Free Will and Biology

2018 Jul 3

I was listening to a talk by biologist about how our biology influences our decisions. His approach was from the atheistic evolutionary perspective. He saw that our biology is extremely complex, nevertheless it is a predictable mechanism. At times we might feel that we have made a free decision. However, he said that usually you could show how the "choice" was entirely predictable from our biology working in our circumstances. "Its biology all the way down", he said, therefore he felt we had no free will.

However, the view that free will does not exist has been rejected by all cultures through all time. Humans have always been held responsible for their choices by the law. Socially (except for certain narrow circumstances) persons are always held accountable for personal choices.

Responsibilities, Futurists, Machines

And yet animals are not treated in the same ways. Animals never commit crimes. Animals do have consequences for some things that they do, but that is not the same thing. Consequences are just simply reality for all levels of living things - for plants as well as animals. (e.g. I trim back the bushes in my garden when they grow too big.) Civilizations, however, have always held humans to a higher standard than they have held all other living things; humans are held responsible.

Humans are also different from animals in that they actively predict the future. When a person makes plans for the future or acts to fulfill their dreams, they are predicting what the future will be for them. These are things that we never see animals doing. Animals may sometimes work very hard to fulfill their instincts, or return to a familiar circumstance, but neither of these comes from an envisioning of an imagined future.

Predicting the future correlates with free will because as humans we create our own future. Within the limitations of our circumstances in life, we make our future out of our free choices. Our parents, our teachers in school and our bosses at work all use this perspective about us. Philosophically law is written from this perspective. This is the way humanity works! Humans receive consequences for their actions (as do animals), but uniquely humans are held responsible for their choices as if they had free will.

In contrast these days, we are being told a reductionistic evolutionary story for the origin of humans which says that we are simply and only biological machines. Society itself, however, continues to reject the idea that comes from this story. Civilization cannot afford to allow humans the logical implications of an absence of free will because that would turn into anarchy. note Therefore, this reductionistic materialistic theory is fundamentally defective because it cannot account for an inherent characteristic of humans.

It may be pointed out that in some historical cases people do get treated as if they had no free will through oppressive control. That is off my intended topic. However it also is wrong for a related reason: the affected individuals don’t agree to it. Because the will of these oppressed is being violated, this is commonly recognized in the West as being an injustice.

More than biology

However a theistic perspective will assign more to humans than simply their biology. Humans created in the image of God are given a spirit as well as a body. The spirit is more than just biology and can explain a source of free will. note

This adequately explains other aspects of how humans can transcend the the body such as with creativity, invention and aesthetics.

The mechanistic evolutionary narrative fails to be adequate to explain these. Aesthetics are unnecessary, so pragmatically they should not happen. Time and the motion of atoms are an impotent source for creativity because picking good trials out of randomness is overwhelmingly slow, and without us having a sense of the aesthetic there wouldn't be any discriminator in us for something worth keeping. If we are meat machines we should not have these abilities.

This is part of the difficult problem of consciousness (difficult to science). Consciousness and free will seem to be related. However, consciousness is unexplainable on reductionist materialistic theories. Some theorists simply take the view that it is an illusion. This is disingenuous because consciousness is the singular most important feature of the experience of being human.

It is certainly true that free will for humans (whatever it might be) is limited. We live in a physical world and material circumstances do limit our immediate options. We live in physical bodies with their own biological predispositions and it takes substantial mental effort to change material things. The fact that free will might be limited, however, is no argument that it does not exist.

Observational studies support a non-material component to human decision-making. note The view of the self as having both a material and a non-material component is called dualism. The brain is taken as the material, and the mind as the non-material. Usually the free will is attributed to the mind. The committed materialistic rejects a dualist view for philosophical reasons and then performs their science from the perspective of their chosen world view.

Many studies have been made on this, including work that measures brain activity before a choice of movement. Characteristically there is a build-up of neuron activity called the Readiness Potential (RP) before a motion occurs. Some interpret that as simply a mechanism of the sub-consciousness, and evidence that free will therefore does not exist.

However, Benjamin Libet did widely recognized studies of this kind in which he asked his subjects to initially decide to move (a finger) and then sometimes decide instead not to move. He measured no neuron activity precursor corresponding to the anti-movement. Out of this he concluded there was clear evidence for non-mechanistic, non-physical will for humans. Free will maybe was questionable from experiments (because of the RP), but “free won’t” was strongly evidenced as a non-corporeal thing. The “free won’t” interestingly aligns well with traditional aspects of conscience and self control.

Additional work has been done since then with outcomes that researchers sometimes take to disagree with Libet. However, this seems to be a matter of scientific opinion rather than clear fact. It depends on the methods and interpretations of the new studies, and the conclusions of these researchers are not consistent. Libet’s work and conclusions are still valid.

See also Neuroscience can help us understand why free will is real

Thus the biologist said it was “biology all the way down". This was from a pre-commitment to the perspective. A different world view that is not restricted to materialism, however would allow other options. Materialism is useful to explain materialistic processes, but there are important things outside of the categories that it can explain. note This is evidence that not all is material.

  • What caused the universe?
  • What is energy?
  • Where did the specified information in living systems come from?
  • What is consciousness?

These are inexplicable on materialism.


Humans have free will. Society and culture depend on it. The experience of being human depends on it. A pre-commitment to a mindset that rejects such an important thing in our existence shows poor judgement. It is a matter of philosophical opinion before the science, and not the other way around. It is reckless to promote this idea since it is philosophically-based (and therefore elective), and it is toxic to the human environment because of the bad consequences.

Rejecting free will is a foolish opinion.

2018-07-03 updated 2022-03-08   © 2022 Larry Grove