Tag Archives: Free Will

New study: belief in free will linked to ability to behave morally and to help others

J. Warner Wallace: God's Crime Scene
J. Warner Wallace: God’s Crime Scene

So, Monday night I finally finished “reading” God’s Crime Scene, the new book by J. Warner Wallace. I was listening to the audio book, because it is hard to speed along with the top down and read at the same time. For now, here’s my one line review: this is a book for people who like evidence – he has collected a ton of evidence on everything people should be puzzling about, and sometimes on surprising topics. Anyway, I wanted to post something about some studies he mentioned in Chapter 6, on free will. This is one of the places where he found evidence in a surprising area.

Wallace says that free will makes more sense if theism is true, because we have non-material souls that interact with our bodies, but are not causally determined by them. On atheism, only matter exists, and you can’t get free will (or consciousness) from matter. So atheists like Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg, for example, deny free will, because they are materialists and atheists.

Anyway, here’s what he writes on p. 256:

In 2008, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia conducted experiments highlighting the relationship between a belief in determinism and immoral behavior. They found students who were exposed to deterministic literature prior to taking a test were more likely to cheat on the test than students who were not exposed to literature advocating determinism. The researchers concluded those who deny free will are more inclined to believe their efforts to act morally are futile and are, therefore, less likely to do so.

In addition, a study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and the University of Kentucky found participants who were exposed to deterministic literature were more likely to act aggressively and less likely to be helpful toward others.” Even determinist Michael Gazzaniga conceded: “It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.”” The existence of free will is a common characteristic of our experience, and when we deny we have this sort of free agency, there are detrimental consequences.

I decided to look up these studies.

Here’s the abstract for first study: (2008)

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

And the abstract for the second study: (2009)

Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

So what to make of this?

If you’re an atheist, then your worldview is telling you that what you are doing now is the result of genetic programming and sensory inputs. You’re not conscious. You can’t reason. You make no free choices, including moral choices. Naturally, someone who believes this is going to struggle with prescriptive morality, including self-sacrificial care and concern for others. Their worldview undermines the rationality of the moral point of view. You might find atheists acting morally for their own purposes, but their worldview doesn’t rationally ground it. This is a big problem for people who can see objective morality woven into the universe – and themselves – because they have the awareness of objective right and wrong.

I think what atheists like to say is “I can be moral, too”. That’s not interesting. What is interesting is whether it is rational for you to be moral when things start to get a bit uncomfortable. When I look at the adultery of Dawkins, the polyamory of Carrier, the divorces of Shermer and Atkins, etc. I am not seeing anything that really wows me. They all deny free will of course, and think that trying to resist temptation is a waste of time. What difference would it make if they did, anyway – there’s no afterlife on atheism.

Wallace explains how the awareness of free will and moral choices caused him to turn away from atheism, in this blog post.

He writes:

As an atheist, I chose to cling to naturalism, in spite of the fact that I lived each day as though I was capable of using my mind to make moral choices based on more than my own opinion. In addition, I sought meaning and purpose beyond my own hedonistic preferences, as though meaning was to be discovered, rather than created. I called myself a naturalist while embracing three characteristics of reality that simply cannot be explained by naturalism. As a Christian, I’m now able to acknowledge the “grounding” for these features of reality. My philosophical worldview is consistent with my practical experience of the world.

I think atheists who want to be honest about their own experience of first-person consciousness, free will, moral realism, etc. will do well to just accept that theism rationally grounds all of these things, and so you should accept theism. Theism is real. If you like morality, and want to be a virtuous person, then you should accept theism.

Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy

Let’s review what you need in your worldview in order to have a rationally grounded system of morality.

You need 5 things:

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

2) Objective moral duties

Moral duties (moral obligations) refer to the actions that are obligatory based on the moral values defined in 1). Suppose we spot you 1) as an atheist. Why are you obligated to do the good thing, rather than the bad thing? To whom is this obligation owed? Why is rational for you to limit your actions based upon this obligation when it is against your self-interest? Why let other people’s expectations decide what is good for you, especially if you can avoid the consequences of their disapproval?

3) Moral accountability

Suppose we spot you 1) and 2) as an atheist. What difference does it make to you if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

4) Free will

In order for agents to make free moral choices, they must be able to act or abstain from acting by exercising their free will. If there is no free will, then moral choices are impossible. If there are no moral choices, then no one can be held responsible for anything they do. If there is no moral responsibility, then there can be no praise and blame. But then it becomes impossible to praise any action as good or evil.

5) Ultimate significance

Finally, beyond the concept of reward and punishment in 3), we can also ask the question “what does it matter?”. Suppose you do live a good life and you get a reward: 1000 chocolate sundaes. And when you’ve finished eating them, you die for real and that’s the end. In other words, the reward is satisfying, but not really meaningful, ultimately. It’s hard to see how moral actions can be meaningful, ultimately, unless their consequences last on into the future.

Theism rationally grounds all 5 of these. Atheism cannot ground any of them.

Let’s take a look at #4: free will and see how atheism deals with that.

Atheism and free will?

Here’s prominent atheist Jerry Coyne’s editorial in USA Today to explain why atheists can’t ground free will.

Excerpt:

And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

If you don’t have free will, then you can’t make moral choices, and you can’t be held morally responsible. No free will means no morality.

Here are some more atheists to explain how atheists view morality.

William Provine says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

When village atheists talk about how they can be moral without God, it’s important to ask them to justify the minimum requirements for rational morality. Atheists may act inconsistently with their worldview, believing in free will, expecting praise and blame for complying with the arbitrary standards of their peer group, etc. But there is nothing more to morality on atheism that imitating the herd – at least when the herd is around to watch them. And when the herd loses its Judeo-Christian foundation – watch out. That’s when the real atheism comes out, and you can see it on display in the Planned Parenthood videos. When God disappears from a society, anything is permissible.

Six reasons why you should believe in non-physical souls

This podcast is a must-listen. Please take the time to download this podcast and listen to it. I guarantee that you will love this podcast. I even recommended it to my Dad and I almost never do that.

Details:

In this podcast, J. Warner examines the evidence for the existence of the mind (and inferentially, the soul) as he looks at six classic philosophical arguments. Jim also briefly discusses Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos and discusses the limitations of physicalism.

The MP3 file is here. (67 MB, 72 minutes)

Topics:

  • Atheist Thomas Nagel’s latest book “Mind and Cosmos” makes the case that materialism cannot account for the evidence of mental phenomena
  • Nagel writes in this recent New York Times article that materialism cannot account for the reality of consciousness, meaning, intention and purpose
  • Quote from the Nagel article:

Even though the theistic outlook, in some versions, is consistent with the available scientific evidence, I don’t believe it, and am drawn instead to a naturalistic, though non-materialist, alternative. Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy.

  • When looking at this question, it’s important to not have our conclusions pre-determined by presupposing materialism or atheism
  • If your mind/soul doesn’t exist and you are a purely physical being then that is a defeater for Christianity, so we need to respond
  • Traditionally, Christians have been committed to a view of human nature called “dualism” – human beings are souls who have bodies
  • The best way* to argue for the existence of the soul is using philosophical arguments

The case:

  • The law of identity says that if A = B’ if A and B have the exact same properties
  • If A = the mind and B = the brain, then is A identical to B?
  • Wallace will present 6 arguments to show that A is not identical to B because they have different properties

Not everyone of the arguments below might make sense to you, but you will probably find one or two that strike you as correct. Some of the points are more illustrative than persuasive, like #2. However, I do find #3, #5 and #6 persuasive.

1) First-person access to mental properties

  • Thought experiment: Imagine your dream car, and picture it clearly in your mind
  • If we invited an artist to come and sketch out your dream car, then we could see your dream car’s shape on paper
  • This concept of your dream car is not something that people can see by looking at your brain structure
  • Physical properties can be physically accessed, but the properties of your dream care and privately accessed

2) Our experience of consciousness implies that we are not our bodies

  • Common sense notion of personhood is that we own our bodies, but we are not our bodies

3) Persistent self-identity through time

  • Thought experiment: replacing a new car with an old car one piece at a time
  • When you change even the smallest part of a physical object, it changes the identity of that object
  • Similarly, your body is undergoing changes constantly over time
  • Every cell in your body is different from the body you had 10 years ago
  • Even your brain cells undergo changes (see this from New Scientist – WK)
  • If you are the same person you were 10 years ago, then you are not your physical body

4) Mental properties cannot be measured like physical objects

  • Physical objects can be measured (e.g. – use physical measurements to measure weight, size, etc.)
  • Mental properties cannot be measured

5) Intentionality or About-ness

  • Mental entities can refer to realities that are physical, something outside of themselves
  • A tree is not about anything, it just is a physical object
  • But you can have thoughts about the tree out there in the garden that needs water

6) Free will and personal responsibility

  • If humans are purely physical, then all our actions are determined by sensory inputs and genetic programming
  • Biological determinism is not compatible with free will, and free will is required for personal responsibility
  • Our experience of moral choices and moral responsibility requires free will, and free will requires minds/souls

He spends the last 10 minutes of the podcast responding to naturalistic objections to the mind/soul hypothesis.

*Now in the podcast, Wallace does say that scientific evidence is not the best kind of evidence to use when discussing this issue of body/soul and mind/brain. But I did blog before about two pieces of evidence that I think are relevant to this discussion: corroborated near-death experiences and mental effort.

You might remember that Dr. Craig brought up the issue of substance dualism, and the argument from intentionality (“aboutness”), in his debate with the naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, so this argument about dualism is battle-ready. You can add it to your list of arguments for Christian theism along with all the other arguments like the Big Bang, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, stellar habitability, galactic habitability, irreducible complexity, molecular machines, the Cambrian explosion, the moral argument, the resurrection, biological convergence, and so on.

William Lane Craig debates Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God

This is one of the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has done in my opinion. (The other three are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates).

Sinnott-Armstrong is very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics. So if you are looking for a good first debate to watch, this is it!

The MP3 file is here.

There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church, this is the one to start with.

The debaters:

The format:

  • WSA: 15 minutes
  • WLC: 15 minutes
  • Debaters discussion: 6 minutes
  • Moderated discussion: 10 minutes
  • Audience Q&A: 18 minutes
  • WSA: 5 minutes
  • WLC: 5 minutes

SUMMARY:

WSA opening speech:

Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)

God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)

He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically

Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God

His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument

Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines

The inductive argument from evil:

  1.  If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  2.  There is evil in the world.
  3.  Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.

Defining terms:

  • Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
  • Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling

God could prevent tooth decay with no pain

God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer

Responses by Christians:

  • Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
  • Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
  • Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
  • Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
  • Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
  • God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
  • We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
  • Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good

WLC opening speech:

Summarizing Walter’s argument

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.

Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.

The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.

Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.

  1. the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
  2. Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
  3. Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous

Christian doctrines from 2.:

  • The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
  • Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
  • For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives

Arguing for God in 3.

  1. If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
  2. God exists
  3. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Four reasons to think that God exists (premise 2 from above):

  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the fine-tuning argument
  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil

Does God’s omniscience conflict with human free will?

Here’s the setup for the question, from Come Reason ministries.

Excerpt:

Hello,

Christian doctrine holds that God is all knowing (1 John 3:20), and humans have free will (Deuteronomy 30:19 is my favorite example). however, at my favorite apologetics debate board, I have seen skeptics raise an objection to these points several times. the basic logic behind their arguments is this:

  1. A being with free will, given two options A and B, can freely choose between A and B.
  2. God is omniscient (all-knowing).
  3. God knows I will choose A.
  4. God cannot be wrong, since an omniscient being cannot have false knowledge.
  5. From 3 and 4, I will choose A and cannot choose B.
  6. From 1 and 5, omniscience and free will cannot co-exist.

I have read many counter-arguments from apologetics sites, but they were either too technical (I couldn’t understand them), or not satisfying. so, I was wondering what would your input be on this issue?

Thank you,

Justin

Ever heard that one? I actually had that one posed to me by a guy I used to work with who had a Ph.D in computer science from Northwestern. So this is an objection you may actually here.

Here’s Lenny Eposito’s answer:

Hi Justin,

Thanks for writing. This is a great question as it shows how even those who appeal to logic can have biases that blind them. Let’s examine this argument and see if it follows logically.

Premises 1 and 2 in your outline above are the main premises to the argument and are not disputed. The Christian worldview argues that every human being is a free moral agent and is capable of making choices simply by exercising their will, not under compulsion or because of instinct. Also, it is a long held doctrine of Christianity that God is all-knowing. The Bible says that God knows “the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).” For omniscience to be truly knowledgeable it must be correct knowledge, so premise number 4 is also granted.

However, point number 5 is where the logic falters. Those who argue in this manner make the mistake of thinking that because God possesses knowledge about a specific matter, then he has influenced it. That does not follow at all. Just because God can foresee which choice you will make, it does not mean you couldn’t still freely choose the other option.

Let me give you an example. I have a five year old son. If I were to leave a chocolate chip cookie on the table about a hour before dinner time and my son was to walk by and see it, I know that he would pick up the cookie and eat it. I did not force him to make that decision. In fact, I don’t even have to be in the room at all. I think I know my son well enough, though, to tell you that if I come back into the kitchen the cookie will be gone. His act was made completely free of my influence, but I knew what his actions would be.

In examining the argument, the assumption is made in premise 3 that because God knows I will choose A somehow denies me the choice of B. That is the premise that Christianity rejects. Omniscience and free will are not incompatible and it is a non-sequitor to claim otherwise.

Thank you Justin for this interesting question. I pray that you will continue to defend the gospel of our Lord and may He continue to bless you as you seek to grow in Him.

That’s a great answer and should work in ordinary conversations.

More technical

J.W. Wartick maps out the arguments more fully with symbolic logic here on his Always Have A Reason blog. But I’ll just excerpt the gist of it.

Excerpt:

It is necessarily true that if God knows x will happen, then x will happen. But then if one takes these terms, God knowing x will happen only means that x will happen, not that x will happen necessarily. Certainly, God’s foreknowledge of an event means that that event will happen, but it does not mean that the event could not have happened otherwise. If an event happens necessarily, that means the event could not have happened otherwise, but God’s foreknowledge of an event doesn’t somehow transfer necessity to the event, it only means that the event will happen. It could have been otherwise, in which case, God’s knowledge would have been different.

[…]Perhaps I could take an example. Let’s say that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow (and I do hope I will, I don’t like missing classes!). God knows in advance that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow. His knowledge of this event means that it will happen, but it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t choose to stay in and sleep for a while, or play my new copy of Final Fantasy XIII, or do something more useless with my time. If I chose to, say, play Final Fantasy XIII (a strong temptation!), then God simply would have known that I would play FFXIII. His knowledge does not determine the outcome, His knowledge is simply of the outcome.

If we choose A, God would foreknow A. If we choose B, God would foreknow B. His foreknowledge of our choices is contingent on our making free choices.