The Free Will Delusion v. The God Delusion?

Atheists and agnostics (of which I am one) often insist that religious people should live without illusions or delusions. In other words, atheists and agnostics (in general) profess to believe that people should never believe things that run counter to science or reason.

And yet those of us who are atheists and agnostics (and again, I fall into this category) tend to believe in free will—and are indulgent with people who live their lives as if they have free will—even though it is very hard to fully defend coherently.

Christopher Hitchens, for example, was once asked if he believed in free will and quipped (without offering an intellectual defense): “I have no other choice!”

And I know that Daniel Dennett has written a very good book about this (titled Freedom Evolves)—in which he makes the best case that he can for free will. I personally found the book compelling, and a great read, yet I wanted to find the book compelling (because I deeply want to believe in free will). But I would note that there are a lot of scientifically trained people who do not agree with Dennett’s thesis that human beings really have free will, and they are in the majority. And both physics, neuro-science, and psychology offer difficulties for believing in free will. 

 Consider the following:

  • If physics is correct that we live in a “block universe” and that time may not be fundamental, then it’s hard to imagine free will as being anything other than an illusion.
  • And if, as psychologists have pointed out in careful clinical studies, the unconscious frequently makes decisions for us before we are consciously aware of our “choice,” it is also difficult to imagine free will as anything but an illusion.
  • And if it is the case that we are made up of genetic and environmental factors (and what else are there?), then it is hard to imagine our “choices” as less determined than the position of the clouds over our heads at any given moment.

Again, I know that there are arguments for free will, and rebuttals to the above, but they are not generally considered all that compelling scientifically, and yet I’m willing to bet that every atheist and agnostic who visits this blog believes that they have free will, and that they engage in behaviors associated with free will (such as fretting over options, talking to friends about choices etc.).

We do this because, for us, it seems difficult to conceive of a human existence apart from free will. Call, therefore, part of the atheist and agnostic lifestyle “the free will delusion.”

By analogy, then, maybe this is the position of liberal clergy with relation to the arguments against religion. They can read, say, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and acknowledge the compelling nature of the arguments set forth there, and still be theists, and pray, and engage in other “irrational” behaviors. Why? Because they find it hard to imagine a human life (for themselves) that does not have an element of hope (that the universe is ultimately a cosmos instead of a chaos; that there is some telos and poetic justice somewhere that will make things “right” in the end). Yes, they see atheists and agnostics walking around, and can see that they function in the world. I’m not talking about the notion that a religious person cannot literally see a different way of being in the world. But perhaps the religious person simply finds it profoundly unpleasant to think of his or her life as simply atoms and the void rustling about, and therefore he or she chooses to hope for something less “souless” (just as you wish to imagine that you have free will, and hope that the arguments for free will, however apparently weak or besieged they might be, turn out to be correct afterall).

I think, in short, that this is really what atheists and agnostics are up against when arguing that people should stop being “delusional” about religion. Our reasoning is generally sound, and most theists might even concede that it is such, but like us with free will, they don’t see a happy existence for themselves in entirely rejecting their faith.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to The Free Will Delusion v. The God Delusion?

  1. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi
    You’re testing my brain cells now and because I ‘want’ to reply to your post I am not really excercising ‘free will’ because my consciuosness, made up of the thoughts of atoms, wants to anyway.
    If I couldn’t reply because my PC was broken then I wouldn’t have a choice anyway but since I ‘want’ to then my consciousness is simply following its determined path. Thus this is not a’choice’ at all.

    Horrible thought! If I want to think and live as if I have choices even that isn’t free will? If I accept that I have no free will and am a prisoner of my physically constructed consciousness is that not choice too? I dont know !

    We have to give up faith in the name of reason but that’s not enough we have to give up self determination too?

    Life’s too short!!

  2. shamelesslyatheist says:

    “Life’s too short!!” Exactly why I’m not religious.

    I think the curious case of Phineas Gage was the first nail in the coffin for free will. Poor Phineas. Did he have a choice about his change in character? Not in the least. So much for the “immutable soul”.

    I think there is still some limited choice, but far less than we think we have. We can always rationalize away our choice after the fact. And we usually do.

  3. aunty dawkins says:

    Shamelesslyatheist,
    Some might say a very good reason for being religious, but I won’t go there ! It appears poor Phineas Gage was the victim of an unfortunate accident which appears to have changed his personality. Not really surprising given his injury, though there seems to be disagreement about the true manifestations of that change according to the ‘wiki’ article.
    I’m not entirely sure how this case shows the abscence of free will as the incident was an accident beyond his control. I don’t dispute the location of consciousness and personality in the brain not an immutable soul. What I am unsure of, or possibly am reluctant to accept, is the abscence of choice in the operation of our consciousness.
    Interesting that after Phileas’s accident some observers discerned a coarsening and desensitised affect compared to his pre trauma more civilised nature.

  4. shamelesslyatheist says:

    Phineas is just one of many brain trauma incidents which results in altered personality. It’s an active area of neuroscience. The really weird stuff that gives us a window into brain function comes from epilepsy patients that have had their corpus collosum cut in order to keep the seizure locus limited to one hemisphere.

    Typically, frontal lobe injury damages the inhibition regions of the brain. Such unfortunate people are incapable (here is the choice part) of simply choosing to not show anger flares. They have no choice in how they interact with others. Does that mean that those with uninjured frontal lobes have real choice? Hardly. Who and what we are are purely products of our physical brain. We can not just turn off our inhibitory mechanisms by choice any more than Phineas (and others like him) could turn them on. Choice is largely an illusion that we talk ourselves into believing after the fact.

    Another notch against free will is the fact that if we really did have infinite number of choice we would be paralyzed into inaction. We actually need a way of processing choice not accessible to the conscious mind (see Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds for an excellent overview of how we process ethical decisions).

    Note that I do not excuse acts of violence on this basis (in the case of Phineas, one would have to take his injury into consideration and the law recognizes this) and social predators need to be removed from society, if only for safety’s sake. But we do have some control, enough to override impulses to do harm.

    • Robert Keller says:

      Thanks for this post. It cleared up my thinking about choice which seems obviously to exist. Differing areas of the brain vying for preeminence. Puzzle solved.

  5. Jack Pfitsch says:

    Those that engage in these debates just prove that belief is a choice. Those that choose to believe in any kind of strict determinism are the ones that are caught in a contradiction.

  6. aunty dawkins says:

    Shamelessly
    Thank for the further explanation.
    I may be being obtuse here but is there not a choice made to obey inhibitory mechanisms? Violence and evil are perpetrated by many who are not brain traumatised?
    The whole question of ethical behaviour seems to sit uncomfortably with lack of free will.
    In the 17th century the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination led to the development of anti nomian sects who led their lives without conscience since they believed themselves ‘saved’ anyway.

  7. pulseteresa says:

    A very late comment here, but I found this article and some of the comments quite interesting.
    I have long questioned the notion of free will (I am an atheist by the way). I’m curious, Santi what evidence you have for suggesting that “atheists and agnostics tend to believe in free will.” I’ve read and spoken with several atheists who accept that we have only limited free will and/or the illusion of free will. This is my point of view as well. The fact that many decisions are made before we are consciously aware strongly suggests this. But it does seem (which could still be illusion) that we do have some conscious say in what we decide. There is an intuitive basis for this – we can choose action over inaction and vice versa, but such choices are admittedly limited by genes, environment, the laws of physics, random chance, other individuals, and other circumstances beyond our control (and most circumstances are beyond our control). Thus my assertion that we have limited free will as well as the illusion of free will.
    I think it would be simply irresponsible, however, to not hold people accountable for their actions. In other words, belief in a sort of free will is useful in terms of social order.
    I don’t see the “free will delusion” being especially common in atheists, but rather believers.

    • santitafarella says:

      Pulseteresa:

      You make fair points. When I wrote the above post a year ago I was trying to retain free will for myself (and still be an agnostic). Over the past year my ideas have evolved so that I, like you, assume that free will is probably illusory. My current opinion is that our brains are calculating machines doing their thing beneath consciousness and that we then “hit upon” (in consciousness) the thing we want to do (or not). In other words, it’s all going on beneath the radar. Our brains arrive at a conclusion, then we announce to others (consciously) that we “choose” this or that, but our “choice” was, in fact, in accord with that subconsciously calculated (and ultimately determined) conclusion. Our subjective and narrative self masks the deeper calculating self (from ourselves and others). I suppose that makes me a compatibalist (so long as society lets us do what we were inclined to do anyway, then I guess it doesn’t matter if there was a determinate calculating process underlying our conscious desire—we are “free”).

      Still, I think that consigning free will to illusion wrecks havoc on responsibility and the law.

      Here’s a more recent post where I try to sort that question out:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2010/06/18/monism-free-will-and-atheist-cognitive-dissonance/

      As for where I get the notion that most atheists believe in free will, I think it comes from their cognitive dissonance: if they say that they don’t believe in free will, just splash some hot coffee on them and they’ll call you a dumbfuck, careless etc.—they will think you did it and you might not have done it if you were more thoughtful of others or attentive to what you were doing. And, of course, if they thought that you did it deliberately, they might punch you in the nose.

      See here for a bit more on cognitive dissonance:

      http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/06/how-the-brain-argues-with-itself.html

      —Santi

  8. Aerek says:

    I worry that the free will illusion is a more fundamental barrier to social development than religion. I don’t recall ever buying into the free will idea, but I’ve tried to define what it could possibly mean since it seems so important to people.

    So far I haven’t developed or discovered a sensible or necessarily useful definition of free will, but I’ve observed a few things in connection with the concept. People seem to equate free will with their subjective feeling of volition, and they feel especially compelled to invoke free will in punitive and economic contexts. It’s no wonder why people do this, but because the concept is fundamental in justifying how we treat people and manage resources, it’s going to be all the more difficult to educate the illusion from the collective psyche.

    • santitafarella says:

      Aerik:

      How do you have a free nation without free will? I worry about the Enlightenment if we give up on free will. Nationalists are always lurking in the wings, insisting that what we are is a product of where we were born, and the blood running in our veins; that things cannot be different because you are not a free individual, you are born into a tribe.

      What say you?

      —Santi

      • Aerek says:

        I feel that people, in general, have little initial choice but to be reflections of their culture. If an individual is only exposed to the behaviors, habits, customs, rituals, etc. of their local community, it would be difficult for them to not integrate these elements into who they are, especially if they’re exposed to no other views. For example, an individual could never spontaneously adopt a specific ritual that has been long extinct and that they had no knowledge of, but the same individual would likely and readily adopt the rituals of their community.

        Moreover, people desire validation from others and this is satisfied through social acceptance, and you’re largely accepted by your community to the degree that you share its values, like lawn care for example. And there’s almost certainly an evolutionary basis for such facile social programming.

        I don’t like to say “programming” because it sounds bleak, but “programming” is just a word and its mechanistic connotation doesn’t reflect the subjective richness of our minds. But I still find it useful to think that, for example, people in certain times and places were programmed to worship one thing while people in another time and place were programmed to worship another.

        So, to answer your question about a free nation, I think that the freest a person can get is run a kind of meta-cognitive programming that prevents them from adopting questionable cultural behaviors and unjustified ideas. Such people will then get along with like-minded people because of social validation. And this community can then take care to not pass on questionable culture to subsequent generations.

        For example, “blood in your veins” can be a destructive idea, but it’s also, possibly, a natural inclination in that we’re compelled to feel that way as competing social animals. What sort of programming would people need to have to counter the destructive qualities of blood nationality while embracing the good, if any, aspects?

        All this implies that an enlightened society can come instantly crashing down, and I believe this is, unfortunately, the case. That means that it’s all the more crucial to insist upon mindful cultural programming. That is, a culture of practiced self-awareness guided by the best knowledge we have about the nature of the human animal.

        As an aside, a lot of people have commented about choice on this thread. Consider how the choices you’re able to consider at a given moment are guided by your biology (some people buy more junk food if they shop while hungry), and your culture (some people believe that you need to help infants learn to sit by propping them up with sand, and you’d be a bad parent if you didn’t teach your child how to sit).

        The point is that even the choices available for consideration and how the choices make you feel are framed by biology and culture and often predictably variable in different situations (you might eat insects if you were starving).

        Self-awareness is a tool for greater control within such choice framings. I would guess that once you understand what’s influencing your choices (cravings, peer pressure, etc.) you can have more control over your mind. This doesn’t make your will free because you’re just running a meta-cognitive program that’s hopefully being socially validated, but I believe that this is as free, in any sense, that you can get. And it could perhaps be a basis for enlightenment.

  9. stephen fox says:

    What would it look like to not believe in free will? How would you live your life? I am not making a statement about free will one way or another here but just asking a question. Imagine waking up tomorrow knowing that whatever happens is supposed to happen, that there are no mistakes, that no one is better or worse than another. Your wife leaves you and you understand that she had no choice.It makes you sad for a moment but you notice that even the sadness had to be there and somehow that is alright also. Someone steals your car and your only reaction is figuring out how you are going to find ways of getting where you need to go, renting a car, borrowing a car, taking public transportation, notifying the police, but never one moment of thought,of anger that a terrible thing just happened to you and who could have done such a bad thing, or how you don’t deserve this.
    Another way of looking at the world might be that the way i want things to be or how I think people should behave, how the world is not measuring up to my expectations, all that mental noise is the illusion and what is, is not only reality but the way it is supposed to be. How about this… what would it be like to see religious people, atheists, democrats, republicans, rich people, street people, anyone and especially ourselves as doing the best we can. I think, perhaps just as an experiment we could try that, just for a day, just for this moment …. that the world, including myself is fine just the way it is because that is the way of it. What do you think?

    • santitafarella says:

      Stephen:

      I hear a screenplay in your speculation. In a way, Buddhists are kind of the answer to your question (as is, perhaps, Nietzsche).

      If you really take strict materialism—and thus, determinism and selflessness—seriously, then it has to change how you talk about the self (or no self) and your choices (which aren’t choices). It would be a very strange way to talk and think and act for a day.

      To adopt strict materialism, in my view, is to lose not just free will but the idea of a stable narrative self.

      —Santi

  10. John Faupel says:

    Your bias in wanting to believe in free will, is as understandable as your bias in wanting to believe in your politics or nationality or ethnicity or religion or probably even atheism – as most of these beliefs are unwittingly conditioned in all of us. It is worth considering, therefore, how most of us have become so strongly conditioned to believe in free will. This conditioning began several thousand years ago, with the birth of the city-state, when citizens were continually being reminded by ‘authority’ that there were ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing things, so naturally they began to believe they could choose between them. (Before then they had never considered the idea.) And, moreover, they also began to realise that they would probably be admired or condemned accordingly. The great irony is though, that the consequences of reward or punishment that might follow from these alternative courses of action would actually inhibit their freedom of choice, rather than make it available to them. After all, it should be obvious that a donkey can never be free to choose what it would like to do for itself when it is continually being reminded of the socially imposed consequences of its master’s carrot and stick.
    Humanity has been living under this same curse ever since and the implications have been horrifically cruel and world-wide. (Further explanation if required.)

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