Saturday, January 15, 2011

God, Free Will and Bunny Rabbits

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 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 

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:

  1. There is a time of great tribulation on the Earth which combines natural disasters with war on an unprecedented scale.

  1. 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.

  1. 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. 


  1. This is an excellent article Ben. Unfortunately it will go over the heads of most xtians.

    Nevertheless, some xtians are smart enough to read and understand it.

    It your article manages to open just one such mind, your effort has been worth while.

  2. Thank you very much for your kind words, Cameron, I really appreciate it! Please help me spread the word about the blog if you enjoyed it!

  3. It seems you've put a lot of effort in to try and prove just one point. But actually, even from the very beginning, everything existing in the universe may have innumerable multiple choices/possibilities available, and random events or chance, brings about the universe that we see today, including us. Multiple choice, and the random behaviour of everything living, plus coincidence, plays a huge part in everyones life, and in the universe. It doesn't change the fact that religious believers have had much of their free will removed by other believers before they can learn the ability to reason out problems logically for themselves.You are probably better off putting more effort into persuading governments to stop allowing religious propaganda in schools. That's the only way to stop mind manipulation and brainwashing, and to allow free will to eventually become rightfully available to everyone again.

  4. @BAC, thanks for the input. I will probably be doing a post in the next couple of weeks about religion in public life (schools, politics, on our money, etc.) I try to do these posts, responses to arguments for the existence of god, to demonstrate to people that there is no good reason to believe a god exists. I have previously addressed the Moral Argument, and I am working on pieces addressing the Teleological and Kalam Cosmological Arguments.

  5. Hi Ben. Interesting article. I wondered if I could use it on my site ? Thanks in advance for your reply.

  6. Hi Ruben! Thank you so much! I would be honored if you featured my post on your site. Richard Dawkins is a personal hero of mine. Please just make sure you include my name and a link back to the main page of this blog--

    Thanks again!!

  7. What do you hope to achieve from posting this blog?

  8. Hi A.Person! I hope to encourage dialogue amongst believers and nonbelievers who normally stay isolated in separate spheres of communication. I would also like to provide a resource for both believers who may be reconsidering their faith and nonbelievers who engage in discussions with believers that demonstrates the fallacious reasoning or false premises of all arguments given for the existence of a god.

    I address this topic in greater detail at the end of my first post in December of 2010, the one entitled Inaugural Post. Thanks for the great question!

  9. "It is entirely possible that free will is just a useful illusion, bred into our brains by the process of evolution by natural selection... 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."

    Interesting idea. Evolution has created the illusion of choice in beings that can't actually make choices. If that's the case, the thoughts in our brains are not only completely untrustworthy (who knows what other false ideas the process of evolution has put into our brains since it "cares" not for giving us the ability to know truth), they really are just meaningless chemical reactions. We cannot test them for truth or try to do better, because all we can do is what we were programmed to do from the beginning, and we have no guarantee of arriving anywhere near the truth. In other words, it does not follow from the fact that you perceive ANYTHING that it exists in reality. When you examine the Christian faith, you aren't actually logically thinking through it, you're just reacting to stimuli in a way you have no control over. Furthermore, we are incapable of making moral choices because everything we do was predetermined. This is a much more consistent atheism. Meaningless, moral-less, choiceless, mindless.

    "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."

    Not so. There are over ten models of quantum mechanics and most of them are thoroughly deterministic. The debate is over whether the "randomness" is epistemological (we simply don't know what will happen) or ontic (in the thing 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."

    I've never quite understood this argument. Does God know you're going to post this blog because you make a choice to do it and He can perceive all events throughout time, or do you post it because He has decreed it? If God knows you're going to do it because He can see the choices you make, how does this destroy freewill? If I know Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address because of my unique vantage point, does my knowledge of him giving it mean he had no choice in the matter? Of course not. God is capable of BOTH decreeing things to come to pass in ways that could limit our freedom as well as giving us free choices and knowing what these choices are. In any case, His knowledge alone does not determine our choices. Both His AND our choices determine His knowledge.

  10. ". If that's the case, the thoughts in our brains are not only completely untrustworthy (who knows what other false ideas the process of evolution has put into our brains since it "cares" not for giving us the ability to know truth), they really are just meaningless chemical reactions. We cannot test them for truth or try to do better, because all we can do is what we were programmed to do from the beginning, and we have no guarantee of arriving anywhere near the truth. In other words, it does not follow from the fact that you perceive ANYTHING that it exists in reality."

    Well, this is obviously slippery slope logic. Since we may have reason to distrust our instinctual thoughts some of the time does not mean we have no reason to trust our thoughts any of the time. The extreme position does not follow from the moderate position.

    "If God knows you're going to do it because He can see the choices you make, how does this destroy freewill?"

    If he has knowledge of my choices before I make them, then my choices are made before I make them. Therefore, the process I go through of making choices is illusory--I am simply following through with a set of predetermined actions.

  11. Who says God experiences time so that he can know things "before?" Some A theorists like William Lane Craig believe that God does bring Himself into time with us when He creates the universe, but I'm not sold on this view. It is just as plausible if not more so to say that God is still completely outside of time, so He does not experience "before." In any case, I still don't see how God taking in knowledge about what we do limits us. We may just have to agree to disagree on this one...

    I suppose you could call this a slippery slope argument, but it's still a reality that the atheist must face. What reason do you have for believing your senses and reason are to any degree trustworthy? They weren't meant to be. If they are even a little bit trustworthy, it's because natural selection worked through genetic mutation at odds so high I'm not sure they could be calculated. You admit that natural selection could have created an illusion of free will in us. What other illusions could it have created? The truth of the matter is that the atheist accepts that his reason and experience are trustworthy on blind faith. They cannot be demonstrated to be trustworthy through reason, and even if they could, this would be circular-- it's reason we're not sure about to begin with. You can call these beliefs properly basic and that's fine. I agree. But this still doesn't let you off the hook if your atheistic dogma makes these properly basic beliefs so unlikely as to be nearly impossible. It's almost as if you presupposed solipsism and then called a belief in other minds incorrigible. You're right that it's incorrigible, but that doesn't change the fact that it is inconsistent with your presupposition.

  12. Psalms 90 seems to imply that god does experience some sensation of time, but at a different rate than we do, so I'm not sure I can accept the notion that god exists completely outside of all time.

    But even if he did, any instance where god would interact with humans would require him to enter time as well as space, and therefore at that point have knowledge of events before they happened, which would also mean having knowledge of choices before they are made (bringing it back around to the point I made previously.) So even if a god existing outside of space and time having knowledge of what choices are made does not violate free will, the second that god enters space and time and communicates the results of those choices to some humans before those choices are made by others, free will is violated.

    Your argument regarding the unreliability of reason still rests upon a slippery slope fallacy, therefore it is not valid. It simply does not follow that human reason is entirely unreliable from human reason is not perfect.

  13. A very funny comment I received regarding this post on Facebook:

    Free will is difficult to reconcile with an omniscient deity -- if your deity knows precisely what you are going to do tomorrow, it is hard to argue that your actions were anything but pre-determined.

    The Gospel of the FSM gives us insight a...s to how we can, in fact, have both. Our God frequently drinks heavily from the beer volcano in heaven and gets extremely drunk -- so much so that during the creation of Earth, he actually created "land" twice, because he forgot that he had created it the first time.

    These frequent bouts of inebriation often leave the FSM's vision into the future a bit blurry, thus providing significant leeway for our free will to express itself.

    Our ability to reconcile free will with our God's existence is just one more piece of evidence that the Pastafarian world view is the correct one and that others are mistaken.

  14. I am a bit confused about the notion that free will could have been a useful illusion bred into our brains through natural selection. What would have been the positive selective pressure behind this? I can see that seeing colors might have had a selective pressure (i.e. being able to detect ripe fruits, etc.). But what is the positive selection pressure that would result in the "illusion" for free will? It would seem to me more plausible that free will (i.e. the ability to choose an action from many possible actions) allows humans (and indeed many if not most vertebrates) the ability to decide when and whether to act. Behaviors that are based purely on instinct, perhaps the way ants or bees act, lacks the same level of free will. Vertebrates, with their higher cognitive capacities, are more able to decide upon their actions and this has had a strong selective pressure during natural evolution, as it allows us to modify our behavior depending on the circumstances that we encounter (lemings jumping off of cliffs, not withstanding... :) ). Thus I do think that free will exists, but it certainly does not follow from that that god must exist as well.

  15. That is a very good point eosimias. I postulated the possibility that natural selection could have produced an illusion of free will as an Eddington Concession, but it is not my position that that is the case. A selection pressure might be the anxiety felt by an animal with a high level of cognitive awareness of its actions but no ability to control them, however I do not find that idea very plausible. I am in agreement with you that natural selection imbued animals with higher functioning cognitive capacities with actual free will.

  16. Although I sense that you will agree with me, I am compelled to continue your theoretical line of reasoning further. I cannot see how anxiety created by the recognition that our actions may be outside our control would affect survival and/or reproductive success in individuals. If our actions were somehow truly predestined, then natural selection would work upon that fact. Anxiety caused by this fact would unlikely become a negative selective pressure. It would just be a fact of reality, like gravity. If we jump we fall back down whether we like it or not. We have not developed an anxiety from our wish to be able to fly, but cannot. The fact that we can make choices over which actions we take and which we do not take is compelling evidence that free will is not an illusion, but a fact.

  17. Well, other methods for reducing anxiety have been positive selection pressures. This is why we have developed, for instance, a sense of humor. Nothing is objectively funny or humorous, so we can say that humor is an illusion created in human minds by natural selection.

    Dr. Michael Persinger at Laurentian University has also hypothesized that the anxiety caused by the ability to prognosticate their own deaths was one of the selection pressures for the development of the mesiobasal structures within the right temporal lobe--the part of the brain that has been demonstrated to cause paranormal and supernatural hallucinations.

    So in general I don't think it would be accurate to say that the alleviation of anxiety cannot act as a selection pressure--evolutionary psychology has shown several instances where it does. However, in this instance I believe you are right; natural selection created actual free will, not an illusion of it.

  18. I hope you will allow me the latitude to pursue your point on anxiety further, even if it is going on a tangent from your original post on free will. Perhaps I am a purist, but I still cannot see how ancillary traits could have evolved through natural selection to overcome anxiety. How could addressing the anxiety experienced when one predicts their own death lead to an increase in survival and reproductive success of that individual (and thus the propagation of the genes giving rise to these ancillary traits)? Wouldn't anxiety at this point be a bit late to result in a positive selection force? How could paranormal and supernatural hallucinations in people close to death lead to their eventual survival?

    Is anxiety only experienced by humans? Why don't zebras and gazelles have a sense of humor? They certainly must experience quite a lot of anxiety living in the savannah, with the constant threat of predation. How about rabbits? I haven't heard them laugh lately either.

  19. Not at all, although I will let you know that Evolutionary Psychology is not my field, so I probably am not the best person to explain it to you.

    The basic premise is that natural selection breeds for not only physically beneficial traits, but mentally beneficial traits. So an early human with the ability to work through his or her grief over the loss of a mate, for instance, will be more likely to survive and pass on that trait than one who would be crippled by grief, because the depression felt by the grieving human would result in symptoms like a lack of energy, a weaker immune system, etc. associated with depression--all of which are detrimental to survival.

    Likewise, an early human plagued by the anxiety of his or her upcoming death will be less likely to survive for a long time and reproduce than one who has a technique to overcome that anxiety and the detrimental symptoms that come with anxiety.

    The brains of early humans with more developed senses of humor would produce more serotonin, which has many beneficial effects to health and therefore survival.

    It is still a long way from being a widely accepted method of understanding human behavior, but it is an interesting concept nonetheless. Here's a brief video from the PBS series on evolution that summarizes EP probably better than I have:

    As I have said, though, I am not a proponent of the idea, nor have I studied it in any great depth. I am just familiar with it.

  20. The level of the discussions here is pretty high and even though I can follow most of them I'm not sure if I can contribute to them. There is one thing I have been wondering about though.

    If god is all knowing (omniscient?)and thus would know all actions by all humans and all events on earth, why would he need to create it in the first place? To him it would be like creating a duplicate experiment of events that he would know would happen, just adding the suffering of sentient beings.

    Are we as a human race here on earth, starving, killing each other and committing suicides just for god to sit in the heavenly lazy chair and watch a rerun?

  21. @Anonymous, that is a very good question. The typical response from the apologist is that god created the universe and us for OUR benefit, not his, although this is an obviously unsatisfying explanation. Thanks for reading!

  22. Well thank you back for the response and an interesting blog.
    And of course it would be more interesting to hear an answer from someone who supports the notion of an omnipotent being.
    Can't help but feeling that if all statements of that existence were true and considering my question, I would feel more like an ant in an ant farm than blessed by his grace.
    Thanks again and no answer required as not to dilute the thread anymore.