Do You Really Have Free Will?

In 1871, Thomas Huxley, a zealous advocate of Charles Darwin, claimed that “Mind is a function of matter,” and, of course, matter is exclusively under control of the laws of science. This leaves no room for free will.

Similarly, in his recent book, Free Will, atheist Sam Harris writes, “Free will is an illusion.”

Consequently, what feels like free will is nothing more than chemical processes. This leaves no room for human culpability. If our thoughts and actions are entirely controlled by biochemical reactions, then we couldn’t have done otherwise. Hence, there is no basis for guilt and culpability.

However, this denial of free will and culpability (DFC) is highly problematic for a number of reasons:

DFC goes against everything we intuitively know about ourselves and our lives. When I make any decision, like flipping through the TV channels, it seems that I am freely choosing one station over another. Of course, like anyone else, I am subject to powerful biological-genetic forces. Admittedly, I am biologically predisposed to not like loud and glitzy programming. Therefore, some will say, “Well, this proves you’re pre-programmed to make certain choices.”

Although there is truth in this claim, it falls far short of proving that pre-programming is the only factor involved in my choices.

Of course, Harris and the other atheists will respond, “Your experience of free choice is just an illusion.” However, if I can’t trust my sense that I am making freewill choices, then I can’t trust my senses that I even exist, that I am a person, or that I am culpable for my actions!  If something that I experience with such clarity is illusory, perhaps my very existence and the existence of this world are also illusory. Perhaps I’m just someone else’s consciousness. Perhaps, as some Buddhists claim, we are just part of one universal consciousness and lack any individual existence.

If our intuitions and perceptions are simply part of this great delusion, then science and all reason are also part of this same delusion, along with Harris’ DFC thinking.

In other words, if I apply such skepticism to my perceptions that, to some degree, I am making culpable, free choices, then I have to be skeptical about everything else in my life!

To an extent, free will and culpability differs among people. However, one DFC writes that there can exist no free will distinctions among us, since freewill is entirely absent:

There are only two types of people in the world. Those who believe in free will and those who do not. There is no grey area or wiggle room… There is no such thing as a little freewill.

However, many recognize that we do possess differing degrees of free will. The heroin addict is more constrained in his free choices than before he became addicted. He can think of little else besides his next fix.

And what about captives given a drug – LSD or truth serum – to control their behavior? Do not they have less freedom of choice and culpability than before? Or the comatose? Or when someone puts a gun to our head, forcing us to commit a crime? Should we not take these considerations into account?

If these observations of relative freedom are true, then the narrow, unvarying materialistic view denying any area of free will and culpability is clearly wrong. From the perspective of the DFC, everyone is equally and completely controlled by brain chemistry. Consequently, there can be no room for varying degrees of freewill and culpability – the very thing that our justice system and schools depend on!

We can perceive a distinction between purely chemical determination of our behavior and our relatively free responses. Wilder Penfield, the father of modern neurosurgery performed experiments demonstrating that brain activity doesn’t seem to account for all of our mental experience. Lee Edward Travis writes in, The Mysterious Matter of the Mind:

Penfield would stimulate electrically the proper motor cortex of conscious patients and challenge them to keep one hand from moving when the current was applied. The patient would seize this hand with the other hand and struggle to hold it still. Thus one hand under the control of the electrical current and the other hand under the control of the patient’s mind fought against each other. Penfield risked the explanation that the patient had not only a physical brain that was stimulated to action but also a nonphysical reality that interacted with the brain.

There appears to be a distinction between brain chemistry and a nonphysical reality – the home of free will. J.P. Moreland commented on another interesting aspect of Penfield’s findings, in Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Creator:

No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, “There is no place…where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.”

If our mind is no more than a physical brain, then we should expect that electrical charges could stimulate every kind of response. However, this isn’t the case. It seems that our choices and beliefs cannot be entirely accounted for by the physical brain.

There seems to be a nonphysical basis for thinking. Strobel writes:

In their journal article, Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, describe their study of sixty-three heart attack victims who were declared clinically dead but were later revived and interviewed. About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. The effects of oxygen starvation or drugs – objections commonly offered by skeptics – were ruled out as factors.

This contradicts the atheistic narrative that thinking and choosing depend exclusively upon physical brain activity. In order to maintain their narrow materialistic worldview, the atheist is forced to discount this kind of study along with the many accounts of extra-body experiences.

DFC is also humanly demeaning. This is very significant because it will affect how we view ourselves, our fellow humans and also how we treat them. If humans are no more than sophisticated chemical machines, there is a greater likelihood that we will use them like machines and destroy them when they no longer serve our purposes.

DFC undermines everything upon which civilization is based – justice, right and wrong, reward and punishment. A world where we cannot do other than what we have been predetermined to do has no room for any consideration of virtue or vice. If biology alone made the rapist rape, then it is not just to punish him. After all, he could make no other choice. Consequently, no punishment is just and no reward is deserved. It’s just a matter of chemistry not morality.

DFC is a major threat to the existence and well-being of civilization. The deniers of DFC, nevertheless, admit the need for punishment, but this is a punishment apart from truth and justice. Instead of “justice makes right,” it is only “might that makes right” – the might of the majority to protect their own interests. They will bring charges against the burglar, not because he deserves punishment but because he has violated the interests of the majority. Therefore, the burglar will be punished, not because he has done wrong or that he deserves punishment but because he is the rebel who has violated social norms in a biochemically predetermined world.

What will the denier teach his son or the school system teach their students? That there is no right and wrong and they couldn’t have acted otherwise? They will naturally ask, “Why then am I being punished?” The answer cannot rise above, “You have violated our norms, and society must restrain you.” This can only breed cynicism.

DFC is the death to all meaningful relationships. When the DFC is caught having an affair, he can only say, “I couldn’t have acted otherwise, so don’t blame me!” Instead, resolution of such interpersonal conflicts requires the offender to say, “Please forgive me. I know I really hurt you terribly. I promise to not do this again!” However, biochemical machines cannot truthfully make such promises. They can only say, “If my biochemistry permits, I will not do this again” – hardly an adequate response. Consequently, the denier must live in the shadows of the lie.

DFC logically undermines itself.How? Because its very philosophy is no more than the product of a biochemistry, which would not allow the DFC to decide otherwise. Truth can play only a very diminished role in the world of materialistic determinism.

Why do Intelligent People Become DFCs?

Why do we trap ourselves in narrow, dysfunctional boxes, which effectively narrow our estimation of self and of life? One DFC friend explained to me the great relief he had experienced once he rejected free will. He was no longer responsible for his behavior, and his sense of guilt became greatly diminished. With this diminished estimation his humanity, he no longer had to blame himself for not living up to his moral ideas. Who can blame him! But what will he say to his wife who has caught him cheating? “I couldn’t do otherwise?” This will not work long in the real world.

More commonly, in our multi-cultural world, any basis for true, objective culpability has been eliminated, whether by moral relativism or the pre-determining forces of nurture and nature, a close relative of DFC. Consequently, we cannot judge, since no one is culpable. What then is left to positively influence our neighbor and our children?

The mantra, “Love conquers all!” The idea is this – if we just love enough, we can overcome all hate, anger, and criminality.

Consequently, the Jews failed to love the Nazis enough, and the beheaded, kidnapped, and raped Christians failed to love ISIS and Boko Haram enough. It’s just another way of rewarding the bully and of blaming the victim.

Instead, the thriving society needs both the carrot and the stick, both positive and negative reinforcement. Our elected officials and institutions must be held to account. Our employees need to be monitored. Kindness is often not enough. While some will learn through love and kindness, others require severity. We need police and prison. Just look at what happens when the police go on strike – Bedlam!

The innocent need protected and the guilty need punished. As soon as we reject this distinction, we condemn society and those we had wanted to love.

How then do we deal with our crippling feelings of guilt and shame? It doesn’t seem that we can meaningfully forgive ourselves. Instead, we need the assurances that Christ Himself has forgiven us and has separated us from our sins and moral failures, as heaven is separated from earth. It is only with this assurance that we can move on, without denying the truths of our free will and culpability.


Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has taught theology, Old Testament, and Apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 24 years and has written several books, including Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God’s Way. He is a contributing writer for the Christian Research Journal. Follow him:, or join his Facebook groups, Apologetics for Today, Seekers with Questions about Christianity, Christians with Vexing Issues Seeking Truth and Straight Talk.

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