Free Will and the Soul

Free will is the subject of much debate and confusion both in religious and secular contexts. This article analyses the concept of free will and shows that we both have it and don't have it, depending on how it is defined.

The tension between free will and predetermination leads to a paradox in most religious views,

meaning that the religious views cannot be fully true.

The theorised existence of a soul does not fix the problem. Furthermore, the idea of a soul does not make total sense and thus the materialist view of the world is more likely the correct one.

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Free Will

Standing on the footpath, I am completely free to choose whether to cross the road: I have total free will.

Crossing the road

The universe is made of subatomic particles which interact in ways that can be largely predicted by the laws of physics. As humans we cannot alter that – we can’t make two electrons attract each other through an act of will. Quantum considerations do add a little bit of uncertainty to the interactions. For instance, we cannot predict which slit an electron will pass through in the double-slit experiment. But then neither can we affect it. We have no control over the random wave function collapses that make it unpredictable – the only things (by the physical model) that are not set in stone before they happen. In that sense, we have no control over the way the universe will pan out. The universe will evolve through time in a given way determined only by its particle interactions.

Being part of that universe, we evolve with it and therefore we evolve in a given way. Part of that evolution is the particle interactions in our brains which manifest as our minds, our thoughts, our consciousness. And part of that is the decisions we make.

Our decisions are not always forced upon us by external constraints (e.g. someone making us to go a certain way), and in that sense we have free will. But they are always forced upon us by internal constraints (our particles), and in that sense we have no free will.

If we are standing by the road deciding whether to cross or stay where we are, only one course of action is possible, though we won’t know which one, and we will feel like we have both options open to us. But what is going to happen with our particles is going to happen. No act of will independent of our particles can affect that.

Life is going to be what it is going to be. Viewed as part of the 4-dimensional spacetime picture of the universe, it is a given. All we can do is go along for the ride. When we go on a roller coaster, we go where it takes us. No act of will on our part will make it go anywhere else. But we still enjoy the ride. Life is the same. We can still enjoy the ride – those bits that are enjoyable anyway.

And there is no need to feel bad about anything that we or anyone else has done: things couldn’t have happened any other way.

So, to summarise . . . Do I have free will to cross the road or to not cross?

No one and nothing outside of me is forcing me to cross or not cross. So I have free will in the sense that there are no external constraints on me.

But I am totally constrained by the state of my atoms, a state which depends on my make-up, my past experience and what I perceive around me. So I have no free will in the sense that there are internal constraints on me that totally determine my actions.

Both statements (that I have free will and that I don't have free will) are true, depending on whether one is considering just external constraints or internal constraints as well.

A Soul

Of course, the above would not be necessarily true if there is a part of us which is independent of our particles, and which can change the actions of the particles (and hence the firings of our neurons) in ways not compatible with the laws of physics as we see them. That is what a soul or spirit would have to do. Most thinking humans over history have assumed that there is this second part to us.

Most of the world's people believe that we are more than a bunch of atoms interacting as determined by the laws of physics. Most people believe we also have a soul which is not dependent upon those particles but which can change the actions of the particles (and hence the firings of the neurons) in our brains in ways not compatible with the laws of physics as we see them. Not being dependent upon our atoms, such a soul could survive after bodily death. Those who believe in an independent soul mostly see consciousness as a property of the soul rather than the physical brain. This would mean that consciousness could continue after death in a meaningful afterlife.

Soul departing

Most of those who believe in the soul and an afterlife believe that the afterlife is under the control of a god. The god has control over our souls after death and can assign them to various places. In some eastern belief systems, the soul is either re-assigned to another body, or it is united with the spiritual universe or god in an everlasting state of blissful oneness, the fate depending on how one behaved in the previous life. In other belief systems, the soul is assigned, temporarily or permanently to a place of bliss or a place of torture, again depending on one's behaviour in this world or, more often, what one believed in this world.

In nearly every case, there is an assumption that the soul has free will and can choose to make the body behave in the way required for heavenly reward or can choose to make it not behave that way. So the soul could choose whether to be good or bad, it would be responsible for the choice it makes and it would deserve whatever are the consequences of that choice.

We might call a soul that chooses to be good 'a good soul' and a soul that chooses to be bad 'a bad soul'. The problem is that we have no say in whether we are given a good soul or a bad soul (or maybe we should say whether we are a good soul or we are a bad soul). This means that the soul does not really have free will in choosing its nature and so, one would think, does not deserve the consequences of its behaviour, especially if the consequence is an eternity of unbearable torture.

The idea of a soul, therefore, doesn't make total sense. At the very least, it couldn't be the creation of a god with any degree of fairness. Even if we do have a soul, we have the one we were given and there is nothing we can do to change that. So there's no real point in worrying about it.

A growing number of people nowadays (including most scientists) consider that there is no such part of us and that we are in fact no more than bunches of atoms. They see consciousness as being the result of chemical and electrical activity of the brain. This idea would mean that most of the world is wrong in their fundamental understanding of existence. Can that be possible? Well, 2500 years ago almost everyone in the world was a pagan, believing in a whole pantheon of gods each of which controlled some aspect of nature and which often competed with, fought with and killed one another. So, yes, it does seem that almost everyone can be wrong.

The existence of a soul, an afterlife and a god cannot be proved or disproved, so we just have to go by what seems most likely. Below are a couple of further considerations which might have an impact on our thoughts about this.

The first - Anaesthetic

Most people who believe that we do have a soul consider it to be the seat of our consciousness. This of course is necessary if our consciousness is to continue after death in an afterlife.

The soul could not be controlled by the atoms in our brains because, if it were, it would essentially be subject to the same laws of physics that control those atoms and would cease to function when the brain decomposes. However, a general anaesthetic, which just alters the chemistry and electrical activity of the brain, can eliminate consciousness.


This strongly suggests that consciousness is an emergent property of this chemical and electrical activity rather than a property of an independent soul. If impairing the brain can eliminate consciousness, then we won't be conscious after death. Even if we did continue to exist in some form, it wouldn't matter because we wouldn't know about it.

The second - Divine Intervention

Most people who believe in a god believe that it can predict and intervene in worldly affairs.

The deterministic physical model of the world doesn't, on the face of it, allow this. Though, maybe the god could adjust the unpredictable quantum outcomes in ways that change the way the universe evolves so as to fit with its wishes. Such control might be achievable without breaking the laws of physics.

The question is: Is there enough leeway in quantum uncertainty to allow such changes? Maybe to change people’s minds if they are ambivalent, yes, though maybe not to perform miracle cures, part the Red Sea, move mountains, produce a virgin birth, raise a body from the dead etc.

Of course the god could override the laws of physics occasionally, maybe just when we're not looking.

How Shoud We Live?

To me (and probably to most people), the two most likely scenarios are:

1. We don't have a soul and there is no god and no life after death.

2: We do have a soul and there is a god and a life after death, the pleasantness of which will be dependent on what we do in this life.

If Scenario 1 is the case, then we might as well just live this life the best we can. According to the article on 'Pleasure', that means producing as much pleasure as we can, for ourselves and others.

If Scenario 2 is the case, then, as the afterlife is likely to be a lot longer than this one, and as the different options there are very different in terms of their pleasantness, then our best option in this life is to do what we can to make the next life the best possible.

A non-committal half-and-half life will probably deliver the worst of both worlds. It would seem better to make a decision one way or the other and go with that. My reasoning leads to going with Scenario 1. The reasoning is detailed below.

In the section on 'Existence', we looked at the two possible alternatives - our world is objective and our world is subjective. If you haven't done so, it could be worth reading 'Existence' before going on here, though it's not essential.

My world being objective means that what I see around me exists in the same way that I do - I am just part of a world which contains many people like me and many other things. Let's consider this case.

I have little or no personal experience that can throw light on whether there is an afterlife. So I have to go by what I am told. Most people believe that there is an afterlife and most believe that a certain set of beliefs and actions will guarantee that it is a pleasant one. These actions involve some sacrifices in this life, but these sacrifices would seem to be worth it if they can guarantee bliss rather than agony later on.

The trouble is that there are numerous different views on what is necessary to get that guarantee and they are largely mutually exclusive – each saying that the others are false and will only lead to damnation. None of these religions stand out as more feasible than any of the others, so I have no way of knowing which if any of them is correct. I have looked in detail at fundamental evangelical Christianity, been immersed in it and involved with people who follow it. My exposure showed me that there are many things about the religion which do not make good sense, which are seemingly self-contradictory and which are not what one would expect if it were a true account of reality. From what I know of other religions, none of them are any better.

One can only follow one religion and, even if one of them is correct, the probability of choosing it seems to be very small. Thus it seems not really to be worth making the sacrifices that would be necessary to follow it.

I'm afraid the mormons were the correct answer

"SouthPark - I'm afraid the mormons were the correct answer" on YouTube

Being interested in the world and the way it works and putting a lot of effort into making sense of it, the model that makes most sense in terms of what I see and what I hear from reliable sources is the one described by mainstream science in which there is no soul, no god and no life after death. Thus it makes sense to me to live by atheistic assumptions.

My world being subjective means that what I see around me is just the result of sensory input and the people and things I see do not have independent existence the way I do. Let's now consider this case.

As I was brought up with a Christian account of things, it may be that my god is telling me that Christianity is the way I should go. Of course, if my world is subjective, then other people don’t exist the way I do and so no one actually follows any other religion. I know from experience that I can be fairly sure about things yet realise later that there was something I hadn’t considered and that I was wrong. Thus, even though the Christianity I was brought up with seems to make less sense to me than an atheistic world view, it doesn’t mean it’s not correct. In this case, it could be worth making the sacrifices necessary to conform to the requirements of the religion. I can’t tell whether my world is objective or subjective, but, in this regard, I need to consider the possibility that it is subjective. It was partly with this in mind that I first looked seriously into Christianity as an adult.

However, a number of things mean that following Christianity still won’t guarantee that I will be spared the torment of hell.

1. My Christian upbringing wasn’t in a specific denomination with a specific set of beliefs. There are many branches of Christianity, many claiming that I can only be saved by following their version of truth.

2. Because of the lack of consensus, the obvious thing to do was to go back to the primary sources myself. The most primary source we have is the bible. Trouble is that the bible isn’t very clear on many important points or is self-contradictory on them (see here). Also, it says a lot that, in the light of modern science, seems patently not true. Some Christians claim that the bible is infallible. In light of these contradictions, this seems unlikely. If the bible isn’t infallible or is metaphorical or is just a guide put together by humans, then I have no way of knowing which bits are correct and which bits aren’t. So I can’t really work out how to be saved anyway. [The requirement for salvation is actually one of the least consistent aspects of the bible.]

3. My reading of the bible makes it fairly clear to me that the reformed (Calvinist) view of salvation is the intended one (see here). By this view, God decided before he made the Earth who would be saved and who wouldn’t and, if I’m not one of the lucky ones, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it – no amount of effort, trying to believe or being good will save me. The bible promises that certain things will happen to us once we are saved. Even though I thought I had gone through the process required for salvation, these things never seemed to happen, so I had to conclude that I’m not one of the lucky ones. Furthermore, according to the bible, salvation is by faith and faith requires certainty, not doubt. Despite praying for faith over many years, it never came, reinforcing the conclusion that I was not saved.

Thus, even if my world is subjective and there is a soul, a god and an afterlife, I cannot do anything to change my fate, so I might as well not worry about it and enjoy this life the best I can.

Woman on Beach

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Image Acknowledgements

Crossing the road: Kenneth Allen on
Soul departing: Yale Center for British Art
Surgery: ReSurge International on Flickr
Ganesha: shankar s on Flickr
Woman on beach: PxHere