Do we have free choice?

Freeing inconsistency

According to philosopher, Douglas Groothuis, one of the foundational aspects of a worldview is coherency. A worldview needs to internally make sense before it can hope to stand up to external scrutiny and be considered worthy of adherence.

In an article in The Atlantic, a philosopher called Stephen Cave revealed a glaring inconsistency in the naturalistic worldview that dominates Western civilisation. In There’s No Such Thing as Free Will (But we’re better off believing in it anyway), Cave describes a logical conclusion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Executive summary – your brain is hardwired in a certain way which you inherited from your ancestors. Your thoughts, desires, dreams, and the actions they precede, are all the creations of firing neurons dictated by your inherited genetic structure. This, combined with the impact your surroundings have, determines you. Nature and nurture shape you and you have no more control over the inner workings of your brain (and therefore, your actions) than you can will your heart to beat. Therefore, there really is no such thing as free will.

This form of scientific determinism is gaining popularity among scientists and skeptics alike, where human responsibility is significantly reduced, even removed. When caught red-handed, they can simply point to their skull and say, “My brain made me do it”. According to Cave, “when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions”. No wonder, when all my bad habits and predispositions have been programmed by my ancestors and environment. But this isn’t even the shocking part of the article from a worldview perspective.


Despite appealing to science and reason to conclude that free will is indeed an illusion, Cave then turns around to defend the very thing he has tried to bring down. Through various experiments, it became clear to Cave that denying free will may not be a good idea:

“…Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”

If denying in thought and deed that free will exists can have such a negative impact on society, should we perhaps think harder about this? Saul Smilanksy, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, apparently has:

“Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”


Freeing inconsistency

I admire Cave’s integrity in acknowledging the logical conclusion of Darwinist materialism. At the same time, I am dumbfounded that he then holds back and clings to free will. He knows that abandoning free will would lead to societal chaos but he can’t bring himself to declare this. Instead, he whispers and recommends these facts, too truthy for the masses, remain in the brave world of academia.

Perhaps there is a better way. Tim Keller, author of The Reason for God, may have found it. If we believe we all make choices we are responsible for then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If we insist on a secular view of the world and yet we continue to live as though free will is a reality, then we begin to see the disharmony between the world our intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that our heart knows exists. This leads us to a crucial question. If a premise (“There is no God”) leads to a conclusion that we know isn’t true (“I don’t have free will”) then why not change the premise?

Who knows – perhaps in the near future, people will click that they are living on borrowed capital and acknowledge the God who makes them responsible. Or maybe history will turn once again into a dark corridor where any semblance of guilt and culpability are forsaken.

For now, thank God for this inconsistency.

NY Times twists on horns of secular free will dilemma

“Do you have free will?” a recent article in the New York Times asks. “Yes, it’s the only choice.” So begins a fitful confrontation with the dilemma of free will in a world comprised only of the physical universe.

Although it never says it directly, the article appears to assume that the universe is deterministic. Everything happens as an unavoidable consequence of the events before; our choices are not free; and we are not morally responsible.

At the same time, it notes that “there seems to be a fairly universal gut belief in [free will] starting at a young age. When children age 3 to 5 see a ball rolling into a box, they say that the ball couldn’t have done anything else. But when they see an experimenter put her hand in the box, they insist that she could have done something else. That belief seems to persist no matter where people grow up”.

The article concludes that, “At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.” Yet in our hearts, it says, we’re compatibilists who consider free will compatible with determinism. We believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In fact, we must believe this to function properly, both at an individual level, and a societal one. Thus, “it’s the only choice”.

But this seems like a strange, even tendentious conclusion to draw. Did everyone surveyed actually believe the universe is deterministic? Or is that merely what the people in charge would like for these people to believe? Continue reading…

A seamless garment with no holes: human persons and the failure of naturalism

Last year, the release of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology saw a lot of attention. And quite rightly. The Companion marshalled some of most cutting-edge work in the field of the philosophy of religion and showed why natural theology is fast becoming an exciting scholarly domain again. But in the shadow of the Companion‘s release, another of Moreland’s works was published: The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism. Although it might not have got the same amount of attention, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei also represented an important entry in the contest of ideas and a powerful defense of theism. In it, Moreland argues for the theistic position by way of a stinging attack on naturalism and its failure to answer the problem of consciousness and account for the basic facts of human experience, such as free will, rationality, and intrinsic value.

The problem of consciousness is a deep mystery for philosophers and neuroscientists. This problem is the dilemma of how conscious states (thoughts, feelings, perceptions) arise from physical brain states. Ned Block, the American philosopher at NYU, has said that “researchers are stumped” and that we have “no conception” that enables us to explain subjective experience or conscious life. Colin McGinn, a professor at the University of Miami in the philosophy of mind, says that the emergence of consciousness “strikes us as miraculous, eerie, even faintly comic”. Even if we are sure that they arise from brains, we do not know the sorts of connections that conscious states (such as “seeing a tree”) have with brain states (such as “there are neurons firing at point A in the brain”). Hard materialists like Daniel Dennett have argued that conscious states are nothing more than brain states and brain behaviour, but Moreland argues that in both science and philosophy, a strict physicalist analysis of consciousness and the self has been breaking down since the mid-1980s.

For Christianity, the existence of such features basic to human experience are not metaphysically strange or inexplicable. For if in the beginning existed a supremely self-aware Being, then it is not difficult to see how consciousness could emerge. And if Christianity were true, Moreland also suggests one would predict that alternative worldviews whose basic entity or entities are not spiritual would find these things we take for granted recalcitrant – that is, hard to explain or explain away. In his book, Moreland shows that this is exactly the case with philosophical naturalism. Because naturalism posits particles at the beginning, one cannot adequately account for consciousness without mounting other reductive or eliminative strategies to explain their emergence. In The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, Moreland looks at these strategies and shows why they fail. Moreland therefore concludes that consciousness, freedom, rationality, a unified/simple self, equal and intrinsic value, and moral action of a certain sort, are all rebutting defeaters for naturalism and evidence for Judeo-Christian monotheism.

Bill Vallicella has written an excellent and thorough review of Moreland’s book, giving a summary of Moreland’s discussion of naturalism and his argument from consciousness for the existence of God.

Formally set out, Moreland’s argument looks like this:

1. Genuinely non-physical mental states exist.

2. There is an explanation for the existence of mental states.

3. Personal explanation is different from natural scientific explanation.

4. The explanation for the existence of mental states is either a personal or natural scientific explanation.

5. The explanation is not a natural scientific one.


6. The explanation is a personal one.

7. If the explanation is personal, then it is theistic.


8. The explanation [for the existence of mental states] is theistic.

In his review, Vallicella examines each of the premises, cataloguing additional reasons that Moreland offers in support for them. He writes:

Moreland makes a very powerful case, to my mind a crushingly powerful case, that [mental states] do not have a natural-scientific explanation. I would go further and claim that they cannot have such an explanation. (If a naturalist pins his hopes on future science, a science that can do what contemporary science manifestly cannot do, then I say our naturalist does not know what he is talking about when he bandies about the phrase ‘future science.’ He is merely gesturing in the direction of he knows not what. He is simply asseverating that somehow science will someday have all the answers. That’s as ‘theological’ as the assurance that, though now we see through a glass darkly, later we will see face to face. What do faith and hope have to do with science? Furthermore, why should anyone hope to have it proven to him that he is nothing more than a complex physical system?)

While Vallicella acknowledges that there are possible objections to Moreland’s argument (he raises some potential ones himself), he concludes that it renders belief in the Judeo-Christian God reasonable, and when combined with the rest of Moreland’s arguments, demonstrates why theism is more reasonable than naturalism.

It is worth reading his whole review (it can also be found on his own blog here). Also worth looking at is Moreland’s interview about the book on the Evangelical Philosophical Blog from last year (part 1 and 2) and Moreland’s post about the topic on his Amazon blog.

The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, can of course, be picked up on Amazon.


“God, Naturalism and the Foundations of Morality” by Paul Copan in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.