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 Joan Denoo on April 15, 2018 at 4:44am

"Growing up," "moving into adulthood," "defining oneself," all occur as a natural progression from stage to stage. When we are children, we have little sense of consequences of our actions. We may run into the street without looking unless Mom or someone else calls out to us. As grown-ups, we look before we step off the curb, not because Mom tells us, but because we understand the consequences of being hit by a car. We may blame Mom for looking before we step out but the reality is, we have moved into adulthood and make responsible decisions for ourselves. 

Your Mom may have been "manipulative and over-controlling," when she could have been uncaring and negligent. Some children have no one to teach them how to take care of themselves or how to behave in a social milieu. 

You may have been careless and disruptive in acting-out or socially unacceptable ways. Would you have preferred that your Mom not shape your behaviors into more thoughtful and acceptable ways? 

Braking "free of the cage she built around" you means you grew up, you stopped acting like a juvenile and started acting like an adult. You make decisions, take action, and experience the consequences of your thinking and action. 

If you had become an atheist in rebellion against your Mom, you would continue in the dependent state. Actions committed because of or in spite of require being dependent on another. 

You finally became independent and hopefully, interdependent. 

Comment by Homer Edward Price on April 13, 2018 at 11:28am

This is a reply to Tom Sarbeck's comment.

It is my impression that most of the great universal religions, and not just Christianity, are ultimately concerned with escaping this life, not living it.  Taoism is an exception (and it is not exactly universal) in that it promised eternal life here on earth.

Comment by tom sarbeck on April 13, 2018 at 3:12am

“...there would be no Christians and no Christianity.”

Homer, twelve years in Irish-dominated Catholic schools persuaded me the early Church “fathers” wanted to end their lives and all life.

Comment by Vine on April 12, 2018 at 8:39am

Thanks for the interesting essay.  I didn't want to hijack your blog by posting a question in response, but you can read my question in the forum if you like.



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