In this blog, I will be posting rebuttals to the various arguments given for god’s existence by believers and apologists. My intention here is to prove a single point: There is no good reason to believe a god exists. There are plenty of reasons, but there is not a single one that relies on premises that are true and/or logic that is not fallacious (see my previous post, “The Wrong Way to Argue” for details on logical fallacies.) Today, I shall be addressing the Argument from Free Will.
The argument is constructed as follows:
Premise 1) Free will can only exist in a universe with a god.
Premise 2) Free will does exist
Conclusion) God exists
This is a favorite argument of Christian apologists, but it is, as with all their arguments, inherently flawed. While its logic is not fallacious, it contains untrue premises. Before I explain, it would be useful define free will and then to explain the justification for both premise one and two.
Free will (as defined by dictionary.com) is “Philosophy. The doctrine that the conduct of human beings expresses personal choice and is not simply determined by physical or divine forces.”
Premise one of the Argument from Free Will is justified by a Newtonian understanding of an atheistic universe. A causes B, B causes C, etc. The ultimate understanding of the universe being that it is a series of inevitable, predictable chain reactions going back to the very instant of the Big Bang. It has been suggested that if one knew the position and velocity of every atom in the universe at any given time, it would be possible to predict everything that had happened previously and everything that would take place after. Everything would unfold like a shot on a pool table-- knowing the direction and velocity of the first movement can tell you everything that will take place after.
Because the firing of every neuron and the mutation of every cell in every living creature are all simply reactions to previous actions, the author of this argument claims that, with enough knowledge, it would be possible to predict the state of every living being, human or otherwise, at every point in time, as well as the state of every other atom in every non-living construct. Essentially, every action we take is determined by the action that preceded it, which is determined by the action that preceded that, going back to the moment of the Big Bang. The author then claims that this is a completely deterministic universe, all unfolding on a schedule from Big Bang to entropy.
The author of the argument then claims that a god is capable of imbuing human beings with an immaterial soul, which has free will. Because the soul is not physical but controls the physical body of the human it inhabits, it can cause that physical body to make choices that are not dependent upon the physical forces that cause a purely materialistic universe to be deterministic. Therefore, the author claims, only in a universe with a god can living things have free will.
Premise two, that free will exists, is justified by the inherent conception of free will that all humans have. Essentially, we feel like we have free will. We feel capable of making decisions, and it appears to us that we do make decisions, on a regular basis. We do not feel like those decisions are determined by any outside forces. We do not feel like pool balls bouncing around a table, simply reacting to what has happened. We feel like we are in control of how we react, taking many different paths that can affect our future every day.
Therefore, if free will is something that can only exist if a god exists, and free will does exist, the conclusion that a god exists does in fact follow. Superficially, the argument seems plausible and could effectively establish the existence of a god. If not too closely examined. However, in order for an argument to establish its conclusion, it must have both non-fallacious logic and true premises. The Argument from Free Will, while containing non-fallacious logic, fails to establish both of its premises.
Premise 2) Free Will Does Exist
For this post, I shall be working backwards, since the flaw in the second premise is easier to explain than the flaw in the first premise. The second premise of the argument—that free will does exist—has never been conclusively demonstrated.
It is actually quite easy to see how—the author of the argument only claims that we perceive ourselves as beings with free will, which is quite different than actually having free will. It is entirely possible that free will is just a useful illusion, bred into our brains by the process of evolution by natural selection, like the illusion of color (which actually does not exist—colors are just useful devices our brains use to distinguish the different wavelengths at which light is reflected. It is possible that bats hear in color and that dogs smell in color.) It does not follow from the fact that human reason—a faulty data processing program—perceives something that that thing exists in reality. The author of the argument, essentially, does not satisfactorily demonstrate the truth of this premise.
However, this alone is not a satisfying rebuttal to the argument. What would be more satisfying is if the first premise were proven wrong and it was demonstrated that free will, whether or not it does exist, could exist in a universe without a god and could not, in fact, exist in a universe with a theistic god. This is a more interesting proposition and I shall spend the rest of this post justifying it.
Premise 1) Free Will Can Only Exist in a Universe with a God
As previously stated, this premise relies on a Newtonian view of the universe. It is entirely dependent on the notion of causality—A happens, which causes B, B causes C, etc. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This was an effective way of understanding the universe for a long time, until the advent of quantum mechanics. However, with quantum mechanics we began to find that the universe does not work within Newton’s nice, organized laws all the time. At the quantum level, there is chaos and randomness. Therefore, the claim that a purely physical universe is deterministic can be said to be conclusively debunked by modern science. (This is an area of advanced physics where I freely admit to being over my head, but I have been assured by a friend, who is an astrophysicist, that this statement is supported by the current understanding of quantum mechanics.)
Furthermore, in the Argument from Free Will, the author claims that if it were possible to know the position and velocity of every atom in the universe, it would be possible to extrapolate backwards or forwards the position of every atom at any given time in the future or the past. However, this is a huge ‘if’. In fact, it is an impossible ‘if’. It is rendered impossible by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that due to the inherent nature of microscopic systems, the more accurately you know an objects location, the less you know of where it's going. I won’t go into any more detail about it in this post, but it is a binding natural law, and you can read more about it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle.
In order to establish that free will cannot exist in a purely physical universe, the author of the Argument from Free Will requires knowledge that is impossible (not just impractical) to attain. In addition to being incredibly infeasible, it is simply not consistent with the laws of physics that any being existing within the universe could ever know the position and velocity of every atom in the universe. In order to establish this argument, the author requires unattainable knowledge.
But if the universe were deterministic (again, generously setting aside the randomness and chaos that exists at the quantum level) but knowledge of its fate was unattainable, would free will still exist? If limits exist upon our freedom, but knowledge of those limits is forever unattainable, would they be limits at all? For this, it might be useful to engage in a brief thought experiment (something regular readers will now know I am quite fond of.)
The Rabbit and the Cage
Imagine if you will a bunny rabbit in a 2’ by 2’ wire cage. The little rabbit can move about freely within the cage, but if she moves more than a few small steps in any direction, she bumps into the edge of the cage. No matter what direction the bunny rabbit looks, she sees the cage that keeps her prisoner.
Everyone would agree that this poor creature has no freedom to determine where she goes.
Now imagine we make a larger cage that includes about ten acres and put a different bunny rabbit in there. The bottom of the cage is buried ten feet under the ground and the roof of the cage extends high above the ground, so that it is only visible when the bunny is sitting on the highest hills in his ten acre plot of land. Anywhere within the ten acre cage, the bunny rabbit can travel freely. There are certainly places in the cage where the bunny rabbit cannot see the walls or the roof of the cage. Indeed, he cannot see them from most of the places in the cage. However, when he runs up against one of the walls, he cannot get past them. He has free range to roam around within his 10 acre cage, but he can never leave it.
I think most people would also agree that this bunny rabbit lacks the freedom to determine where he goes, too.
Finally, imagine a truly tremendous cage around a third bunny rabbit. This wire cage extends around the entire solar system, out past the orbital path of Neptune. If the bunny were ever to hop out to the far reaches of the solar system, it would not be able to get past this cage. However, as with the previous bunny, this bunny has the ability to move about anywhere it likes within its cage. If it wanted to hop from Moscow to Paris, no obstacles would be put in its path. If it somehow could travel to Mars, it could do so. Of course, no realistic situation could be imagined whereby the bunny would ever actually see the fence that imprisoned it. It could never reach the cage walls in its lifetime and, barring human intervention, it could never travel past the orbital path of Neptune. In theory, the bunny may be limited, but in practice it would not.
I think most people would agree that this third bunny would live an entirely free life (assuming no outside forces conspire to limit its freedom.)
So, a bunny trapped in a cage that it can always see lacks the freedom to determine its situation, as does a bunny trapped in a cage it can only sometimes see. But the bunny trapped in a cage that it could never see does not. What conclusions can we draw from this?
If you agree that the third bunny has the freedom to determine where it goes but the first and second bunnies do not, then you have acknowledged the truth of my objection to the first premise of the Argument from Free Will. That objection is this: If a being has limitations placed upon it, but those limitations are impossible to perceive, in practice that being does possess free will. Because the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle makes it impossible to attain the knowledge that the author of the Argument from Free Will requires in order to justify his first premise, his argument fails.
Free Will With a God? The Free Will/Triple-O Paradox
Okay, so I have made a case for how free will can exist in a materialistic universe. But I’m not done yet. I am now going to justify how free will is actually rendered impossible by the existence of a theistic god. Remember our definitions here—a theistic god is a god who intervenes in human affairs, like Zeus or the god of the bible. It is different from a deistic god, who simply acted as a prime mover at the origins of the universe and then ‘retired’, and very different from the pantheistic god of Einstein and Hawking, which is just a metaphor for the universe itself.
If a being exists that has a plan for all of us and has told us exactly how that plan will unfold in the Book of Revelations, then any possibility of free will humans have goes out the window. Think about it. If god believes that I will post this piece to my blog at 8pm on January 15th, would I be able to decide not to do so and post it to my blog at noon on the 16th instead? If the answer is yes, then god is not in possession of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. If the answer is no, then I am not in possession of free will.
But this may fall under the same protection I have carved out for the atheist with my allegory of the three bunnies. Since we cannot perceive the mind of god, any limits placed on us by god’s mind are functionally not limits on free will. This protection would apply to the theist if they were not burdened by the Book of Revelations. Believers must accept the fact that god has informed us exactly of how the experiment of humanity will play out. Basically:
- There is a time of great tribulation on the Earth which combines natural disasters with war on an unprecedented scale.
- The "Lamb" saves his people from the tribulation, destroys the wicked, and ushers in an age of peace; after the age of peace, there is a second, brief time of trouble which results in the permanent banishment of the wicked.
- A new heaven and a new earth replace the old, and the people of God go to live in the presence of God and Christ in a heavenly city described as the "New Jerusalem."
We can see the fence that traps us in the Revelation of John. If the believer acknowledges that, no matter what action humans take, the preceding events are inevitable, free will goes out the window. Our future is not determined by our choices. We cannot end the human race in any way except the way god has revealed to us. If the believer claims that the events John predicts can be averted, then he casts doubt on the omniscience of god—or at very least on the biblical cannon.
One cannot accept the premise that an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent god has revealed the fate of humanity in the Book of Revelations, and the premise that humans have free will. It is paradoxical. The two premises inherently contradict each other.
Essentially, the Argument from Free Will fails on four levels.
1. It does not establish that free will exists
2. It does not allow for the chaos and randomness that exist at the quantum level
3. It requires knowledge that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has demonstrated is impossible to attain
4. It claims that the god of the bible can give humans free will, which he cannot.
Hopefully this post has completely debunked the Argument from Free Will as it currently stands. If anyone believes they have anything to add, please let me know in the comments section.