You Don’t Have Free Will. That’s Why You Make Such Bad Choices

You have no choice but to agree.

By William M Briggs Published on February 8, 2018

There a special kind of stupid achievable only by the very intelligent. I’d ask you to pardon me for such a harsh statement, except that I can’t.

I didn’t have a choice but to say it. You didn’t have a choice in how you reacted to it. And if philosophy professor Tamler Sommers is right, nobody has any choice in anything they do.

Sommers says “recent advances in cognitive neuroscience” show that we must “abandon the deeply problematic concept of free will and ultimate moral responsibility.” We “feel free” and “we feel responsible,” but we aren’t.

One reason we don’t choose to ditch the belief we can make choices “is that the ethical implications of denying free will and moral responsibility seem terrifying.”

That sentence might not have been clear, so let me restate it. Sommers argues we have to abandon the idea we choose our actions. Only then will we make better choices. If we accept that we aren’t morally responsible for our behavior, then our behavior will become more moral. 

Be Not Afraid

There’s not much sense in those renditions, either. Because there is no sense in Sommers’s position. If we can’t make choices, we can’t make choices. We can’t freely acknowledge we can’t make choices if we can’t make choices. If we are not morally responsible for what we do, then for us there are no immoral or moral acts.

Sommers is not alone in disbelieving in free will. Many modern philosophers agree with him. They acknowledge we common folk feel like we have free will, but they argue we are suffering an illusion.

Yet this is impossible. In order to have the “illusion” of making a free choice, a person had to have the ability to freely make a choice. As Alfred R. Mele says in Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, “If there is an illusion … it’s the illusion that there’s strong scientific evidence for the nonexistence of free will.”

There just is no philosophically consistent argument against free will. The acres of paper darkened with ink on this subject always end in absurd spectacle: a philosopher arguing why you have to freely choose to not believe in free will. And the implied farcical cry, “I do not have free will!”

The First Mistake

Why do philosophers like Sommers make this mistake? For two reasons.

The first is a dislike of criminal punishment. Sommers wants us to “cease to relentlessly blame criminals (or political figures) for their behavior.” Criminals, Sommers insists, don’t have any choice but to commit crimes.

He admits the “idea that criminals do not morally deserve punishment is tough to accept.” But other true ideas were also hard to accept such as “the claim that the earth revolves around the sun.” The difference is this: In that case, what we observed gave evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. Nobody can observe the lack of free will.

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What’s perplexing is why Sommers thinks criminals have no choice, but that somehow prosecutors do. If he were consistent, he would recognize that prosecutors have no choice but to toss criminals in the hoosegow.

Sommers therefore implies some people have free will, and some don’t, while at the same time insisting nobody does. This incoherence is proof enough his argument is fallacious.

The Second Mistake

All philosophical arguments begin with assumptions, or premises. From these are derived a conclusion. Sommers’s main premise is that the brain is nothing but a physical object operating under fixed chemical laws. His conclusion is that free will is impossible since people cannot direct their brain chemicals.

But everybody observes free will, and indeed free will is obviously present (in most circumstances). Sommmers’s conclusion is wrong. That means there is something wrong with his premises.

Sommers is reluctant to abandon his premises because they’re part of a beautiful theory describing how the brain works. This theory exerts a powerful influence over many philosophers and scientists. The theory must be wrong, though, regardless of its beauty.

It’s wrong because it’s false to say that we are the sum total of our brain’s operations. We are more than this, and must be. We know that we are more because we observe we have free will.

If we have free will and are more than just our brains, we must be something higher. And there is only one direction that evidence points. It’s no wonder some philosophers aren’t willing to follow it.

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  • Putin on the Ritz

    Thieves gotta thieve.
    Prosecutors gotta prosecute.
    Judges gotta judge.

    Give in to your destiny.

    • davidrev17

      I know “my genes make me do it,” or I’m “just dancing to my own DNA”; but I actually prefer to engage in some vigorous “infant-stomping,” about four-times a year…like maybe quarterly. Now that’s some destiny, appointed by a “nature, red in tooth and claw”!

      • m-nj

        Well, in a way, your “genes” did make you do it, since we are all spiritually dead naturally due to Adam’s sin (Rom 5). However, that does not absolve anyone of accountability for their sins.

        And thank God He is able to “reprogram” our nature and make us spiritually alive, able to choose His way over our sinful desires.

        • davidrev17

          Amen & God bless you immensely for that, my brother or sister “in Christ”! And I can’t imagine where I’d be today, had the Lord not invaded my life 21-plus years ago; thus beginning at “regeneration,” or “justification,” to “reprogram” my nature, while “conforming me to the image of His Son Yeshua/Jesus.” I have desperately needed His work in my heart and/or “inner-man” too!

  • Alice Cheshire

    A similar example: I have a suggestion for Bezos, the Amazon-is-giving-scholarships-to-lawbreaking-illegal-aliens guy, that runs along these same lines. Have 30 street people break into an Amazon distribution center and steal $30 million in goods. Then, Bezos gives scholarships to these theives to reward their ingenuity and creativity.

    Never happen, I know. But it illustrates the complete insanity (or double-think, the same thing) of so-called smart people. Think “smart=dumb”, as black=white, up=down. Insanity.

  • So the Calvinists are right!

    • Ken Abbott

      Well, naturally. But on this point, so are the Lutherans. And Augustinians of all stripes.

  • Yes, but if criminals aren’t free to choose, then locking them up is the only alternative. If they are robots essentially that can’t be re-programmed, then they either must be destoryed or locked away.

    Of course we have free will.

    • Ken Abbott

      Depends what you mean by “free will.” If you take the position of Jonathan Edwards that we always choose according to the strongest inclination of our wills, then, yes, we have that freedom. The question then becomes: What inclines our wills?

      • I don’t take the position of Jonathan Edwards. I’ve made one decision one day and presented with a similar choice decided differently another day. Clearly I have free will. I am not a programmed robot. Now the decision can be affected by the information one has at hand, which further leads to believe in free will. It can also be affected by the value system one has. If one doesn’t consider abortion to be immoral, then it is easier to choose to abort.

        • Ken Abbott

          What motivated you to choose one way on a certain day and differently on the next occasion? Were the deciding factors exactly the same? Did you consciously strive to decide against the strongest inclination of your will on either occasion? If so, what was your motive for doing so?

          • Inclination had nothing to do with it. You want to believe you’re a programmed robot, be my guest. I consider myself a human being in the likeness of God. That’s what Jonathan Edwards is denying, that humans are made in God’s image.

          • Ken Abbott

            So nothing inclines you at all? How do you manage to make any decision rather than just standing there all confused?

            BTW, if you seriously maintain that Edwards denied man’s creation in God’s image, you are an unserious person.

          • I didn’t say he didn’t claim it. I’m sure he did. I assume he subscribes to the type of Protestant belief that God elects only certain people and he then draws that conclusion. But just about all other Christians subscribe to a free will choice.

            And I told you what inclines, current information and current value system. People don’t change their value systems? Of course they do. So what changed their inclination?

          • Ken Abbott

            Actually Edwards didn’t start with God’s electing grace. Take a look at m-nj’s post above.

            Inclination is desire or preference or disposition. Current information may certainly influence inclination. I may generally prefer roast beef to fish, for example, but if presented with a choice on a buffet line of a well-prepared salmon filet to a roast burnt within an inch of its life, I will likely choose the salmon. My value system esteems good food, not bad food. On another occasion, my choice might be tuna fish (yuck!) or that same burnt roast, but then I might choose to do what I can with the beef because I hate tuna fish and have resolved never to eat it as the very thought of it turns my stomach. Here my value system esteems bad food over pukey food. Could I make a conscious choice to have the tuna instead of the roast? Sure, but then my strongest inclination is to try to overcome my adverse reaction to tuna because the roast really is iffy. And this is what Edwards meant when he said that we always choose according to our strongest inclination. Whatever our most powerful motivator is at a given time will direct our choice. You can’t come up with a scenario in which we choose against our strongest inclination unless we act under duress or are coerced, in which case the choice is made for us by someone else in a greater position of power.

          • I’m talking about a moral decision. At one time I was pro-abort. Was that an inclination? Today I am pro-life. Is that an inclination. No on both. My value system changed. Plus I learned through sonograms how developed the fetus is at even just a month’s development. So I got more information to arrive at a rational decision.

          • Ken Abbott

            A moral decision is an act of volition, making a choice among various alternative courses of action. What you’re describing is an intellectual assessment. Not the same category.

            I don’t follow your conclusion that Edwards was irrational (which couldn’t be farther from the truth).

          • Ken Abbott

            Perhaps it would help if you would explain what you mean by “free will.” If it’s just the power to make choices, we have no conflict, because such is self-evident by human experience.

          • What are you talking about? Of course I don’t have the choice to sprint in the 100 yard dash in the Olympics or to fly like Superman. I’m talking about an ethical choice that everyone of sound mind can make. Listen I don’t have an interest in pursuing this forward.

          • Ken Abbott

            Sorry you’re not interested in this discussion. We’re talking about moral ability, not physical ability. Listen, may I make a book recommendation? Read “Willing to Believe” by R. C. Sproul. The book can clarify this subject much better than I can in this venue.

          • You’re the one who bought up physical abilities when you said this, “Not a programmed robot? Nobody says you are. But even a non-robot is limited by its nature. You are free to act within and according to your nature, your capabilities, given the proper resources.” I am too speaking of moral abilities and the choices we make. No we are not limited. No more. I’m not interested.

        • Ken Abbott

          Not a programmed robot? Nobody says you are. But even a non-robot is limited by its nature. You are free to act within and according to your nature, your capabilities, given the proper resources. You can’t do something for which you lack the ability and/or the resources.

      • m-nj

        Excelent response. The Biblical understanding of what controls or inclines our will is our fundamental nature. Are we by nature spiritually dead or spiritually alive? As per Paul, we are all spiritually dead (Eph 2). Only God can make the dead alive. Once He does this, then we are given a new/resurrected nature, and hence a new inclination of our will away from sin and towards God.

        So any unsaved person has “free will” only to the extent that they are “free” to choose any manner of sinful things (thoughts, actions, intentions).

        And ultimately, even saved people only have “free will” to the extent that what they choose is within the choices that are allowed by God or the laws of nature God has instituted. You can jump off a building and will to fly, but that doesn’t mean you won’t fall to the ground below.

        /start rant This whole idea of “free will” has been promoted for too long in the church, especially in the USA. And it has lead to this totally un-Biblical idea of “decisional regeneration” that is at the core of the “tent revival” and “crusade” movement. Do people actually get saved at a Billy Graham event? I’m sure, but it is only those whom God had moved to “respond” to the Gospel message, which I assume is a very small percentage of those who “go forward” to “accept” Christ. /end rant

        • Nice rant! The author is correct that free will based on materialist/naturalist assumptions is an illusion. But based on Christian assumptions human beings surely have free agency to choose one thing over another. But to get at your point, no human being, not a single one, has ever been free to choose God. So the conversation about free will has absolutely nothing to do with salvation. Luther called this in the title of his book, The Bondage of the Will. All human beings are born sinners alienated from and at war with God. None seek him because we all like Adam and Eve by nature hide from God when he comes walking in the Garden in the cool of the day. We know we are guilty before him, and we want nothing to do with our judge, jury, and executioner. We are under the sentence of death (the wages of sin), and under the just wrath of God against us. As the saying goes, dead men tell no tales. And as Miracle Max said of Westley in The Princess Pride, we are not “mostly dead” in our sin. It takes a supernatural resurrection of our souls, spiritual surgery if you will, to change our natural heart of stone, to a heart of flesh.

  • m-nj

    The Bible has no problem explaining the fallen state of man (and the resultant binding of his will to only do that which is sin), and also holding man accountable for the inevitable sin he does.

    It is all a matter of the nature of man.
    Before salvation, spiritually dead, can only sin.
    After salvation, spiritually alive, can actually choose to sin or not to sin.

    In Calvin’s terminology
    Before salvation: Posse peccarre (only possibility is to sin) or non posse non peccarre (no possibility not to sin)
    After salvation: Posse peccarre posses non peccarre (possibilty to sin or not to sin)
    In glory: Non posse peccarre (no possibility to sin)

    • Ken Abbott

      Minor quibble, m-nj. Those categories (and the Latin) belonged to Augustine long before Calvin had them.

      • m-nj

        Did Calvin fomalize them in the Institutes? I guess Augustine/Luther?Calvin all kind of run together in this… great minds think alike!

    • TheFinneyman

      Yep, Augustine and Calvin both denied true free-will and true moral responsibility.

      • Ken Abbott

        Great, a comment by a Pelagian.

  • davidrev17

    “Orthodox quantum mechanics provides a conceptual framework very well suited to studying this problem of the causal effects of the actions of an observer’s probing mind upon the brain that this mind is probing. Materialistic classical mechanics does not.

    “The [now falsified] classical-physics-based claim that science has shown us to be essentially mechanical automata has had a large impact upon our lives: our teacher’s teach it: our courts uphold it; our governmental and official agencies accept it; and our pundits proclaim it.

    “Consequently, we are incessantly being told that we are physically equivalent to mindless robots, and are treated as such. Even we ourselves are confused, and disempowered, by this supposed verdict of science, which renders our lives meaningless.

    “We are now in the twenty-first century. It is TIME TO ABANDON THE MECHANICAL CONCEPTION OF OURSELVES FOSTERED BY EMPIRICALLY INVALIDATED NINETEENTH-CENTURY PHYSICS.

    “Contemporary physics is built on conscious experience, not material substance. Its mathematically described physical aspect enters as potentialities for future experiences. The unfolding of the future is governed by von Neumann’s mathematical laws, into which our conscious free choices enter as essential inputs.”

    — (My emphasis, of course), Retired eminent “Orthodox/von Neumann” Mind-Brain Quantum Physicist, Dr. Henry P. Stapp, “Quantum Theory of Consciousness,” Paris Talk, 2013.

    ☆ ☆ ☆

    Wow! So it’s “The Science Stupid”; or, maybe it’s the worldview stupid? It’s certainly a crying-shame then, that the intellectual gate-keepers, or thought police, “controlling the cultural microphone” – i.e., as in all our liberal media giants, universities, community colleges, and public school “indoctrination stations” – are clearly more devoted to tirelessly promoting this insidious godless materialistic philosophy, than they are of successfully arriving at scientific truth’s – then educating our citizens accordingly. Down the hatch it goes too!

    For Pete’s sake, our Creator God “Yahweh,” had openly declared some 3,400-3,450 years ago, that His rational/moral, specially-created spirit creatures Homo sapiens, had possessed “free will” from the outset. I mean, how else could He equitably, thus justifiably, hold His creatures ultimately accountable for their actions during their respective lifetimes?

    “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore CHOOSE LIFE, that you and your offspring may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:19/ESV, emphasis added.)

    And He even provided the correct answer for them/us too! Imagine that?

  • ARB

    I don’t see how lack of free will would undermine capital punishment. If the criminal has no free will to choose whether or not to do a deed, punishment itself is categorically a foolish prospect, as nothing can be done to convince the criminal that crime does not pay, it is strictly within their nature, and therefore the ONLY punishment that makes sense is one which prevents these perpetual crime machines from continuing—capital punishment for *all* crimes. More importantly, without free will, capital punishment is nothing more than the dissassembly of a malfunctioning, destructive machine, and hardly something to be upset about.

    • davidrev17

      However, your errant reductive/deterministic “machine” metaphor, used to describe we rational/moral “conscious observers” called Homo sapiens – as well as the centuries-old “Newtonian mechanics” (or Descartes’) approach to viewing the entire universe as ONE “giant machine” (aka “classical physics”) – has since been relegated to the trash-can of scientific history, during roughly the last 90-years; as quantum physics (or mechanics) has NOW become “the new physics,” or more accurate view of reality itself, as WE humans experience it. (Read, the “centrality of the observer,” in Homo sapiens reality.)

      And this tragically errant reductive/deterministic view of Homo sapiens’ “philosophical anthropology,” lies at the very heart of this colossal mistake that’s literally undergirding “Artificial Intelligence’s” ERRONEOUS approach, in rendering human beings to some helpless/useless status of robotic “mindless automatons”!

      Yet nothing could be further from the scientific truth about ourselves, of which has been powerfully revealed in current research, i.e., as in the “new physics” of quantum mechanics. Please take a few minutes to read a recent (2013) quote I’ve posted on this thread, by the renowned distinguished “Orthodox/von Neumann” mind/brain quantum physicist, Dr. Henry P. Stapp, whose academic pedigree traces-back through having studied under four (4) Nobel laureate’s – including such luminaries as Wolfgang Pauli & Werner Heisenberg.

    • Bryan

      To further your logic, why not study the human genome so completely that we can predict the outcomes of a persons life and decide whether it’s worth living it for them. In the same way that Iceland (?) is zeroing in on a “cure” for Downs Syndrome, we could eliminate the need for prisons by eliminating all the potential criminals.

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