Free Will is REAL…and Why that Matters!

By Ralph Di Fiore

(Ed.: In typical uncompromising style, guest columnist and Toronto educator Ralph Difiore takes issue with the New Atheist claim that everything is determined by our physical make-up with no spiritual component at work in the human being – important for establishing religionists' claim about humankind’s spiritual nature).

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and company deride the belief in free will as part of nonsensical religious thinking. We are merely automatons they claim, the brain does what it wants in a deterministic universe and gives us the illusion that we are free moral agents capable of making decisions on our own. There is no “ghost in the machine” making decisions, they proclaim loudly. There is no immaterial mind that is making decisions. The brain is merely a collection of ordinary atoms somehow magically producing what we all experience as the primary phenomenon in our lives, consciousness…

It drives me to anger to hear debates between determinists and proponents of free will when the central issues are ignored. The debates skirt around the real issues. I have sent Sam Harris emails requesting a debate and have received no reply.

What are the real issues and why are they not being addressed?

Sam Harris

Are we all programmed?

Very simple, elementary logic my dear Watson, one might say.

Issue number one. In a deterministic universe, automatons are merely carrying out their programming. An automaton has no choice in the actions it takes.

Logical fallacy numero uno, my dear Watson. As a determinist, when you attack the belief in free will that is held by man (especially by Christians) you are attacking a programmed automaton which according to your deterministic view, has no choice in any of its actions! Pardon the emphatic nature of this statement but it is such a blatant contradiction in reasoning, one so logically inconsistent that it bears having it emphasized in such a manner.

Consider: What sane person would criticize and deride an automaton for following its programmed actions? You can’t have your cake and eat it too… It the determinists really believed their views they would resign themselves to the fact that any religious belief, any atheistic belief, any belief of any sort was not entered into freely and merely a result of determinist programming. They would offer up a collective sigh because the logical extension of their deterministic belief is simple. In the deterministic universe religious belief has merely been programmed into the script and the automatons that are religious are merely following their pre-programmed actions.

Daniel Dennett

“Sauce for the goose…”

But here’s the rub (or one of them) – is it not true to then argue in equal measure that they, as atheists, have not chosen freely to be atheists but are merely automatons who have been programmed to be atheists. That implies that their boasts of rejecting nonsensical religious ideas is nonsense in itself! Why you ask? Because rejecting religious ideas implies one has the ability and freedom to do so! “What’s Sauce for the Goose, is Sauce for the Gander.” Their deterministic view holds that you are programmed in whatever belief you may have, religious or otherwise.

But – and here’s the bigger rub! – this claim only makes sense in a universe that is governed by free will, not in a deterministic universe!

“The Brain with a MInd of its Own!”

To further show how little the determinists actually believe their positions, we must carry out this exercise in elementary logic a little further. If one really believes in a brain that does its own thing without any input from the individual possessing that brain then one would logically be afraid to wake up because who knows what horrors your brain might have in store for you. You would merely be going along for the ride with the mistaken belief that you are actually making these decisions in free will manner.

Laying aside such horrors as mass murder, let us just use one simple example to show how little determinists really believe in their worldview. If we are automatons, then tomorrow Richard Dawkins could wake up and due to his programming, over which he admittedly has no control, suddenly proclaim that he is a Bible carrying Christian and renounce all previous atheistic claims he made.

“Why of course that will never happen!” Dawkins would bellow. “I am a rational scientist and I would never allow myself to think that way!” In so doing he would expose how he actually does believe in free will and does not believe that he could be programmed to become religious, i.e., he does not believe he is an automaton!

Why this point is not addressed in debates is beyond me, most notably when the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was debating Dawkins. Dawkins would claim that if he had thoughts of religious belief he would reject them and tenaciously maintain his atheistic worldview.

Excuse me Mr. Dawkins but that is what free will is all about! The ability to hold a thought and freely decide an action is the very definition of free will.

The Consciousness Conundrum

These debates are vitally relevant to the “ghost in the machine” argument. Why you ask? Because a determinist cannot explain consciousness. They in many cases hold that it does not exist or at best is a weak “epiphenomenon” (a fancy philosophical word for a byproduct of something, in this case the physical brain). Since there is no immaterial mind, there can only be a physical organ following a deterministic script and throwing off the illusion of free agency. An immaterial mind cannot in their view exist because something immaterial cannot affect the material world. It boils down to that.

This is their “trump” card so to speak. Because the believer in free will cannot prove that an immaterial mind exists or that that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of the material brain, in their minds (pardon the humor) the argument is over and free will is just nonsensical religious thinking.

The argument is won by demonstrating the illogical basis of their arguments as I outlined at the beginning of this essay and their own non-belief in determinism by their assertion that they have freely chosen to be atheists and would freely choose to never be religious. They are contradicting themselves in a blatantly obvious manner.

Who is being logical?

In conclusion, it is very obvious to me why they hold such views. They are refusing to believe that an immaterial domain might exist and have to account for such primary aspects of our existence, namely consciousness, on merely material grounds. To repeat what I stated earlier. I could respect their position if they really believed it but they do not through their contradictory and illogical positions. If you are ever in the position to debate someone on the issue, have them explain their contradictory and illogical positions outlined earlier in this paper and you will quickly see that in so doing, they make the case for free will.

I pointed these illogical and contradictory positions out to Sam Harris in an email and received no reply and I never will because the answer refutes determinism.

Checkmate my dear Watson!

(You can debate Ralph at