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The Myth of Free Will

“When asked about Free Will, I always give the same response, “Of course we do; I had no choice.” Christopher Hitchens gave this response at a Christian Book Expo Panel and while I think it was a funny response and that Hitchens had a great point within that context, I don’t think we actually have “Free Will.”

After saying that, Christians often tell me that if I don’t believe in Free Will, than I must believe that we have no choices. This of course is a false dichotomy. My claim isn’t that we don’t have choices, but rather that our choices are not “freely determined.” Instead, our choices are determined by a complex set of variables which play out in our nature and our nurture. Nature represents all our genetic variables and Nurture represents all the environmental factors (most of which we are not even aware of).

Even in infancy, where one might think that actions are determined on Nature alone I still think that there is plenty of Nurture going on in the womb and in the infant’s environment. Nature only refers to genetics. The nutrients are considered Nurture.

The complex interplay between these two factors is the determining characteristics of all of our actions and choices. The thing is that we don’t know how that interplay will play out so we have the appearance of Free Will. Now here is the catch, we can still make choices. We can still weigh the option and choose what path to take in life. Regardless of which path we choose, it was a choice that was determined by our Nature and our Nurture. In this model, “determined” isn’t a predictor of action because of the complexity of the interplay of our two determining forces. Here “determined” is more of a justification for our choices.

Here is an example: I am walking down a hall that I am familiar with. I know that there is an intersection ahead and that both paths will lead me to my destination. Which path do I choose? My mind works very quickly. Quicker that I even realize and calculates things that I am not even consciously aware of. I choose right. To a Christian who believes in Free Will, that choice is a free choice. But to a rational, thinking, person who is aware of modern psychology, that choice was a determined choice. Why did I go right is the question?

A Christian believing in Free Will would claim that such a choice is a random decision made by the choice maker. They might claim that it is a free choice with no baggage or attachment to it. But the fact is that even if we don’t know what determined that choice, it was still a determined choice. If I would have gone left, that too would have been the determined choice. I might have been as simple as the fact that I am genetically right handed and that is why I went right. It could have been because a saw a cute girl down the right path a few weeks ago and subconsciously I hope she might be there again. Maybe subconsciously I am trying to avoid someone I saw down the left path weeks earlier. It could even be a subconscious complex calculation based on multiple factors. Or perhaps it isn’t subconscious at all.

The point here is that “Free Will” is a myth just like the God who is alleged to have given it to us. Only people who choose not to educate themselves and to focus on a short-sighted view on behavior are believers in Free Will. And even though their choice to remain ignorant was a determined choice, they still have a choice to weigh the Nurture of education against the Nurture or their indoctrination. They can still choose to be educated.

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  • Josh Lofy

    I greatly agree with you on this. I’ve never been able to say it this clearly though. I normally get caught in the ‘its our nature part’ to which they normally respond but our nature is free will. Thanks for the new insight!

  • ISG

    A wonderfully clear, articulate argument. I’ve personally never given Free Will any thought….mainly because I grew up in a very atheistic home and have always had an interest in psychology therefore always looked to science on the human mind to figure out why we made these choices. To think some people believe that a G-d planned out their every choice, every movement….wow. It’s kind of sad. I hope you’re right about it not being too late. Maybe some of them still have a chance to be saved ;)

    • A-Dizzle

      This never made sense to me either. The idea of free will and an all-knowing God is a contradiction. If God already knows which decisions I will make, than I don’t have free will.

      Some Christians argue that God doesn’t necessarily know which choice I will make, but he knows all the possible outcomes of all the possible choices I have available to me. This still does not fit the definition of all-knowing, because ultimately God doesn’t know if I will go left or right. He just knows what will happen if I go either way.

      It’s such a completely silly and simple contradiction that I am baffled why even the most simple minded of believers can’t seem to grasp it.

      • admin

        Actually A-Dizzle, I think the Christian would say that God knows our free choice but does not determine that choice for us. I see that point and I think it is a pretty good point on their part. But that isn’t the issue. My point is that we don’t have a free choice, we have a determined choice and because we don’t know how our choices are determined, we have an illusion of free choice.
        -Staks

        • http://www.fullmetalblogger.com A-Dizzle

          Staks,

          When you say that God knows our free choice, does that mean he knows what we will choose? If that is so, then we don’t have free will either because if knows what our choice will be, than it’s predetermined and we do not have free will.

        • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

          “I think the Christian would say that God knows our free choice but does not determine that choice for us.”

          Woe, staks got it right basically! ;-)

          Yeah thats pretty much what I would say the Bible conveys. That is one of those things that requires a bit of theological interpretation.

          A-Dizzle.

          “If that is so, then we don’t have free will either because if knows what our choice will be, than it’s predetermined and we do not have free will.”

          Wrong. We are inside our little universe….we cannot go outside of our universe and look at it as a whole. (which could lead me into a refutation of naturalism….butttt i’ll spare you.) We are confined in our reality. God, by definition is infinite and outside of space and time. God and only God can take whatever form he chooses inside of our reality and also see everything all at once. Therefore, just because he’s God, made everything, and can see the past, present, future all at once. This does not mean that we, out our little lives, cannot make our own choices. Foreknowledge does not mean “predetermined.” I can know EXACTLY how my wife would react to something, but that doesn’t mean i predetermined her destiny just because I knew. Now, yes thats a bit different because thats just a human relationship thing….but hopefully the point rings true now.

          The point is simply that foreknowledge of future events doesn’t mean that free will is eliminated.

        • A-Dizzle

          Matt:

          Am I able to choose a course of action that is different than what god knows I will choose? If not, than that is not free will. I am constrained in my choices by what god knows I will choose.

          You may think you know how your wife will react to something, but that doesn’t mean she definitely will react in that manner. She has the ability to act in a way which you did not perceive.

          With god, that is not possible. We make choices. God knows which choice we will make. We are not able to make a choice outside of what god already knows, therefore our choices are constrained. Therefore free will does not exist.

          It’s a simple logical paradox. By choosing a course of action that god does not already know I will make, than god is not all knowing. If I am unable to choose a course of action that is not already known by god, than free will does not exist.

          So either god is not all knowing, or we do not have free will. It is logically impossible to have both.

        • admin

          I hate to have to be in a position to defend Christianity, but I think you are off on this one A-Dizzle. Knowledge doesn’t restrict choices… Nature and Nurture does. The fact that we don’t always have the knowledge of our Nature/Nurture allows us to have the illusion of free will. But I think the Christian point (which is still not a valid one) is that we can do whatever we want, but God is sort of like a time traveler and has already seen what we did. This of course is a pretty simplistic way of looking at our choices and completely discounts the reasons we make those choices. According to Free Will, our choices can be arbitrary and random chance in a way. I could suddenly decide to jump out a window for no reason. Because my will is free to do whatever, whenever. This also explains why so many Christians don’t understand complex cause and effect streams with relation to human behavior.
          -Staks

        • A-Dizzle

          Staks:

          I think you misunderstand my argument. It’s not about knowledge of choices, it’s about whether we (human beings) have the ability to make a choice outside of what god knows we will choose. That is the definition of free will. If god knows I will have pancakes for breakfast tomorrow, do I have the ability to choose french toast instead? If not, I don’t have free will. If so, I do have free will and god cannot be all knowing.

          If god knows every choice I will make throughout my life, and I don’t have the option of choosing a course of action that has not already been foreseen by god, then free will by definition does not exist.

        • admin

          Again, I don’t want to defend the Christian prospective, but let me put it a different way. Stephen Hawking is currently working on his impossible theory of everything project. The idea of this theory is to identify all the causes in the Universe and those be able to predict everything. I could be wrong about this because it is Stephen Hawking and he is a pretty complex guy. But my point here is what if we could do exactly that. What if we could identify all the Nature/Nurture elements in a person. Could we then predict how that person will behave? I think we could. This doesn’t mean that the person can’t make a choice, it just means that like it is now, their choices are determined by Nature and Nurture. My knowing what they will choose doesn’t take away their choice.

          As this relates to the Christian argument (even though they are absolutely wrong) is that we make a choice completely free of any factors whatsoever. God just happens to know what we have chosen. Could we choose something else? Sure. But God being “outside of time” (even though that is not in the Bible and makes no logical sense) looked from the future to see your choice. The Christian would argue that because I know that you posted a comment here earlier today, that you still had the choice to either post the comment or not post the comment and that my future knowledge had no baring on your free will. But again, the Christian fails to understand the determining factors which caused you to write the comment earlier today which make your will determined will and not free will.
          -Staks

        • http://www.fullmetalblogger.com A-Dizzle

          Staks:

          I’m in agreement with you about nature/nurture. And I know you’re not defending Christianity, per se.

          What I’m trying to point out is that if god knows all of the life choices I will make, and if it is not possible to deviate from what is foreseen by god, than that is the exact definition of determinism, and therefore free will does not exist. If my life will only ever be what god already knows it to be, and there are no possible deviations from what is foreseen by god, than I have no free will.

          Even though my decisions aren’t “forced” by god in the conventional sense, having foreknowledge of events that cannot be changed is determinism and is incompatible with free will. I’m kind of running out of different ways to say it, but hopefully I’ve explained it a bit better this time.

  • existential blues

    OR, free will might be a complete illusion, as the smooth, continuous progress of time might be.

    In any case, the “free will” that a fundamental Christian talks about is meaningless, since the omnipotent God created everything exactly the way he wanted to. His omniscience told him exactly what everyone would think and do at every instant of time. How does free will fit into that? If you deviate from the path God set for you, you are defying his will, which wouldn’t even be possible.

    • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

      lol you just don’t have an understanding of the theology behind this….you CAN”T deviate…lol. God just knows whats going to happen…I really don’t see how that is so hard….he knows….we do…and he knows what we’re going to do because…he’s…God? Um…why is that hard?!?! It’s not!!

  • http://www.myspace.com/atheistteam The A-Team

    Great blog. Though regarding a minor point, I think only that we’re prone to preferring one hand over the other is genetic or at least part of our nature in some way, and though I could be wrong, I think the currently held scientific position on handedness is that which hand we end up favoring is the result of nurture. And though this could also be argued to have a genetic basis too, as I understand it, babies start off using both hands equally and then over time usually settle on one that becomes the preferred hand. Again, new research might have come in since I’ve last look at this.

    Anyway, on a related note, Greta Christina wrote a great blog a while ago on left-handedness: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2009/02/lefthanders.html

    • admin

      I don’t know about the research, but within minutes of Orion’s birth, the doctors were saying that he was right-handed. So while he is still just a month old and that could certainly change, it doesn’t look like it is changing. This should not be evidence for genetics however because he may have been nurtured to be right-handed in the womb for 9 months… and two weeks, lol. Again, it may be a complex interaction between nature and nurture at work.
      -Staks

  • http://www.myspace.com/rothtalltales Tralf

    Free will has its limits. Ask the person who is paralyzed from the neck down from a skiing accident how much free will they have. So the rule is this: free will, use it wisely.

    Randy

  • http://entrainer.sourceforge.net Burton

    My claim isn’t that we don’t have choices, but rather that our choices are not “freely determined.”

    As far as playing the hand one’s been given I can see your point. All the more reason to integrate facts, logic and reasoning into one’s psyche. Without these tools, we are indeed at the mercy of our circumstance.

    And the whole concept of ‘freewill’ in Christianity is an exercise in double-think. Sure, you can ‘reject’ Jesus blah blah blah but if you do you’ll burn in hell for eternity. So either do as we tell you without question or condemn yourself to eternal torture. By exercising your ‘freewill’ of course…

    Burton.

  • Crimson Baboon

    Hey, here is an example of Christian’s idea of free will: If you CHOOSE to accept Jesus as your savior he will give you “unconditional” (HA) love, and eternal life. BUT, if you do not “choose” to turn to Jesus, your soul and person will be cast into the pits of hell in which you will spend eternity being burned and tortured for your sins! NOW, does that sound like “free will”?

  • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

    lol a time traveler…good one staks. :P