The Mind and the Brain: Is Freewill an Illusion?

By James M. Rochford

Physicalists reduce all of our thoughts to mere brain activity, claiming that the mind is inseparable from the brain. For instance, atheistic biologist Jerry Coyne writes,

You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it—perhaps even before you woke up today. And your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them… We are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain—the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics. True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program… The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics… But of course the words and deeds of other people are simply environmental influences that can affect our brain molecules. That’s how love begins… by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance—of the genes we’re bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.”[1]

Likewise, atheist Richard Dawkins writes,

Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software. Isn’t the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes…? Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution… My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at [a man] when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.[2]

Author Leil Lowndes demonstrates her naturalistic worldview regarding love:

Neuroscience has discovered that the heart has very little to do with romance. For accuracy you should send your main squeeze a Valentine’s Day card with the image of a squishy gray blob evocative of a rotting cauliflower—the brain—because that’s where romance really resides. And instead of saying “I love you,” the knowledgeable lover would say, “Darling, dopamine floods my caudate nucleus” every time I look at you. Love and attraction are all tangled in the convoluted wiring of the brain… So what is love? Neuroscience tells us that love is a condition involving neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits in your brain.  Cognitive science defines passionate love as an “elevated activity in the brain pathways which cause feelings of euphoria, strong motivation, and heightened energy which can induce sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and obsessive thinking about the beloved.”[3]

Should we hold to this reductionistic view of human freewill and consciousness?

If freewill doesn’t exist, then we could never know if our knowledge of anything is true.

Reason implies that a personal agent can choose between one option and another, as well as evaluating the truth of each. But if determinism is true, then we could never know that we have arrived at the truth, because we would have been determined to do so. All we could ever say is that we hold it to be true (i.e. this is our current psychological state)—not that we think it is true (i.e. we have used reason to come to this conclusion). As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?”[4]

If freewill doesn’t exist, then we should never try to argue someone into determinism.

This is both because we do not know whether our view is right (because we would be determined to hold it), but also because the other person wouldn’t be capable of changing their view (because they would be determined to hold their position). Nancy Pearcey writes, “Why are humans able to rise above the forces that supposedly created them? Can a puppet gain control over the puppeteer?”[5]

If freewill doesn’t exist, then morality does not exist.

A necessary prerequisite for morality is freewill. If we are really determined, then choosing between good and evil would be impossible. Thus when Coyne encourages us to “go about building a kinder world,” this is nonsense, because there is no one to build it in his view. When a man uses a chainsaw to severe someone’s head off, the Police always try to arrest the man, but they never try to arrest the chainsaw. This demonstrates that one is a personal being, and the other is a machine. But if determinism is true, both are just machines that were determined to perform their actions. This is a necessary consequence of determinism.

In addition to lacking a philosophical foundation for moral duties (in the absence of freewill), studies confirm how belief in determinism leads to moral decay. Of course, we might intuitively sense that determinism would have detrimental effects in the moral life, but in addition to this intuitive sense, in a 2008 study published in Psychology Science, Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota) and Jonathan Schooler (University of British Columbia) found that belief in determinism promoted cheating. They write, “Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves… These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.”[6] In commenting on this study, Justin Bering of Scientific American wrote an article titled: “Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: ‘Don’t stop believing!’”

Our minds have the property of life-long identity that our brains do not.

Imagine if you remodeled an old car. You replace the brakes, then the engine, then the transmission, then the body, etc. Eventually, you replace all of the old parts of the car with new parts. Would you really be able to say that this was the same car? Of course not. This would be a different car altogether.

And yet, human beings regenerate their cells every several years. Our skin flakes off and our hair falls out. Every several years, you become a different you! And yet, we are still the same person, enduring throughout our life, rather than a million different persons enduring through millions of different physical states.

For instance, when you go to a high school reunion, you might still have feelings of affection or bitterness towards the people that you meet, lodged in your mind from high school. You may still remember the guy who stole your lunch money or the girl that broke your heart. But if physicalism is true, then the person you see at the reunion is technically not the same person that you knew (e.g. they gained weight, regenerated cells, grew grey hair, etc.).

We fear the future, and we regret the past. But, why? It wasn’t me who made those decisions, and it won’t be me who faces future ones. Moreover, if someone committed murder a decade ago, we do not say, “It wasn’t really them, because they were physically different.” Instead, we hold them responsible for their actions.

Is there any scientific evidence to prove the nonexistence of freewill?

Physicalists often argue that freewill doesn’t exist, because brain damage affects the way we think and act. For example, if a person drinks too much alcohol, this will clearly affect the way that they can drive. Likewise, if someone cracks you on the head with a baseball bat, this could have permanent effects on your ability to think clearly. Does this prove that the mind does not exist apart from the brain? We think not for a number of reasons:

First, these examples merely show that the mind is DEPENDENT on the brain, rather than IDENTICAL to it. Consider if a guitarist breaks one of his strings during a rock concert. This will surely have an effect on the music that he makes. The guitarist is separate from the guitar, but his guitar is essential to his music-making. In the same way, if our brain is not properly functioning, then our mind will have a difficult time using it to produce thoughts and decisions.

Second, the mind and the brain have different attributes, which demonstrate the fact that they are not identical. If we want to determine that two things are not identical, then we merely need to show that one has an attribute that another does not. Philosophers refer to this as Leibniz’s Law of the Indiscernability of Identicals. This law states that for any x and any y, if x equals y, then whatever is true of x is also true of y (and vice versa). This is just a fancy way of saying that if two things are identical, then they will have identical properties and attributes. Yet when we reflect on this, we quickly discover that our minds have different properties than our brains.

Our minds have properties like color or size that our brains do not. For instance, if I think about the Statue of Liberty, I am considering something that is a couple hundred feet tall. Yet nothing in my brain is a couple hundred feet tall. Likewise, when I think of the Statue of Liberty, I have a thought that it is green. And yet, nothing in my brain is green. Our thoughts have properties that our brains do not.

Third, even if freewill is an illusion, how could a non-conscious being observe it? An illusion can only occur if a conscious observer exists. So if freewill is a deep delusion, then who is having the delusion? Far from serving as evidence against freewill, even a perception of a delusion would actually support the existence of a conscious mind.

We might deny freewill with our lips, but not our lives

In her excellent book Finding Truth (2015), Nancy Pearcey details the tension of denying freewill in the practical landscape of life. While naturalists might deny freewill with their words, they cannot change the presence of freewill in the world. While they might disagree with the Christian worldview, they still need to live in the world created by the Christian God.

Daniel Wegner (from the Department of Psychology at Harvard University) writes, “It’s an illusion, but it’s a very persistent illusion; it keeps coming back… Even though you know it’s a trick, you get fooled every time. The feelings just don’t go away.”[7]

Galen Strawson (philosopher at the University of Reading) states, “As a philosopher I think the impossibility of free will and ultimate moral responsibility can be proved with complete certainty. It’s just that I can’t really live with this fact from day to day. Can you—really? As for the scientists, they may accept it in their white coats, but I’m sure they’re just like the rest of us when they’re out in the world—convinced of the reality of radical free will.”[8] He writes, “Powerful logical or metaphysical reasons for supposing we can’t have strong free will keep coming up against equally powerful psychological reasons why we can’t help believing that we do have it.… It seems that we cannot live or experience our choices as determined, even if determinism is true.”[9]

Edward Slingerland (from the University of British Columbia) writes that no one “can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free.” We are “constitutionally incapable of experiencing ourselves and other conspecifics [humans] as robots.”[10] Yet he writes, “At an important and ineradicable level, the idea of my daughter as merely a complex robot carrying my genes into the next generation is both bizarre and repugnant to me.”[11] He writes, “There may well be individuals who lack this sense, and who can quite easily and thoroughly conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental, mechanistic terms, but we label such people ‘psychopaths,’ and quite rightly try to identify them and put them away somewhere to protect the rest of us.”[12]

Rodney Brooks (professor emeritus at MIT) states that humans are a “big bag of skin full of biomolecules.” He writes, “When I look at my children, I can, when I force myself… see that they are machines.” Yet he writes, ““That is not how I treat them.… I interact with them on an entirely different level. They have my unconditional love, the furthest one might be able to get from rational analysis… I maintain two sets of inconsistent beliefs.”[13]

Marvin Minsky of MIT famously said that the human brain is nothing but “a three-pound computer made of meat.” Yet he writes, “No matter that the physical world provides no room for freedom of will; that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm.” We cannot “ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it’s false.”[14]

In Chapter Two: Solving the Dilemma of Evidence Unseen: Exposing the Myth of Blind Faith (2013), I’ve also detailed a number of similar examples.

Conclusion

Denying freewill denies our direct experience of the world around us. Consider a number of questions to help discern what you believe in this regard:

Do you believe that you can ever discern truth from falsehood?

Do you think that people can ever change their minds?

Do you believe that torturers and rapists should be judged for their actions? Or are people just determined to do such actions?

Do you ever feel regret over your decisions that you’ve made? If you’re really not the same physical person who existed, then why do you feel that way?

Do you ever feel fear over events in the future? If you are not the same person that will be there, then why?

What do you find to be most plausible, given your direct experience of the world around you? How much evidence would there need to be for you to deny your direct perception of your own conscious thoughts? Why adopt a philosophical view that directly denies your most basic perception of the world around you?

APPENDIX A: Couldn’t this same argument be used to prove that animals have souls?

After considering the evidence for a mind of soul, we might ask this question: Wouldn’t these arguments imply that animals have souls?

To answer this question, we need to begin with the clear portions of our knowledge, instead of the unclear portions. As in any field of knowledge, we don’t begin with the difficult portions of our understanding first, but with the clearest portions. If we believe that there is good evidence for a human mind or soul, we should start there, rather than starting with the unclear question of whether animals have minds. Of course, animal consciousness is confusing, but what is not confusing is that humans have minds, freewill, and consciousness. Since we do not have a first-person experience of what it is like to be an animal, this is far less certain. But claiming that animals are purely physical would not in any way invalidate our first-person, direct experience of having a conscious mind. How could it?

Perhaps an illustration is in order. When it comes to mathematical knowledge, it’s difficult for many to understand advanced Calculus. But what should we conclude from this? Should we throw out algebra, geometry, and multiplication tables because some portions of mathematics are confusing or unclear? Of course not! Instead, we should start with the clear portions, and move into the unclear portions with time. We should never trade what we don’t know, for what we do know about reality.

OPTION #1: Some philosophers of the mind believe that animals do indeed have minds and consciousness. However, they qualify this by noting that an animal’s mind is different than a human mind—just as animals are different from humans in other areas. Just as brains are different in various species of life, perhaps minds and souls are different as well. Hugh Ross refers to “soulish” animals. He notes that mistreating a beetle will not fundamentally change its behavior, but mistreating a dog will affect it substantially. Thus it’s possible that God endowed other life with other types or levels of minds. Animals have consciousness of their desires or instincts, but they lack consciousness of freewill. They cannot desire to change their desires.

OPTION #2: Other philosophers of the mind do not believe that animals have minds or consciousness. When we look at animal life, we may be committing anthropopathism. You might be familiar with the term “anthropomorphism.” This is where humans (anthropos) speak of reality in terms of human concepts or “forms” (morphe). Anthropopathism is where humans (anthropos) import human “emotions” (pathos) into non-human objects. For instance, any Disney cartoon usually includes anthropopathism, where animals speak, sing, dance, and feel the way humans do. Thus while we might believe that animals have minds in some sense, this could be a case where we are importing human experience in an invalid way.

Either way we understand this difficult question, it shouldn’t overturn our understanding of human consciousness and the mind. Since we do not know what consciousness looks like in the life of a dog or cat, we shouldn’t be dogmatic on this subject. On the other hand, this also would not in any way serve as a defeater of our clear perception of our own consciousness and freewill. For an excellent lecture on the differences between human and animal consciousness, see my friend and mentor Dennis McCallum’s lecture “Is Reason Reasonable Without God?”

Further Reading

Copan, Paul. How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2005. See chapters 4 through 8.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Moreland, James Porter, and William Lane. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. See Part III “Metaphysics” and Part IV “Philosophy of Science.”

Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015.

[1] Coyne, Jerry. “Why you don’t really have free will.” USA Today. January 1, 2012.

[2] Dawkins, Richard. “Stop Beating Basil’s Car.”

[3] Lowndes, Leil. “How Neuroscience Can Help Us Find True Love.” The Wall Street Journal. March 31, 2015.

[4] Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1970. 21.

[5] Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 232.

[6] Vohs, Kathleen. Jonathan Schooler. “The Value of Believing in Free Will.” Psychological Science. Volume 19—Number 1. 2008. 49.

[7] Overbye, Dennis. “Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t.” The New York Times. January 2, 2007.

[8] Galen Strawson (interviewed by Tamler Sommers). “The Buck Stops—Where? Living Without Ultimate Moral Responsibility.” The Believer. 2003. http://www.naturalism.org/strawson_interview.htm

[9] Galen Strawson, “On Free Will ,” Richmond Journal of Philosophy 4, summer, 2003. Cited in Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 149.

[10] Edward Slingerland, What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 218. Cited in Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 162.

[11] Edward Slingerland, What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 255. Cited in Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 162.

[12] Slingerland, “Mind-Body Dualism and the Two Cultures,” in Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities, ed. Edward Slingerland and Mark Collard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 83, 84.

[13] Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us (New York: Pantheon, 2002), 174.

[14] Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 307. Cited in Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 164.