Do we have free will? Both Christians and atheists have varying views on this question, which are sometimes related to their beliefs in various types of determinism. The intention of this article is to examine biological and theological determinism and to explain the relationship of the latter to God’s omniscience and our free will.
Biological determinism refers to the belief that human behavior is determined by our genetic composition and predispositions, rather than by our social or environmental circumstances. In other words, our behavior is directly controlled by our genes and our choices are made unconsciously by our brains, and are thus out of our conscious control. In his book, “The Moral Landscape,” Sam Harris offers his support of this idea (pp. 71-72):
“All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion. For instance, the physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 350 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions. Notice that distinction between “higher” and “lower” systems in the brain gets us nowhere: for I no more initiate events in executive regions of my prefrontal cortex than I cause the creaturely outbursts of my limbic system. The truth seems inescapable: I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”
In summary, biological (or genetic) determinism asserts that the actions we take and the decisions we make are best explained by our genetic composition and not by our environment or social circumstances.
Yet I will demonstrate why using biological determinism to claim we have no free will is faulty, at best. Issues of free will should focus on the sorts of choices that are unstructured, non-routine and complex, such as how we decide to attend to our relationships with God and our fellow human beings. Issues of free will should devote far less attention to routine, structured pre-programmed decisions in our brains, such as the way our motor skills operate when we walk, blink, eat, and do other routine tasks. The vast majority of the thousands of decisions we make each day are non-conscious decisions based on routine, low level tasks. Yet these issues are of little relevance or importance when answering whether we have free will.
Sadly, the distinction between non-routine and routine, structured and unstructured, and simple and complex choices is often blurred for adherents to biological determinism, despite the fact the Libet experiments they use to support their notions were based on very simple tasks (Libet, Gleason, Wright & Pearl, 1983). Steve Taylor (2017) has summed up this research as follows. In the Libet experiments, participants were asked to press a button or flex their wrists while EEG electrodes attached to their heads monitored their brain activity. Participants’ brains registered activity, which was unconscious to the participants, before they made conscious decisions. Libet referred to this activity as “readiness potential.” He interpreted that to mean that decisions were first made within participants’ brains before they were conscious of such decisions. Yet though his experiments have become famous and atheists (such as Harris and Dennett) have enthusiastically cited his research to claim we have no free will, numerous scholars have refuted the Libet studies. Scholars have questioned whether the activity in the brain is associated with the decision to move or (even) not move. They have also questioned whether the particular area of the brain in which the activity occurred, the supplementary motor area, is active when performing tasks. The supplementary motor area is usually active while imaging activities, not while performing them. To focus more on choices and outcomes, participants in a more recent study by Soon, Brass, Heinze and Haynes (2008) were asked to fixate on a center of a screen where a stream of letters was presented. When they felt the urge, they pushed one of two buttons. Then they were taken to another screen where they were prompted to recall the letter they picked and to press a second button. This study, like the Libet study, focused on only low-level motor or memory skills.
“As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pointed out ironically, “scientists animated by the purpose of proving themselves purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” In my view, this is connected to the general nihilism of our culture, the collapse of values which has followed from materialistic science. Such absurd views could only arise – and make any kind of sense – amidst the climate of meaninglessness and confusion that scientific materialism has given rise to” (Taylor, 2017).
Furthermore, even Benjamin Libet admitted that although our minds may make us lean towards particular simple decisions, we can choose to reject those decisions during the few seconds after our minds send signals to us (Seifert, 2011). In other words, he refuted his own assertions! Seifert examined Libet’s findings in the context of philosophy and concluded as follows:
“To have shown that Libet in no way has disproven that human persons can indeed act freely and, in so acting, truly initiate a chain of causal processes that are not caused by preceding brain events, allows us to face and to overcome fully the huge challenge Libet poses to free will: the results of his experiments do not disprove free will or justify only the free will of vetoing, but instead both his own test results, when interpreted in the light of logic and a more adequate philosophy of persons and causes, and their liberation from the many philosophical equivocations, limitations, and errors he associates with their interpretation confirm that we are endowed with free will and that any determinist theory that denies free will, whether compatibilist or incompatibilist, soft or hard, is wrong.” (Seifert, 2011, p. 45)
In contrast to biological determinism, in which individuals are seemingly held hostage to their own DNA, theological determinism refers to the belief that everything we do and all events that occur in the world have been pre-ordained, or pre-determined by God who knows our actions in advance through His omniscience. This perspective underscores Calvinism. Yet if God has pre-determined our actions, this belief stands in stark contrast to what the Bible says about our free will.
Bible verses on God’s omniscience
Psalm 147:5 “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.”
1 John 3:20 “In whatever our heart condemns; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.”
Psalm 139:4 “Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, you know it all.”
Bible verses on our free will
John 7:17 “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”
Joshua 24:15 “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.”
Proverbs 16:9 “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.
The story of David and Saul further highlights that God knows what we would, could, and will do under varying circumstances.
“When David learned that Saul was plotting against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod.” David said, “Lord, God of Israel, your servant has heard definitely that Saul plans to come to Keilah and destroy the town on account of me. Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.”
And the Lord said, “He will.”
Again David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?”
And the Lord said, “They will.”
So David and his men, about six hundred in number, left Keilah and kept moving from place to place. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he did not go there. – 1 Samuel 23:9-13.
Atheists use theological determinism to state that free will and God’s omniscience are at odds with one another, saying that God cannot be omniscient if we have free will. Yet their view conflates God’s omniscience with His control over us. He knows what we’ll do to respond to the pathway He set before us, but He does not control our actions and responses. We are free to make our own decisions as to how we carry out our lives and whether we choose to love and serve our Lord. Just as a parent plans aspects of his child’s life to foster success and excellence, the Lord plans for triumphs through tribulations in our lives to enhance, shape and cultivate our spiritual strengths. He knows what we could, would, and will do in various circumstances and He plans for the optimal pathway. This is known in the theological literature as Molinism.
How does the Lord know what we will do in our lives? Revelation 1:8 tells us that He is concurrently in our past, present, and future. He is unbounded by linear time.
“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty’” Revelation 1:8.
He therefore sees and has seen all of the choices we will make over our lifetimes and has written the names of those who have finished strong and will finish strong in His Lamb’s Book of Life.
One might posit that those who endorse beliefs in biological or theological determination may be influenced by some desire to absolve themselves from responsibility for their own decisions. That is a pity, because God holds us accountable. And the fact that we know we are externally held accountable should be a source of comfort as such knowledge likely leads to more moral decisions.
Thank you for your time.
Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York, NY: Free Press.
Libet, B., Gleason, C.A., Wright, E.W. & Pearl, D.K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 106: 623-642.
Seifert, F. (2011). Persons, causes and free will: Libet’s topsy-turvy idea of the order of causes and “forgetfulness of the person.” Journal of East-West Thought, 1: 13-51.
Soon, C.S., Brass, M., Heinze, H. & Haynes, J.D. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11: 543-545.
Taylor, S. (2017). Benjamin Libet and the denial of free will. How did a flawed experiment become so influential? Psychology Today. September 5.