One of the most common arguments for god is the link to our free will. Without god, we can’t have free will and the ability to choose; instead, we are just automatons following the naturalistic script of determinism.
I have many doubts over this argument, as well as its implications. It starts with the overlooked but seemingly obvious truth.
What this attitude ignores is how we operate with instinct and habit. We are not blank slates but have an evolutionary past that has moulded our bodies and behaviours.
The argument ignores that a lot of our behaviour is not through choice but automatic and habitual.
Cherry-picking the behaviours that seem to arise from choice and ignoring our habits is confirmation bias.
When we feel cold, which is uncomfortable, we add another layer of clothing or turn the heating up, but we are unaware this happens or notice this behaviour, as it falls into the realm of the subconscious.
We don’t need to think about how to walk (or talk); such activity is effortless, automatic.
If I were to ask: ‘Don’t think about pink elephants, ‘ what would you think? Pink elephants. We don’t pick our thoughts or feelings; they arise. Since what goes on in your mind affects your behaviour, you are not in control either.
Most of our behaviour is a habit; custom through repetition is what David Hume called it. We have a language for it, ‘force of habit’, ‘second nature’. We’re so habitual that we don’t need to think or choose. Biology kicks will powers ass: you can’t overcome your biology.
Where’s the agency and the agent in not falling down or walking, or talking extemporaneously? Where’s the agency in thought? We don’t choose to have an idea.
Addictions show this; try resisting a cigarette if you are a compulsive smoker. Food if you’re a comfort eater. We tend to act upon feeling and, after the fact, devise rationalising explanations to explain our behaviour, like free will or choice. It’s a mistake to think the rational explanation was the cause of the act when it was merely post hoc fiction. The behaviour was instinct, a reaction not thought through or considered.
In the far east, activity without agency is called Wu Wei or ‘effortless action’, Mushin, or ‘No mind’ in Japanese. It’s behaviour without agency, and we do this a lot. It’s the fourth stage in the four stages of competence. So much of how we behave a nothing to do with agency, walking talking, but also martial arts, sports and more. Something advocates of this argument fail to see.
I’m more taken with the idea of Free Won’t. Arising from neuroscience is the theory our conscious mind veto’s the unconscious impulses that cause us to act. Emotions bubble up from our subconscious, the limbic system in the brain, and our neocortex pushes back.
The neocortex is part of the brain associated with executive control, Free will, choices, intentions, etc.
It also raises a problem for the thesis and their image of god. We do spontaneously, and so does that man. We can act in ways god serves because god can only work with an agency, unable to function without thinking.
I guess the question to ask is, does god have subconscious? If not, then perhaps god is but a pale parody of ourselves, a question it get to below.
Responsibility and justice?
Some thesis might raise the objection linking it to our systems of justice and law. How can we punish those who transgress the law if we/they have no free will? The answer is you’re not powerless; you can change habits, attitudes, and behaviours. You are responsible for being aware of what goes on with your thoughts and emotions and then acting more carefully.
Also, judicial systems can account for a crime that didn’t involve intent. The French judicial system accepts ‘crimes of passion; some countries also offer 2nd-degree murder and manslaughter. Another is the crime was committed with ‘diminished responsibility.’
The individual is still held to account, but it’s for a lesser offence because there is no proof of intent. The failure was a lack of responsibility, neglect and awareness, not a deliberate act of malice. I make the law more nuanced just as comes can be nuanced.
Another way is to see it as Buddhists see it, through the lens of the Two Truths. They don’t claim free will does or doesn’t exist; it’s seen as a narrative that will help us live our lives; justice is there for practical purposes, to organise society.
Fetish of Consciousness and the image of God
What’s happening with the idea of free will is people have an over-inflated sense of agency’s role in our lives.
It’s part of what I call the Fetishisation of Consciousness. We take its contents and cling to them as the only explanation for humanity, forgetting our evolutionary past and the instincts and needs that have become part of our species.
God’s image is based on a myopic view of ourselves—taking consciousness, agency, intentions, the reason as the good and projecting it onto a god.
The Self, the ego
Where’s the chooser doing the choosing? Where is the ‘Free Willer’ that Free Wills? The argument for free will is predicated on the separate Self. Yet, in Buddhism, they see a separate self as an illusion.
There is a subtle thread of insecurity here too. We like to feel in control, so we create these fictions. We cling to will and agency, so we take credit for doing good. But reject free will when we misbehave or fail because there is a fragile ego to protect.
It shows how much this notion of free will is bound to our neediness and the misperception of existence.
The Self is an illusion in Buddhism, meaning Free Will is, by extension, the same. It’s not to say they don’t exist, but instead, the truth is more nuanced than mere appearances suggest.
The case for free will is tenuous at best. Squeezed between subconscious impulses and external pressures. From our evolutionary past and social norm, there’s little left of our behaviour we can point to without some influence or cause.
Most of our behaviour is habitual, automatic, and subconscious, with no need for or free will; indeed, contemplation would get in the way of such activity.
We’re not blank slates but have instincts and a subconscious that does much of the heavy living in our lives, yet we give credit to what can be more easily seen and felt ou agency—the illusory veneer we perceive, not the mysterious depths we don’t.
Free will is a story we tell ourselves, giving us the feeling we’re in control. It fits our sense of right and wrong, fair play and justice. It is reassuring to believe in, but it’s an illusion, and the argument for a god fails under closer scrutiny because it fails to look beyond mere appearances. It is an argument from illusion.