Category Archives: Free will

Original sin. What is it good for?

Blaming you, that’s what. It’s your fault!

I’m fast coming around to the view that the Socialist Salvation Army expresses like this.

our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness, and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.

This is the doctrine of original sin. It was Adam (and Eve) who committed the orginal sin, but you have inherited that sin. You were born bad. Free will is commonly believed to be a precondition of moral agency and moral responsibility, but it’s not. Just as well, since we don’t have free will!

Contrary to popular opinion, moral responsibility is not consequent upon our actions (whether freely chosen or otherwise). Moral responsibility is not gotten through acts of commission or omission. In fact, it’s a matter of give and take. You are morally responsible if you are justly held accountable by other people (including God) or if you rightly take responsibility yourself for your own (or other people’s) actions.

The view I have just expressed is not a popular one. It gets intransigent atheists, in particular, in a real lather. Here‘s Ayn Rand.

The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin.

A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code.

The doctrine of original sin squares the existence of morality with the non-existence of free will.

The doctrine of original sin is Biblically sound, whereas the doctrine of free will is not (notwithstanding that it’s a very popular theodicy).

Surely I was sinful at birth,
        sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (NIV)


Free will. What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing!

I’m fast coming around to the view that the concept of free will is what Ayn Rand called an anti-concept.

An anti-concept is an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding. But in the realm of cognition, nothing is as bad as the approximate …

Free will is designed to obliterate human decision-making.

It’s simple. We make decisions.

Other people (including God) hold us accountable (i.e., deserving of moral praise or blame) for our decisions. That’s all there is to it, and all you need to know.

The Singularity – the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence – is coming, as early as 2030 according to some estimates. The first smarter-than-human AI will make decisions, like we do, only better. Will it have free will? That depends on whether other people (including God) hold it accountable for its decisions.

“The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. (NIV)



A couple of days ago, columnist Joe Bennett concluded his column in The Press by telling us

I’m going to spend the afternoon finding out how I’ve chosen to enjoy myself.

You’re about to find out that you’ve chosen to read on to see what on earth Joe Bennett was talking about. Here’s the start of his column.

But first an apology. A month or so back a gentleman emailed me about something I’d said on the radio. He wrote, and I quote, “free will is a childish delusion”.

“Scoff,” I wrote back. “Pooh pooh. I have free will. My free will is writing this email. Without free will we are automata.”

Since then, however, I have been on a wee journey and I would like to retract my scoff and pooh pooh. But I have forgotten the gentleman’s name and deleted his email.

So if you’re reading this, sir, sorry. You were right. I was wrong.

The change of mind followed last week’s column about the mutiny of the body.

In response I got several emails directing me to some neuroscientific research. It seems that neuroscientists have been nibbling at the idea of free will for years without telling me.

For example they attached electrodes to people’s skulls and then asked the people to click a computer mouse at a moment of their choosing. The boffins found that when people decided to click the mouse, their brain had already begun the physical process of clicking. In other words, the decision to click had been made before the people realised they’d made it. The click was already going to happen.

There were numerous similar experiments. They all suggested that when we think we decide to do something of our own free will, our consciousness is merely catching up with a decision that we have already made. We are rationalising after the fact.

We are deluding ourselves into thinking we are in conscious control of our actions. It’s a nice, consoling delusion, but a delusion none the less.

Problem? Well, yes! If we have no free will, we have no moral responsibility for our actions.

No free will means that Christianity is a nonsense.

No free will means that Objectivism is a false religion.

No free will means that “not my problem” doesn’t cut it.

I’ve known of the experimental results to which Bennett refers for the past 15 years or so, ever since I read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. 15 years later, I still have no rejoinder.

Dennett takes us to a very high mountain and shows us all the sciences of naturalism and their splendour. “Everything you want … you can have,” says Dennett.