Christian theologians see free will as the ability of the soul to choose freely between good and evil actions, as defined by God’s law. They argue that the choice of an evil action is a sin against God and justifies Divine punishment in Hell. To add mercy to their terrible image of God, they assert that Christ’s blood provides salvation from Hell for the sinful soul.  

My purpose In this essay is to reanalyze the Christian theologians’ definition of free will in order to make it meaningful for secular, scientific purposes. I will distinguish among will, free will, willed action, and the social reaction to the willed action.  I define will as conscious intentions which the individual has the capacity to carry into action. Many deniers of free will seem to be saying that human beings have no wills at all. They insist that consciousness is an illusion and that it has no influence on human action.(1) They realize that this belief is contrary to all human experience, but since experience is a product of consciousness, they do not think experience has any validity either.  However, scientific psychological experiments have been shown to confirm common experience.  A recent review citied many examples of experiments demonstrating that ideas verbally communicated to the volunteer subjects, and thereby entering their consciousness, subsequently affected their behavior.

If we pay attention to our own experience and to the research and choose to believe that humans do have wills, we can then ask whether their wills are free. It is the prefrontal cortex of the human brain that normally forms our conscious intentions. But conscious intentions are not free, I would say, if they are fully determined by forces coming from outside of one’s prefrontal cortex that cannot be modified, moderated, redirected, or blocked by the prefrontal cortex before they are carried into action.  A good example of this is addiction to some substance or activity.  Addiction is well understood by neurologists, who can trace the exact circuits in the brain that it activates. These circuits create an intense craving to consume the substance or engage in the activity the person is addicted to, or in my terms, they impose an irresistible conscious intention to do it.  Another consequence of this addictive system is the weakening of the ability of the prefrontal cortex in the human brain to perform its normal functions of forming, modifying, moderating, redirecting, or blocking conscious intentions and actions in light of their expected consequences.   So it seems to me that the deniers of free will are saying that all human behavior is determined in the same way that addictive behavior is.  (Another process in which conscious intentions are formed by outside influence and carried into action without further internal conscious processing might be hypnotism, but I know little about how that works.) I will wait for neurologists to demonstrate that all behavior is caused by something similar to addiction or hypnotism before I believe it.(2)

One of the reasons that I doubt this thesis is that addictive behavior by definition is dysfunctional and maladaptive.  It causes harm to the addict and to other people, unless it is successfully treated.  Normally, intentional human action under the control of the prefrontal cortex is, by contrast, functional and adaptive in that it generally promotes individual and even group well-being, survival and reproduction.  And it does this, not as a result of genetically programmed instincts, but as a result of learning the culture of the group and gaining individual experience, both of which are products of trial and error experimentation leading to repetition of successful action, as well as of conscious modeling of the potential consequences of action. In simple organisms, trial and error learning may occur unconsciously,  but even in the brain of the proverbial rat in a maze, conscious decision making is going on; mental modeling of the consequences of running in each direction when it arrives at a familiar intersection in the maze has been conclusively shown in the rat’s brain in the laboratory.  Rats are really not that different from humans: We both consciously form intentions and act upon them. We both make choices.

One thing that humans have that rats do not is a system of social control exercised by human groups over their members, in other words, a system of morality.  But the prescriptions and proscriptions of human moral systems, that is, their definitions of good and evil, are widely variable.  In some cultures, husbands have customarily been expected to share their wives with overnight adult male visitors.  In others, women have customarily been confined within their homes and have not been allowed to be seen by men who are not their relatives.(3) That is the point of requiring women who go outside of their homes to wear burkas. Furthermore, husbands have had the power to divorce their wives at will and to keep custody of the children.  In another cultural pattern, the women in their kinship groups control the land where they have their houses and grow gardens to feed their families. A wife may divorce her husband simply by putting his shoes outside the door to indicate that he is expected to walk away. In any case, he has little responsibility for or claim to his children. Their uncle, their mother’s brother, has the responsibility for raising them, along with their mother. In addition, the senior women from the various kinship groups have the right to choose the new chief from among the leading men of the tribe.

Regardless of the culture, the majority of its members will internalize its rules as part of their group identity, form the intention of obeying them, and enforce them on the others.  If an individual member acts in a way that violates the prevailing moral rules, social disapproval will be brought to bear upon him or her, including gossip, direct criticism, shunning and ostracism by the other members of his group or, in the extreme case, expulsion from the group, forcing him to wander alone without social support.  These social punishments, short of expulsion, are intended to bring the offending individual back into line with the expectations of society and deter other members from committing similar offenses.  None of this would do any good unless the rule violators had the capacity to alter their own behavior.  In other words, unless they had the free will to chose to act differently than they had in the past on order to regain acceptance in their group, social control would be impossible, and the group would become disorganized and unable to function as a cooperative social unit.(4) Humans have had to evolve the free will to chose to conform to the culture of their group, rather than being disruptive, in order for us to become the spectacularly successful social species that we are. We are now so numerous and voracious for resources that we are on the verge of overwhelming all other aspects of nature.

The Christian mythology of God, heaven, and hell functions to reinforce the conformity of individual Christians to the peculiar Christian version of morality, including the expectation that all adults except monks and nuns should marry one person of the opposite sex in order to procreate children, stay married to that person for the rest of their lives, and never have sex with anyone else. If no one had the free will to chose to act in this unnatural way, out of fear of hell or hope of heaven, there would be no Christians and no Christianity.


(1) The LIbet experiment has been widely misinterpreted as proving the thesis that human consciousness has no effect on human behavior. In that experiment, volunteers were asked to move a finger on either hand at random, not deciding when to do it, but recording the time when they realized that they were going to do it.  It turned out that they were aware of the upcoming motion before it happened, but the nerve impulses that caused the movement had actually begun before they were aware of it.  One obvious implication of this experiment is that human consciousness at least reliably records what the brain is going to do, if a little tardily.  More importantly and less obviously, nothing would have happened at all in the experiment without the mediation of human consciousness.  The volunteers would not have shown up if they had not consciously become aware of the call for experimental participants or not decided consciously to respond to it. Even if they had shown up, their fingers would have done nothing if they had not consciously heard the experimenter’s instructions and formed the conscious intention of following them, in this case by consciously reprograming their brain’s unconscious motor system to produce the desired behavior. (It is this last process that intrigues me. It deserves more research.)

(2) For most of my long life, my own free will was suppressed by a different process.  I introjected into my own mind my mother's expectations of me, as a result of her continual repetition of them and my anxiety about her acceptance of me, even though, in freely forming my own values at the same time, I saw the manipulative and over-controlling way that my mother treated me and the girlish standards of social behavior she imposed upon me as profoundly immoral. For instance, she demanded that I tell what little girls would call “white lies” without calling them that herself or explaining the difference between white lies and “black lies,” to coin a phrase. On top of that, my mother insisted that what I thought, even about what I wanted or what I liked, was always wrong, and that she always knew better.  And most importantly, she drilled into my mind the admonition, “Always do what the other person expects,” which by implication also meant to me, “Always want and like and think what the other person expects.” These various injunctions often overruled my own judgement and my own desires, and therefore my own intentions to act, even though I hated her for her commands and hated doing what she had commanded and hated myself for doing it. With much effort over recent decades I have broken free of the cage she built around me, but my fraught relationship with her still has lingering emotional effects. (I should add that the one freedom that my mother gave me was freedom of religion, and I used the free will I still had to become an atheist in my teens. It was not a result of my rebellion against her.)

(3) This pattern is not required by Islam.  It is found in some Muslim societies and not in others, and it is also found in some Hindu groups in India.  It is based on cultural tradition and not on religion.

(4) Philosophers of punishment write as if they believe that only criminals have no free will.  So stated, there may well be a partial truth in that, but it is a criminological hypothesis rather a philosophical proposition.  Half of the people incarcerated in American prisons are mentally ill.  But many other people decide to commit crimes because they think they can avoid being caught.

(5) The celibacy of Catholic parish priests, bishops, etc., is not a requirement based on religious principles, but a bureaucratic convenience, imposed only in the western European church a thousand years after the founding of Christianity.

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Comment by Tom Sarbeck on April 22, 2018 at 4:33am


Homer, electricity and a hint of gravitation drive the universe but living organisms being hard-wired is a metaphor more applicable to a computer than to me.

I retired from computer software work but will stay with Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's a half-century old but it's humane and human.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on April 21, 2018 at 4:17pm

Response to Compelledunbeliever,

Humans may be "hardwired" to want to do certain things, such to have sex and perhaps to have children whether sex is involved or not, and of course we are "hardwired" to want to eat, sleep, etc.  But how and with whom we do those things is not in any sense "hardwired."  How people do those things and how they cooperate with each other to make those things possible is enormously variable among human societies; people learn how to do those things from the culture of their group.  Furthermore, one of the most outstanding things about humans is how creative they are in imagining new ways of doing those things and thereby bringing about change in their cultures, as the new ways are adopted by other people.  None of that would be possible if people were stuck in any particular "operating system."  Come on; even computer makers come out with new and improved operating systems for their hardware all the time, not to mention new hardware.  I am using Mac OS 10.12.6 on my Mac Book, and both are vast improvements on the first Macintosh I purchased thirty years ago.  This is not just an analogy; it is an extremely important example of cultural change.  Steve Jobs was not stuck in the old ways of doing things.  He may have stolen the ideas for the Apple interface, but the ideas were the product of human beings who had the imagination--read "free will"--to do things differently.

Comment by Compelledunbeliever on April 21, 2018 at 1:17pm

It do not understand the concept of free will as you have out lined it. I am in more areeance with Sam Harris in his Book FREE WILL, or as cosmic skeptic has outlined simply in this video.

They insist that consciousness is an illusion and that it has no influence on human action. I do not agree with this statment at all. I do question the amount of free will we do like to believe we have. I Think we are wired to think and believe certain things due to our Hardware and software to use computer terms and will make choices according to those factors as we have no choice but to work within the confines of our operatings system and its software. Tahnk you for your take on it.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on April 18, 2018 at 5:05am

To future readers of these comments: Please read my footnote (2) first and then start reading the comments from the bottom, as I suggested in my previous comment.  Then read the second paragraph of this post last.

Christ did not suffer for me; my parents suffered for me.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on April 16, 2018 at 2:22pm

To future readers of this blog post: The comments are listed in reverse chronological order. They will make more sense if you read them from bottom to top.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on April 16, 2018 at 2:17pm


It is still painful for me to tell the rest of the story.  My father went into Officers' Candidate School because as an Air Force private, he was not paid enough money to support a wife and child. But in a physical training session at the school, he broke his ankle. He had to hide that fact from the school in order to stay in the program, so he limped through the rest of the course, with the other men in his class covering for him.  

Then it got better.  My father graduated, recovered from his injury, and was later promoted to captain. He was shipped to the Pacific and was on Okinawa when the lone plane took off from there to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. He was grateful to Truman for the rest of his life for dropping the bomb because it got him sent home and released from the military.

In the meantime, my mother moved back to Houston where my father's divorced sister, my aunt, was able to help her take care of me. As I was later growing up, at family parties my aunt would always talk about how careless and clumsy I was as a toddler. She said laughingly that I was "an accident waiting to happen" and told about the messes that I made.  That embarrassed me no end, but everybody else was laughing.  What I did not understand was that my aunt, having no children of her own, had become attached to me.  I did not even realize that my mother was attached to me, because when I was an infant, she had never convinced me that she loved me. When my father come home, it was easy for me to see that he loved me, but he was gone until I was three years old.

Comment by Joan Denoo on April 15, 2018 at 7:31pm

The military claims "to take care of its own!" As an Army dependent, I felt abandoned, especially when I was in a military hospital giving birth to twins and a small child at our apartment. The military made it very clear that if they wanted a dependent, the army would provide it. I was miserable.

I can only imagine how your mother felt and especially in an apartment near your father's base, not able to contact him, and no family nearby. It sounds as though she was afraid of her position, her isolation, her new responsibilities as a mother. No wonder she was overprotective of you, she didn't know how to be relaxed with you. I am sure she did the best she could, given her circumstances. 

Having family close by during those young years helps to moderate the over-protectiveness and over-control of a new baby. She didn't know how to be a mother, just as you didn't know how to be a responsive baby. Fear, the desire to do everything "the right way," confusion about how to care for a baby, recovering from caesarian surgery, fear she would drop you or fear that her insides would come out all played a role in your young life. There were too many pressures on her to be able to give you the kind of attention that a more relaxed mother could give and without family support, she undoubtedly felt overwhelmed. 

If your father was in Officer's Candidate School, there were pressures on her to have a "perfect child." I can tell you about that kind of pressure. I suppose it was a bit like being a preacher's kid, you were expected to be better than the others and it was her responsibility to see that you were perfect. 

Officers were expected to be in control of their wives and children. Guess what? In order to be in control, a husband and father had to be a  fascist! Not good for any family member. 

Is your mother still alive? I wonder if anyone understands the pressures under which she had to function. The situation sounds like a perfect formula for creating an Alzheimer case. Also, a situation that results in depression and anxiety! I hope she had someone who could recognize her situation as being intolerable. 

Comment by Homer Edward Price on April 15, 2018 at 5:33pm


I deeply appreciate your sympathy and understanding.  You are right that my mother did not know how to parent, and she was in an almost impossible position to do so when I was born. My father had been drafted into the Air Force during World War II and was isolated in Officer's Candidate School, forbidden to have any contact with outsiders during his "resocialization" into the military. Worse, he was in San Antonio, a long way from our home in Houston, and my mother was alone with me in an apartment near his base.  Neither her mother or my father's sisters were able to help her, and she had had a caesarian section!  She told me that whenever she picked me up, she was afraid that she would drop me.  That certainly did not provide me any sense of love, security, or safety.  She also said that I "was so unresponsive" if she did pick me up. When  I told that to an attachment therapist, she gasped and said, "You never attached! You might be a mass murderer!" (I am not even any good at murdering ants in my kitchen in mass.)

Comment by Joan Denoo on April 15, 2018 at 4:42pm

@ Homer, 

I am truly sorry to learn of your experiences growing up with a mentally unstable mother and many of the remaining scars may remain with you for the rest of your life. You make excellent progress toward mental health and wholeness as you understand the problems facing you as a child and the recovery that only you can make happen. 

I wish that you had a healthier start in life and did not have to overcome so much dysfunction. The reality is, you had a rough start. Now, the question is, are you able and willing make a healthier life for yourself? Many of us come into life with the handicap of parents who do not know how to parent, let alone how to be healthy themselves. We have to learn how to parent ourselves in a positive way if we grew up in a negative atmosphere; we have to learn how to love ourselves if parents were not able to show us love; we have to learn how to provide safety, security, and stability if we did not experience these in our families.

Comment by Homer Edward Price on April 15, 2018 at 11:02am

This comment is intended as a response to Joan Denoo. She has not friended me, so I have no way of notifying her that I have responded. If any future readers of this blog are her friends, please do the me the favor of telling her about this comment of mine.

First for the science:  The increasing ability of the developing individual to foresee the consequences of her actions is a result of the slow process of myelination of the nerves of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain, which greatly speeds up their conduction of nerve impulses and makes much more complex real-time mental processing possible   This process of myelination is typically not complete until age 25. 

Now for my personal history.  My mother was over-protective as a well as over-controlling.  She had excessive anxiety and she knew it.  Even when I was a child, she told me about her tendency to try to find something to worry about, even if it was trivial.  When she got older, she regularly asked her doctors to give her a "happy pill," i.e., a tranquilizer.  The worst consequence of that came when she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and a new doctor, who was not a gerontologist, gave her a prescription for Xanax.  That completely wiped out her awareness of the present and left her believing that she was still a child in Whitewright, Texas, and that I was someone who lived there (though not any specific person).  I consulted a gerontologist, who advised me to gradually reduce the dosage of Xanax until she could go without it entirely.  After that, she was once again herself, although much calmer even without the medicine, and we developed the best relationship of our lives. Apart from a problem with short-term memory, she was perfectly normal mentally.

I was careless and clumsy as a child and I still am, but I was never disruptive and I never acted out in socially unacceptable ways.  The worst thing I ever did, in my parents' eyes, was to lead my neighborhood friends in digging out part to the sand under a sidewalk on a undeveloped street in our subdivision.  We imagined it as a cave, but my parents explained to me the possible consequence that the concrete sidewalk might crack and fail with no support.  We had undermined only a small part of the sidewalk and it did not collapse, but the point is that I had not foreseen even the chance of that result.

I did not escape from the cage of anxiety and inhibition that my mother built around me until after I took early retirement at age 59.  That relieved me of the tension resulting from my responsibilities at work, and ironically I was also taking Zoloft, an SSRI, so it enabled me to think in a more objective fashion about myself, exactly the opposite of what Xanax, a benzodiazepine, had done to my mother. My final step in breaking free of my mother was writing this blog post, which enabled me to distinguish between truly philosophical ideas about free will and the unintended consequences of my mother's teachings for my actual free will. I have finished the job of fighting off her influence on me. 



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