The illusion of freedom

From time to time we return to the question of free will. And rightly so. Without free will there is no possibility of moral choice and an important pillar of rational support for our belief in God is removed. So far so good. But I thought that it might be interesting to look at some problems which come with the concept.

The first one concerns how we know that any particular action is actually free. We do not need to be deeply read in psychology to realise the large number of factors which can modify our decisions. Our personalities and our temperaments vary a great deal, and influence our approach to decisions. But since we, so to speak, live inside our personalities we are limited in our ability to identify these factors.

(As it happens, some new research which came out from embargo at 4pm today – I like to keep you up with the latest news! – shows that the brains of conservative people differ from the brains of liberals. Conservatives have a larger amygdala – and the amygdala is associated with the processing of fear. So it is hypothesised that this influences conservatives to seek safety in the avoidance of change. Conversely, changes in the cingulate cortex of liberals are associated with tolerance of uncertainty and conflicts. (Current Biology 7 April). So it may be that some of the differences expressed in discussions on this Blog are more the result of our brain structure than rational thought.)

Then we are likely to share characteristics which are common to human beings. It may be recognising authority more easily in tall people than short, taking to (or taking against) people who resemble our parents in ways which are important to us, or being less likely to find attractive people guilty in court. And, to take a dramatically trivial example, having had two cataract operations this year I no longer regularly wear glasses. Thereby I lose 12 IQ points. How do I know that? Because studies have shown that we, on average, rate people who wear glasses as 12 points higher on the scale than those who don’t.

Since we are clearly as daft as brushes, and are quite unaware of it, how can we repose confidence in the idea that any particular choice is truly free? My father took the view that mortal sin was impossible for the English. Their lack of mental focus precluded the possibility of making decisions which were truly free. (But was he truly free to come to that conclusion?)

You may well have read of experiments in which the brain neurons fired before a decision was made. A new study has just been published in which it possible to measure this rather accurately. In brief, the neurons anticipated the decision by one and a half seconds. And more than half a second before conscious decision, the scientists were able to predict the arrival of the decision with 80% accuracy. So how can it be a free and conscious decision if our brain makes it before we do? You will be helped here by looking at an overview of the experiment.

The third example is one that has always interested me. Is Heaven the one place where we have no free will? Aquinas teaches us that the will is always drawn to what presents itself to us as good. Even wicked people have to see their proposed evil act as a good, at least in some perverse way, before their wills can turn to it. So, what happens when we get to Heaven and receive the full light of the absolute goodness of God? Clearly our wills have then no choice but to turn towards him – and so we are no longer free. Or are we? (You may think that to be a ridiculous question, but it is as well to remember that issues related to this have caused great disputes in the Church’s history. For those well versed in theological disputes, I speak of the question of “sufficient” versus “efficacious” grace.)

So it might interesting for us to see whether these arguments against free will hold water. And perhaps we can think of other examples.

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47 Responses to The illusion of freedom

  1. tim says:

    1. All our decisions are subject to influences – not all of which we recognise at the time (subliminal advertising, diabolic temptation?). This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not free. I accept that no-one may be able to tell with certainty whether any particular decision was ‘truly free’ or not, but I don’t think this disposes of the concept of free will.
    2. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” – particularly when it’s science. It’s a thought-provoking experiment, certainly. Two points. First, we are combined body and spirit (no doubt that’s why the body is resurrected). We think and decide with our neurons, presumably. The fact of a delay in becoming conscious of having reached a decision doesn’t necessarily entail that the decision wasn’t free. Secondly, this experiment relates to one particular rather trivial kind of decision. It’s not clear what criteria people are using to reach it – it may be the mental equivalent of tossing a coin. Important moral decisions are often based on choices made over extended periods – decades, possibly. Different considerations may apply.
    3. Clearly, in the afterlife we don’t have the freedom we have in this life. In eternity the important choices have been made – whether we end up in heaven, purgatory or hell. The same is true for angels, outside time. Whether we shall have lesser freedoms – the choice between different (but equal?) goods is less obvious, and will wait.

  2. tim says:

    Oh, and it’s not only ‘conservatives’ who are afraid of change. When ‘liberals’ are, they call it the Precautionary Principle. But probably I’m eliding social and political categories – nasty tendentious labels, anyway.

  3. claret says:

    Every single act we ever do, or dont do, is subject to our wills. Choice might be a better word than free will. We are free to make choices.

  4. John Thomas says:

    Congratulations to Tim for inverted commas around Liberal. I loathe labels which are used in order to promote their users to the moral high ground (totally falsely, in this case).
    When next asked if I am doing X or Y, I must remember to say “I really don’t know. My brain takes all my decisions for me. You must speak to my brain”. Obviously, asking my brain means asking me. Even if the chemicals/mechanics/electricity of my brain take decisions, it’s still me. This is just pushing the “seat” of decisions one place further out within oneself; it is not moving it beyond myself to some agency outside me (or chance/accident).

    • mike Horsnall says:

      The subject of the brain isnt quite as straightforward as it seems I’m afraid. The catechism mentions this of courseCCC1739 ..Man’s freedom is limited and fallible.In fact man failed…..”
      Over the past twenty five years, thousands -literally-of people have passed through my hands in the course of my work as an osteopath. One cannot but be struck by the sheer variation in human material and how governed we are by the processes of our biology-thus what is a molehill to one is a mountain to another-a herculean act of will to one is a mere whim to another.Very few persons dealing professionally with human life would claim man as an autonomous being save in neccessary theory-law,religion and moral philosophy in other words. The apostle Paul tried to figure it out in the book of Romans and -being baffled could only come up with this:
      “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purpose and some for common use? What if God ,choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath-prepared for destruction?..” Romans 9 22

      Of course in the end we must be held responsible for our actions or else fall into some hell of automatism , but man is ruled in the main by desires whims and habits with which he must continually battle-surely anyone who has tried ,in silent prayer, to hold the ground for more than 30 seconds will have
      an inkling of this. Sadly we are less noble than we would like to imagine and our lives are held together in precarious grip-this is the bioligical price of being top of the tree I think.

  5. mike Horsnall says:

    Strangely enough it would seem to me perfectly obvious at first thought that no exercise of the will is required in heaven-but probably the faculty for decision making would remain. Because it is a central tenet of our humanness I guess-like a kind of redundant appendix the will may stay with us but be eclipsed by our true oneness….perhaps we might choose to tell the odd joke here and there….

  6. Rahner says:

    The real “question of free will” is not “do we have free will?” but is there a coherent account of what “free will” could possibly be.

  7. Vincent says:

    Rahner, that’s a tricky one. At this time of night I’m not sure I would succeed in producing a definition of any value — but here are my starting thoughts. The most immediate factor is that freewill is essentially a choice: that is, it must have the key element of being uncaused. But it cannot be a weather vane that swings with every wind. So Aquinas must be right when he says that it is attracted to the “good”. But what do we see as the good? That seems to relate to the sort of person we are. For example, a thoroughly selfish, uncaring person would recognise different “goods” from a loving, unselfish person. But is becoming the sort of person we are also a matter of choice? And how does grace fit into all of this? That’s just for starters, I hope someone else will take your challenge further.

  8. mike Horsnall says:

    Funnily enough we have just been chatting about this while out on our club cycling run! My lawyer friend would define free will as something along the lines of the absence of physical restraint. It depends really where you want to begin. Personally I think most freewill discussions are hampered by a failure of definition-mostly they talk about moral philosophy in the abstract. Other views would look at physical possibility, neurological integrity etc. Doctrines of free will seem mainly to be written around the notion of having the actions of a reasonable man as standard. As to causation then, free will cannot exist outside of a body so that cause related to embodiment must be taken into account?

    • Vincent says:

      On second thoughts I would substitute “undetermined” rather than “uncaused” in my last contribution.
      Physical restraint covers a wide range – from handcuffs to a strong temptation of the senses. There is no blame in being immobilised through handcuffs, but how about someone strongly tempted to paedophilia (who might experience it as a compulsion)?
      You’re right to describe it as necessarily embodied. Many temptations come through the senses, and all temptations are processed in the brain. Is the analogy of the violinist and the violin too naive? The music is immediately provided by the strings and the resonances of the violin. Break the strings and the concert ends. But we know that there has to be a violin player even though he can only make his music through the violin.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        Hi Vincent, Yes I agree about the restraint bit-but then again my friend is a prosecuting lawyer so he would be concerned with such things!!
        The violin analogy is lovely but falls into the problem of infinite regress does it not? I think the violin player must in your analogy would also have to BE the violin if emobiment was fully considered. Unless you take for granted -as is generally done- the intact and eternal spirit as violin player then its hard to find a complete analogy!!

  9. Rahner says:

    “Man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants.” Schopenhauer.
    “Free-will is the cause of its own movement, because by his free-will man moves himself to act. But it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.” Aquinas

  10. Quentin says:

    It is difficult to avoid being bogged down in the question of freewill, as indeed the Church itself was bogged down in, say, the 17th and 18th centuries. The result was different schools of thought (Benedictines versus Jesuits for instance) and it seems that we end up with a number of dicta without any general agreement as to the underlying arguments.

    One such dictum is the declaration of freewill as remaining in existence after the Fall: Council of Trent, Session v1, Canon 5.”If anyone says that after the sin of Adam man’s free will was lost and destroyed, or that it is a thing only in name, indeed a name without a reality, a fiction introduced into the Church by Satan, let him be anathema..”

    When it comes to acts which are meritorious in a supernatural sense, we are in the realm of grace. Here we appear to have two elements of grace: one is “sufficient” grace which is offered to all. The other is “efficacious”grace which is necessary to enable us to respond to God’s call. If we in fact carry out the good act efficacious grace must have been present, if not, then it was absent.

    Confused? If you’re not you haven’t understood the issue.

    Great intellectual gymnastics have been performed in order to reconcile all merit being the result of grace, yet all remaining fully chosen. The two, unacceptable, poles are predestination in one case and natural power to turn to God on the other.
    In the end, I chicken out and settle for mystery. That is, I accept that I can do nothing without God, and that my good actions are truly free and truly meritorious.
    With regard to free will in the natural order (see Trent above) I find myself starting with the thought that if I think of God as a natural agent, but infinitely magnified, then free will is inexplicable. If I start with the thought that he is the source and essence of all existence then I know I am dealing with a concept that my human brain cannot understand. What I settle for is that we are made in the image and likeness of God. And that means that he creates us with some of his own faculties. Since God is both infinitely free, and infinitely determined, so are we.

    And that is the reason I wrote originally about us being obliged to love God in Heaven, once we have seen his goodness. Here we are truly obliged by the “grace” of his presence, but also truly free in our turning to towards him.

    You may well want to disagree with all or some of what I have written. I can only tell you that it is the fruit of much thought over the years. But I am prepared to think again if anyone can suggest an advance on this.

  11. John Candido says:

    The behaviour, thought, and experience of human beings is linked to a vast chemical-electrical system of nerves that form the human nervous system. At its apex is the human brain, the most complex organ that we possess, as well as the most complex structure known to humankind. As a non-scientist, I would speculate that the interpretation of evidence that neuronal activity is alive around a second before the decision to act, is part of the nervous system’s attempt to assist the decision maker to make a decision to move a part of their body.

    I know that this is going to sound really presumptuous and heretical, but I don’t think this evidence negates our free will but possibly have a role in confirming it. Of course I am giving my best guess on the interpretation of the evidence in this experiment on this occasion, and of course I could be wrong.

    According to neuroscientist David Eagleman every example of a human brain is a non-repeatable entity, in that each human brain is as individual as its owner is. Each brain has its own individual capacity for decision making, the capacity for understanding and comprehension, impulse control, intelligence, empathy, and reasoning. In other words, no two brains are alike, despite anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and neurological similarities.

    It is his contention that the legal system needs a rigorous infusion of neuroscience. One of the fundamental assumptions of our legal system is that we are all capable of the same level of decision making, reasoning, impulse control, comprehension, and empathy, providing that our IQ is above 70. According to neuroscientists, this is patently absurd. What the law needs in order to be closer to ideals such as justice is to move away from how people should behave, through ancient legal assumptions of proper behaviours everyone should have, to how people in fact do behave in reality.

    Eagleman believes that the impact of current understandings in neuroscience regarding behaviour has a direct application to the sentencing of people found guilty of specific offences in a court of law. Concerns that contemporary or future neuroscience will lead to the watering down of a legal understanding of free will are misplaced. He contends that a more refined understanding of individual differences will lead to better sentencing.

    Judges will have a better understanding of individual behaviour based on science in order to make more informed decisions regarding sentencing based on the risk to society of recidivism. This will properly consign communal revenge to less civilised contexts in history because sentencing will no longer be conceptualised as a one-size fits all omnibus.

    He explains that most overseas prisons have become de facto mental health institutions rather than places of communal punishment. Neuroscience can have a significant impact on the rehabilitation of prisoners by assisting offenders to overcome or better manage mental illness, poor impulse control, and drug addiction. Provision should also be made for mental health courts, which would specialise in processing alleged offenders who have a serious psychological disorder or a full-blown mental illness.

    These structures, resources, and skills, will have the best hope of lessening rates of recidivism, sparing the community of the human impact of future crimes, as well as the vast monetary cost associated with repeat offenders. Locking people up and throwing away the key will progressively be seen as short-sighted and inadequate.

    You can read David Eagleman’s thoughts in a recent article in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. The Telegraph’s article, dated the 5th April 2011, was entitled ‘The Human Brain: Turning our Minds to the Law’, can be accessed here, This article is also a promotion for his new book called, ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’ (2011) published by Canongate Books in the UK.

  12. mike Horsnall says:

    Quentin there is a neat little evangelical picture which has a man going through a door marked ‘Choose’…he does so and goes through, the door swings shut behind him and he looks back to see ‘Chosen’ written on his side..Neat but it sums it up I think. John your idea that the neurones are the levers of thought for the intention of action still trips into the infinite regress-you assume that somehow there is a seperate entity involved in the acting and in doing so assume the identity of a seperate ‘you’ This is why the mystery remains and the gordian knot is so tricky to unravel-we cannot seperate ourselves from our actions and our actions are corporeal ones..Somewhere is the profound mystery of Jesus laying aside his majesty and one of the reasons why the eucharist is so sacred-it carries in it the possibility that God can become man and vice versa; in truth most of the mysteries of church are summed in this one sacramental issue.

  13. Ion Zone says:

    Change is something that humans as a whole are terrified of, fear of change is similar to another fear – fear of outsiders. Both come down to the intrinsic terror that the comfortable sameness of the world around us is about to come to an end, or at least be disrupted.

    Do we have free will – why yes, I think we do, as much as I also think that far too few people exercise it. Too many are locked up in the fears I have mentioned and prevent others from freeing themselves from the paranoid grip of what, while still good and reasonable, is just not acceptable to a society – and for no other reason than because it is not used to it.

    Take, for example, a male with long hair that is dyed purple, or, a hundred or so years ago, a woman who insists on wearing trousers. two incredibly small things – but look at the reaction they get! The first would find it very hard to get a job that does not require him to change his appearance, and find that people in general decry him for being weird. Of course, if people were used to males having long dyed hair, the exact opposite could well be the case. As with the woman – we don’t think much about women who wear trousers today, but would be extremely surprised, if not shocked, by one who wore a dress similar to those around not that long ago at all – except in certain circumstances where it is “allowed”.

    • Quentin says:

      Mike, it may be worth noticing here that the human (and indeed animal) system is necessarily wary of change because this is a probable signal either of danger or of opportunity. In other words we react to contrast with the norm. You wouldn’t have a hope picking up my cat, but I can because I am her norm.
      And directly to the point is that when we act against the norms of our social group our brain throws up an “error” signal irrespective of whether our action is good or bad. It is enough that it is different.

  14. st.joseph says:

    That sounds a little like taking things from the sublime to the ridiculous!
    We do have to have a dress code.
    Free will does not mean we can always do as we like. We still have to stick by the rules of the person in authority’s free will to make them
    We dress for the occasion. Black tie events- not shorts, bikinis for the beach etc.
    If a male wants to look eccentric-well let him dye his hair pink!Then he could draw attention to himself-if his needs be!
    Fashion constituted a lot to women wearing trousers, although the land army girls wore trousers in wartime!
    I dont believe trousers to be only applicable to males-but Iwould have doubts about a male wearing a frilly dress !But if that is what he wanted to do-so be it!
    We can’t compare our clothing with warm countries or culture dressing.
    When Jesus spoke about freedom, I think maybe He was speaking in the Spirit!

  15. mike Horsnall says:

    But Jesus often spoke about freedom as a practical issue in terms of the religious system of his time which acted as a constraint against the outflow of a generous heart.

  16. Quentin says:

    In my main post above I gave some examples of the characteristics which are common to human beings. I could have mentioned a recent study which showed that judges became less and less willing to grant parole to prisoners as they got further and further on from their last eating break. I didn’t because the story was under press embargo (which has since been broken). But if judges who are trained and called to make decisions on a rational basis are in fact influenced by their hunger or fatigue, what chance do you and I have?

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Not much Quentin, best try and make sure that yours is the first case called then I’ll face the music after lunch….

  17. Ion Zone says:

    Oops, I made a big grammatical error in my second paragraph, I meant to say:

    “Too many are locked up in the fears I have mentioned and prevent others from freeing themselves from the paranoid grip of what is and is not “acceptable” to a society. I am sure we can all think of good and reasonable things we have wanted to do, but that we have not done – and for no other reason than because society would object simply on the grounds that it is not used to such things.”

  18. Superview says:

    Quentin is always good value for money, although sometimes I feel it necessary to count the change very carefully. It seems to me that we have to try and resolve the question of free will first on the natural plane (‘the natural order’), that is, the existentialist, and that we can bring God into the discussion too early, if one can say such a thing. This is the plane that Jesus occupied: It is the only way we can make sense of Gethsemani if Jesus was truly free to choose?

    A couple of loose thoughts –
    (1) Can we only meaningfully exercise free will if we have the power so to do? Put another way, for a person to achieve what they will mustn’t they have access and control over the means that are required. To be in all respects unable to achieve A or B, or to be under duress to choose A over B, surely makes the notion of free will hypothetical in these circumstances (for example, the starving man may not wish to steal bread)? If not, then willing something is simply an ephemeral act of the imagination, rather like Don Quixote. I like Pelagius on this point – the absence of necessity is essential to goodness (that is, to be able to choose the good as a free act of the will) and emphasises Man’s responsibility for choosing between good and evil.

    (2) Is freely choosing – that is, truly exercising free will – to be predicated on having knowledge of the truth, which is a rather grand way of saying we have absolutely full and reliable information about the matter to be decided? If we desire to take a good and honourable decision in a situation where we have two options A and B, but are denied relevant information about A and provided with false information about B, is the decision taken in these conditions freely taken?

    Like Mike Horsnall, I couldn’t explain to my neighbour quite what Aquinas was talking about. But I (sometimes) think I know where he’s coming from, so to speak. Once you make God, God, then he is material to every possibility, and the origin, purpose and end of all things. Metaphorically speaking (!), with Aquinas, God can never lose a hand of poker, no matter how bad it may be, because he always knows what all the other hands are. All we can do is speculate on the forms and purposes of His grace, and fall out over it, like Augustine and Pelagius. Augustine’s view that man is not free to choose the good, because evil is in his nature, and it requires God’s grace to overcome that evil nature, on the face of it does seem to me to undermine any notion of Man having free will (especially if grace is not earned by virtue of any action of man but is freely bestowed by God)?

    I see John Candido has posted a comment that relates to the uniqueness of each human being’s perception of reality (which I suppose is the nearest to a description of the soul in the secular world). I understand the argument as it relates to distortions of reality through mental illness or moral deprivation. The judicial system attempts to measure the degree of responsibility, or grounds for mitigation, but I take the point that it fails frequently given the evidence of so many mentally ill or drug addicted people in prison (although this may be for lack of alternatives). But it makes me wonder whether there could ever be a system that could at the one time support civil order and function without an irreducible core set of indicators that implied, or approximated, awareness of responsibility for action.

    • mike Horsnall says:


      The answer to 1 is yes. The answer to 2a is yes because free will is the ability to act not neccesarily the ability to forsee. 2b makes the pertinent point that we simply don’t know and proceed only through faith and trust though these may become informed by experience as we go along (experience being both individual and collective) The answer to 2c is no, by its dint society demands culpability-I guess you could say this is the price of Adam…or, rather, the cost.

      Your point about bringing God into definitions too early is pertinent too. I have been wondering for some time now whether God is a catholic or not!!

      PS I have forgiven you for the April fools day comment so no need to go to confession this week…..

      • mike Horsnall says:

        Whoops..the answer to 2a should of course be no…but I’m sure you knew I was just testing. Do I pass?

  19. Quentin says:

    Superview, I note your remark “It seems to me that we have to try and resolve the question of free will first on the natural plane (‘the natural order’), that is, the existentialist, and that we can bring God into the discussion too early, if one can say such a thing.” And I agree that one should always look first for the natural explanation — even if we suspect that God is working through the natural.

    But I do have a real difficulty here. It seems to me that in the material order we are talking about causation. That is, if we (per impossible) were able to see every preceding factor then the next happening could predicted because it is predetermined.

    Thus it seems to me that to reject causation by an act of will must take place in the spiritual order. But from where does the spiritual order come? I would argue that the best answer is that human nature, fallen or redeemed, is made in the image and likeness of God. This must refer to spiritual aspects which I would take to be primarily rationality and free will.

    Now I only put this forward tentatively, and I would appreciate you (or others) probing my current view for faults.

  20. mike Horsnall says:

    What you have here is a likely but not a neccesary link. To predicate causality on spirituality is difficult but hard to avoid. Much of the discussion on this site simply assumes that we are spiritual creatures yet I would suggest that assumption, again, is not neccessary particularly when we come to discuss freedom of will. There are plenty of discussions among moral philosophers that do not assume the link we make-Camus being the first to come to mind. I would say it is perfectly possible to consider free will among higher animals including man without considering spiritual causality. This is why its important to try and define the term a little otherwise speak nonsense.

    For myself I consider Man a spiritual being embodied with all the complexity implied but the fact that many perfectly reasonable people consider man an autonomous rational animal is to be considered not just set aside as wise folly. I am just in the process of finishing off my part time Fine Art degree which means I have read the lives of many painters -Kandinski for example whose developed spiritual sense excludes ‘God’ as we make ‘God’
    To us the link of causality and spirituality stretches all the way from Plato to the present via Golgotha, but the link is not a neccesary one?

  21. Quentin says:

    Mike, it just so happens that this weekend’s New Scientist carries an article titled “Free Will – The illusion we can’t live without.” The burden of the article is that several studies have shown that people who do not believe in free will tend to behave more anti socially and selfishly than those who do. However the writer appears to conclude that the strong persistence of our belief that we are responsible for out choices will in fact save the day. It is a necessary illusion. Of course his starting assumption is expressed clearly when he writes of the “incontrovertible evidence“ that behaviour is predetermined.
    While this theme is tangential to your remarks, it does provide strong evidence that no adequate explanation for (or even presence of) free will in the operations of the material brain. I agree that the jump from the “spiritual” to the action of God does not follow automatically. But, if so, then the quality of the “spiritual” power of self determination requires some other explanation. What, do you think, it would look like?
    I am sure that you know Camus better than I do. But his general theme “life is just one dam’ thing after another so we had better just accept it” does itself require a free decision, even if that free decision is one of resignation.

  22. RMBlaber says:

    ‘I choose, therefore I am’ (‘Opto, ergo sum’) was, of course, not what Descartes said, but it is implied by the verb ‘to think’. For Quentin thinks one thing, Superview another thing, John Candido and Mike Horsnall yet more things, and I think still differently. (We do agree, at least some of the time.) Our thinking about many, if not most, things entails choices – about, for example, what is most important to us, or what values should be the basis for the distribution of social goods.

    True, if we are trying to solve a mathematical equation, then ‘choice’ plays little part in that, although even there, we might start off by choosing which of several alternative methods to try and get the right answer, until we have found the correct, or most efficient, one – but choice plays a rather bigger part in (say) deciding what colour socks or tie we put on, if we are men, and what we shall have for lunch.

    What makes choice ‘free’? There are those who think that a choice is free if it is free from any external coercion, like Mike Horsnall’s lawyer friend. From the lawyer’s POV, certainly, a bank manager does not become guilty of being an accessory to an armed robbery at his bank because he opened the safe when one of the armed robbers pointed a gun at his head and told him to; he was acting under duress. However, this understanding of ‘free will’ is woefully inadequate.

    To be free, a choice must be the product of a conscious mental act. It must not be the result of a chain of causation that began with a purely physical event, such as an electrical impulse from, or secretion of neurotransmitter by, a neuron or group of neurons in the brain. It can be nearly coincident with such an event or events in time, but it cannot be the result of them. At the level of neurons, the physics of the brain is classical (as opposed to quantum) and deterministic, even if there might be an element of non-linear dynamics (‘chaos’) at play. If we are looking for something that is non-deterministic, which we must, then we must search for it in the metaphysical realm, rather than the physical, and resort to Descartes’s ‘ghost in the machine’ (as Gilbert Ryle called it) – the psyche or soul.

    Consequently, if it can be shown that our supposedly ‘free’ choices are all the result of neural events, and that these neural events actually precede conscious awareness of what ‘choice’ has been made, then free will is indeed an illusion, and we are all, in effect, automata – robots. Furthermore, if ‘free will’ is an illusion, so, too, is the concept of moral responsibility, and that of legal (criminal) responsibility founded upon it. Criminals are merely robots that have been incorrectly programmed, and in future they will not be ‘punished’ but re-programmed. If they cannot be re-programmed, of course, there is always the option of euthanasing them, or possibly (given the necessary technology) ‘mind-wiping’ them, and either giving them a new personality or leaving them as ‘blanks’ that could be used as sources of human organs for transplantation, or for medical experiments.

    If you think this vision of the future is a nightmare, you are not alone – for so do I! However, the evidence against my belief in free will keeps stacking up – from the Phineas Gage* case onwards, the more we know about neuroscience the less possible it seems to adhere to the ideas of the soul and free will (and let no-one think for a moment that the two things can be separated – they can’t). The resulting reductionist, materialistic picture of the Universe is one that makes me shudder, but I fear that it may be correct (I just hope I’m wrong).

    If anyone can come up with some convincing arguments on behalf of ‘Opto, ergo sum’, then I would be delighted to hear them.

    *For the Phineas Gage case, see:

    • tim says:

      When a defensive position appears impregnable, there is always the option to go round it. Men are not automata. Non opto, ergo non sum. Being human implies the capacity to choose.

      How the trick is done, I don’t know. I’m inclined to accept RMB’s assertion that determinate classical physics applies to brain processes (though not on the basis that this is incontrovertible). I suspect that indeterminacy arises from feedback loops between different control levels (but this may be mere handwaving – indeterminacy is not the same as choice, though it may allow room for it?). But in some way the capacity to choose is physically encoded. One chooses on the basis of rival goods: decisions are made on the basis of the kind of person one is, which is strongly dependent on previous choices – and the acceptance or rejection of grace?

  23. mike Horsnall says:

    Alas RMBLaber you miss a point or two!!!
    Moral responsibility can work quite happily as a shaper of behaviour in the absence of complete free will..societies allow some behaviour but not others- not because they indicate freedom, no, the organisation of the polity can equally be done along Hobbesian lines for the sake of power …in other words culpability for examples sake. I will hold you guilty not because you are or arent but because I don’t want you to do X or all the others will! …So you can go and sniff instinctively the perfume of the sales assistant but better temper that predatory instinct with another of self preservation because if you proceed further we are going to chop off your smelly little hands….We know that animals have some degree of choice between their warring instincts but we do not neccessarily attribute to them spirituality nor do we expect them to recite the catechism but you are right-we are caught between two poles in the thinking through of this but it is refreshing nonetheless and it is that middle no mans land that is so interesting-I do not believe that I personally possess free will-do you think you do?.

    PS Camus also said something along the lines of -being in the desert, plant flowers!!

  24. mike Horsnall says:

    We would use the word “Agape” I guess. This in my view is the most compelling argument for a spiritual directive -it makes us do things that seem absolutely counter intuitive, non evolutionary and generally potty for no good reason- completely defying our pedantic moral/political/religous logic…phew.. thank heaven!!

  25. Quentin says:

    Mike, I agree with you here. I would just want to remind myself that the exercise of agape will in practice be closely related to a continuing state of virtue. Let me give you a homely but true example.

    A grandson of mine has just asked me for £50 sponsorship for making a parachute jump. The money will go to a fund to enable a group of young Catholics do some gap-year charitable work overseas.

    There are a number of “goods” here. I admire my grandson and want to support him. I want to be seen as a generous grandfather. In broad terms I support his charity although I have no special interest in it. I could find another, more important, charity to support. By not giving the money I save myself £50. On the other hand I can’t pretend that giving it will deprive me of anything noticeable.

    Most decisions involve a variety of “goods” or avoidances of “bads” but the way in which I prioritise my goods is likely to result from the kind of moral character I have. In other words, my choice does not come at this point but as a result of the sort of person I have become through my practice, or failure of practice in virtue or – in your terms – my agape.

  26. Quentin says:

    Hells Bells! My last contribution reminded me to ask my wife to prepare a cheque for £50. But I discovered that as the jump was from 13,500 feet she had already handed over a cheque for £135. So my free will played no part, and the higher place in Heaven goes to my wife, darn it.

  27. st.joseph says:

    Quentin, the thought was there, even if the deed wasn’t, so you may still have moved up a little, having the will to do it. Do you think?
    This may not be applicable, but my mother told me when I was young, that if I missed Mass, for some reason on my way there the same Graces are granted to me as if I were there.

  28. st.joseph says:

    I have been doing some thinking on free will, not in a scientific way, but more in a spiritual context, and the way I see it is that God gave us a free-will to choose good over evil,showing us the Way to choose, and the consequences if we dont, by
    following His example ,even as St Pauls says- to be nailed to the Cross.
    The comment from Superview on March 30th in 614 to 1 is pertinent here when it comes to free will in a spiritual sense. His remarks on the churches teachings on ‘sex’
    to which he avoids to answer ,to make clear in my mind.That causes me concern.
    It is one thing to abide by the churches teachings ,as far as catholics are concerned out of obedience-but however do we have a free will on our thoughts as well as words and deeds, when it come to those who are not restricted to abiding to the rules of Catholic
    Jesus said ‘Even if a man looks at a women with lust in his eyes he is guilty of adultry in his heart,that would include females too! As the Psalmist says- ‘A clean heart create for me Oh God’!
    Some say we ought to be free to choose abortion, extra-marital relationships,
    prostitution,homosexuality, pornography, all sins against purity and chastity,if we are not harming any one else.But don’t we have an obligation as christians to instruct the ignorant-the duty of the Church is to do that, why would we object to it,or feel that only one thing is necessary and that is ‘love’ not rules!
    We may have to understand the true meaning of love first.
    Would anyone say that the Father loved His Son when we see him Crucified?

    • mike Horsnall says:

      This is an interesting question and I’ve been asking it myself recently…It is clear that the Church has the responsibility of speaking to the nation..but what should I personally say,for example, to the two women I have recently got to know who are in a sexual relationship together. They are adults and their lives run before God as does mine-they make what splintered choice they can from the torn fabric of their lives and move towards the warmth of relationship..let him who is without sin cast the first stone???

  29. st.joseph says:

    A small thought came to me whilst weeding the garden!
    (Luke 23:28,31) Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me,but weep forselves and for your children…For if they do these things to the greenwood,what shall be done to the dry?
    When everyone exclaimed in amazement: bene omnia fecit (Mark 7:37), he has done all things well.

  30. st.joseph says:

    Mike, I listened to an interesting homily the other day about that very subject.
    When they came to Jesus and said’ the women has been caught in adultry, and the law says she has to be stoned! And they said to Jesus ‘ what do you say we do?
    Then Jesus said’ Let him who be without sin caste the first stone. Then to the woman, ‘Go and sin no more’!
    He did ‘not’ say, ‘ Your sins are forgiven’
    I have thought about that since, and pondered on it.
    A woeful thought!.
    It is very easily misconstrued, and I believe that Jesus did die for our sins- but for their ‘forgiveness’
    We do not condemn the sinner, but love them so much to lead them to forgiveness.
    Presumptious as it may sound, ‘But do unto others as you would like done to you.
    If I did not know what sin is, I would like to be told. That is why we have the Church to ‘teach’ us.
    My free-will to do or not to do, God is my judge, as He is for us all!

  31. st.joseph says:

    Mike another thought comes to mind.
    Jesus said on the Cross ‘ Father forgive them for they know not what they do’
    We as catholics do know, but those who dont-will they be forgiven before us as catholics?
    Or are we judged as catholics, by not preaching the Word-and by that -‘is that true love or not’?
    Or do we leave those alone in ignorance, so that they don’t know if they are sinning or not.? Therefore will ‘not’ be judged in ignorance.!
    Which is the better way.
    Are we the unfortunate ones to understand the Truth?
    But I am not unhappy living in the Truth- even though I recognise I need Confession-like Jesus said- ‘Go show yourselves to the priest’
    But after all Mike, we do know the story-the unfortunate ones are those who don’t!

    • mike Horsnall says:

      St Joseph

      I guess that probably most homosexuals in the land by now know roughly what the church thinks about their practice!! Unfortunately it might be that what they have picked up is the ‘law’ without the ‘grace’. Not to stray too far into that debate though. Speaking as a sometime evangelist I found it a lot easier to ‘share the gospel’ with non believers when I was in the protestant evangelical camp…For them it was very simple-believe in Jesus or risk hell and homosexuality is a sin but God can cure you. I share neither conviction now . I guess we are bound to some degree or other to share the gospel of Christ with others but its how we did it that can be difficult. I have discussed the church’s ‘position’ on homosexuality with several homosexual people and read around the subject a bit…currently I am happy to discuss the ins and outs of the issues with people-‘straight’ or ‘gay’ – but I would no longer judge them myself.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        Hi again,
        There is a good point in your gospel example-Jesus said to THE PHARISEES let him who is without sin cast the first stone and to the woman-go and sin no more. Its this distinction that I am thinking about. For myself the key issue about sinners is our solidarity with them-our oneness with them.

  32. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Mike for your reply.
    Yes we do need to have a oneness with all sinners or else we dont have a oneness with God or the Mother of God,especially She being the Mother of Sorrows which is most pertinent at this time on Good Friday.Jesus died for all!
    If we dont share in this suffering for others – what is the point of our existence as christians?
    The prayer The Hail Mary-we ask Her to ‘Pray for ‘us’ sinners now and at the hour of our death’ Amen.

  33. mike Horsnall says:

    Yes St Joseph..there is something about this prayer which is quite revolutionary I find…strange that it is also one of the most comforting.

  34. Peter Foster says:

    Karl Popper’s book, The Open Universe, brings a perspective to the concept of free will. Here are some fragments.

    “….. I am deeply interested in the philosophical defence of human freedom, of human creativity, and free will – even though I believe that such questions as ‘What does “free mean?”, and What is will?, may lead into a morass of language philosophy. Once we have succeeded in rejecting the idea of determinism by arguments which do not involve an appeal to our intuitions regarding free will, it may be possible to re-establish the validity of these intuitions; ………..”

    However, an indeterminate physics is not enough to make room for human freedom. We need at least the causual openness of what I am going to call World 1 towards World 2, as well as the causual openness of World 2 towards World 3, and vice versa.

    By ‘World 1’ I mean the world of physics: of rocks, and trees and physical fields of forces.
    By ‘World 2’ I mean the psychological world of the human mind, but also of the minds of animals.
    By ‘World 3’ I mean the world of the products of the human mind: abstract things, such as problems, theories and arguments, including mistaken ones; works of art, ethical values and social institutions.

    World 3 can produce an effect in World 1. Aeronautical theories result in an aeroplane. This is an object in World 1 whose existence is not a deterministic outcome of World 1 through its laws of physics

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