The Illusion of Free Will

Does Christianity hold its value without the presumption of free will? Does God have any right to reward or punish us on the quality of our soul if we hold no control over our actions? Does the appeal to Christianity ring true without one of its most essential precepts? Well, I think the most reasonable answer would be, no. According to Christianity, we as humans are judged by our actions (well, actually only one action, that being our belief, or lack there of, of Jesus, but this is beside the point) under God and subsequently placed in either Heaven or Hell, depending on God’s judgment. Yet if our brains have somehow tricked us, and each and every thought and deed we supposedly author is actually determined by the likes of nature, does Christianity and religion at large hold any value? I think not. And undoubtedly, this notion of free will – or more accurately, the lack there of – is appearing to become a scientific truth.

This proposition is probably not the most pleasant to most people, particularly to Christians. Additionally, it seems rather preposterous, let alone unpleasant, at first glance. No free will? We don’t control our behavior? Absurd! However, science has a way of continuously astonishing us with new developments – a trait religion can lay no claim to.

Studies have shown that through certain neurological testing, scientists can accurately predict a person’s actions before he does them, or even decides to do them. For example, participants in a study were hooked up to a brain scanner and asked to press a button whenever they felt the urge to do so. Remarkably, scientists were able to track their decisions even before they reached consciousness, by noting brain activity indicating that a certain action would be made. The observation of such activity came 7 seconds before the person actually decided to execute the decision. What this study as well as others conclude, is that each and every thought that arises in our consciousness is determined by our brains even prior to us having any knowledge of it at all.

Once one considers the actual lack of freedom he possesses over his behavior, several commonplace practices come into question. Two distinct aspects of society that warrant particular scrutiny, given this knowledge, are religion and the justice system. Our whole perspective on justice changes when one considers that each person is merely a victim of his biological assets. In short, consequences for lawbreakers become focused more on the actual threat that the criminal poses to society – not the retribution we naturally think he deserves, out of the pervasive human impulse of revenge. Even more so than the justice system, however, religion – one of society’s oldest and most prominent cultural constructs – seems to be flipped on its head with the recognition of this concept. Given that the theory about humans’ lack of free will is true (which cannot be stated with 100% certainty at this point), Christians must believe that God bestowed evildoers with a faulty brain, rather than the mainstream idea that each person has a choice between good and evil. If this choice does not exist, however, then God, I would contend, has no right to punish us for our bad deeds. Of course, I am of the opinion that only a wicked god could send a person to Hell for merely doubting his existence anyway, but this is beside the point. What punishment is one truly worthy of if he has no control over his actions? I would suggest that the debunking of free will completely undermines the entire foundation of Christianity, given that its primary component is the CHOICE to accept Jesus Christ as savior.

To conclude, I will delve a bit further into this notion of no free will, which initially appears preposterous, given the choices humans appear to face daily. The theory is based on the idea that self-control is an illusion. Yes, we have consciousness, and yes, we seem to use it to make choices, but in reality, each thought that arises into consciousness is determined by prior neural activity – activity that we hold no control over. Therefore, say I would like to buy a cup of coffee. I have no idea where this desire came from – all I know is that it is there. This may seem uncontentious. However, once I recognize the desire for coffee, don’t I have the choice to either succumb to this desire or resist it? Isn’t this where the human faculty of reasoning is in full force? It would certainly seem this way. However, unbeknownst to our conscious selves, even these thoughts of self-reasoning are determined by conditions that are in no way in our capacity to control. I may end up deciding to buy the cup of coffee. I may end up resisting. However, regardless of the decision that is made, it is not my conscious self that has the power to choose. My conscious self is merely a medium between the natural functioning of my brain and my behavior.

Ostensibly, many will argue that the realization that humans have no actual power to choose will give rise to a frightening and destructive outbreak of nihilism. If there are no consequences, what is the motivation for one to resist any sort of temptation? What reason is there to do good? While it is certainly possible that this theory could be used as an excuse to bypass morality and live in senseless self-indulgence, it does not supersede the importance of morality and the ideas and feelings that make for a happy, functioning society. Just because we do not necessarily have the choice to do good does not detract from the fact that morality is critical to a healthy, enjoyable life. History has demonstrated that it undoubtedly is. And despite the knowledge of our powerlessness, the feeling that we are making choices will likely never cease. Therefore, the rejection of free will has somewhat limited, but certainly necessary, outcomes. Accepting that people do wrong because of conditions that our beyond their control can help us maximize the feeling of compassion, particularly for our enemies – a central precept of Jesus’ teachings. Furthermore, through this knowledge, we may learn to maximize the things that contribute to the happiness of our lives and those around us, and minimize the needless elements that only corrode our lives. Additionally, we are able to more rationally analyze what is best for society, rather than coming to conclusions based on the fixed, immutable principles of religion. When one abandons the rigid adherence to past principles, he can more effectively judge what will maximize human happiness in the long-term. I contend that no one would agree that recklessly harming others or blindly pursuing one’s self-interests is the best route for a healthy, happy individual or society. The notion that we lack far more control than we originally thought does not detract in any way from the benefits of being moral and compassionate. In fact, I believe that accepting this concept can only help humanity develop, as we grow in social and self understanding, and leave behind the concrete standards that we stick to only out of fear that abandoning them would coax the world into anarchy.

For a closer look at an actual study on free will, visit this url:


One response to “The Illusion of Free Will

  • MaryAnn McHugh

    Ironically, (it appears to me ) the universal truth is very simple. All that matters is that we are loving! And that is only possible if we look at the big picture(the why,s). I received this message from my Mom after she had passed. Love,Grams

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