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Do we really have Free Will?

The debate about Free Will

Free Will is something we take for granted. Let’s say you’re on a visit to a Sea Life centre and they’re looking for a volunteer to go into the shark tank. Up goes your hand – and you think that it was you who made this crazy decision. But there are reasons to challenge this notion that Free Will is something we all have and use every day.


Students’ Thoughts about Free will and Determinism

This topic is possibly one of the most challenging on the FaradaySchools website. Even so, Hussein and Rebecca from Langley Grammar School chose to research this area for a sixth-form project. Some of the notes they wrote during their research are presented further down this page. In the video, they describe what they thought of the topic.

Cause and Effect

Here is one issue which might lead you to wonder if free will is an illusion. You’ve heard of ’cause and effect’? Well, if the Universe is bound by rules of cause and effect, then surely the outcome of everything that happens is the inevitable result of something else that took place earlier. And if every result is inevitable, then surely we have no choice about what we do. We are, after all, biological systems. Our brains are simply doing what, biologically, they were always going to do – in each situation that arises. Watch the video below to find out how Philosopher, Professor Nancey Murphy, addresses this question.

An all-knowing God

There is another reason to wonder whether we should believe we have Free Will even though our impression is that it is a reality. Those who believe in God sometimes say that God knows ‘everything’. In other words, God is omniscient. But if God knows everything and this includes knowing what you are going to do next … before you decide what you are going to do … then surely you have no choice but to decide to do what God already knows you will do?

Free Will – is it just an Illusion?

By Rebecca and Hussein, Langley Grammar School Sixth Form

Determinism is the idea that every event is pre-determined by past decisions and events. If this is the case, then the lives of humans are determined before we even live them; “Free Will” does not exist and every action we take is decided before we make it. On the other hand if “Free Will” does exist then humans can choose how to act.

On a practical note

On a practical note, even if there are reasons to say we don’t have Free Will, surely we have to live our lives with the idea that we do. If society concluded that every mistake you make in life is not as a consequence of bad decisions but is something you cannot control, this would make the world very difficult to live in. For example criminals might simply plead determinism in court, as they could argue that their criminal acts were beyond their control. Those people already in prison would need to be freed, as their actions were “not their fault”.

Consider this Case Study

Suppose a man, Tim, is walking along a street and sees a family trapped in a burning house. He could do nothing or call the fire brigade, or try to help. Suppose Tim goes into the house and saves the family, does he deserve to be praised?

From Tim’s point of view, he had a choice whether to do nothing, call the fire brigade, or try to help; and he personally made the choice to help. However, if free will is just an illusion, he had no choice but to help. His action of saving the family was determined by his upbringing and the moral values his parents taught him (in this case, to help others); the way his parents raised him was in turn determined by their own upbringing, and so on. In this way, the fact that Tim would save the family was determined a very long time before he was born, so it had to happen.

Some determinists would go as far as saying the cause of every action goes infinitely back to the very beginning of the universe as every event since the creation of the universe has had a cause that led to this very action. When considering how Tim saved the family from this viewpoint, it seems almost asinine to claim he made that choice to save them, and so he does not deserve praise.

Adding Religion to the Picture

One reason many people are reluctant to accept determinism stems from the religious belief that God granted onto humans their free will and a conscience to aid them in making morally-correct decisions. However, determinism does not have to contradict religion, since God is regarded as the creator of the universe, omnipotent (all-powerful), and omniscient (all-knowing and all-seeing). It would therefore make perfect sense to say that God created the universe to be deterministic (as he is omnipotent), and God knows the ‘choices’ humans will make (as he is omniscient). Since God is omniscient, He knows the future of each person’s actions. If anything, this seems to strengthen the idea that free will is an illusion.

© 2011 LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion)