Those who think free will is an illusion have failed to provide any convincing alternatives, writes Nicholas Turner

Last month, I suggested that the real battle with atheists is no longer over the existence of God – that went out a century ago – but over the existence of free will. When I say ‘the real battleground’ I mean the philosophical and theological struggle, not the political, sociological and moral disputes.

I also drew a contrast between the eighteenth century and now. Back then, the complacency was about God, for atheism had not yet established itself. Now the complacency is about free will. We know that it exists. With bluff simplicity we can quote the champion of common sense, Dr Johnson, ‘Sir we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.’

Misjudged complacency

Such complacency is foolish. If you look at the context of Dr Johnson’s famous saying, you will see it was spoken late at night, when his friends wanted to talk philosophy and he simply wanted to go to bed: it was a quick put-down because he was tired, not a profound metaphysical statement.

Ironically there is also complacency among the opposition. Lazy scientific conclusions about causation and determinism are evident right across the field, even in the most respectable, peer-reviewed, academic articles on free will. They know history is with them: the days of no-free-will are coming as sure as night follows day.

All the same, if the bien-pensants know of a certainty that free will is an illusion, they have yet to establish a widely accepted alternative. It is one thing to know that the traditionalists are wrong: if you are a liberal, this is true by definition. It is another thing altogether to propose a viable substitute. So far, nothing carries real conviction.

What are the candidates? There are three options, each outbidding the other in the ugliness of the terminology. They are worth consideration, if only to show how unsatisfactory are the alternatives to the (admittedly problematic) idea of free will.

Unsatisfactory substitutes

My favourite is Epiphenomenalism. It simply states that all our judgements, intentions, choices and decisions are no more than subjective impressions, with no effect whatsoever upon the world around us (including, of course, our own bodies).

Like dreams, all our thoughts are gloriously personal and completely inconsequential. I like this view, because it is sometimes true. If you have ever suffered the effects of extreme fever or drugs (say, after an operation), you can sense the awful irrelevance of all your thoughts and emotions.

The idea that the whole of one’s life is like these strange disembodied crises appeals to one’s adolescent fantasies. All life is a dream, from which we may one day awake.

No such thing as thought

A more robust alternative has the still uglier title of Eliminativism. Your thoughts are not the delightful bubbles on a river, carried along by forces over which they have no control. It is worse than this: they do not exist. There is no such thing as thought. ‘Folk psychology’ is the patronizing put-down for those who think they think.

All mental description is eliminated. Thoughts are not ‘correlated’ to neurological events in the brain; they are those neurological events in the brain. As one proponent puts it, ‘Electromagnetic waves don’t cause light; they’re not correlated with light; they are light. That’s what light is.’ Cut out, therefore, all talk of thoughts and intentions, and use only scientific statements about brain events. You laugh? Quite right too, but this laughable parody of human existence is growing in popularity and acceptance.

The most troubling option

And then there is a third option, clumsily entitled Voluntariness. This is not concerned with our mental life, whether it exists (against the Eliminativists) nor whether it can do anything (against the Epiphenomenalists).

It simply allows us the same freedom enjoyed by our pets, or all the other reasonably intelligent animals around us.

My dog wants to run across the field. If he is not hindered by his lead, nor cowed by my command, he is free to do so. He is free to do what he wants. And as I watch him running to pick up the stick I throw, I have every reason to suppose he is doing exactly what he wants. What is good enough for my dog is good enough for me.

It is this last option that is the most troubling to the Christian understanding, in part because it has been so vigorously championed by the Calvinists. Paul spoke of the will being bound, until liberated by Christ. Calvinists, however, go further and get perilously close to suggesting that there is no such thing as will, only intentions, appetites and desires. Which resurrects the old problem, ‘No free will, no sin.

No sin, no salvation.’ In the eighteenth century, their most pressing concern was to counter the inevitable suggestion that if I have no will that causes me to sin, then it must be God who is the author of my sin.

‘God forbid,’ as Paul would say. ND