A World Without Free Will

If you have been following scientific news as of late, you may have noticed that an increasing number of neural biologists are insisting that human free will does not exist. This idea is, of course, nothing new; denials of free will can be found throughout history, going back to certain schools of Greek philosophy. The difference is that today’s Determinists are increasingly grounding their arguments not in philosophical or theological principles, but in human biology—in the electrical charges flickering between dendrites in neural synapses of the human brain.

Perhaps most notable among proponents of biological Determinism is Robert Sapolsky, who received global attention for his 2023 book, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. Sapolsky’s book argues that our choices—even the most minute—are determined by our genetics, experience, and environment. 

The biological argument against free will is, as Sapolsky puts it, that there is simply “no room” for free will in the brain’s neural networks. Despite its complexity, the brain’s processes are still ultimately mechanistic. And in this mechanistic assembly of neural cause and effect, there is no place along the causal chain where biologists can point and say, “Ah yes, this is the biological process that gives rise to free will.” The mechanistic functionality of our neural systems is like an extremely intricate row of dominoes falling, where each domino falls because of a direct, physical action of the domino before it. In such mechanical systems, there is simply no place for free will to enter in.

The term “free will” is thus a misnomer, a phrase which, at best, describes nothing other than the sum total of our biological processes causing us to do this or that. We may think we are experiencing freedom, but it is illusory. Our responses are ultimately Pavlovian, even our most sophisticated. For the question, “Why am I recording this video essay,” the answer is because my genetics, experience, and environment have coalesced in such a way as to make me the sort of person who would do this particular thing. And this applies to every human activity, from composing a theatrical drama to microwaving a burrito to being a serial killer. The antennae of a fly will move and twitch in response to stimuli from the odors in the air; our loftiest human actions ultimately differ from this only in degree, not in kind.

This is not a particularly novel idea; it is simply a biological rehash of the old atomic theory of Democritus from the 5th century B.C. And, like Democritus’s atom theory, Sapolsky’s Determinism is dependent on a materialist paradigm of the universe—a paradigm which offers an impoverished, reductive approach to reality. If we begin by assuming material causes for every effect, it follows that effects with no demonstrable material cause must not exist. Materialism does not prove material causes for all things; it merely assumes this and dismisses everything that does not fit the paradigm as illusory. Immaterial factors can never be causative because the definitions of reality are drawn and redrawn in such a way as to categorically exclude them.

This biological Determinism, thus, is not the coup-de-grace to Christian metaphysics that proponents think it is. Christians have never been materialists; we have always known that the highest parts of our nature, like free will, are not biologically reducible. We have always known that man is greater than the sum of his parts, that you cannot cut a man open and find his soul, much less his free will. To Christians, then, Sapolsky’s conclusions are nothing new; they are about as surprising as hearing that a surgeon dissecting a human brain has failed to find an immortal soul inside of it.

Setting aside the neuroscience behind the work of Sapolsky and his peers (which I am not competent to discuss), there is a critique to be made for the ethical conclusions of the new Determinism. A good chunk of Sapolsky’s book is devoted to the ethics of justice and punishment and how our approach to these issues would change if we viewed people as biologically determined. These Determinists note that our entire justice system is predicated on the assumption of free will—we punish offenders specifically because we believe they are morally culpable for their actions; that they could have done otherwise but chose not to. And we also believe strongly in the possibility of rehabilitation—that, through the right interventions and social programs, criminals can be equipped to do better…to choose to do good rather than evil. That they generally deserve another chance.

Sapolsky and his colleagues rightly note that our modern justice system is often anything but just. But the Determinists argue that removing free will from our assumptions about justice will result in a far more humane society, where justice is no longer focused on punishment. We do not, for example, get angry with or punish a sheep that wanders out of its pen through a gap in the fence. We recognize that the sheep is simply doing what sheep do. The sheep does not deserve punishment; it needs to be patiently brought back into the pen, and the fence repaired.

Would not our own approach to criminal justice be vastly more humane if we treated criminals as sheep who had strayed? Would we not have greater empathy for everyone’s faults if we understood that, like the sheep, we are all just “doing what we do?” The punitive nature of the justice system could be completely replaced with something more therapeutic, focused on reprogramming the hard wiring of criminals rather than punishing them. One cannot help but think of the 1993 Stallone film Demolition Man, which presents a sanitized vision of the future where a technocratic bureaucracy deals with criminals by cryogenically freezing them and reprogramming their brains with more wholesome habits and hobbies to reintegrate them into the community safely.

But can we assume that abandoning the concept of free will would lead to a more humane society? If anything, the opposite would likely be true. We can take care of animals without assigning them moral agency, but we can do the same when we put them down. A dog who mauls a human isn’t put down because he’s being punished; he is put down simply because he is deemed incorrigible—biting is “just what he does.” To put him down is not retributive, it’s simply a logical consequence of realizing he can’t be fixed. It’s nothing personal—and that is precisely the problem in applying this to humans.

To abandon free will means to abandon the concept of personhood—of morally free agents who are rational and culpable for their actions. If we abandon this, we are left with human beings as depersonalized…as mere animals. Now, ideologies which depersonalize humans and treat them as biological fodder have a poor track record of upholding human rights. What would happen in this Determinist utopia if a certain person—or even a population—were determined to be biologically irreformable? Would this mindset not lead to a society where we callously restrain or even eliminate people with the same cold necessity with which we put down a rabid animal? 

Vengeance, punishment, and anger are certainly made possible by free will, but so are empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. Without free will, there is no forgiveness. There is no forgiveness because there’s no possibility for moral reform; in a Deterministic framework, one can only be restrained, reprogrammed, or eliminated. I submit, then, that removing free will from our ethics would not result in a more humane society; rather, it would yield a society with about as much empathy as an industrial slaughterhouse. A man pulling the trigger on another morally free agent has a lot to consider; he is conscious of the gravity of what he is about to do. An animal control officer pulling the trigger on a rabid dog feels no such compunction. Do we want a society where we view peoples’ shortcomings the way the animal control officer looks at the rabid dog? 

Photo by Charles Postiaux on Unsplash

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Phillip Campbell is a history teacher for Homeschool Connections and the author of many books on Catholic history, most notably the Story of Civilization series from TAN Books. You can learn more about his books and classes on his website. Phillip resides in southern Michigan.

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