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Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Free Will is an illusion...?

The popular cartoonist and writer Scott Adams (you can check out his blog here) believes that free will is an illusion. He makes the argument that a random, purposeless event (the big bang) resulting in a random, purposeless universe, could not possibly create free will or genuine intelligence, but only creatures with instincts and 'predetermined' (not quite the right word) responses.

"People are every bit the machines as computers, but more complicated
and moist. The Big Bang created people, and is therefore the ultimate
author of what we in turn create. (Remember, we have no free will.
We’re just like the computer in that way.)"

I suppose this makes sense, in a way. Of course free will, creativity, and conscience can't have sprung out of nowhere as soon as humankind evolved. That would be a ridiculous thing to assert (and yet many, I'm sure, do). So this means one of two things.

1) We don't have free will, or any kind of real personality or special awareness,
2) The universe is more than sheer machinery, and creativity and conscience exist outside of ourselves in some form.

Scott Adams (a man I respect greatly, and hope never to have to debate with) ascribes to the first of these theories. But I find it problematic, to say the least. Descartes is most famous for asserting that we think therefore we am. Is. Are. Cogito ergo sum. You could argue from this standpoint that since we are capable of looking at the world and thinking about it, that we must be self-aware and must therefore have some sort of rational intellectual capabilities beyond that of mere survival instinct.

Personally, I think free will can't be an illusion. The moment we become aware of our thoughts, we can change them, so the simple fact that I know I can either go left or right means I am free to take either, regardless of nature, nurture, or what the weather's like. It's an entirely internal decision that I take at that moment.

It's quite sad, really, that atheism leads to the logical conclusion that not only does God not exist - but we don't, either, in any real sense. It makes sense though. Without a creative creator creating the creation, you as a person cannot exist. Cannot choose. Cannot feel.

I'm open to considering alternatives, of course, so please let me know if there's a flaw in my logic. I'd lie to know what you think.


  1. I'm guessing your last line meant "I'd LIKE to know what you think" but I could be wrong.

    Scott Adams is a brilliant man in many respects but like so many atheists, as he has not the slightest conception of what it takes to be religious, his arguments are so off-base to begin with that you can't start answering them meaningfully. Unless it is all part of a very clever wind-up, which is quite possible. In his defence, he is also pretty good at highlighting the fallacies of some forms of atheism too. As for his constant free will ramblings, I've yet to decide whether or not that's also part of the wind-up.

    Basically he's living proof that to say "the fool has said there is no God" doesn't mean an atheist has to be stupid. They can be spot on in 99 out of 100 topics ... but fools on that one.

  2. Couldn't agree more... I would absolutely love to see him change his mind, because I get the feeling it would take something radical and inexplicable!

    It can't be fun to believe that you don't have free will. Poor guy.

  3. Could not resist responding to this. I love this conundrum - mysterious and deep. Glug! Glug!

    I have problems with the idea of free will (although, I know what ?Adams generally mean by the term). A will that is totally free (i.e. not conditioned by anything) is arbitrary and not worth having. A will determined only by its agent, is incoherent.

    Jonathan Edwards (JE) has a great definition of what determines the human will: "It is that motive, which, as it stands in view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the will." (see; if you're hard enough).

    What he JE says is that we make choices unforced by external causes (so it is "I" that chooses), but necessarily determined by that which, at the time, we believe will lead to the best outcome. This does allow for the fact that ultimately, God is in charge of all the factors that impinge upon us, and thus, our wills are, ultimately, in his hand. At the same time, we can say that people do what they want to do, and thus, people are responsible for their choices, and the things they choose to value and prize that determine them. This tension exists whether we believe in God or not; and can be discussed in theistic or atheistic terms. The problem is common to all philosophies. Period.

    In the philosophical sense I don't believe that humans have totally free will. However, in the sense that the human will is not necessarily caused by some external force acting upon it, I can hang with the idea. People do what they want.

    JE's point is powerful because it means that rather than aiming making a virtue of choosing freely (me centred, with an abstract "I"), we aim to submit ourselves in the stream of our experience to what will tend to our highest good. Ultimately, that is bound up with God, and willingly co-operating with His purposes for us, and prizing his will and plans over those that originate with plans we frame independently.

    Scott Adams - clever guy. JE - inspred guy! Hard to read though. Phew - my brain hurts. :-)

  4. By the way, Anna, I like your thinking on this. Its certainly a credible response to Mr Adams.

    Do I think, like Adams, that Freedom of the will is an illusion? No. I don't buy the idea that we are just machines, within a machine. We are person's in a supernaturally created universe with purpose and destiny and accountability to the Creator. We are in a flow. We have value. We are going somewhere. But, we do not have the Creator view, Creator will, or Creator rights. Only God has ultimate freedom. Just as well, as only He is good. Our will is limited by creation and our location in the flow of history. Within these limits, we are free to do what we want.

    Only in Christ can we be set free to please God and live with Him ... but that is another topic.

    God bless.

  5. Thanks, Hugh, you're a very wise guy! I've had a bit of a look at the article and he's got some sound ideas in there. The next question, I think, is who decides which is the most important factor? Surely your priorities, family friends work or whatever, is unique to each individual? I don't know, you could make a big case for nurture-values there.

    It's certainly a very big question.

  6. I guess I'd say that we do not consciosly decide what is the most important factor. We are not outside the story, we live within it. The way it looks to us is "experience"; the values we have come from many sources. The point is that you can't stand outside the story and get the whole picture in abstract form. Instead, we stand in the flow of the story, and seek God's way in the light of God's grace. We discover as we go. That's the great adventure! From my pov, the deal about discussing free will is to get us to live confidently in the story under the Creator, rather than asserting that "I have free will" and thus standing on a belief "I determine what does on and can reduce all my experience to myself and my choices". We just ain't that big, and humility points us to bow before God, not seek to usurp His position.

    Sorry, all a bit rushed. Gotta go. Nice talking with ya. Hopefully, we will come over with baby girl soon. I'll check back to this maybe next week.

    God bless you in living the adventure. This part has sure been fun for me!


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