The Devil Made Me Do It: Denying (Again) the Faculty of Free Will

E. Christian Brugger
© 2010 Culture of Life Foundation.
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Working at home last week, I heard my son's voice penetrating the French doors of my office shouting, "You IDIOT!" I gently called out, "Son, please come here." Knowing he's not allowed to call his sister an idiot, he dutifully and somewhat nervously entered my office. I got down on my knees to look him in the eyes at his own height, took his little hands lightly in my own, and said to my three year old boy: "Son, did you call your sister an idiot?" He looked at me with his perfectly round eyes perched atop two perfectly round cheeks and centered in his perfectly round head, and said with solemn confidence, "No." I said, "You didn't just shout 'idiot' to her in the kitchen?" Unblinking, he repeated his confident denial. With my disciplinary back to the wall, I decided to repeat firmly the family's negative norm - "No call Maymay," (his sister, Mary) "an idiot… Yes, daddy?" "Yes, daddy," he replied. And I excused him.

My son was either being evasive, adopting what the Germans call realethik (pronounced ray-all eth-eek), or he is a budding philosopher. In the latter case, what he meant was not, "I did not perform the verbal behavior you heard emanating through your door." But properly speaking, "It was not I, daddy, that initiated that behavior, but a subtle combination of the forces of nature (genes) and nurture (environment) conspiring together to undermine my happiness." If he meant the latter, he finds himself sharing an opinion on human agency with Anthony R. Cashmore, professor of biology at U. Penn., and author of the lead essay in the recently published inaugural issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS)1. The aim of Cashmore's essay is to establish the proposition that "the concept of free will is an illusion," and, having so argued, to propose that the time is right for our society to reconsider the concepts of behavior and responsibility and hence the nature of the criminal justice system.

For purposes of this short piece, I don't intend to engage his argument for penal reform. But I do want to address his denial of free will, since his conclusion is widely shared by biologists, philosophers and psychologists (researchers, not clinicians). His position is called ethical determinism, a view of human agency holding that all acts of the will are sufficiently determined by causes other than the will; in other words, there are "sufficient reasons" accounting for all the choices we make. There are, of course, reasons for most of the things we do. But to say there are sufficient reasons means that there is no element of volitional indeterminacy - no freedom - in our action; it's all accounted for by causes outside the will. Acts of the will in Cashmore's view are caused by a combination of subtle forces arising from genetics, environment, and what he calls biological "stochasticism," that is, an inherently random dimension of the behavior of complex living systems, especially the randomness factored into the process of neurological hardwiring that takes place in infants and fetuses.

Why then do most people believe they can and have made free choices? Cashmore argues it's because they are wired to believe it. Natural selection has found it advantageous to maintain in humans the illusion of free will - an artificial sense of self-agency. The illusion gives rise to the correlated illusion of human responsibility, which itself has considerable adaptive advantages for human communities. But "the reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar." Our "selfish free-will genes" maintain in us the biophysical conditions that perpetuate this illusion, and will continue to do so long as they are successful in conning us into believing in free will.

We must ask, why the author and the authorities he sites (Lucretius, Hume, Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Dennett; we might add Marx, Freud and Skinner) are intent on denying human freedom, when they like everyone else enjoy the experience that they are free? Why not deny the view that freedom is illusory and posit its positive existence, as the majority of sane persons have done throughout history? Simply said, it's because free will, like religion, fails to "comply with the laws of the physical world."

This is very important to understand about the argument for ethical determinism. Freedom is not denied because strong evidence from history, experience and observable behavior suggests its non-existence. It's denied because its denial is required by the prior assumption that everything in the universe is reducible to matter. A determinist conclusion is required by the materialist premise: all things in the universe are sufficiently explainable in terms of material descriptions; all material is obedient to physical laws; therefore acts of the will too are obedient to physical laws; therefore they cannot be free. Dispensing with what he calls "the magic of the soul," Cashmore is left with the body, a bafflingly complex reality, to be sure, but ultimately a closed physical system.

Now when really smart people insist that we're ridiculous in believing in an immortal soul, we can tend to doubt ourselves. 'Maybe I am being unreasonable; after all, we cannot prove the existence of the soul; am I being superstitious holding onto a mentally fabricated crutch in order to save myself from psychic distress?'

Don't doubt yourself. There are serious problems with the argument denying an immanent non-material dimension to the human person. The first problem is that the argument is no more empirically provable than the philosophical and also Christian position, and in fact, considerably less so. Since if the human soul exists and is not reducible to the body, then it will not be observable or measurable. The materialist position ultimately reasons, 'I see material things, therefore they exist; I don't see souls, therefore they don't exist.' The argument operates on the presumption that what is not empirically observable or measurable is therefore deniable. But this is a faith premise, since the materialist certainly cannot prove that non-material souls, or God, or angels do not exist. He can simply deny their existence. And indeed the phenomenon of miracles throughout the centuries - the paragon of which is the Resurrection of Jesus - give us credible empirical reasons to believe that non-empirically observable realities exist.

Aquinas and Catholic tradition, and a sound philosophical analysis (e.g., as offered by Mortimer Adler and others), resolve the question of how free will is possible in a world governed by physical laws by asserting that the will is not physical (and neither is the intellect). Although both intellection and volition are significantly influenced by causes outside themselves, they are not completely determined by those causes. The martyr faced with a violent death for his faith can choose fidelity; the person tempted to feed his addiction can say 'no'; the spouse disillusioned by the imperfections of her husband, can remain faithful to her vows. It's hard, but possible. The saints are not made so by genes and environment. They shape themselves up as saints through the interaction of grace and free-will.

Prominent neurophysiologist and philosopher, Paul Churchland, takes another tact in arguing against the existence of the soul. He says that positing an immaterial soul that exercises causality over the body violates the law of the conservation of momentum requiring that any change in the motion of any physical particle be the result of some compensatory change in the motion of some other physical particle(s). Churchland writes: "In short, the empirical evidence indicates that the behavior of the physical world, including the brain, is closed under the laws of classical mechanics. There is no dynamical room available for the soul to work its magic"2. The problem with his argument is, again, that it presumes a materialist system in which all variables are scientifically measurable.

The Catholic position rejects the assumption that the system in which consciousness and willing operate is constituted of exclusively measurable variables. The conservation of energy does not legislate the forms of energy in a system, only the overall content in a closed system. If mental and volitional energy were essentially physical, then their expenditure would change the measurable physical energy of the system. But they have non-physical and hence non-measurable properties. Mental and volitional energy expended do not change the content of measurable energy since not being physical properties, they are not measurable. Said in another way: if we begin with system 'Y' with total energy 'P' and assume 'X' units of mental energy added to the system, we find that 'P' is indeed conserved. The addition of 'X' will not change 'P' because 'X' is not measurable. 'P' is actually 'P + X' but since we have no measure for X it does not appear on either side of the equation.

The literature on these questions - Are humans free? Does the soul exist? - fills libraries. Cashmore's essay is one more contribution to the side shouting "no". His argument however is not original nor is it persuasive. It has the bullying tone that so many writings of atheists share. But as my supervisor warned me some years ago, the strength with which a conclusion is proposed is of itself no indication of its truthfulness. So next time your three year-old says: "It wasn't me, daddy, the devil made me do it," send him to the stairs.


1 "The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system," see [Back]

2 See Paul M. Churchland, "Cleansing Science," Inquiry, vol. 48, no. 5 (October 2005), 464-77, quote on 467-68. [Back]