If you’re new to the debate, welcome, first off, and here’s what you need to know: Determinism asserts that freewill is an illusion, and that all our choices boil down to an inextricably linked series of cause and effect, stretching back as far as time will allow, maybe even infinitely. In other words, you’ve never made your mind up about anything because there is no “mind” to be made up, only the random clinking and clanking of atoms, and the sheer happenstance of chemical interactions in your brain. In fact, all your decisions were not only not made by “you” (there is no “you” on determinism), but were made eons before you–or should we say, the illusion of you–were conceived. Everything, all your thoughts, all your behaviors and emotions–are not only determined, but pre-determined. You are, on atheistic-determinism, that is, nothing more than a moist robot, programmed entirely by the events that preceded you, so have a nice day though not like you have any choice in the matter.
If you think this position sounds entirely absurd and so much against what you know to be the case, then you can probably relate to what I mean when I say freewill is a properly basic belief and one that ought not be given up unless the determinist can offer some very compelling evidence for his or her point of view. Realize that the burden of proof is on the person denying the properly basic belief, not the person who maintains it. It’s the determinist’s job to convince us that why what we by default hold to be true, is in fact, not true.
The determinist, however, cannot offer such compelling evidence. At least not evidence that does not itself raise a series of significant objections as to how such a conclusion was arrived at. For example, the position of determinism is reached because it stems from a position of atheism, which denies any supernatural or transcendent reality. But if there is no supernatural or transcendent realities–that is, something like God or a soul–then what is left? Well, what is left is nature. And if all that is left is nature (the random clinking and clanking of atoms) then of course everything is determined, because how else could things possibly be? I admit that position is consistent (at least on a Newtonian worldview), bearing the premises are true. But it doesn’t establish that the premises are true, because it only begs the question: Is there something like a supernatural or transcendent element of reality? And so now we have to go and have that discussion, for which I would say yes, there is something like God AND a soul. And so long as our position is that a supernatural or transcendent dimension of reality exists, there is no reason to accept determinism, because it doesn’t follow.
But put all that aside a moment, and let’s turn to the problems with determinism even on its own account. Because this is a philosophic worldview that, I believe, is deeply riddled with absurdity and error. For example, if everything is determined, by what basis does the determinist have to assert they are acting rationality, which so many of them assert the atheist-determinist position to be? Because doesn’t rationality imply some sort of ability to choose between alternatives; that is, the ability to think things through? Doesn’t rationality imply agency, or the ability to have decided otherwise? Not all, of course, but many determinists are quick to assert their view–either determinism itself, or their atheism above it–as the rational view; in fact, often the “only” rational view. But again, how does rationality work on determinism, I would like to know? It seems by shutting the door to personal agency, you have also slammed it on reasonable thought, as well. Rationality cannot exist on atheistic-determinism, and so your “decision” to be a determinist, was no decision at all. You did not decide to decide anything; at most you only had the illusion of decided. Your decision wasn’t a decision at all but rather an outcome as natural and inevitable as your growing a set of eyebrows or yawning when tired. In other words, on determinism, determinism isn’t an argument so much as a conditioned-reflex. You couldn’t not have been a determinist and therefore have no reason to say that determinism is the reasonable point of view.
So, that’s problem number one. Problem number two is assuming that a conditioned-reflex is “true”, even if you didn’t come to decide it for yourself. To say something is true is to say that it correlates and conforms to reality. But if all our thinking is the result of reflex and merited toward the propagation of species (“survival”), there is no reason to think anything of what we think is true, now is there? In fact, we have no reason to believe any of what we believe, because we have no reason to believe in reason, at all. Do you now see the problem the determinist is in? As soon as he asserts that determinism is correct, he’s undermined his entire position. The argument is self-referentially incoherent. That is, if determinism is true, there is no way to substantiate itself on its own account. It would have to be substantiated on some account where rationality and truth-seeking do exist, but, in doing so, one would thus refute determinism. As CS Lewis put it in Miracles (a book ever as salient today, as it was when he wrote it): it (athiestic-determinism/natural) would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.
So it seems there is no way the determinist, at least on his own account, can, as Mitch Hedberg once put it, “severely improve their predicament.”
But that is not hardly the end of the problems found within the position of determinism on atheism. Because at this point, realizing the position is philosophically absurd, the determinist might try something like an appeal to science, saying “Well, physics shows determinism is true, so there!” But again, the determinist is making claims that are, at best, severely outdated. While such a view may have been plausible on Newtonian Atomism or whatever (though, again, it would still only beg the question as to whether atoms are all that exist) it is certainly blasted away when one opens to door to the quantum realm, which overthrew the notion of physical determinism in the 1920s. And while our current knowledge of inderministic interpretations do not show how freewill works, they’ve left open the possibility for it, while showing that determinism itself is probably false. So not only does science not show that determinism is true, but, in fact, points strongly in the opposite conclusion. The famous Strong Free Will Theorem, for example, is one very solid and compelling piece of evidence, I think, against determinism. Again, this study does not show how free will works, it only shows that the conditions necessary for free will to exist, do exist. And this is right in line with a classically theistic viewpoint. Because if free will is the immaterial imposing on the material, we might not know how it works (and we might not ever), but we should (at least I would think) be able to establish the grounds for how it might or could work, which quantum physics has done.
So it seems somewhere between these two analyses–that is, atheistic-determinism being self-refuting on the one hand, and the grounds for free will being eminently plausibly on the other–that we have no compelling reason to think that free will is an illusion, so neither should we abandon it, nor take it’s critics all that seriously.
PS – Finally, somebody might say something like, “Well, what about when you shock some part of the brain and it produces an outcome like raising your hand or sputtering a sentence, isn’t that proof against free will?” Not at all. Because free will theorists don’t deny that the brain plays a role in this or that effect and that nature can’t or won’t have any effect on how people think or what they do, etc. Obviously the brain and nature does play a role in all that. But the philosopher of mind would never argue a particular to a universal, at least if they know what they’re doing. Meaning just because you shock the brain in this or that area and it produces this or that effect, that it means that is the ONLY way that effect is produced. That would be a fallacious conclusion. For example: I know if I hit the nerve on my knee my leg will extend, but I can also extend my leg by willing it. (And in fact when you hit my knee with a hammer and it extends and you asked me how that happened I’ll say I don’t know because *I* wasn’t the one who made it happen.) The brain stimulation thing is really no different and so makes no case either for or against free will, it just helps us to better understand how the brain works in relation to this or that effect.