Is Free Will A Mere Illusion?

The other day, as I was perusing various news clippings on the great interweb, I came across this story that claimed there is new scientific evidence that free will is a mere illusion. That’s a pretty provocative claim.

The first line of the article says, “Free will might be an illusion created by our brains, scientists might have proved.” Well, if you’d like, you can just stop reading there. So scientists MIGHT have proven that free will MIGHT be an illusion. They aren’t even sure if they’ve proven that it there’s a chance it’s an illusion, much less that it is, in fact, an illusion. Two “mights” is a bit to swallow! Well, mights aside, here’s how they did the study:

“the test subjects were shown five white circles on a computer monitor. They were told to choose one of the circles before one of them lit up red. The participants were then asked to describe whether they’d picked the correct circle, another one, or if they hadn’t had time to actually pick one. Statistically, people should have picked the right circle about one out of every five times. But they reported getting it right much more than 20 per cent of the time, going over 30 per cent if the circle turned red very quickly. The scientists suggest that the findings show that the test subjects’ minds were swapping around the order of events, so that it appeared that they had chosen the right circle – even if they hadn’t actually had time to do so.”

Wow. Now these folks have some real cajones if they claim this could even begin to show free will to be illusory.

First, suppose the conclusion is true: the mind swapped around the order of events so that it appeared the subjects had chosen the correct circle. All this proves is that humans want to be right. It may show cause for self-aggrandizing beliefs, but is not so much as related to the choice aspect of the experiment.

Next, there is no mechanism in the experiment that analyzes anything about choice whatsoever. The only thing the experiment measures is the brain’s reflection on that choice after the result of the choice is known. For all we know, the choice between the five exactly similar options was, in fact, free. After the fact, the brain decided to reward itself by claiming to have made a correct decision when there was no correct decision to be made.

Finally, doesn’t this just prove that humans are assholes? We often take credit for things we have no business taking credit for. Basically we’re children who brag over a victory in a game of War. We had no impact on the actual outcome, but that won’t stop us from pretending that we did. That’s all the brain may be doing in this test. For the life of me I cannot see how these folks thought their test said anything about free will.

Down through the years the world of neuroscience has attempted on a number of occasions to prove free will to be an illusion. None of the attempts have been especially convincing and all have been met with skepticism even within the scientific community.

I think Christians have a dog in this fight. Most Christians down through the centuries have believed in one version of free will or another. I happen to be a Molinist, which means I also happen to be a libertarian, which means that I believe in free will AND I don’t believe my will is determined. I simply can’t understand how it’s actually a “free” choice any other way.

I’m not going to discuss all the philosophy behind the free will debate. That would simply take too long for a blog and would completely bore too many people. In the interest of brevity, then, I’ll only make one very quick little philosophical argument:

Some theological systems believe that since God has foreknowledge of all future actions, that foreknowledge must be prohibitive of free will with respect to those actions (after all, if God knows something, that thing must happen, since God can’t be wrong). Those same theological systems are almost all unanimous that God freely chose to create the world. If God “chose” to create the world, that means he could have freely chosen not to create. It also means that at one point the world did not yet exist. During that time, God had to have known he was going to create the world. If his foreknowledge is prohibitive of free will, then it follows that God’s creation of the world could not have been a free choice. If you believe God could freely act despite his own foreknowledge, then it’s also reasonable for you to believe he could grant us freedom despite his own foreknowledge.

Theologian D.A. Carson, in his book, “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension,” lists nine distinct categories of Old Testament texts that imply God gave us free will: (1) people face a multitude of divine exhortations and commands; (2) people are said to obey, believe, and choose God; (3) people sin and rebel against God; (4) their sins are judged by God; (5) People are tested by God; (6) People receive divine rewards; (7) The elect are responsible to respond to God's initiative; (8) Prayers are not mere showpieces scripted by God; (9) God literally pleads with sinners to repent and be saved. Each element of this list could probably apply to some New Testament text as well.

In choosing a theological system, then, it’s important that Christians keep these issues in mind (if they are Christians who take the Bible to be authoritative). If your theological system denies free will, I recommend re-evaluating that system. If your theological system limits free will, but tries to maintain it, you should be asking if that limit is rational and/or necessary. If you see something claiming to be “science” that invalidates free will, take a closer look and don’t simply take it simply at face value.

Scott Wheeler

Des Moines, IA

I'm Scott Wheeler. I'm a lot of things – Christian, Montanan, conservative, philosophy-lover, amateur theologian, gun-owner, Detroit Lions fan, Spikeball player, owner of a dog named Eleonore. I work at a jail doing things completely unrelated to my interests or qualifications. I love being contrary: if old, stale thought is all the rage, I like to find a new perspective. If new and novel ideas are all the rage, I like to defend more traditional views. I genuinely appreciate disagreement so long as it never strays from civility.