Free will

"If when a man writes a poem or commits a murder, the bodily movements involved in his act result solely from physical causes, it would seem absurd to put up a statue to him in the one case and to hang him in the other" -- Bertrand Russell (Why I am not a Christian)

Disclaimer (Thursday, November 19, 1998)

I do not believe in the existance of a free will any longer. My intention is to split this page up in several files which enlighten the question of free will from different perspectives. I still think the argument presented here holds, but at another level the will is not free. As I write in the essay, we can do whatever we want, but we cannot want to do whatever we want. Our actions are the results of what we in a sense choose to do, but our choises are the result of something we did not choose in the first place, namely our desires. In this respect, free will is logically impossible. Additionally, that something is free presupposes that it is not bound by any laws, and that it is a will presupposes that it is non-random and thus bound by some kind of laws. This makes the notion of free will a contradiction in terms.

Nevertheless we experience that we have a free will, and that is what this essay seeks to explain. To define something away is not to explain it. I can define free will away by demonstrating that it is a contradiction in terms, but that does not explain what it is that we experience as free will. Instead of reading this file as an argument for free will you should read it as an explanation of what we experience as free will.


For someone who believe that everything in the world consists of matter how is it possible to believe in free will? If all there is in the world are particles moving around randomly, how can such a view be justified? The question is well described in this debate between Douglas Wilson and Farell Till:
Douglas Wilson: Fine, I'll bite. If there is no God, then all the things you mention are in the same meaningless category. Morality, tragedy, and sorrow are equally evanescent. They are all empty sensations created by the chemical reactions of the brain, in turn created by too much pizza the night before. If there is no God, then all abstractions are chemical epiphenomena, like swamp gas over fetid water. This means that we have no reason for assigning truth and falsity to the chemical fizz we call reasoning or right and wrong to the irrational reaction we call morality. If no God, mankind is a set of bi-pedal carbon units of mostly water. And nothing else.

Farell Till: You bit too hard. In equating all human abstractions with "swamp gas over fetid water," you overlook verifiable facts. The human mind can think; swamp gas can't. Human intelligence can evaluate situations and formulate abstractions of beauty, happiness, sorrow, fairness and morality; swamp gas can't. Are these abstractions valid? Well, what IQ level is needed to conceptualize abstractions like beautiful, sad, fair, right or wrong? Can one with an IQ of 100 do it, or must his IQ be infinite? The existence of moral concepts is verifiable; the existence of gods who put such concepts into human minds is unverifiable. Please address this problem.

Douglas Wilson: You missed my challenge. You acknowledge the distinction between human intelligence and swamp gas, but you have no way to account for it. If there is no God, then why is there a distinction between the chemical reactions in your head and elsewhere? Suppose we agreed that the walls of a house are straight. I say there must be a foundation under it -- a precondition for straight walls. Your hypothesis is the house has no foundation at all and doesn't need one. "See, the walls are straight without a foundation." But given your worldview's assumptions, why ? Can you explain how time and chance acting on matter can produce the straight walls of reason and morality?

In this file I will try to explain how a set of bi-pedal carbon units of mostly water can evaluate situations and formulate abstractions of beauty, happiness, sorrow, fairness and morality while swamp gas can't. I will try to explain how I think time and chance acting on matter can produce the straight walls of reason and morality.

Non-liniear systems

The solution can be found in non-linear, also known as complex, systems. Our mind is not just particles moving round randomly. Take for example the moon and the earth. They both move randomly according to the physical laws, but still move in an ordered pattern relative each othe due to mutual attraction. In this system there is both upward causation (planets affecting the whole) and downward causation (the whole affecting the planets). Now imagine that you have billions of bodies moving in an ordered pattern, each one affecting the others. This pattern can actually be found in our solar system, in the rings of Saturn and is studied in chaos and fractal theory.

If a system is far from equillibrum it will give rise to chaos (Davies, 1987). Such chaotic states are analysed with fractal theories. One example is the market, which behaves in a way that can't be predicted by looking at its actors. Another is evolution, which has given existence to several creatures, and yet only works by random processes combined with natural selection.

Those who say that in my mechanistic world everything is predestined miss an important fact. Newtonial mechanics, linear systems and digital values (e.g one/zero, true/false) are exceptions in nature. One cause can have several possible effects, and in some cases a clear distinction between cause and effect is impossible. Imagine, for instance, a pendulum hanging in a line and allowed to swing in all free (i.e two) dimensions. Now put four magnets in a square under the pendulum. Give the pendulum a firm push and try to describe exactly what caused the pendulum to stop at a certain magnet -- even in theory an impossibility -- the path of the pendulum is totally unpredictable and the system "choses" the final state regardless of the initial condition (provided the push is firm enough to push the pendulum far from equillibrum).

The effect of such a cause can not be predicted in detail, but the pattern of the effects of several identic causes can be analysed using statistics and chaos theory. All random events can be ordered, either in a gauss curve or with the aid of something called "strange attractors" (I suggest the reader to learn about "attractors" in Downward Causation). An example for this is radioactive decay. You can't say in what given moment a certain atom will disintegrate, but because there are so many atoms you can statistically say that in a given amount of time, so and so many atoms will have disintegrated. However, you can never say for certainity exactly how many atoms have disintegrated in a finite time period.

Complex systems give rise to new levels of organisation. Take, for example, a picture in a newspaper. It consists of simple dots. One can not see the picture by observing the dots one at a time, to do so you must step back and look at the whole picture. Or take the words in this document. They are built on letters, but from analyzing the letters alone, one at a time, you can't get any understanding of what I'm trying to say. My thoughts only appear when you consider a higher level of organisation - the letters build words, the words build sentences, and the sentences build an insight in my philosophy. The important thing here is that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. A principle that was proposed by Aristotle and is of uttermost importance in e.g. system theory and psychology.

The basis for free will

But still, following the analogy of words, letters and sentences of this essay, the thoughts expressed in this document are predestined. The letters are static and cannot change, they were created this way by me, so the document does not have any free will. The difference is that the neural network in my brains has a feedback mechanism (downward causality) and also gets new impressions all the time - It is not in equillibrum. The brain is like a big computer which all the time gets more data than it can handle. Since it is a non-linear system far from equillibrum it's behaviour is not predictable in detail, not even if one knew the exact positions of all atoms in my brain. Thus the mind is inpredictable, has qualities which can't be analysed by looking at nerve cells alone, and controlls the behaviour of its own basic components. According to chaos theory, there are an infinity of paths (grades of freedom) the system can take, and the downward causality allows the system to controll its own components. This is how free will can exist in, what seems to be, a meaningless heap of atoms, a set of bi-pedal carbon units of mostly water.

The will is not completely free

However, we know from experience that in some situations the will is not completely free. If we would lay down on the sidewalk in a village, people walking by would help us instantly. But if we lay down on the sidewalk in the middle of New York, I am sure that people wouldn't hardly even recognise us. This is because villagers and city people have grown up in a different environment. Other examples of things we cannot affect are emotions (we never choose to be angry, for example), reflexes, logic or the laws of physics.

It has also been known for centuries that you get drunk from alcohole. All of this implies that we live in an cause-and-effect (i.e. material) world, and that there is some degree of determinism. Once again I must refer to chaos theory. In chaos theory nobody questions that there is predisposition. In other words, a system can be predicted, but not in detail. This is for example why a child that is beaten will learn to beat, and why apples always fall down, never up. It is the basis for science. If there would not be predisposition all causes and effects would be random. Therefore our will is not totally free, but we always have the possibility to act against our nature or even change it.

How can theists believe in free will?

"Since our inner experiences are combinations and reproductions of sence impressions, the expression a soul without a body seems me empty and without meaning." -- Albert Einstein
One of christianity's and islam's main doctrines is the doctrine of free will. But the christian position is paradoxial . How come we get drunk if the soul is something immaterial that controlls the body? (Russel, 1930) God is supposed to know everything. How is that possible if there are free wills? If god knows everything, he will know exactly what you will do tomorrow. He will even know exactly what he will do tomorrow. If God didn't know theese things, he would not know how you and he will use your immaterial souls to move around what you consider to be useless lumps of matter. In that case God would not know anything about the future of the Universe.

Theology tells us that there is a mind/matter dualism, that there is a basic and essential cleavage between natural and supernatural existence. The new sciences show us that there is no dualism between mind and body; there is unity. The mind is dependent of the body, and nothing but a higher level of organisation of it. The new theories are not only more manifested in human experience, they also have a pragmatic advantage, because they can provide a (humanistic) framework that acknowledges free will, human rights, morality on a democratic, supported, and scientific basis, instead of an authorative arbitrary revelation. It makes it possible to talk of morality and reason without having to appealing to miracles and unknowable gods. It gives us a way of accounting for a moral system that concerns our present material existence instead of concentrating on salvation.

"...any belief in supernatural creators, rulers, or influencers of natural or human process introduces an irreparable split into the universe, and prevents us from grasping its real unity. Any belief in Absolutes, whether the absolute validity of moral commandments, of authority of revelation, of inner certitudes, or of divine inspiration, erects a formidable barrier against progress and the responsibility of improvement, moral, rational, and religious." -- Sir Julian Huxley (The Humanist Frame)


I have provided a naturalist basis for free will. A will that is not completely free, but has the ability to make choices and even can be trained to act against it's own nature. The basis is that there is both upward and downward causation in a non-linear system far from equillibrum.

I have also, briefly, mentioned some of my major objections, why it is impossible to believe in both free will and an omnipotent god. It is not the naturalist who has to provide evidence on how his world view can support free will, that has alredy been taken care of by scientists. Some of the scientists dealing with theese issues may even believe in some kind of god. It is the christian who has to show how it is possible that physical causes can act on an immaterial soul, and how god can predict what effects free wills will cause the world.

This naturalist basis has also a practical value. It removes the last remains of ignorance from the understanding of human nature, and thus should be the cournerstone of a new scientific, human-based (Humanistic) moral system.


  1. Fredrik Bendz "Indeterminism" (1996)
  2. Paul Davies "The cosmic blueprint" (1987)
  3. Downward Causation, on PRINCIPIA CYBERNETICA WEB.
  4. A Basic Introduction To Neural Networks
  5. Free will? - Some thoughts by Paul Grobstein, a biology proffessor and brain scientist.
  6. Bertrand Russell "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" - See especially "The Doctrine of Free Will" (1930)

Other views

  1. Chad Docterman's Essay on Determinism

Mi casa Back to Fredrik Bendz' homepage
Last update: Wednesday, November 18

© Fredrik Bendz
S-mail :  here
E-mail :