Sunday, August 25, 2013


In the initial post I said that becoming an agnostic was not a choice that I made.  Rather, it was a choice that occurred to me.  Let me try to explain what I meant by that.

First of all, by choice I mean free will.  I know that I spent entirely too much time my freshman year of college arguing with friends about free will versus determinism.  But I have to admit to fond memories of those nights spent sitting around dorm rooms interminably debating these things.  Each of us, I’m sure, felt that he had the better argument, but no one convinced anyone else and no one changed his mind--at least not at the time.  Sound familiar?  

By that point in my life, I always found myself arguing on the side of determinism or at least the denial of free will. 
That’s where we may differ.  Based on comments and reactions that I have received from family and friends, I may be the only person I know well who accepts that free will is an illusion.  

Just to step back a moment, you may ask what this has to do with skepticism.  And I will say that my denial of free will is fundamental to, or at least a basic consequence of, my worldview and is very much interwoven with my views on religion.  In that regard, I hope you will understand that my goal here is not to change your mind about free will but rather to help you understand how my views on free will are related to the other beliefs I hold, particularly concerning religion.  It might also give you a little insight into how I think in general.  I hope you will bear with me on this one.

So now I’m asking you to go back and revisit those arguments and ask yourself what your reasons were for supporting free will.  Was it because you had been taught that you were created by God with the freedom to choose?  Remember that I am not impressed by appeals to authority:   accepting the truth of something simply because a trusted authority--the Bible, religious leader, parent, teacher--proclaims it.  I don’t say that to be contrary or hurtful.  It is simply fundamental to my worldview that any assertion needs to be substantiated through observation, experimentation, and rational argument.  This is, if I might say it, the essence of skepticism.

Or does your belief in free will stem from the idea that God is just and merciful and that it would be unfair, even cruel, if He had created us without the freedom to choose, left to trudge through life in accordance with a plan, if you will, to an end that was ordained all along.  Frankly, if God were loving--or even if He were evil or capricious--wouldn’t He get bored with a humanity that was just acting out a pre-scripted play?  If I were God, I know that I would want to leave things open.  Otherwise, it would be like watching the replay of a baseball game when I already know the final score.  Again, without an acceptance of belief in God, this argument doesn’t have much appeal.  You might contend that a compelling need for freedom of choice supports belief in God.  If we had neither freedom of choice nor a personal God to turn to, life might just be too brutal.  To which my response would be that, unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.  More on this later.
Of course, there’s the counterargument that our actions are determined because God is omniscient.  Because He knows the end from the beginning, He foresees what we are going to do, and therefore, though we may have a compelling sense of freedom of choice, it is just an illusion.  I suppose you could say that, since God can do anything, He could deny Himself that knowledge, sort of like our avoiding hearing how a game turned out until we watched the replay on TV.  Or you could just say that God simply isn’t omniscient.  After all, I suppose we can conceive of God any way that we want.  It should be clear to you that for evident reasons these arguments against freedom of choice have never had much appeal for me.

At this point you may say that, by denying the existence of God, I am setting my own rules for this debate and that, since you accept God’s existence without equivocation, you don’t need any additional evidence for the existence of free will.  I hope I have not lost you over this one.  Remember that I am not trying to change your mind about free will (though I wouldn’t mind a convert here or there).  Rather, I am just trying to have you understand my worldview and how my point of view on religion has informed my beliefs on a number of other issues.  I am only asking that you put your beliefs aside just long enough to follow me on this brief journey.

The most prevalent arguments in favor of free will that are not based on appeals to authority or on our conception of God, seem to be based simply on observation, this powerful feeling we have that we are the master of the choices that we make.  I think you will agree that this sense of control can be compelling.  For example, you go to a restaurant and look over the menu.  After deliberating, you select an entree and something to drink, and you order them.  Throughout the process you have this powerful sense that you are in control, that you considered a number of options and voluntarily made the choices that you did.  But of course there are any number of observations that seem self-evident that you now realize are not how things really are:  The world is not flat; the sun does not go around the earth; powerful optical illusions abound; you enjoy getting fooled by sleight-of-hand artists, knowing that you shouldn’t believe your eyes.  I’m not saying that none of our observations can be relied upon.  I’m just saying that they need to be viewed with skepticism and a demand for corroboration.

The real culprit here, I think, is consciousness.  I’m willing to bet that you don’t feel the same way about all the other activities that the brain controls or otherwise regulates.  You don’t feel you are exercising free will over routine autonomic responses, such as your heart rate or digestive activities.  And that is because they are not part of your consciousness.  You can become aware of these activities but, except for breathing, it is a passive awareness.  You don’t have a sense that you can voluntarily control them.  It is those activities that are in our “active” consciousness that we feel we have control of, that is, free will over.  So most people who believe in free will would be willing to accept, I think, that it doesn’t apply to unconscious activities.  Perhaps it is not too much to say that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between conscious behavior and free will--we have free will over whatever behavior we are conscious of.

It would be foolish to deny the existence of consciousness.  It is totally private, but we all experience it.  I have a field of vision; I hear sounds and make sense of them; I can fantasize; I dream.  The question is, What does consciousness do?  And I have convinced myself that it, in fact, does nothing.  What I mean by that is that I believe all of our behavior is the result of the biochemical activity of our nervous system and that consciousness, whatever it is, is simply along for the ride.  The name for this is epiphenomenalism.  (You can look it up if you like.)  Not everyone whose secular views I generally admire goes along with the idea of epiphenomenalism.  But the idea is basic for me, if only to help me to reconcile the absence of choice with the existence of consciousness.  

OK, perhaps we have drifted pretty far from our main goal and have wound up in water deeper than I intended.  I hope you don’t mind.  At the risk of confusing you even more, let me extend this argument just a bit further.  (If you’re bored, just skip the next couple of paragraphs; I don’t want to lose you altogether.)  

Take a simple physical act such as making a fist.  The making of a fist is a direct result of the contraction of certain muscles in your forearm.  That contraction, in turn, is the result of electro-chemical activity occurring between the muscles and the nerves running to those muscles.  Those electro-chemical reactions, in turn, are the result of other neural activity (really just more electro-chemical activity) extending down those nerves.  Ultimately, this activity can be traced back to the brain.  Pretty much nobody disputes this cause-and-effect sequence up to this point.  It’s in the brain that things get complicated, for certain.  However, based on the laws of chemistry and physics, it would seem that there is an unbroken chain of events leading back--everything that happens is the result of the prior state of events.  To suppose that there is a point in the process where the individual imposes his will is to argue that the will is outside of the operation of the laws of nature; otherwise the successive states of events before, at, and following the point of such “intervention” would have been caused by prior events, and so on going back in time.  Arguing for the intervention of the will is equivalent to saying that the laws of chemistry and physics work all the time everywhere except inside the human brain and only then when there is consciousness accompanying that brain activity.  I don’t buy it.  In short, the laws of nature operate with the same inexorable effect inside your brain as they do outside.  After all, our brains are just made of matter (atoms, molecules), just like everything else.

I know that the concept of determinism has run into trouble with the development of quantum physics which, among other things, posits a fundamental indeterminacy in the physical world.  Particles don’t in practice have a definite location or velocity, and at some level there is a true randomness in how the physical world works.  (Whether this is in fact the actual state of the world or is just a convenient operating model has been the basis for perhaps the greatest scientific debate of the last hundred years.) This indeterminacy principle has been used as a weapon in the battle in favor of free will.  However, regardless of whether indeterminacy really exists, I don’t think it helps the free will crowd.  To say that the future is not completely determined is not the same as saying that an individual has the ability, through some agency that he controls (the will), to override the laws of nature and change the course of the future.  Quantum physics posits an indeterminacy that leaves the future “open,” whereas free will assumes a nonrandom intervention--quite the opposite.

Maybe because I just can’t help myself (and of course if you have followed me this far, you know that I believe that I can’t), let me offer you one final line of argument.  Most people who believe in free will in humans would probably admit that a “lower” organism, such as an amoeba or a bacterium, does not have free will.  Would you argue that a particular strain of influenza virus chooses of its own free will whether to attack a human?  Admittedly, the biochemical reactions are complex, but that is all that they are.  Then it is a question of where to draw the line.  Do oysters have free will?  What about the venus fly trap?  Or a spider?  A cat?  A dog?  A chimpanzee?  Do you see how the increase in the likelihood of consciousness correlates with the sense of increased likelihood of freedom of choice?

At this point you may be thinking that I’m one of “those guys.”  For most of my friends, arguing against free will is seen at best as being difficult or dense and at worst as being intentionally contrary or argumentative--disagreeing with something that is self-evident just for the sake of disagreement.  Maybe this is not something we should argue about--no one ever changes his mind anyway.  Does anyone even listen?  If this topic comes up, does anyone really listen openly to the other point of view or does everyone just spend his time outlining arguments in favor of his own position, waiting for an opportunity to make them?  Besides, as we age we tend to interpret everything that happens to us as confirming rather than casting doubt on our existing point of view.  (I’m as guilty as the next person in this regard, though I at least am aware of my limitations.)  So it becomes even that much less likely that any argument is going to change or even give nuance to that worldview.  So why am I even rehashing this old debate?  Because, as I said, my denial of free will is fundamental to my worldview, and if I am going to explain my personal journey, then this needs to be a part of that.  

All of this raises a number of interrelated issues of extreme importance to me:  First, if we live in a godless universe without freedom of choice, do our lives have any meaning?  Second, how do we conduct our lives in the face of such a state of affairs?  What rules should govern our behavior?  Third, given that we do not have freedom of choice, how do we assign responsibility for our actions?  I hope you will stick with me on this.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. Big have talked about free will and consciousness...acknowledging we are conscious, but without free will. Then you have to define conscious. Do you mean being awakened to an inner state of being, like Eckhart Tolle talks about it, or just responding and reacting to life as it happens? I think many react without thought or reason. But I think there is an awakening process and a level that is above the rest..some call it transcendence. What I do when I am not "awake" and what I do when I am in an awakened state are different. I know this is true. I become aware of my surroundings and act, instead of reacting...often in a negative way. When I am "awake" I respond more thoughtfully. It's hard to explain what I mean unless you have experienced it. I would say that until that level of awareness is reached we mostly act on impulse without free will. I actually think much of humanity lives that way. Freedom is only available to those who accept it. It's a gift. It's becoming one with life. It's a connection beyond the body or within the inner space of the body.Our bodies get old and decay, but this sense of being is the life that animates the form.The temple that houses this Oneness, but it isn't physical. It's the energy. Have you ever asked yourself, "why did I do that?" Who is asking that question? The real you is asking that question. It's the awareness behind the thoughts. What happens to us is never really the problem it's the thoughts that we have about events that cause anxiety and stress. We aren't what we think, we are the being behind those thoughts. Becoming aware and letting this level of consciousness flow into what you do brings a focus to the present, living now...we live only in this moment in time...which really means time is irrelevant... Much of suffering is the result of people reacting, they have allowed their fears to take over. Rather than facing the facts "I am ruined", which is a story verses "I have 50 cents in my pocket," which is a fact and lets you take effective action. This awareness allows for freedom, we are no longer controlled by the inner voice in our head. In Oneness there is no fear. Love casts out fear. This may not make any sense to you. It is just something I have grasps an understand of maybe 5 years ago...until then religion was just that...but now God is a Presence that when I practice this awareness, and sadly not often enough, has changed my life and given me freedom...

    1. OK, there's a lot going on in this comment.

      First, by consciousness I mean simply those things such as a visual field, dreams, an inner monologue, etc. It seems incontestable that consciousness exists. The question is whether it makes any difference, and i would argue that it does not.

      I read some Eckhart Tolle a few years ago and have to confess that I didn't get much out of what he said. I think it is because he tends to speak in abstractions that are susceptible of multiple interpretations and are not necessarily grounded in traditional science. I just didn't get what he was saying, frankly, even though I tried.

      I, of course, do not believe in freedom of choice. That is the point of this post, and I am hoping that my language is clear enough at least to provide an understanding of my rationale for that point of view. I have to confess that I simply don't know what you meant by the statement, "Freedom is only available to those who accept it."

  2. Freedom is's a choice, an acceptance of the gift. We, I believe, are all slaves to the dictates of sin, evil, consequences, whatever you want to call it. Even if we live good lives, we are still affected by what is all around us. Death being the worst, and all else leading to death...disease, accidents, crime, lies, deceptions, are the fate you accept, the outcome of existence. I reject that.

    In John 10:10 Jesus says, "the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but I come that you may have life and have it more abundantly." At the end of that chapter He says to the leaders of his day, "I do the works of my Father, so if you don't believe me, believe my works." ( not exact quotes, but close) I find that as I look at the life of Jesus there isn't a being more loving and giving and kind to the point of being willing to die and forgiving those who killed Him in the process. This is what we were meant to be, filled with that be restored back to this condition is possible through His love which by letting that inner space be filled with His Spirit...the I am...I am transformed into newness of life. I don't know how to explain it better.

    I think that Tolle sees this as a escape from the ego which is always trying to insure the it is first and tries to control everything by thoughts, worrying what will come creating fear and desire to protect self. Self preservation, extend existence is the passion of the world. Give the world a pill to stay young and people would sell everything to own it. We live in a world of materialism wanting more and never being satisfied and always looks for the next high. It controls the collective mind. I rarely watch Mtv awards but I did some Sunday...where has sanity gone in this generation?

    How many lives are lost to abortions ... for the helpless and poor life is valueless to the world. I hope there is more than meets the eye here on earth. Jesus said when we walk in darkness it is because the Light is not in Him...John 11:10 And He proclaimed Himself the Light of the World.

    11 Corinthians 4...We won't lose heart, we walk in truth, and commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our Gospel is veiled it is veiled ( not understood) to those who are perishing. v4) In that case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the Gospel of the Glory (love) of God....for God said Light shall shine out of darkness, is the One who has shone in our heart to give light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus. We have this treasure in earthly vessels (our bodies) that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not ourselves."
    And because that is my conviction I believe in Life understanding that freedom is hard to grasp for those without that belief. Sorry about quoting the Bible...not proof as you understand it, but to me it points to the truth which is Jesus.

    1. Lisa, I just am not clear what your first paragraph means. Are you saying that you can choose freedom and if you do then you can avoid disease, accidents, crime, lies, deceptions, and death? Clearly that cannot be correct. We are all subject to those things whether we claim freedom or not.

      In the second paragraph you quote Christ. I'm not sure how this relates to the question of whether we have freedom of choice. In all honesty . . . and this is going to be very difficult, because it goes to the very heart of the Christian faith . . . the idea of Christ's sacrifice by dying on the cross to save mankind simply doesn't make any sense to me. It's one thing for a father to take on a more difficult job to better provide for his family. That's a rational choice, a calculated risk, and a recognition of his love for his family. But Christ dying on the cross to save mankind does not have that sort of obvious logic. There was no necessity for God to set up such a scenario and there is no logical causal relationship between a man dying and the salvation of mankind. If you choose to respond to this please do not do so simply by stating that it was done out of love or was the greatest sacrifice, etc. That is the sort of response I usually get and it just makes me more frustrated because it is not really an answer at all. I am looking for a rationale for God choosing this particular "test." I am sure you are aware that most of the world (that is, the nonChristian world) is as puzzled by this belief as I am. If one came upon this story without any preconceptions, that is as a nonChristian, it would seem much more rational to believe that this was an interpretation created by the followers after Christ's death to justify their faith in him. I would direct you to a book by Leon Festinger, When Prophesy Fails, which covers this sort of phenomenon from a psychological point of view.

      Lisa, could you explain how your comments about abortion relate to the question of whether we have freedom of choice? I do not see the connection.

      In your penultimate paragraph you quote scripture as evidence in support of freedom of choice, although, to be honest, I do not see how the verses you quote support the idea of freedom. But more importantly, in other comments you have expressed doubt that all scripture is inerrant. So how does one know which sections of the Bible are true and others simply the product of men and therefore not to be relied on? Is it a question of which coincide with your point of view? I guess I am asking for your direct response to this question also.

      I'm enjoying our dialogue. I would only ask that you respond to my questions. Thanks.


  3. No I don't mean that I can avoid the chaos of this world, but I can live above it. Accept that I am frail and dying and understand why I am this way and yet with the trust and promise that there is more. And yet live each day in the now, being free to act in love rather than in fear. We are certainly living under the terms of an enemy. It's like the government of a given country...we must respect those arbitrary rules that are imposed on us. Like Jesus said render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are His. All we can give God is me...I make that choice because His kingdom makes sense because it's based on His character of love, and begin acting in love towards others as He does. Nothing else makes is the moment of awakening, when a person is set free.
    It's like a prisoner of war...the walls may contain the body, but the mind is free to wander. It's hope, based on knowledge and trust that they will come for me and will set me free.

    Jesus said he came to set us free, he broke the hold of evil with His death because He knew no evil. He lived above evil. He lived doing the will of God because He knew beyond the shadow of a doubt this was the way to live in peace and happiness and He never used the methods of this world. His death was at the hands of evil (not the hand of appeasement necessary) broke the hold of death. He was the key that unlocked Death door. Death came about as a result of being separated from God. Death had no hold on Him. He never bought into satan's temptations to put self above others, remember the lies Eve shall not die, and you will be like God. But was soon as she fell for those lies she lost peace and truth and gained fear...survival of the fittest mentality began here.

    So desiring to be like Him I open my being to this Godly influence. Not because of fear of punishment for not obeying a set of rules, but understanding that this is the way life was meant to operate and I agree with God's ways.

    Abortion is just an example of how far humanity has gone in the opposite direction of valuing the lives of others...Iike Herod killing all the baby boys at Jesus birth because there might be one among them that could be a treat to his throne....self preservation is paramount in the minds of the world. If children are an inconvenience, then just's such a good example of the irrisponsibility of the human race...we destroy ourselves. The world has gone so far from how life was meant to be lived.

    1. Frankly, Lisa, I really do not know how to follow the point of your comments, even after having read them a number of times. You speak of living each day in the now, free to act in love rather than fear--noble sentiments, but I'm not sure I understand the point. Then you speak of living under the terms of an enemy. Not sure what that means. Then you state that you choose God's kingdom "because His kingdom makes sense because it's based on His character of love, and begin acting in love towards others as He does. Nothing else makes is the moment of awakening, when a person is set free." I simply cannot follow what you are saying here. My denseness again? The next few paragraphs are, frankly, Christian rhetoric the relationship of which to the topic of Choice escapes me, I'm afraid.

      As I have said elsewhere, I am very much looking for comments on the topics I am trying to address in my blog. In this case the topic is choice and whether we have it. If you believe in freedom of choice, for example, I would invite you--or anyone else who might be interested--to address why you believe choice does exist. I guess I am asking that you go back, reread my original post, and explain why you agree or disagree with what I have written. Simply to state some Christian beliefs does not really address the question in my humble opinion.

      One comment on the topic of abortion: I really hope to stay away from topics that I think have a strong political component, such as abortion, gun control, gay rights, etc.

  4. As far as the Bible is concerned you can't pick and choose. It is story of the progression of sin, of man's understanding of God and realizing we are so blind..see so little of what He is like, because of the darkness of our minds. Even the very person of Jesus in living flesh convinced very few that His ways were better. But it is also revelation of God, written by men who were trying to leave a record of their experience with God. And it seems to show two pictures, one of an arbitrary, wrathful vengeful God that will get you in the end. One that says I love you, but if you don't obey me I will kill you. Many terrible things happened to the people of God...much was blamed on God...but what would the world have been like if Eve hadn't believed the lies of satan and lived in fellowship with God...there would be no wars, or sickness of death...we live here held captive by evil. God operates on freedom...and therefore He doesn't force. Mankind lived according to their own willful desires, God kept trying to help...look here are Ten useful rules...if you live by them you will have peace and happiness...they represent His character, living other centered love. But the consequences of living outside of these rules are's self evident...look at the world around us, even in individual lives. We marry and pledge to love one another and stay true...and yet what is one of the first things to destroy marriage...infidelity. We as a human race were unfaithful to we suffer the consequences, not because He imposes them but because we no long trust Him. Jesus objective was to bring trust back. His death was the extreme example of giving self to show us how trustworthy He was...we could kill our Creator and He would forgive us. What's not to love?

    1. I guess I have the same general reply to this as I have stated above and elsewhere. My goal here is to express myself regarding a number of topics, in this instance the question of freedom of choice. And I am most interested in opinions either in support of my perspective or in opposition. I am hopeful that others will comment. But it was not my intent to turn this into an open forum on religious beliefs. I look forward to your comments, but I ask that you respect my goals.