No Free Will, No Free Lunch

Answering Unanswerable Questions

The car sped though the night on an Interstate smooth as silk. New Mexico passed by in rain and darkness as I discussed what one might call “the big questions” with my roommate, John Jhee. Gripping the wheel, he shook his head.

“I almost hate to say it,” he said, “but free will is such a college thing.” He expanded on his opinion. So many things were more important than such armchair philosophy, he seemed to be saying; and at the end of college, real life would rearrange these priorities.

When I was in the middle of my undergraduate years, I had a small crisis on the issue. I watched the movements of my hands, I listened to my own words, and I found myself frightened by the idea that they were running on an algorithm. I sunk into the melancholy of the determinists—summed up in an Da-Vinci-esque illustration I once saw of a man running amidst a sea of interlocking gears, helpless to alter his fate. I despaired over the experiments on readiness potential in the brain. All seemed rather dim. In the time that followed, however, I grew more and more inured to the implications of these ideas, until eventually I was altogether indifferent. John was right.

What of the concept itself? Like many of the big questions, I found this one intractable in ways that I had not anticipated. Having clearly understood my lack of understanding on the matter, I feel much more at ease. I believe that the concept of free will, in the highly-treasured form that we know it, is not self-consistent.

For many evangelical Christians, free will is an essential building block in their understanding of faith. I am convinced, however, that many investigate the matter solely from a theological perspective, never once consulting a scientific approach. The former line of thinking results in grand debates over Calvinism and Arminianism. The participants rarely use these terms to indicate knowledge of the theology of Calvin or Arminus [1]; they simply know which word to use depending on their perspective on free will and predestination.

Evangelicals are reluctant to tackle problems with a starting point outside of Scripture. They believe it will lead to either secular conclusions, or a lack of conclusions. I empathize with this predisposition, but in some cases it causes people to overlook the obvious. While I am reluctant to dismiss all those theological discussions (often had late at night over piping hot take-out food) as complete hogwash, I believe that everyone should save some of the time and effort.

The world as we know it operates according to natural law. When a physical event occurs, we ascribe its occurrence to a set of contributing factors. The simple assumption of causality is essential not only to science, but the living of our daily lives. It hinges on our right to ask just one question: why?


Human thoughts and behaviour are physical events originating in the brain. If we grant that the brain is not an exception to the laws governing the universe, we grant that all such events are caused in a manner deserving explanation. As every child knows, there is an exciting game that can be played by asking the question “why?” until one arrives at the edge of causality. [2] Nonetheless, this does not affect the crux of the matter—long before we reach such a barrier, we may theoretically explain all personal thoughts and decisions as products of wholly external circumstances, all by asking this one-word question.

When confronted with such reasoning, many respond by pointing out that it’s difficult to explain why certain events occur rather than others. They point out that some events “could have gone either way.” These observations are moot, because they do not answer the question: why? Why did it go the way that it did? We are used to imagining events on a macroscopic level, rather than as a particle physics concerto. Most events that “could have gone either way” reflect only a lack of available details: we simply did not know the exact mass of the die, its initial position and momentum, or the angle at which it struck the table. There is nothing new about this idea—it is little more than age-old determinism, in which the world is a playground for LaPlace’s demon.

I challenge believers in free will with simple determinism because they rarely raise the issue of quantum mechanics in their defense. The issue, however, must be raised. As one of my friends said, “You have to consider it, because that’s the way the world really is.” It seems that the universe is governed, at its core, by a cornucopia of unpredictable events. These unpredictable events have probabilities associated with them, and on the macroscopic scale, the outcome becomes nearly certain. One argument suggests that the structures in the brain are too large to be influenced by quantum effects—under this model, your thoughts and behaviour still run like clockwork. Let us discard this hypothesis for the sake of the argument, as I believe it is not necessary to prove the point. What if the brain truly is subject to quantum effects?

First and foremost, I should stress that the concept of true randomness is meaningless to me, but I will not clutter the main point with my digressions [3]. If quantum effects play a role in your brain, you have reduced the explanation of your behaviour to two possibilities: it is either caused, or it is random. Neither caused actions nor random actions are the kind we imagine when idealizing free will—the latter sounds even less free than the former! Many people intuitively reach for a third option, saying that our actions are a result of our free choices. But what does this actually mean?

No understanding of science or theology is necessary to undermine the classic, popular concept of free will. We need only realize that when we try to define such free will, we are unable to do it. How could this be done? If the choices we make are caused, they are caused by external events. We cannot say that we ourselves are the cause of such choices, because we must eventually appeal to external events when our choices are subjected to an infinite regress of the critical question: why? To whatever extent our choices are not externally caused, they can only be said to be random. Not even complete dualism and the existence of a physically active soul can solve the problem. The final decision we make between A and B, right and wrong, black and white, still demands an explanation. [4]

Most evangelical Christians are attached to the concept of ontological free will because it seems necessary for moral responsibility. It is also is seen as an alternative to a frightening universe in which God plays games with programmed robots. At this point, we must recognize that determinism is not true instead of free will. Rather, some mysterious truth exists instead of simple determinism, and the concept of free will that we entertain has no theoretical meaning. I staunchly deny that moral responsibility is negated in the face of such conclusions, and that is my prime reason for thinking about this in the first place. [5] My espousal of this position requires that I forsake the realm of airtight reason, but this is sometimes necessary when entering the realm of purpose and meaning.

At the end of all this is what I call the “good news.” The good news goes unappreciated by innumerable people, many of them vastly more intelligent and thoughtful than I. Why this is, I cannot say, but I believe it is a personal belief that cannot be felled by logic. The good news is that no amount of theorizing can negate the experience of free will that we have as sentient beings. Richard Dawkins has said, “The illusion of free will is so strong that we might as well have it.” Perhaps to him, this means only that we are irreparably deluded. To me, this means that I have everything I could possibly ask for, as I can conceive of nothing more. I accept such a strong illusion as the thing itself, and I believe that this is the purpose for which it exists.


[1] This statement is somewhat accusatory, but in hindsight, I am no exception.

[2] As unnerving as it is for both atheists and theists alike, something out there has to be uncaused. There’s no sense crying about it.

[3] The idea that two events may occur with equal probability—truly, deeply, equal probability—does not make sense to me, because it leaves the same old key question unanswered. No one has ever explained to me how one event, however likely or unlikely, could occur instead of another, without any explanation as to why. If there is no answer to this question, then both events should have occurred. Even the MWI interpretation of quantum mechanics (depending on which one you pick) still must explain why we find ourselves in this particular universe. I’m not masquerading as someone who understands this subject—I have no idea what I’m talking about. I haven’t even figured out whether anyone out there believes in true randomness, even if they discount hidden variable theories. The bottom line is, I’m likely to subscribe to ideas like this until somebody sets me straight on that one simple piece of dissonance.

[4] I raised this point over a basket of honey garlic wings, and a girl said to me: “Would that mean God doesn’t have free will?” I paused, and said it was a good question. I did not answer. Upon reflection, however, I’d say that he does: God, as an uncaused entity, would still be the prime originator of his actions.

[5] I will write on this separately. I’d have segued into it directly, but in deciding to post these writings on a blog, I’ve also decided to divide them up into smaller pieces.


11 Responses to “No Free Will, No Free Lunch”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    While I agree with the argument of causality, it does not seem to me that determinism requires a lack of will on the part of sentient beings–if anything, will provides the fuel for that engine. Perhaps the term “free” will is misleading because it does imply autonomy; since most people can agree that is a ridiculous scenario on a cosmic scale, however, I’ll use it here simply to signify the agency of an individual. That is because I believe it is agency–involvement–that, at bottom, is the cause of your mysterious moral responsibility. Perhaps this would be the subject of the separate post you have planned; I’m not sure. I had to try putting it together on my own, though, because I couldn’t sleep before doing so.

    By “agency” I literally mean the simple fact of your participation in existence. Whether or not you have been programmed *to* act and react in particular ways to particular outside motivators (and I do suspect that, in a manner perpetually beyond our ken, we are) has nothing to do with the fact that those actions are *yours*: generated by a program, perhaps, but a program that has been uniquely assigned to one individual entity and which, in fact, defines your essence. The question of whether or not you control your definition or whether it controls you seems a moot point: it is one and the same thing. Asking that is like asking if something is cold because it lacks heat or if it lacks heat because it’s cold.

    I think there is a point where asking “why” no longer applies: why did Eve take the forbidden fruit? Because the devil tempted her? That’s a completely external motivator, but it isn’t the whole answer. She had to react: she didn’t trust God, she was greedy, she thought she knew better, she accepted a lie… any number of reasons, all with a motivation leading back to her identity as a weak human being. It doesn’t matter what external stimuli may have solicited these reactions; the fact remains that she herself felt, thought, and did things in response. So, why was she disposed to weakness in particular? If she existed in a perfect world, weakness couldn’t be superimposed upon her by a force more external than her own human nature. But can something that is an integral part of one’s definition be considered an external motivator?

    Why was Eve weak? You can say it’s because of the particles that formed her being, but it’s the same thing: she *is* those particles. She was weak because she existed as such, because that defined her agency in the situation, because that is the path down which her disposition–her will–led her. In another way of speaking, God made her that way. One could ask *why* God made her particles function the way they do, but the only answer is that it is how He wanted to do it, which simply replaces one type of question–why–with another type–how–that addresses a different train of thinking entirely. The “why” train derails, and we are left with a human who is the way she is because that’s the way she is. God caused her to be, but her state of being belongs to her, not to Him (i.e., God is not Eve). Her freedom lies in the fact that she is able to participate in existence and to conceive of and act upon a will in accordance with her nature, which is a nature distinct from–and certainly not always in accordance with–the nature of anything else, particularly God. The matter of what physically empowers or compels her to be this way is, I think, irrelevant to this particular discussion, since it changes the focus of the questioning from “why it happens” to “how it works.”

    As a final note, you’ll run into the same sort of confusion if you ever read Lucretius’s The Way Things Are.

  2. “Whether … has nothing to do with the fact that those actions are *yours*”

    You’re raining on my parade, here!

    Yes, that statement is the core of what I was going to get to. I have my own way of saying it, but it provides me some degree of comfort to know that the idea rings true enough to arise independently. Thanks.

  3. “Human thoughts and behaviour are physical events originating in the brain.”

    What could possibly falsify this claim?

  4. The brain instructs your mouth to speak and your fingers to type. Since every other physical event in the world seems to run according to physical principles, it makes sense to assume that we are not exceptions. Nobody can trace every nervous impulse to it’s origin in the brain. Can you falsify this claim, or one to the contrary? Certainly not yet. But as I pointed out, it doesn’t matter.

    Whether your brain works all by itself, or a metaphysical soul pushes particles around in your head, all your thoughts and behaviour beg the question “why?” and must deal with the issue of causality.

  5. I apologize, I’m feeling kind of slow right now, but I’m not following your statement. Wouldn’t a metaphysical soul answer the “why” question by providing an uncaused cause (thus ending further “why”s), and doesn’t a completely physical model imply that “why” is meaningless?

  6. I made note of this in the 11’th paragraph. If our actions are uncaused, this would seem to imply that they are arbitrary or random. If so, in what sense are they “free?” If they are uncaused but not random… what are they?

  7. Uncaused doesn’t imply random. It simply means, in this application, that our choices seem to follow a particular recognizable pattern (which we popularly call our personality), but that pattern has no preceding physical analogue.

  8. Physical or not, we have no way of defining such a thing. As I wrote, what does this actually mean? The “recognizable” part of that pattern implies causation, and the unrecognizable part implies a statistical (or random) element, as in a probability distribution. From where we stand, these are the only two definitive ingredients we have to cook with (and indeed, I can barely swallow the latter).

  9. Random causes don’t lead to patterns, nor does the existence of a pattern necessarily imply causation (although we can often find the cause of a pattern, just not in this case, at least physically). What do you feel is undefined? I thought I laid it out pretty clearly, but I could be missing something.

  10. In all corners of the world that we have visited, however, we have not found counterexamples.

    There is nothing clearly laid out about that, save for our inability to understand or define it in terms that we know. To say, “Our choices follow a perceivable pattern, but this pattern has no cause,” begs the question. We still do not understand. What does this really mean?

    Now, I am not saying that the idea is silly–only that we cannot define it in terms of the stuff that makes up our world. It is beyond us to speak about such things competently; they are ludicrous to think of. The beginning of the universe defies the logic described above. But at the beginning of the universe, time and space are compressed to a point. Everything as we know it breaks down. We should expect this.

    We (at least physically) are caused beings, and we owe our existence to things that have preceded us. Why would human brains have something in common with the one place in time and space where reality breaks down? We are very much a part of the world we know today.

    This is all quite beside the point, however. The free will imagined by many is greedy: it wants an answer to the question “Why?” (I decided freely to make the right decision), as well as independence from external causes (but I freely decided for no apparent reason). Besides the evidence we can gather of just how influential external causes are–nothing I type here is truly surprising–this fuzzy idea just doesn’t make any sense. And this is why I write, “Some mysterious truth exists […] and the concept of free will that we entertain has no theoretical meaning.”

    If causality does not fully explain human behaviour (and it seems to come very close), then I am simply pointing out the incomprehensibility of the truth, and the disservice we do it with our common conception of free will. But everyone should sit down one day, and think carefully about just how close causality comes. Because it comes awful close.

  11. As an afterthought: if I have conveyed that I am a materialist (especially with respect to the brain and mind), I should retract this. I am not. I have always believed that something that cannot be described by the current state of science is at work in consciousness and the mind. There is hard evidence for this–but I just don’t think that it negates the need to make the observations I’ve made here.

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