You Have No Choice But To Read This…

I’ve been doing a little research recently into the question of Free Will. Are we really free to choose our own course in life? This has turned up a new line of reasoning (for me) that surprised me a little bit. In its simplest form, it runs like this:

How does the atheist explain free will?

To the atheist, not only does God not exist, but the only things that exist are those that are made of atoms and energy. Thus, there is nothing more to the human brain than the cells from which it is made and the electrical impulses and chemical transmitters that communicate between those cells, all of which we can see and study. Therefore, all human thought, all human emotions, all human intelligence, even human consciousness (knowing that I exist) are all nothing more than the result of the millions of connections in the physical human brain.

Looked at from another angle, this would mean that if we were clever enough, we could in theory build a supercomputer that is the exact counterpart of a human brain – same pattern of connections on its microchips as your brain has between its brain cells.

Would this computer thus be human? Would it have a mind? Would it be conscious? Would it be alive?

I don’t think so. I think that the fact that we have free will is very powerful proof against our mind being nothing more than connections between cells. Here’s why:

All matter and energy must follow the laws of nature. The charge of an electron is always the same, chemical reactions always run the same given the same circumstances and so on. Tossing a coin is not actually random: if you knew the exact starting position, the exact force applied, the exact effect of air friction etc, you could predict whether it was going to be heads or tails with 100% accuracy every time! Imagine what you could do with the Lotto numbers …

In the same way, if our brains are only cells following the laws of nature, then there simply is no free will. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions were all determined for us from the moment of our conception, and there is nothing we can do to change that. Just think about that – who will choose to change your decision? You can’t because all you can think with is your brain, and you have no choice in how your brain behaves – it has to obey the laws of nature. If that were true, then you actually had no choice wheter or not to read this blog.

Now this is a huge dilemma for the atheist. We all KNOW that we have free will. When provoked with the question of free will, the famous Samuel Johnson replied, “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!” But how can free will exist in a universe where the laws of nature cannot be fiddled with?

It seems to me that the only sane and rational answer is to suggest that there is an aspect to our ‘mind’ that is not made of matter or energy. Call this aspect what ever you like (Christians call it the spirit), but if free will exists, then the only thing that can drive it is something that is not bound by the laws of nature. Something that can be genuinely independent, and thus make genuinely independent choices.

Atheists don’t like this, since you can’t examine a spirit under a microscope. We may never be able to pin down what exactly a spirit is. But they will continue, no doubt to search for natural explanations for both consciousness and free will. My reading so far suggests this is not only a daunting task, but may well one day be proved to be a totally impossible task.

Deep stuff!

Fr Ant

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11 Replies to “You Have No Choice But To Read This…”

  1. If only science and reasoning could be studied with honesty. Not having a given ‘theory’ to try prove by twisting and turning evidence, but rather looking at all the evidence around us and concluding what is apparent. Anything and everything points to one answer! How can our ‘reasoning’ deviate us from the truth? How can we be so oblivious to what is so obvious?

    If only we could see clearly.

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  2. This is funny, because I came to the same conclusion two years ago- and in that two years I still have not got a satisfactory answer by an Atheist. I think in “The Case for faith” or “God”, there was a good argument that said that there is no evidence that the more intelligent we become, the more human one becomes (i.e. to have awareness of his thoughts- which I believe is where free will comes from).

    C.S. Lewis done away with Atheism through the “Natural law”, which is something like consciousness if I understand correctly- and that cannot be atom and energy.

    St. Paul tells us to look at the Heaven’s which declare God’s Majesty. I remember reading one of your articles, and you had a story of Newton who said to an atheist, if you could not believe that my solar system model (I think it was) to not be made, than why should we think the real one to be so.

    I used to believe that since I can doubt God, it was possible that He does not exist. Now I know that when I doubt, it is because I do am denying my true existence in God’s plan- the reason He made me. Denying God, is denying our existence- (As you said) to live freely, to have dignity, to have purpose- a purpose greater than ourselves.

    Thanks Abouna.

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  3. Father, today’s Pauline Epistle was talking about “putting on the new man”, something that is like “putting on Christ” in his other epistle. I keep hearing this term a lot. I used to get really confused about this, because some explained it (which did not seem to fit with the passage or context it was in) like a passive process. The reading today did not even hint that it was passive. . It was more like imitate Christ way, and forsake everything you are- and do not compromise. I also understood that this was a process from learning from Christ in a relationship (which is I guess why I have not gotten anywhere, since I have been lukewarm about cementing such relationship). I read what Lewis wrote on this process in “mere Christianity”, and that made sense to me. But people more spiritual and versed in the Bible to me, make it sound a little exotic…like virtue is this growth from the Spirit that you don’t need to put work in (I can see how that is true, in that the work do is only a participation in the real strength that Christ has granted us from the beginning and gives continuously anew). But if the works of the flesh required our participation, then wouldn’t the fruits of the Spirit.

    If you know what I am describing- for it is sort of difficult for me to describe, can you clarify it. Is Lewis’ thing on this accurate.

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  4. Hi Tony

    I haven’t read Mer Christianity for a while, but I recall it was a really inspiring book. CS Lewis has got to be one of my very favourite authors.

    I agree with you that “Putting on the new man” or “putting on Christ” are not just passive events. As in all our spiritual progress, there have to be two crucial components present: a) my own free will desiring the thing; and b) God’s grace making the thing possible. If either is missing, it just won’t happen. God will never impose Himself or His virtues upon us against our will, while can never know God or progress in our spiritual journey by using our own abilities alone.

    Fr Ant

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  5. Hi Abouna, and everyone else,

    I found this article when doing some research. It talks about The Theory of Creationism and the Theory of Intelligent Design and concludes that they are ‘unscientific’ when contrasted to Darwin’s Evolution Theory. I can see how this could be swallowed by an athiest, but the Catholic Church?

    It can be found here:

    What are your thoughts?

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  6. The evidence that I was told in school for Evolution had been repudiated by Scientists, and I am amazed that they continue to be taught.

    I have read Michael Behe’s work, and I have been convinced personally of its veracity. He is a Catholic microbiologist, by the way, who claims to have concluded the Theory of Intelligent Design by scientific inquiry.

    That said, I think it is wise that we have not been head deep in this debate. The Church fathers warned us from literalism, and used the allegorical method of interpretation, whilst maintaining that the historical books of the OT (including all of Genesis) communicated the history we needed to know for our salvation.

    Creationism, as I understand it, is not popular in our Church as far as I am aware. Even the Pope said that the seven days of Creation are probably not 24 hrs days.

    I personally am convinced of ID, but I am not a scientist. The critic Lennox said, “In the contemporary scientific world we thus have the very unusual situation that one of science’s most influential theories, biological macro-evolution) stands in such a close relationship to naturalistic philosophy that it can be deduced from it directly — that is, without even needing to consider any evidence”.

    I am not a philosopher, only having read articles and a few books form the CS Lewis Society, but out of my naivety I think that is the case.

    That said, there are many Christians that believe Evolution helps clarify the Genesis Account (though, admittedly, I am not sure how).

    It would be interested what “committed” Orthodox Christian Scientists have to say about this- and what lead them to their conclusion. As Abouna said, we all have prejudice.

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  7. Abouna, thought you would be interested in this (found it in a forum):

    “A constant thread through the new atheist literature is the past wickedness of the Christian West. Marshall does not shy away from such accusations but makes four eminently reasonable points in response: First, the “Christian” West gained the power to rule most of the world. Second we know our own history better, and therefore, so does everyone else. Third, there is a lot of dishonest propaganda going around. Fourth, the world expects more of the followers of Christ. A fifth point could be to explore the extent to which past Christian failures actually were driven by Christian teaching or might have arisen from other factors stemming from human concupiscence broadly understood.

    I was pleased to see Marshall make good use of Rodney Stark’s work. Stark is a professor of sociology and comparative religion, not a I believe a Christian, rather more a fellow traveller, though he may now profess Christian faith(?). His books on religion are well worth reading and give the lie to much of the new atheist reconstruction of our Christian past. In “The Rise of Christianity” Stark makes use of contemporary socio-scientific data to provide an accounting for the rise of Christianity from being an obscure first century Jewish sect to replace paganism in the Roman Empire less than 300 years later in the decades immediately preceding the conversion of Emperor Constantine. In “For the Glory of God” and “The Victory of Reason” (some irony here given the new atheists’ charge of lack of reason in religion), Stark shows how monotheism, and Christianity in particular, led to Reformation, science, witch-hunts, the end of slavery, freedom, capitalism and western success. Much of this material blunts, if not destroys key aspects of the atheistic critique of religion. ”

    I think after my exams I am going to read these books.

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  8. Hi Tony

    Your comments about the Christian West are certainly valid. It is not the religion that is at fault, but those who abuse the religion for their own purposes.

    Maahatma Gandhi was asked why, if he admired Christ so much, he didn’t convert to Christianity. His answer was that he might have, if not for Christians.

    Our behviour as Christians reflects on our religion’s reputation as a whole, and this has sadly lead many through the years to reject Christianity, although on the positive side, ‘good’ Christians have also converted many through their good example and life.

    “Preach the Gospel always!
    Sometimes, even use words.”
    – St Augustine

    Fr Ant

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  9. I don’t think that was St. Augustine. I think that was (St.) Francis of Asisi.

    Couldn’t help myself. haha.

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  10. Hi Monika

    Regarding the comments at

    This opinion is typical of many non-religious people. It is sad to see it coming from a person of faith, mainly because it is logically flawed at its base. People who hold this philosophy are sometimes called Naturalists,because they believe that all of the universe can only be explained by what exists within nature itself, nothing ‘supernatural’. The difficulty with this view is:

    (1) The Naturalist begins with the assumption that the only valid explanations are those using the scientific method.

    (2) The assumption that only scientific explanations are valid (1) cannot be proved scientifically.

    (3) Therefore, by its own definition, assumption (1) must not be valid!

    The Intelligent Design people are having a really good go at using the idea that God created life in a scientific way, to do exactly what this bloke denies: make testable predictions. They may not have quite succeeded enough to convince the most hardened sceptics yet, but the project is certainly worth a try.

    In a sense, they are returning to an older time when ‘science’, ‘philosophy’ and ‘theology’ were all really branches of the one tree. I think this three pronged approach is far more likely to discover truth than breaking off and discarding one or more of the branches.

    Fr Ant

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  11. Dear Abouna,

    I loved the clear and succinct synthesis of the problems with Naturalism. Thanks!

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