Apologetics Calvinism Jesus Christ

Beware the Hyper-Calvinist Atheists!

In order to understand our culture and ourselves there are some subjects that it is vital to grasp.  In terms of answering the question ‘who am I?’ or ‘who are we?’ we need to consider the question of moral responsibility and free will.   It is important to understand that many of our elites are moving (despite the culture making an idol of choice) into a world where human beings are just perceived as glorified robots, with no free will and ultimately no responsibility (and no real value).  I wrote this article in Christian Today to try and highlight this.  Please do share and pass on if you think it is as important as I do.  I went with the title above – they chose the one underneath….

Forget the atheist view of life: it’s Jesus who truly sets us free

Beware the hyper-Calvinist atheists! That seems a somewhat strange oxymoronic warning. After all Calvinists are those who believe in a sovereign and all powerful God and atheists are those who don’t even accept there is such a God. How can the two go together? It’s not the fact that 5 per cent of Dutch Reformed ministers are supposed to be atheists – its rather that 95 per cent of atheists are actually Calvinists in that they believe in predestination without God – which to my mind is the worst of all worlds.

Beside a cross on hill at sunset

Atheist Determinism

So what is this atheist doctrine of predestination and why is it so harmful? Recently I was involved with one of those pointless Twitter debates when my opponent came out with the astonishing statement that I had no freedom to choose. Any more than the Texas shooter had the ability to choose to shoot his victims. In a culture that has choice as an absolute idol, this may come as a shock, but there are a growing number of our intellectuals – philosophers, politicians and indeed priests – who think that the idea that human beings have conscious free choice (free will) is illusory. Some believe in what is called biological or genetic determinism. Others in cultural determinism. Whether it’s nature or nurture or a combination of the two, they just simply do not believe that we have any choice in what we do. It’s all pre-determined by our genes and our circumstances.

We may think we live in a Burger King world (‘have it your way’) but the reality is that these ways are already pre-determined. Why does this matter?

The Importance of Free Will

Because without free will we cannot have moral responsibility. And without moral responsibility we cannot have justice, law and indeed society. Human beings cease to be human and instead become just a collection of chemicals living out the pre-determined paths of our meaningless existence. Just as the young child from a Christian background might claim ‘it wasn’t me – the devil made me do it’, so the atheist predestinarian can claim that they are not responsible. They did not choose to rape/kill/drink drive because they could not choose anything. ‘It was the genes M’Lud’. Or it’s all society’s fault.

In Love He Predestined Us.

What is the Christian answer to this? Christians who follow the teaching of Christ do believe in predestination. They may explain it in different ways (and its not my intention to get into that particular theological controversy here) but they cannot deny that Christ taught ‘you did not choose me, but I chose you’, or that Paul taught ‘In love Christ predestined us’. However, unlike the biological determinists we do not believe that such predestination takes away human responsibility or human free will, but rather establishes it. The only reason God can judge us justly and fairly is because there is something to judge. God is so great he is able to predestine ‘free will’ and to use our choices in his wider and greater plan.

The atheist cannot go beyond the limits of their faith – a faith that declares that only naturalistic materialism can exist. And so they are limited to the findings of neuro-science and the belief that everything is pre-determined and human free will is an illusion. As their prophet Richard Dawkins has observed:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.’ 

Ultimately for the atheist, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and justice have no real meaning. We are at the mercy of this blind, pitiless indifference. It’s a grim vision that would make even the gloomiest Calvinist of legend seem cheerful!

The Importance of Free Will

The practical consequences of this are phenomenal. The atheist hyper-Calvinist will think that ‘society’ (government) can control everything. We just need chemicals, force, psychological indoctrination and whatever other tools are required for programming the human machine. The Christian view sees humans, not as robots, but as those made in the image of God, with ‘knowledge, righteousness and holiness’. That image is flawed, but it is not erased. Rather than re-programming we believe in re-creation. It is not in blind, pitiless indifference that God has predestined us – but in love. And in love we are set free – not bound by our chemistry or our circumstances. It is not for nothing that historically societies which have placed the greatest emphasis on human freedom and responsibility have been those undergirded with a strong Christian philosophy.

Atheist predestination binds us. Christ’s sovereignty sets us free. Which one will you choose?

David Robertson is Associate Director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter’s Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea.


  1. David

    I am becoming a bit paranoid about copyright law. I sometimes make a personal copy of your blog. It seems, however, I should ask permission to do so. Is it okay with you if I do so? And if I have a copy of a post and wish to pass it to others (unlikely, as I normally just point to your post) do I have your permission.


  2. Why?
    Why deny free will?

    Because the atheist Calvinist has no salvation! No solution! No redemption! Just determination!

    “It’s something else’s fault, because if it’s my fault, there is no hope!”

    Like the gospel being the source of bringing freedom and liberty, (to allow defiance, rebellion, free speech, freedom of thought and religion and non.) so the gospel is the source of our resolving our subsequent guilt and shame.

    The atheist Calvinist will not have us know guilt and shame, because they have no solution for it. Rather, denial of the values that bring guilt and shame, including free will.

    To pardon or forgive is beyond the secular vocabulary. It only exists among the Christian worldview. Yet it is to pardon and forgive, that spawns the revolution of righteousness. Christians are transformed, to live in righteousness and holiness, because despite their free will, Christ died for the ungodly. Pardoned, forgiven.

    The secular narrative has no such hope for any who fall short of the “glory of our values”.

    But the Christian message is grace and forgiveness for those who fall short of a much higher standard.

  3. David

    As we approach the festive period, I thought you would be saving your remaining straw for Luke’s manger, rather than wasting it on making men as you do for the rest of the year.

    There are as many theories of determinism as there are branches of the Protestant church. However, they should not be confused with pre-determinism, intentionally or otherwise.

    I recently giggled my way through a debate on Open Theism with both sides making completely cogent arguments as to why the other was wrong without either coming to the rather obvious conclusion that they both were (a painfully common outcome of much theological discourse).

    I shall just have to continue my pitiful, objectively pointless existence simply making free choice decisions to assign entirely subjective meaning to my interactions with a naturalistic universe that I cannot justify.

  4. There seems to be a split here. Gender social justice warriors, chose to jettison any, or most tenets of evolution. Didn’t Dawkin wryly comment on those who watched a recent eclipse: had they come to watch a social construct?

  5. If good scientific and empirical evidence exists to suggest that we should have no reason to need or expect a surface, conscious layer of free decision making, one would have to ask, why do people such as Reverend Robertson crave it?

    The answer would seem to lie in four directions.

    Firstly he sees free will as necessary to justify his Christian faith. Christianity as a realistic theory is fatally wounded if one of its main precepts, the ability to freely choose Christ as saviour, is totally attributable to kismet.

    Secondly, how can he attribute agency or conscious choice to his ‘decision’ to follow Jesus? If we have no freedom to choose beyond the narrowest of parameters formed by passively acquired influences and experiences, how can anyone claim any ownership of their current worldview? The Reverend Robertson can claim nothing more than luck (good, bad or indifferent) for his current position as minister at St Peter’s and avid follower of Jesus. In another twist of fate, he could as easily have been a-theist like me, or worse still, one of the young killers of Jamie Bulger, or indeed the Texas church murderer. On no free will, the choice is not his.

    Thirdly, how do we maintain moral responsibility, justice and the value of law? How will society survive if people can claim no responsibility for their actions?

    Fourthly – and much more generally, it just feels like we should have free will. We are individuals who have all taken different paths in life. Surely that must be because we can choose those paths, and because we take responsibility for our own paths. On a separate level, it allows us to praise ourselves, or be praised for our good choices, while feeling justifiable outrage at the bad/criminal/evil choices made by others.

    What should be very obvious from the above is that none of it argues scientific or empirical justification in support of free conscious choice. The best Rev Robertson and others can do is to suggest that it ‘feels’ like we have free will and if we envisaged its absence we would have a vision of a desperately gloomy worldview.

    I believe I am the subject of Rev Robertson’s astonishment in his blog. I possess a simplistic a-theistic worldview based on the evolutionary model as best understood by science, and Occam’s razor philosophy. If anyone should make a claim for the existence of a more complex explanation than is necessary, they should be able to justify their reasons for adding complexity. Otherwise the simple model should be the accepted one unless it fails any scientific test.

    For free will to make any practical sense, it has to incorporate our ability to make conscious (aware) free choices at will. Therefore we have to be able to consciously look at the options and make a free choice between those options at our disposal. One glaring problem with this concept is that no-one seems to be able to reveal or describe how this actually feels, precisely how they corral all of the options within their consciousness, then take time to consciously pick them apart in respect of the relative probability of their suitability for personal flourishing.
    Another problem is that no-one I’ve spoken to knows, at any one moment in time, what their next thought is going to be. Thoughts develop from below our consciousness and our consciousness simply seems to become aware of them, sooner or later. To consciously manage unknown future thoughts in such a controlled fashion as to fashion a conscious, freely considered, good choice seems too much of an unnecessary step into the unknown; especially given that we cannot explain the mechanisms of these processes which should be exceptionally easy if we constantly invoked them consciously.
    Thirdly, we have a perfectly serviceable method of choice that doesn’t involve our consciousness (other than as an information receptor). Almost all of the physical actions and choices that we could be aware of don’t require conscious thought, such as the moment I stopped to pick up my cup of tea just after the last comma. Most choices we make completely bypass consciousness and importantly, even vitally, choose that which is our best, or least worst interest. If we were to require conscious processes to micromanage every action that we become aware of having made, our ability to survive would be threatened almost instantaneously, because we would be incapable of doing anything quickly enough to survive without a huge degree of support. It’s very obvious some of the biggest decisions we make are completely taken away from conscious control. If we’re driving along a road, and an HGV pulls into our path, we know we’re going to have to do something quickly, but our feet are on the brake and our steering pulls the car away from danger before we’ve resorted to consciousness to explore the options.

    I have spent much of my professional life trying to understand the ‘criminal’ mind. And what I have found is that criminals do not consider themselves infused with evil, nor have they chosen to take a path to evil. They don’t do what they do because they are evil, they do it because under the circumstances peculiar to them at that moment, they had no ability to choose differently. Yes, they know what they have done is wrong, but a combination of influences such as ineffective punishment, low chances of being caught, being nurtured in a family that doesn’t respect law, bad personal experiences, desperate need, etc etc, all combine to make their choice for them.

    I think we need to take a moment to honestly scrutinise our methods of choice, the way we think, the way our consciousness becomes aware of thoughts and choices, and we will soon see that we owe nothing to the notion of free will.

    1. Ian – firstly please don’t attribute to me arguments that are just made up out of your own head. Secondly there is not good scientific and empirical evidence that we do not have some measure of free will. Thirdly I too have known many people who work with criminals who include psychiatrists and your notion that they only do it because they had no choice would in most cases be considered absurd. Fourthly you are not the person referred to. Lastly why do you keep talking about choice when you clearly believe we have no choices – everything is pre-determined. Given that I like to have discussions with rational beings who think about what they say and are not pre-programmed robots – I don’t really see much point in your responding to this – do you? After all you have no choice about what you are going to say! ANd please if you are going to respond then only do so if you are making a conscious choice to do so (you seem to delight in confusing instinct with choice). The trouble is that if you do then you are contradicting yourself.

  6. Thanks David for the opportunity to air my thoughts on your blog. Our recent twitter debate did seem to mirror that which you described, right down to the examples you spoke of, but who am I to argue?

    Your reply doesn’t offer any reason or explanation for your position on free will, so I’ll leave it more or less at that, save to clarify that we all obviously make choices. It would be facile to suggest we don’t. They are our choices. We own them. But to what extent could we possibly have made a different choice at any fixed point in time? I argue we can’t, therefore no free will?

    I’d be interested to know to what extent you believe we rely on our library of past and present influences and experience to make choices? Why would we choose to consciously counter what those experiences and influences tell us is good for us? Can we do that? I’d argue that If not, and there is no reason why we should, we have no free will.

    Instinctive decisions are part of the overall picture, perhaps the example I gave wasn’t the best; but driving, playing piano, striking a golf-ball or manoeuvring a football past the Dundee defence can often require complex, non instinctive actions far too quick for the conscious mind to assimilate, never mind choose the best option in each minuscule circumstance. You might wish to assign another name or extra layer of choice to this type of decision making; non instinctive, subconscious or similar, but I wonder how many levels you need to manufacture before you conclude that it might all be one simpler method of choosing.

    In any case, take care, get well, and don’t raise your heart rate too much on issues such as these. As my gran used to say, “whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye”, but I trust the road ahead is bright.


  7. Ian,
    I have studied jurisprudence and criminal law, as part of a first degree, LL.B, and have practiced, both as a defence solicitor and prosecutor, in the English criminal law system. I do not recognise, neither does the criminal law and justice system, what you describe. At the risk of being somewhat simplistic, you must know that for non-strict liability cases, the law requires, mens rea (a criminal intent) as well as actus reus (criminal act) unless there is a mental health, or automatic response ( eg bee sting instinctively causing a serve while driving) defence.
    Self knowledge of the criminal has little to do with free will or criminal intent. Have you ever known criminals to lie? Ever known any to be dishonest? You seem to be conflating evil with criminal intent. What you describe as, “factors that made me do it”, could not be described as coercion.
    I once represented a criminal who described stealing, burglary as “grafting”, going out to work. It was a conscious way of life. Was he compelled to do it? Certainly not.
    And what of those who become thoroughly rehabilitated, lives turned around?

  8. Hi Geoff, thanks for your considered response. The criminal justice system does recognise the huge effect of influence on human behaviour and actions; the main purpose of justice is to act as a major influence to prevent future criminal behaviour. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act describes the purposes of sentencing, and its primary purpose for under 18s is the prevention of reoffending.

    What prevents you from undertaking a criminal act?

    Would you agree it depends largely on the individual’s attitude to the offence? Most of us would admit to speeding in our cars from time to time, or driving a little carelessly (unobservantly). We may drive too close, overtake cyclists too closely or drive on to footpaths to park, etc etc. In road traffic cases, many intelligent otherwise law abiding people may defend their behaviour in their own mind using Solon’s tenet that “rules are for the guidance of wise men, and the blind obedience of fools.” On that basis one may find oneself doing 35mph on the exit of a town heading towards the NSL sign, or you may do 60mph through a quiet, uncamera’d section of empty motorway roadworks at night that have a temporary speed limit of 50mph. One would still be committing a criminal offence, yet one would justify it on a basis similar to the belief that the law, at that moment, is worth breaking for personally justified reasons. You may tell yourself that you could, if you wanted to, adhere to the speed limit at that time. Yet one doesn’t. Why not?

    If you apply that thinking to offences that many would consider to be more criminal in nature eg theft.
    One example I like to use is as follows – with apologies for the length.

    People usually know when they’re doing wrong, they know the action will contravene the law or the generally accepted moral code.

    The question of blame and responsibility depends largely on assessing how much they are in control of the choice to do the wrong.

    I want a pair of trainers, so I go to the sports shop. While passing the back of the sports shop I see that a deliverer has left a pallet of my trainers outside the shop by mistake. Theoretically, I have a choice. I could go round and buy them in the shop, or I could steal them from the pallet.
    The parameters that may come to play to buy rather than steal the trainers may be (in no particular order)…

    1. I have been brought up to believe that stealing is wrong.
    2. None of my valued friends or associates would consider stealing.
    3. I can afford to buy the trainers
    4. I know that stealing is against the law, and I uphold the law.
    5. My gain would be someone else’s loss.
    6. I would hate to be caught doing something wrong.
    7. CCTV might catch me out.
    8. The thought of actually committing a crime is frightening
    9. If I was prosecuted for stealing I would lose my job. Etc etc.

    Parameter ‘1’ alone would be sufficient for me not to consider stealing the trainers, although I might have to use some of the other bullet points to prevent me from taking ownership of a £10 note that I found in a dark street.
    But because the theft would have a net negative effect on my moral and societal wellbeing, I would not be able to steal the trainers. I would never be able to make that decision. That decision is not a free conscious choice, but is a decision made by my subconscious based on as many of the above acquired parameters as are needed to make that choice.

    Conscious decision making (even if we could identify the mechanics of it) could only ever interfere with that process in a negative way.

    However if I was a chronic drug abuser whose acquired resources went almost entirely to feed my drug habit, an entirely different set of acquired parameters would inform my decision.

    1. I know stealing is seen as wrong, but I have no other choice but to steal to finance my habit.
    2. My parents stole to feed us, because they were drug addicts too.
    3. From a young age, I was shown by my parents and peer group how to steal.
    4. Most of my valued friends or associates would steal the trainers.
    5. I can’t afford to buy the trainers but I need a new pair, and I could sell others to raise money
    6. I know that stealing is against the law, but the law doesn’t care about anyone in my situation.
    7. My gain wouldn’t be anyone else’s loss, because the loss would be borne by a large company.
    8. I’ve committed many crimes in the past. Stealing is no big deal.
    9. Being caught doing something wrong is no big deal, and I can deal with any potential punishment if caught, which is extremely unlikely.
    10. CCTV won’t catch me out.
    11. I don’t have a job, so I have nothing to lose
    12. I have £1000 owing to drug debtors who said they would break my legs unless I repaid the debt soon.

    In these circumstances it would be in my overall best interests to steal the trainers (within my acquired moral parameters) because the positive benefits of the theft outweigh the negatives. I would therefore be unable not to steal the trainers. I clearly have no resource of conscience to combat the forces driving me to take them, and many influential forces empowering me to make the criminal act.

    The justice system will still operate successfully on the basis of setting the parameters on criminal right and wrong, protection of the public and their property, influencing peoples’ decisions through threat of punishment and raising awareness of right and wrong, and offering pathways to resolve the root problem.

    Coercion would be a factor that would drive a person to criminality, eg ‘12’ above. It would be a mitigating factor. But it is, at bottom, just another factor at play that shows that decision making is outside conscious control.

    Blaming people for their amoral behaviour, or accusing them of gratuitous evil is, in my view, to miss the bigger point, which is understanding the holistic path that has brought them to where they are today. Appropriate influential intervention to deflect that path is IMO the best method of directing those people away from their otherwise unavoidable path to criminality.

    1. Ian, I don’t think you can reasonably say, “That decision is not a free conscious choice, but is a decision made by my subconscious based on as many of the above acquired parameters as are needed to make that choice.” The fact that you made a list of your reasons for not stealing demonstrates that you are consciously aware of why your unconscious mind made the choice.

      Whenever we deal with something new, for the first time, we are keenly aware of what we are doing. In an earlier comment you noted a list of activities that become instinctive through habit: “driving, playing piano, striking a golf-ball”. At the beginning of learning these activities we concentrate our attention and take things very slowly. But after they become habitual, the many decision involved are applied automatically by our learned habits.

      An example is the toddler learning to walk. At first he is very attentive to picking up and putting down his feet. But after a few weeks he is running all over the place.

      But then you give him a pair of roller skates, and he repeats the learning process until he does it “instinctively”. But in the beginning he is making dozens of choices.

      The same applies to your picking up the tea cup. The same applies to your decision not to steal the shoes.

      Please be aware that from the moment a child is born, it is a full participant in its negotiations with its physical and social environment. Sometimes the child must adapt. Sometimes the social and physical environment must adapt. That’s the way it is with all living organisms. They all come with a biological will to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And some come with the neurological equipment to imagine, evaluate, and choose.

  9. In terms of causal determinism, there is no such thing as predeterminism. Nothing can be said to be caused until the last prior cause has played its role in bringing it about. To say that it has already been caused would logically imply that the future has already happened. And I’m pretty sure that is not the case.

    The last prior cause of a deliberate act is the mental process of deliberation that we went through to make our choice. If that choice was made according a person’s own purpose and their own reasons, free of coercion or other undue influence, then we call this a “freely chosen will”, or simply free will.

    And, if that choice was made according a person’s own purpose and their own reasons, then we may also say that the choice was causally determined.

    Both facts are simultaneously true.

  10. The theological problem is not free will. It is the problem of Hell as eternal torture. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then the ultimate responsibility for all sin lies with Him. He would be responsible for creating a world full of temptations. He would be responsible for creating humans with weakness in the face of temptation. He would be responsible for a world that falls way short of Eden, where competition for scarce food supplies leads to wars between families, tribes, and nations. This might all be forgivable if God were less than perfect. But how do we forgive Him for the promise of eternal torment in Hell for any of us who falls short?

    It is not enough to give us free will. That does not get Him off the hook. With omniscience, all of our choices are predictable. With omnipotence, we would expect Him to insure that when we exercised free will, we did not risk an eternity in Hell. Death would be better.

    Christianity is a great religion. But the doctrine of Hell as eternal torture is not acceptable. It is unChristian.

    That’s why I’m a Humanist today. I love the Christian values and teachings that I was raised with. But a God that can impose eternal torture as a penalty cannot, must not exist.

    On the other hand, I’m really and deeply disappointed with my atheist friends who attack free will as a means to attack religion. Free will is not an illusion. Choosing is an actual event that takes place in physical reality. And whether a choice was made by us, for our own purpose and reasons, or was forced upon us by coercion or undue influence, are matters of empirical fact, not questions of belief.

  11. Ian,
    Your thesis can not bear the weight you seek to put on it , from the fields of social science,science, psychiatry, psychology politics, law, philosophy, theology, art, creativity, mental health and all the. You are seeking to make a pointilist painting from one point, drawing only from the example of criminal law, without even considering the purpose of criminal law or even any law, tort, equity, civil, constitutional, wills and probate and much much more. The thesis is contradictory and inconsistent, in parts, and I’m not sure you seem aware of it. Like a lot of so called discussion today you seems to talk past, ignore the questions asked and points raised.
    You haven’t really addressed the question of criminal intent. What you centre on is sentencing and possible mitigation and influences. Yes influences, again I say influences, family, peer pressure. Taken to the limits, in your view, there is no personal human responsiblity, ultimately no justice You take no account of hatred, anger, greed, averice, selfishness, lies, white collar crimes, fraud, people who commit crimes from stable, law abiding backgrounds.
    It is interesting that you raise the question of prevention. What the point in seeking to prevent, if everthing is beyond the control of human beings, that they are locked in, beyond change.
    Again you have not addressed the question of rehabilitation.
    There is no consideration of law v morals in the great debate between Hart v Devlin.
    You also bring in the question of evil, into criminal law. In the secular law, evil as a category, or even in language. has long been abandoned. Not that evil has disappeared from humanity, even law abiding humanity, as David has spent much time debating, here and elsewhere
    I’m drawing a line under this as have others, as it seems clear that you don’t have the ability to think beyond your fixed mind therefore unable to learn any more than you know or change your mind. I suppose that is evidence of sorts to support your thesis. But there are mitigating factors.

  12. Sorry guys, I’m struggling to get my points past the moderator’s red pen, so I’ll leave it with you…
    …save to say the following.

    Read Kahneman -Thinking Fast and Slow. Read/listen to Susan Blackmore, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, David Eagleman, Galen Strawson, They strongly make the case against conscious free choice, with supporting neuroscientific evidence. These are all big philosophical/scientific thinkers. I hold the view they evidence, no more.
    Read Eddy Nahmias for a counter argument.

    For me, conscious free will does seem to be unnecessary philosophical frippery concocted when religions were invented, to support the various religious contracts offering eternity for your soul.

    Geoff, like you I had space for the idea of conscious free choice, but I was slowly and slightly painfully educated away from the idea. None of your points would be difficult to answer, and I would answer but for the fact that my posts seem to get deleted more often than printed, which is a shame.

    1. Ian, neuroscience may find that part of the mental process of choosing happens below conscious awareness, but it will never find that something other than you made the decision. A simple example would be taking a multiple choice test in school. You are not consciously aware of your answers when you sit down to begin. You don’t even know what the questions are yet.

      As soon as read the first question, your conscious mind submits the problem to your memory, and the associated neurons bring the answer from memory to conscious awareness, and then you record your answer. There is even a test-taking skill called “prime and wait”, where, if you cannot think of the answer right away, you think hard about it for a moment (prime), and then you just move on to the next questions (wait). When you come back to the questions you were unable to answer, the answer this time will often pop into your consciousness.

      Mental processes are performed in part by conscious awareness and in part by unconscious processes. But both the conscious and unconscious parts are still “you”. And you will find that there is no neuroscience that will contradict this.

      I say that confidently because all of the Libet-styled testing is monitoring activity in the subject’s own brain. And if you have learned anything from David Eagleman, it is that the brain is you!

      So, no matter how you “slice-and-dice” the brain, it remains the case that “that which is you” is identical to “that which chooses”.

      Unless, of course, it is not you. If someone is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to do things against your will, then your will is subjugated by his will (not free), and he is controlling your choices. Or, if you are under hypnosis, and following his instructions, then again the will is not yours, but the hypnotist’s. Or, if you have a significant mental illness, for example hallucinations that deceive your normal moral judgment, then the illness is unduly influencing your choices.

      And that is the practical distinction that the concept of “free will” makes. Either it is you making the choice, according to your own purpose and your own reasons (free will), or someone or something else is forcing you to make choices you would not normally make.

      The correct definition of “free will” is when you decide for yourself what you will do, free of coercion or undue influence. It is a question of empirical fact that involves nothing supernatural, makes no claims against reliable cause and affect, and yet is sufficient for both moral and legal responsibility. This is also the definition that everyone understands and correctly applies in practical scenarios.

      You will find two definitions of free will in most dictionaries. The first one, the one most commonly used, is choosing for yourself what you will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. And that’s the one I’m using. The second one, which suggests freedom from reliable cause and effect, is irrational. So I would suggest that you, and everyone else, should simply stop using it. After all, without reliable cause and effect, we could not reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all. The second definition is an oxymoron.

  13. Marvin,
    Your first definition of free will, ie being able to choose free from coercion, is NOT the type of free will that most people want to argue they have. People know beyond doubt when their choices and options are constrained by threat or coercion, so that definition of free will is easy to understand, but is not relevant to this discussion.

    Your second definition of free will, where one is free to choose outside passively acquired influences and experiences, is what many people want to possess. But they don’t, and can’t, and I’m glad you agree with that. It makes little sense. But this version of free will is precisely what people need to feel they possess to take personal pride in their good life choices, when the reality is somewhat different. It is the same free will that is used to blame others for their bad life choices, It’s the type of free will that’s a fundamental premise of the Christian contract. It is illusory, but we can all understand why it is a powerful illusion.

    Determinism does not mean that a person can avoid responsibility for his actions. As you say, our decisions are made by us, and no one else. We cannot excuse ourselves from criminal or anti social actions by the fact that the choice was outside our conscious control. We know when the actions we take are contrary to societal norms, so we must recognise there will be the potential for sanction should we breach those norms. That awareness is one of the influences in the ‘influence matrix’ of the vast majority of us. Society needs to maintain the threat of sanction against uncivil or criminal behaviour, because it will influence future behaviours.

    1. Ian,
      Since both concepts go by the name “free will”, it is impossible to attack one without attacking the other. And you will find reputable hard determinists explicitly attacking responsibility. Consider this bit of nonsense from no less than Albert Einstein:

      “In a sense, we can hold no one responsible. I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will. … Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” (see: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/wp-content/uploads/satevepost/what_life_means_to_einstein.pdf).

      Note that Einstein incoherently suggests that he must act like he believes something that he knows to be false. But hard determinism leads to a lot of logically nonsensical statements, so it’s just par for the course. And please keep in mind that ANY version of determinism that fails to incorporate free will is fatalism.

      As to what people really mean when they use the term “free will”, there have been studies, like this one, that demonstrate people are using the first definition, not the second: http://www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrary/nahmias.pdf

      And perhaps you’re already aware of the negative moral effects of telling people they have no free will, as described here: http://eddynahmias.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Neuroethics-Response-to-Baumeister.pdf

      Ian, you say this: “But this version of free will is precisely what people need to feel they possess to take personal pride in their good life choices, when the reality is somewhat different. It is the same free will that is used to blame others for their bad life choices, It’s the type of free will that’s a fundamental premise of the Christian contract. It is illusory, but we can all understand why it is a powerful illusion.”

      First, you need to understand that praise and blame are both deterministic tools for modifying behavior. Praise is what we do when our child does something good, to encourage him to continue doing it. Blame is used to point out when others have done something wrong, so the child knows to avoid copying that behavior. Praise and blame are not linked specifically to any religion. And I’m sure you’ll find atheists using the same parental tools as everyone else.

      Even a hard determinist will use them. For example, you are explicitly blaming Christianity and the belief in free will for inappropriate use of these deterministic tools. 😇

      Second, free will is not an “illusion”. It is a matter of empirical fact when a person chooses for themselves what they will do, and it is a matter of empirical fact if they are coerced or unduly influenced by someone or something else.

      Reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue. And that is why it poses no threat to free will.

      Choosing is a deterministic process by which our own purpose and our own reasons causally determine our choice. And that is why free will poses no threat to properly defined determinism.

  14. Marvin,

    It would be much easier if, for the purposes of this conversation, we concentrated on the ‘free-will’ that David Robertson was pinning his hopes on in this blog.
    David wants to believe that we could choose ‘free’ from our past influences and experiences, rather than those past and present causes determining our choices.

    I hold the view (shared by seemingly the vast majority of neuroscientists and contemporary philosophers) that there is no mechanism for this, either neuroscientifically, empirically or logically. There is also no reason for us to have this conscious freedom of choice, other than to serve the egos of those who have benefitted from the nature/nurture lottery.

    It seems that you share this view. I don’t agree that it is the equivalent of fatalism, which for me, is much more associated with predestination. I believe that the proper understanding of causal determinism could empower and motivate and improve the human condition.

    1. If you are going to argue and use other peoples arguments – then please make sure you state them correctly. I don’t believe that we choose free from our past influences and experiences.

    2. Ian, like the Wee Flea said, that is not his position. In fact, I’m pretty sure that absolutely no one holds the position that they are unaffected by their genes or their upbringing. And if you think that is what they are saying then that would be a mythical belief on your part.

      Let me be clear. The original error and the original illusion comes from the hard determinist. They are the ones who turned ordinary cause and effect into a monster that steals control of our destiny. This is a reification fallacy.

      This fallacy leads to a lot of mental errors and false conclusions. For example, when you say, “rather than those past and present causes determining our choices” you commit the same fallacy. You fail to recognize that the “present causes” happens to be predominantly “me”.

      It is an empirical fact that I am the object that is performing the choosing operation within my own neurology, and that I do so for my own purpose and my own reasons.

      The key insight here is that we use determinism, determinism does not use us.

      When we say “I could have done otherwise”, we simply mean that we had other options at the time that we could have implemented if we had chosen to do so.

      Whey you say, “No, no. There was always only one possibility.” or “No, you never had a choice”, then you are the one with the incoherent language, not us.

      Now, here is the subtle fact: the single inevitability has no logical implications at all for our “possibilities”, nor for what we “can” and “cannot” do. And every time you attempt to use inevitability to destroy these concepts you are breaking mental functions and semantic structures that have evolved over the history of humanity, and only continue to exist because they have proved over and over again to be useful.

      The single fact of causal inevitability itself is useless. It cannot help you make any decision, because all it can tell you is that “Whatever you decide will have been inevitable since any prior point in eternity”. If you can tell us what that decision will be, then that would indeed be helpful. But you can’t. Only “God”, or the guy’s wife, can tell you what he will decide before he decides it.

      Causal inevitability is like a constant that appears on both sides of every equation. It can be subtracted from both sides without affecting the result. Thus, it is a useless fact. The only reasonable thing to do with it is to acknowledge it, and then ignore it.

  15. OK, badly worded in a hurry. Sorry. Can I say then that you believe that you could make a choice that was not entirely determined by your past and present influences and experiences? If so, can you say how you could choose an alternative to that built by your influences, and why you might want to do that?

    The Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserts that our beliefs and opinions form outside our conscious control, after which we invent reasons for our belief which are not the true reasons in an attempt to rationalise the belief. Do you disagree with him?

    1. So, Ian, Does Kahneman explain how these beliefs get from outside the head to inside the head, totally bypassing our conscious awareness? Is it through hypnosis? Or perhaps telepathy? Just curious.

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