Monism, free will, and atheist cognitive dissonance

Imagine an atheist who believes—against religious dualism—that there is one world, not two, and that it runs on determinate physics (or on perfect quantum probabilistic randomness, which amounts to the same thing). Now also imagine that he (or she) believes in free will.

Free will, of course, is a religious concept. It is a concept that derives from religious dualism. Atheism is a monism—a philosophy of one world that reduces to atoms and void—and if an atheist believes that the universe goes on mechanistic laws then that same atheist must (logically) think of free will as ultimately an illusion. If the universe is physics and chemistry, and there is no second world, then what is going on at the level of human free will is not primary or determinative of anything that is happening in the universe. It just appears to be so.

Of course, very few atheists face monistic determinism (or its practical equivalent, quantum statistical randomness) squarely. Most are in cognitive dissonance about it. They expect the courts to continue to apportion blame, and they expect their wives and husbands to choose them freely over other lovers. They expect, in other words, a ghost in the machine to still move things around, and still be responsible for moving things around.

For an atheist, free will functions like redemption does for a Christian: it is a comforting thought with no empirical basis. It is nice to believe, and reduces your subjective anxiety, but if monism is true then free will is almost certainly not true.

But if someone out there can explain to me how, in a monistic universe that otherwise “goes” by either determinate or quantum probabilistic atoms rustling in the void, human free will nevertheless can be efficacious—and not just appear to be so—I’d love to learn. I’m an agnostic. I think that God is either dead or not talking. So I’m open to a really good free will argument on monistic assumptions. I want to believe in free will, so set me straight about this. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to Monism, free will, and atheist cognitive dissonance

  1. Brilliant and succinct. Unfortunately, I’m an agnostic too, believe we have real free will and can’t help you with your quest. I’ll be very interested to see responses tho 🙂

    • Deee says:

      Because the material through which we cognize varies in form and experience it is likely that we will cognize differently, however the non-material/abstract concepts that we share indicate a monastic source at the level of creation. If you have free will in the material/cognizing level it might be to choose your participation at the level of creation. If you deny the existence of such a level because you fear losing free will to the concept of a unified whole where it does not exist, then you cannot be honest without dualism.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I eagerly await, sometime later in the 21st century, a defense attorney, calling physicists to the stand, and explaining to a jury, say, the many worlds hypothesis of quantum physics (in which all possible quantum states are realized, but unseen by our particular quantum experience of the universe). In other words, the lawyer could argue that in this world his client murdered, but in many of the universes just next door—those unknown directly by us, but every bit as real—his client did not murder. We just happen to inhabit the quantum state where the client murdered. It is therefore not fair to punish a person for a crime he could not possibly have prevented from happening. Further, the jury is informed that it may be inhabiting a quantum state of the universe where this argument flies. Therefore, the lawyer might say: “I appeal to the jury to affirm the quantum state where the ‘innocence by quantum argument’ prevails and give this man his freedom!”

    The ironies compound, don’t they?


    • Hahaha. No doubt a sci-fi author has already written it. I remember reading about how Elvis is still alive somewhere in the multiverse in New Scientist some years back. Blew my mind. IF that theory works 🙂

  3. Matt says:

    Hi Santi,
    As an atheist, I don’t have any problem with rejecting the idea of a “free will” that exists separately from the natural universe.
    It seems clear to me that our actions are determined by our environment, by our previous experience, and by our knowledge of the likely outcomes of those actions.
    The decision-making process, which some would call free will, is actually an emergent process built on the accumulation of all these things.
    Is this not sufficient to explain what we do, and what we observe in others?
    It doesn’t seem necessary to posit some separate “ghost in the machine”.

    • santitafarella says:


      I completely agree with you that monistic physical determinism can wholly and adequately account for our (false) impression that we have free will. But if we are monistic physical determinists, shall we continue to talk in court as if we are not? How shall we apportion blame? Or speak of the self? Will we be monists living in the shadow of religious dualism—or will we try to speak of the world differently from henceforth?

      And what will a world divorced from the language of free will sound and feel like? I imagine a Twilight Zone episode. Picture Rod Serling introducing an episode this way: “In just a moment, Fred Kelly, a free man, will hear his alarm clock go off. And when it does, he will open his eyes and kiss his wife in exactly the same way that he has done every morning since he was married six years ago. But his wife will respond to Mr. Kelly differently than she has ever done before. And so will everyone Mr. Kelly meets today, for something has been stolen from his world, and that something has been placed in the Twilight Zone.”


      • Matt says:

        I think the language is fine as it is. Replacing expressions like “choice” with something like “a decision reached on the basis of the current configuration of the universe” strikes me as unnecessarily cumbersome. I would rather that we continue to use the former, understanding that it’s just shorthand for the latter.
        (To take another example, we still describe the sun as “rising” and “setting”, even though that’s not strictly true.)
        Your earlier point about courts raises some interesting questions. The first being: what is the role of courts?
        If their role is to mete out metaphysical punishment for free-will choices made (a kind of “heaven on earth”?) then you’re right: they have no place in a deterministic universe.
        However, I would argue that this is not their role. Rather, the courts’ role is to enforce the laws that we, as a society, have a agreed upon as being necessary for society’s smooth function.
        That is, we employ them as agents of determinism. Their function is to act as a deterrent, or as a method of removing from society those who have done harm and may do so again.

      • Iain says:

        For some reason I can’t reply directly to Matt’s comment.

        Matt, just a comment about terms. I think that precise language is highly important, given that determinism specifically says that the universe simply follows a causal chain from state to state whereas libertarian freewill metaphysically ignores the state of the universe in order to have its brand of freedom. They aren’t just ‘choice’ versus ‘no choice’, they are two totally different sets of assumptions. If you want to be accurate (and you need to be in order to whittle away red herrings and get at the truth) you can’t just use vague terms. Many people think they know what terms mean, when in reality they don’t.

  4. Iain says:

    If there were only two choices, freewill or determinism, then there would certainly be a problem for the materialist.
    I’ll avoid the term ‘monist’, because some Christians are substance monists, believing that humans are holistic beings (not body/spirit/soul) while still being metaphysical dualists. ‘Monism’ can also refer to a theological perspective about the nature of God.

    The determinism option is easy to understand. One state of affairs in the universe directly entails the next state of affairs. This is messed up a little bit through any spontaneous processes (you can’t predict something if the results are muddled via randomness), but randomness doesn’t add free choice. In determinism, the universe at time, T0, can be in some state, S1, which then leads to an action, A. Barring randomness, S1 always entails action A. Equally, if the universe is in state S2 this will lead to action B (and never A). It looks like this:

    (T0) (T1)
    S1 -> A
    S2 -> B

    The free will choice that you suggest is the most popular variety which I would call ‘libertarian free will’. This is an extreme free will and it requires a quirk of metaphysics to make it possible. The libertarian freewiller says that if the universe is in one particular state, S1, at a certain time, T0, they can either take action A *OR* action B. That is, S1–>A or S1–>B.

    (T0) (T1)
    S1 A
    S1 B

    I would also add this,

    (T0) (T1)
    S1 A
    S2 A

    Whereas the determinist believes that one particular state entails another certain state of affairs, the libertarian freewiller thinks that their actions have nothing to do with the current state of the universe. This MUST require metaphysics to justify.

    I think there is a third choice, called compatibilism. Compatibilism basically says that determinism and free will can co-exist, only this kind of free will is not libertarian or metaphysical. My particular brand of compatibilism says that I will have certain wishes, desires, and intentions, and that my free will is expressed when I am allowed to act upon these things without being restricted or coerced by external forces. You might tell me that the only reason why I choose to eat chocolate icecream is because of some neuronal process that forces me to enjoy it so much, but given that this preference is incorporated into the identity of the individual known as me, this is no problem (“Oh why did I have to go and enjoy the chocolate icecream so much? Whyyy?!!!”). None of us are perfectly free to choose whatever we want to do. If we were, then I would be able to fly. But this is no different to the idea that we cannot determine perfect and final knowledge through the sciences yet this does not stop science from being a potent tool of information. As Daniel Dennett says, libertarian freewill is not the kind of free will worth having because in order to prove that you had it you would have to desire one state of affairs and yet act differently; It seems pointless. Compatibilism admits that we are beings-in-the-world, and yet AS beings we can have certain desires and have those desires met through action.
    In our attempt to understand the implications of causality in a material universe, I think it is possible to be guilty of Greedy Reductionism and go too far, too fast, and thus lose a level of nuance and subtlety relating to human behaviour that can so easily be trampled. I don’t want to turn this into a Free Will essay, so I will leave it there.

    Off the top of my head, if you are interested, one person who has talked and written about free will is Daniel Dennett. You may wish to read his books ‘Elbow Room’ or (its bigger brother) ‘Freedom Evolves’. He has also given a talk at Edinburgh University, ‘Is science showing that we don’t have free will?’, which you can view here
    I haven’t actually read or seen any of above (although i have read a range of other works by Dennett) so this is only information, not a recommendation.

    • This is why most people find academic philosophy “too hard”. Unfortunately, it’s quite possible that the world can’t be explained without such rigour. Physicists go back to mathematics when analogy can’t explain… which means many of us are not capable of following.

      Thanks, I shall have to see if I can get to grips with this when I get the chance to read thoughtfully. (I have an undergrad philosophy degree.)

  5. santitafarella says:


    You offer some good thoughts above, and I like your pragmatic interpretation of free will: “My particular brand of compatibilism says that I will have certain wishes, desires, and intentions, and that my free will is expressed when I am allowed to act upon these things without being restricted or coerced by external forces.”

    And I’ve read Dennett’s book, which is very good, but have not seen the youtube you direct me to, so I’ll look at that. Thank you.

    My critique, however, is this: if I accept compatibilism, it’s all very well and good for me, but what about for you? In other words, what if I want to do something that harms you? Suddenly, I am free of external coercion, doing what comes natural to me, but I also become the external force imposing its will on you—violating your determinate freedom of movement.

    In other words, how does a compatibilist apportion blame in court etc.? You may be subjectively free, choosing to do exactly what your instincts gnaw at you to do, but you might also be a psychopath. Do we leave responsibility, guilt, and punishment behind, or are these ways for the elite to manipulate the masses (even as the elite knows that people are not really responsible for what they do). In other words, are the responsibility, guilt, and punishment memes just more things in the mix to help people do what the elite want—ways to “manufacture consent”?

    Here’s another way to ask the question: if free will is not metaphysically true, but pragmatically true, who is it pragmatically true for? Doesn’t this pragmatic free will readily morph into Nietzsche’s will to power?

    As for monism, I think the term is important in this case because it tells you something that is frequently sublimated: atheism is about living in one world, not two, and it is about seeing that world as ultimately reducible to atoms (determinate or probabilistic) rustling in the void. Yes, it is true that there are religious monists (Hindus think, for example, that all things are ultimately reduced to one thing: Brahman). But that is exactly the point: monisms take human destiny out of human hands, and atheism—insofar as it is coherent and not simply engaged in cognitive dissonance—shares this characteristic with Hinduism: one substance underlies plural perceptions and actions, and that substance is ultimately determinative of all that occurs. Monism draws the air out of the balloon of individual free will. Atheism, being a monism, wrestles with free will, and encounters the same difficulties concerning it, that Arjuna had in talking with Krishna about whether to participate in war (in the Baghavad Gita).


    • Iain says:

      >what if I want to do something that harms you? Suddenly, I am free of external coercion, doing what comes natural to me, but I also become the external force imposing its will on you—violating your determinate freedom of movement

      It’s quite appropriate that I found your blog via spritz’ tweeting, because this conversation relates to his most recent blog post (and comment I left there):

      Free will seems to be concerned with the viability of Agency within the context of a universe/world-system. I think that the question about Agency within the context of a society/relationship-system moves into the discussion of morality.
      In politics, do we allow government to regulate our choices? To what degree?
      In morality, do we allow the actions of some to restrict the autonomy of others? To what degree?

      Do I still have autonomy if, due to my neighbours wishes, our goals clash and he thwarts my desires? I think so, but again to a lesser degree than omnipotent (libertarian freedom) autonomy because that just isn’t the way the world works. Gravity stops us flying. Walls stop us from walking where we want. Other people have interests and influences that disrupt the expression of our own desires. But that’s called compromise. I don’t think it threatens the moral project, individual autonomy, or free will in any sense that any of them are worth having.

      I don’t think individual autonomy is an all-or-nothing question, whether we are talking about it in relational/moral terms or existential/free-will terms.

  6. Ryan says:

    Hey Santi –

    First, I must say it takes quite the dose of humility to take part in an argument on free will, while retaining an open mind as well as logic (or cognitive dissonance would have me believe so…). I enjoy your thoughts.

    I agree, and must say (I find that) just about every inch of science from the subatomic level to the interaction of neurons and the evolution of the brain indicate that free will is an illusion. Every decision we make, as free and controlled as it feels, is a result of our prior experience (environmental) as it has interacted with our genetic predisposition and development as an animal. Ever Christian is the product of a dynamic life that has rendered them thus, as is a liberal, a person who decides to quit their job and hit the road, and even an atheist.

    Before I go further, I must posit that this does not disprove that certain opinions and decisions are in line with truth (i.e., science, some forms of logic, laws of physics, the stupidity inherent in many political/religious beliefs [yes, I grouped them together, it’s chauvinism regardless]).

    The closest thing we have to free will is its illusion, and the experience of making an educated decision. I would believe that even people’s so perceived ‘random’ decisions can be predicted on a population level. Every experiment in psychology from social concepts of group mentality to biases such as those prevalent in cognitive dissonance theory, has shown that consistent significant effects can be found in populations. If free will is a human reality, it would seem we are all making rather uniform decisions on how our minds work…

    Furthermore, some cognitive psychologists have proposed that consciousness is an illusion, and is nearly awareness provided in our short-term memories. Daniel Dennett gives great talks on these arguments and has also written a great book (Consciousness Explained). Here’s a link to a talk he gave at TED, though it’s only a snippet of his work:

    This brings me to my final argument. First, if free will is to exist, we must consider what free will is a product of, as such a thing could not possibly be a product of itself. I would assume people would answer this questions with ‘consciousness.’ However, now I must take the next logical step, which I think even most atheists neglect delving into – what is consciousness a product of?

    Short-term memory?

    Mirror neurons?

    Probably a dynamic interaction of these and much more.

    One of Nietzsche’s greatest logical contributions was proposed in his Twilight of the Idols, “Do not confuse consequence for cause.” Hence we (as he did) must induce that consciousness is not the cause of our worldly experience, but a consequence of it. Thought, that incessant unorganized rant inside our heads, must be the consequence of something else.

    Just as EVERY one of our experiences that has been measured at EVERY level of neuropsychology occurs AFTER the neurons fire off (activate), so must conscious thought. If the nature of ‘consciousness’ is determined by the interactions in our neural networks, how the hell could it be possible that we FIRST think on our own accord (free will), then SECOND the neural networks in our memory systems and language centers shoot off? Such an argument would be pompous and preposterous. Thus ‘free will,’ being a consequence of ‘consciousness,’ which is itself the consequence of preceding neural activity (this chain could lead us all the way down to subatomic activity) – occurs before we even are consciously aware of it.

    A series of experiments have been conducted by philosophical psychologists, this is not simply theoretical but has been empirically explored. Here’s a great collection of articles that someone put up on wiki:

    I implore that everyone reads it.

    Here’s a quick video probing it by a journalist:

    I find the evidence substantial, to say the least.

    Last but not least, I must comment on the few remarks concerning the nature of judicial systems – primarily the concept of ‘accounatability.’ Though the lack of free will would entirely deface any idea of accountability (our judicial systems especially – that result in punishment), we must retain them for functional purposes. Should they be refined to specific instances in which people have less control than usual? Of course. I think the primary message we should have learned by now, from all of science, is that we need to understand that individual behavior is the product of an environment, and one of the beautiful things about our species is that we have ‘control’ over our environment, and now the knowledge necessary to begin minimizing these problems.

    I simply implore everyone avoid reductionism, and most importantly, obtain a true sense of humility.

  7. Atrum Viscus says:

    Where as monism believes that everything is one, a matter of perspective can change a course of actions (regardless of deterministic value) i.e. the red that you see may not be the red that your identical twin sees, despite being identical, and thus accounting for various degrees of free will among people that should orherwise have a very similiar response system.

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