Is Free Will an Illusion? Part 1 – The Origins of Free-Will Denial

Investigating what set the stage for free-will denial

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I heard about an add in a newspaper which read: “Free help for the illiterate. Write for details.” followed by the address where the illiterate were supposed to write to. The situation is similar here. The title of this blog might be instead “Good news for those deprived of free will. Read on for more details.” But this blog cannot possibly change anybody’s mind if the reader does not have free will. Life would then be a strictly scripted play and no change from the script would be allowed.

While the vast majority of people believe in free will, there are some which don’t. As one could expect, they are materialists. They believe everything is reducible to matter and, given the insurmountable problem of getting fee will out of matter, they decide that we don’t actually have free will. An example is Sam Harris who, in his book Free Willcalls free will an “illusion.” Sam Harris is one of the “four horsemen” of new atheism along with Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

Harris claims’ are not new. This point was made by behaviorists, for example by J.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity back in 1971. Skinner derides the illusion of free will or “autonomous man,” as he calls it. He says “What is being abolished is autonomous man—the inner man, the homonuculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity.”

However, the rejection of free will is a modern phenomenon. You would think that this tendency simply outgrew from scientific progress made by neuroscience and other fields such as behaviorism. However, I suggest that these are not enough to explain it. There were two ideological developments of modernism that laid the groundwork for free-will denial. One is indeed related to science. More exactly it’s related to a reductionist and materialist view of science or scientism. It started with logical positivism early in the last century.

Science, however, does not require scientism. Understanding how things work does not require in anyway that everything is reducible to that understanding. Newton, for example, who is often considered the greatest physicist of all time did not think that physics is incompatible with metaphysics. He saw the hand of God beyond the reach of science, especially as it pertains to origins. As a matter of fact he wrote more on theology than he wrote on science. Another example is Einstein who exalts the mysterious, the impenetrable—that which is beyond our limited knowledge of science. He says1:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science… To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

In this sense, Einstein say, he is “deeply religious.” While he did not believe in a personal God, he believed in Spinoza’s God who “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” To him, getting to know this harmony did not exclude a mind behind it. On the contrary, it revealed “the mind of God” as he famously said “I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.”

Besides this reductionist view of science, a second factor that contributed to the advance of free-will denial is related to humanism. The “forward thinking” and “progress” that was touted (aka, departure from traditional views) proclaimed that humans are essentially good. This, along with dethroning God, was simply a side effect of exalting humans. This implied saving humans from the “fearful grip of religion” and liberating them from the guilt that came with it. In 1972, one years after Skinner wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Karl Menninger, reknown psychiatrist and a founder of the world famous Menninger center of psychiatry, wrote Whatever Became of Sin?—a book that is even more timely now than when it was written. A point made in it is that the word sin “has almost disappeared from our vocabulary, but the sense of guilt remains in our hearts and minds.” But many humanists continued to push hard the “humanist progress” and to remove this sense of guilt and responsibility as well. From “the devil made me do it” to “the environment made me do it,” or “the genes made me do it,” human responsibility has been constantly eroded and people have been declared free of guilt. Therefore the problem is no longer with the person in question but rather with external factors2 which the person doesn’t have control over. These external factors are meant to explain one’s actions and behavior and, along with that, to release one from guilt. Those external factors are now to blame. Bad, guilty humans are incompatible with the positive outlook that humanists have on humans. Thus, instead of raising responsible people, the humanists are inevitably raising victims. Indeed, I-am-a-victim thinking and culture is so prevalent today and it came at the cost of personal responsibility. More and more, the attitude is now: “You cant’ blame me. I’m the victim here—victim of my genes, my environment, my upbringing, and a plethora of other external factors. I have no fault in all this.” This attitude is simple a forerunner of the position that humans have no free will. While the latter may seem radical it’s only a few steps further down the same path of “humanistic progress.”

The two factors go hand in hand. The more science explained why one acted the way it did, the more excuses one has for acting the way one did. Both of them are a drastic departure from the Judeo-Christian worldview which lays at the foundation of the Western culture3 and even especially of the US4. It is in this context that free-will denial arose. And, indeed the assumptions that characterizes these factors (such as scientific reductionism) are required prerequisites of free-will denial. It is only on their foundation that free-will denial begins to make sense. The free-will denier must assume that everything is reducible to science, to the how-things-work description of science. The denier must also assume that the external factors effectively cause and determine one’s actions and behavior and thus, fail to establish responsibility.

In the second part, I’ll discuss the arguments for and against free will.

Footnotes:

1

On the same note Einstein says:

I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

2

While one may say that genes are not an external factor, their make up is indeed determined by external factors such as parents, environment and natural selection.

4

Even Huffington Post admits: “The United States was founded primarily as a result of people wanting freedom of worship and fairness in government. There is no question that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.”

“I Offered a Prayer to God”

An insightful prayer by an unknown author.

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I asked for strength.
God gave me difficulties to make me strong.

I asked for wisdom.
God gave me problems to solve.

I asked for prosperity.
God gave me brawn and brain to work.

I asked for courage.
God gave me dangers to overcome.

I asked for patience.
God placed me in situations where I was forced to wait.

I asked for love.
God gave me troubled people to help.

I asked for favors.
God gave me opportunities.

I received nothing I wanted.
I received everything I needed.

                     — Unknown

If you liked the prayer, here’s another one: And God said “NO”.

17 Fossil Objections to Evolution

It is often thought that fossils support evolution. However, many things about fossils don’t support it.

One of the required homework my daughter, who is in public kindergarten, got recently was a booklet called Where Animals Live. After giving examples of several animals and where they live, the book ends with a page (see the image on the side) which tells the reader where Mandy and Michael live. “What does where people live have to do with where animals live?”, one may wonder. Well, the book explains that right away: “People are animals too.”

I love science. I loved it ever since I learned about it. While it didn’t become a career, it became a hobby and I did a lot of reading and research. I’m also interested in the intersection between science and religion and I’ve presented on the topic of evolution at two science-and-religion conferences (one of the abstracts being published in the CRSQ Journal). I may end up alternating productivity posts with science (and religion) posts. The blog below is partly based on the email I wrote to my daughter’s teacher and the school’s principal.

There are many strong arguments for evolution. The question is not whether or not it works but rather where it stops working. The theory of evolution (TOE), or neo-Darwinism, claims that every single feature of biology (apart for the origin of life itself) is the result of evolution. That is, everything evolved from a single, common ancestor. But there are many very good reasons why that’s not the case. Here I’ll just shortly list the fossil related objections to evolution.

  1. Fossils. Fossilization is an very unusual event. It happens under very special conditions. Primarily, a creature needs to be quickly covered by sediments or mud, before it’s destroyed by scavengers or decay.1, 2 But such events are catastrophic. They happen quickly. This doesn’t align with the slow, gradual processes of evolution but rather with a catastrophic event such as Noah’s Flood. Furthermore, when most fish die, they float and then get scavenged and decomposed. They shouldn’t get fossilized unless there was some catastrophic, fast burial event.
  2. Soft parts fossils. Not just fossils but there are many soft parts fossils, such as jellyfish or bees. “Despite the rarity, there are hundreds of fossil sites worldwide where soft tissue parts are preserved.”3 Ironically, Darwin predicted that “No organism wholly soft can be preserved.”4. It turns out that they do but under very special circumstances. “Such exquisite preservation require specific environmental conditions, such as anoxic (little or no oxygen) mud and sediment that inhibits bacterial decomposition processes for enough time for mineral exchange, precipitation, and other chemical processes to form casts and films of delicate softer body parts.”5 Such preservation “with soft parts intact [and] often with food still in their guts” and “even raindrop imprints and ripple marks have been found preserved”.6 Such conditions, again, would exist during a major flood with burial and lithification happening extremely quickly not over long ages.
  3. Soft, flexible/stretchy and pliable tissue in dinosaur bones which, according to experts in fossilization, could have not possibly lasted tens of millions of years.7
  4. Not only that original, non-mineralized, proteins were found but also data “support[ing] preservation of multiple proteins and to present multiple lines of evidence for material consistent with DNA in dinosaurs“.8 (my emphasis). However, rigorous studies of DNA decay indicate that it has a half-life of 521 years. That puts an upper limit of 10,000 for DNA.9 Therefore such findings of soft tissue and DNA are at odds with TOE’s time-line.
  5. Out-of-sequence fossils, for example, evidence of flowering plants or bees many millions of years before there were any flowering plants were supposed to exist.10
  6. Fossils caught in the act of eating their prey11 (I even saw a case of one eating another while eating a third) or in the act of giving birth12 or mating13. All these must have been fossilized very rapidly. They don’t last like that for millions of years to fossilize. They can only happen in catastrophic events such as Noah’s flood.
  7. Many polystrate fossils, for example trees fossilized vertically across multiple layers of rock that is claimed to have taken millions of years to deposit. Well, trees just don’t remain vertical for millions of years. Some are even vertical but upside down which again is unexplainable within TOE (but an effect that has been observed in case of major floods). A similar objection to evolutionary long ages is raised by an 80 foot long whale fossil found as though sitting on it’s tale at right angle.14 Further, it was found in diatomite which, it is claimed, “buil[ds] up slowly over millions of years as diatom skeletons slowly settle out on the ocean floor.” Further, since the “fossilised skeleton was found essentially intact, the bones not disarticulated, the whale died and was entombed whole.” Even if the whale died horizontally and the rock was then very much tilted the problem is that a dead whale doesn’t remain articulated for long ages. The ligaments decay quickly and then the bones collapse and are dispersed by the currents. But the flippers, for example, were found articulated, one with the end of the flipper lower than the body and one higher. If they were disarticulated they would have fallen down to the ground. But they didn’t. The only plausible explanation was that the whale was buried quickly under catastrophic conditions before it had time to disarticulate. But this casts doubts on the slow rates of sedimentation and whether they hold for catastrophic conditions.
  8. Often fossils are found together in huge graveyards. There are many fossil shales and Lagerstätte around the world, many with “near perfect fossilization”15 and “exquisite preservation.”16 This is totally unexpected given TOE. Why would why so many different species die together in the same graveyard? However, it makes perfect sense given Noah’s flood.
  9. Not only that fossils are often in huge graveyards but these graveyards contain mixture of creatures living in incompatible environments and climates. Often sea and land animals and saltwater and fresh fish are mixed together. For example, at the Green River Formation of Wyoming, the fossils include deep water fish, crustaceans, mollusks along with birds, mammals, insects and palm trees.17 Or, at Fossil Bluff in Tasmania, thousands of marine creatures, including corals and clams and a whale were buried together with a marsupial possum.17 Or Caves and fissures on the Cote d’Azur have mammals such as rhinos along with whales.18 The Cretaceous Santana Formation in Brazil includes clams, sharks and pterodactyles (flying reptiles or pterosaurs).6 Numerous crevices on the Rock of Gibraltar include many various mammals (from wolf and rabbit to panther and rhino) and marine shells and corals. Or at Mont San Giorgio there are terrestrial reptiles among marine reptiles and fish.6 The same at the Triassic Cow Brand Formation in Virginia which includes terrestrial, fresh water and salt water plants, insects and reptiles.6 There are also multiple places in Britain and Eire. But such mixture of disparate fossils doesn’t make any sense unless there was a catastrophic event that brought all these disparate fossils together in one graveyard.
  10. Rapid fossils. There are examples today where fossilization happens very quickly under the right conditions, no millions of years required.19
  11. Consistent exquisite level of preservation on large scale fossil graveyards. Exquisite level of preservation requires catastrophic events (such as quick burial). But such “exquisite preservation” extends to very large fossil graveyards16 which is what the term Lagerstätte refers to.5 Some large bone beds include Ordovician Soom Shale in South Africa which stretches over thousands of square kilometers and the Devonian Thunder Bay Limestone formation in Michigan stretches many hundreds of miles, containing billions of fossils catastrophically buried. Such large bone beds requires not only that there was a catastrophic event but that it was of very large proportions.
  12. Missing links.
  13. Mosaic Fossils.
  14. Living fossils.
  15. Opisthotonus of fossils.
  16. The Cambrian Explosion.
  17. The earliest fossils are too early.

I will discuss the last 6 points in future blogs. Besides fossil-related objections to evolution, there are many other (some, IMHO, much stronger) objections and I will discuss some in future blogs as well.

Note: This was updated and expanded on 11/26/2017.

Footnotes:

‘And God said “NO”…’

Profound prayer-poem by an unknown author

girl-15599_640Here’s a the full prayer-poem from which I quoted in the previous blog (The Prayer that Changes Hearts). The author is unknown but the content is profound.


I asked God to take away my pride, and God said “NO”.
He said it was not for Him to take away, but for me to give up.

I asked God to make my handicapped child whole, and God said “NO”.
He said her spirit is whole, her body is only temporary.

I asked God to grant me patience, and God said “NO”.
He said that patience is a by-product of tribulation,
it isn’t granted, it’s earned.

I asked God to give me happiness, and God said “NO”.
He said He gives blessings, happiness is up to me.

I asked God to spare me pain, and God said “NO”.
He said suffering draws you apart from worldly cares
and brings yo closer to me.

I asked God to make my spirit grow, and He said “NO”.
He said I must grow on my own, but He will prune me to make me fruitful.

I asked God to help me love others as much as He loves me,
And God said “Ah, finally you have the idea”!

The Prayer that Changes Hearts

Prayer does make a difference. But it’s not as much that God answers our prayers to change us but rather that He uses our prayers to change us.

StockSnap_O3WNR5BS7AThe question I asked in the previous post was how can we tilt the “how can we tilt the balance in this tug-of-war” that’s going on in our human nature (described in an earlier post). If you believe in God like I do, you may mention prayer and God’s help. Many think that prayer connects you to God’s supernatural power. Yes, it’s true but more than that prayer connects God to your failing, broken will power. More than you achieving something (that you pray for) through God it is God achieving something (character, the fruit of the Holy Spirit – Gal. 5:22-23) in you. In God’s eyes the latter is often more important than the former.

God has many good reasons not to display his supernatural power directly (and indeed most don’t claim to see direct miracles left and right). That’s outside the scope of this post but I will illustrate one reason that pertains to our topic. There are things that my two kids (a 3 and a 5 year old) find hard to do but instead of helping them I sometimes have them do those things themselves. Why? It’s because that’s how they learn. That’s how they become stronger and more skilled. The hard way is the best teacher. But God has in mind for us things much more important than what I have for my kids. God doesn’t want the answer to our prayers to be just a solution but rather a character builder. That’s particularly true when the solution has to do with our character and mindset as it’s the case with achieving our goals. Character is more than a solution or some means. It’s the end goal God has for you. It defines who you are. And it has a proper name: Jesus (Phil. 2:5; 3:10; Col. 1:27; Gal. 2:20).

Therefore there are some things God does for you and some things that you need to do for yourself. The saying “God helps those who help themselves” is often used to mean that you only have to rely on yourself. While helping yourself helps, for some goals that’s not enough. I either know or heard of many addicts who could just not help themselves. But some of them did their part in asking God for help and God and did the rest. The same is true for people who couldn’t forgive our couldn’t humble themselves.

Just as God has a part (like in the examples above), you, as a Christian, have a part as well and it includes prayer. James says: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8 ESV). Jesus says: “Abide in me, and I in you.” (John 15:4, 7). A few verses later “If you keep My commandments…” (v. 10, 14). In other words, if you do your part I will do Mine. Jesus died for all but not all people are saved. On the contrary, Jesus says that “broad is the road that leads to destruction” (Matt. 7:13). People need to believe (John 3:16) and belief is, in a way, like prayer. God doesn’t take over our free will. He takes us through a process of learning so that, in the end, we freely submit it to God. This happens when we come to the realization that He knows better, He sees farther and He loves more.

In conclusion, yes, praying to change indeed tips the tug-of-war that’s going on in our human nature in favor of mind and long term goals over body and instant gratification. But it’s not as much that God answers our prayers to change us but rather that He uses our prayers to change us. Soren Kierkegaard said that “prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” The best prayer is not the prayer that changes things because, after all, they are just things. The best prayer is the one that changes hearts because, after all, they are more precious than all the things in the world (Mark 8:36). In the next post we’ll see how prayer works and how this change happens. I’ll end with an anonymous prayer, And God Said “No”, which includes the following verses:

I asked God to take away my pride,

And God said “No”

He said it was not for him to take away

But for me to give up

I asked God to grant me patience,

And God said “No”.

He said that patience is a byproduct of tribulation,

It isn’t granted, it is earned.

Why We Fail: The Immediacy Principle

Why do we fail at achieving our long term goals? Why is our internal conflict by our immediate gratification, bodily interests? The immediacy principle is your answer.

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We saw in the first post that, indeed, we often fail to achieve our goals. We saw in the second post that one reason for our failure is our internal conflict. We also saw there that the conflict is often between the mind (what we know we should do, usually pertaining to the long term) and the body (what we feel like doing now). A simple example is knowing that I need to be eat healthy or else I’ll regret it in the long run on one hand and the urge to go to the refrigerator to get the ice cream I just saw in an a TV commercial on the other.

It’s not just that there is an internal conflict but, worse, the short term and immediate goals have the upper hand. There is a lot more failure when it comes to long term goals. As mentioned in the first post, only 8% of people achieve their New Year resolutions. Even those who do accomplish their long term goals, they usually have to work hard at it. But for instant gratification you don’t even need to set it as a goal—it happens naturally. Why is that? The answer lies in the immediacy principle: the more immediate something is, the more motivational power it has. The more distant in time it is, the more distant it feels and less motivational power it has. Going back to the example above, when I see the ice cream commercial it is immediate, it’s right in my face. The reactions triggered by the sight of the ice cream are also immediate. They are present. They are right there. I can feel them. They are not a choice but an automatic reaction of the body to an outside stimulus. I don’t intend or decide to feel hungry or to have an urge for ice cream. On the other hand, the reaction of the mind (such as “No, thanks. My goal is to eat healthy this year and I’m sticking to it!”) is not automatic. It relies on me in order to happen. I need to remind myself my goal and I need to decide to act accordingly (and sometimes even that is not enough). I need to be intentional and purposeful. In other words, minds’ long term goals have more points of failure than body’s instant gratification. The body reminds me automatically that I have ice cream in the refrigerator. The mind doesn’t automatically remind me about my set goal and even if it does, I may decide not to honor my goal. By default, my weight loss goal is something distant in my mind, something that I decided a long time ago which somehow doesn’t have relevant to the present time. My goal is not the here-and-now kind of thing that my ice cream urge is. This makes instant gratification much easier and much more likely to happen.

People say “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Why? It’s precisely because people do that. Seeing the cover is immediate. It’s easy just as putting someone in a stereotype. But getting to know a book or someone is harder. It takes more time and more effort. Of course, it’s also much more accurate which is exactly why people bring up the saying. The same principle is expressed in the Bible. When God sent Samuel to anoint a new king and he saw David’s older brother he thought “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” The Bible continues “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.'” (1 Sam. 16:6-7 ESV). God’s chosen one was David, the youngest in the family, who was not even invited and was out taking care of the sheep.

This bring us to the question for the next post: how can we tilt the balance in this tug-of-war? How can we give an advantage to the mind over the body, to the long term goals over instant gratification? Please feel free to comment.

Why We Fail: The Internal Conflict

Why do we keep failing at accomplishing our most important goals? One reason is a universal internal conflict which characterizes the human nature.

StockSnap_M5791YB6J9We now follow up on the question from the previous post: why do we fail at achieving our goals?

The first problem is that we don’t want just one thing. We want many things, including ones which are in conflict with each other. We want achievement but we also want convenience. We want productivity but we also like laziness. We want increased quantity but also increased quality. We want to accomplish our long term goals but we also want instant gratification. But reaching our long term goals takes sacrificing our instant gratification and waiting patiently without seeing results for a long time. Accomplishments don’t come easy but, on the other hand, we like the easy way. We like shortcuts and cutting corners. We want to enjoy the end result but we want to avoid the pain of the hard process that brings about the result.

These conflicting motivations is the first answer to the question why we fail. In the Bible James says: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1 ESV) We have many passions and desires and they are often at war with each other within us. There is a universal internal conflict within the human nature. An example of conflict James gives is the fact that Christians love God but, at the same time they want to be “friends with the world” (James 4:4). A few verses later he calls such Christians “double-minded” (James 4:8). We all experience this double-mindedness, these conflicting interests not only in spiritual matters but also in our life in general. Failing at accomplishing our top goals often just means that we succeed at accomplishing the opposing and less significant interests we have.

Apostle Paul also makes this point. Sharing his experience in the quote from the previous post, he points out this dualism: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Rom. 7:22-23) He not only mentions the conflict but also gives the source of the conflict. There is the “law of my mind” in opposition to “the law … in my members.” Indeed, the conflict is between what our mind knows we should do and what the body wants to do. The failure comes doing what we want instead of doing what we know we should. Much of our conflict falls along this line. The mind pursues long term goals. The body pursues instant gratification. The mind appreciates working hard for what’s important. The body likes convenience and dislikes tiredness, effort and pain. The body cares about the tummy to be filled and other bodily passions and desires to be filled. The body tries to take over and define a fulfilled life as a worry-free life—one with enough resources (such as money) so that the bodily desires will never lack fulfillment. This would be a life in which one could do whatever he wants. The mind defines a fulfilled life as one with meaning and accomplishments—a life that makes a difference. Not a life in which one can do whatever one wants but a life in which one can do the very things one purposed to do: one’s top goals.

Paul makes this distinction and contrasts the “old self” with the “new self” (Eph. 4:22 vs. 4:24; Col. 3:9 vs. 3:10; Rom. 6:6) and the “flesh” with the “spirit.” He says:

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal. 5:17)

What keeps us from doing what we want to do, our most important goals? It’s the conflict within our hearts which becomes a battlefield of two opposing interests.

One may say that this conflict is not universal since people who are not born again don’t have the new self Paul is talking about. Yes, but they still have reason and conscience. They have the thought of eternity that God put in their hearts (Ecc. 3:11). In Rom. 8:16 Paul makes the distinction between the Holy Spirit and our spirit. Even without having the Holy Spirit one still has his own spirit and that is often in conflict with the body, the “flesh”. What reason and our conscience tells us that we should do often diverges from what the body demands us to do. This internal conflict is therefore universal.

In the next posts we’ll look at other answers to the question why we fail and we’ll also answer why we do the unreasonable and follow what the body wants instead of what the reason prescribes.