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The concept of free will is indeed to much religious reasoning, yet its existence is still unproven. Using an unsubstantiated assumption to prove other conclusions is problematic from a logic perspective. A few key issues with relying on free will in religious arguments:

  • There is no scientific consensus that free will, as commonly conceived, actually exists. Deterministic neuroscience and psychology suggest behavior is shaped by biology, genetics, and environment - not an independent "soul".

  • Asserting free will exists because we subjectively feel we have it is questionable. Our perceptions are imperfect and biased. We also lack choice in what we perceive and feel.

  • Even a logical/deductive proof of free will would not necessarily prove it aligns with religious notions of a soul. The exact mechanism and nature of free will requires further definition.

  • Using free will to justify religious doctrines of sin, punishment, reward etc. is circular if free will itself stems from religious assumptions. It presumes the conclusion.

My question is - how can you prove anything using an unproven assumption as a tool of a proof?

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 24, 2023 at 9:06
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    There's nothing about "free will" that requires an "immortal soul"; and indeed it's perfectly coherent to believe in an "immortal soul" without believing in "free will". So the premise for your question seems to be flawed from the start. Jul 24, 2023 at 9:15

7 Answers 7

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Any and all logical arguments start with unfounded premises. What's needed for rigor is keeping your premises clear and, if it isn't obvious in context, conditioning your conclusions upon the premises from which they are derived. It is the explicit, not the unassailable premise which provides rigor. Your own reasoning expressed in the comments works like this.

If we accept the concept of free will as a given without proof

1: Suppose (in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary) that we have accepted the concept of free will

it opens the door to accepting other unproven assumptions.

2: This indicates that we accept at least some principles without evidence.

This could lead to logical inconsistency...

3: Some principles accepted without evidence are inconsistent with measurement or with one another.

and the erosion of rigorous, evidence-based thinking.

4: Therefore 1 implies we may not retain rigorous, evidence-based thinking.


Using free will to justify religious doctrines of sin, punishment, reward etc. is circular if free will itself stems from religious assumptions. It presumes the conclusion.

This is only the case if free will stems from religious assumptions about sin, punishment, and reward. Generally the operating premise in scripture-oriented religions is something like "the holy book is true, at least insofar as it operates as a guide for how to think and act", and the belief in free will is derived by trivial textual analysis.

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    Your argument hinges on the acceptance of free will as a given, but I must stress that this is not a universally accepted premise. Numerous philosophers, scientists, and thinkers have contested the concept of free will, arguing instead that our actions are determined by a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors. Moreover, even if we grant the premise of free will, it does not automatically legitimize other unproven assumptions, as you suggest. One must still apply rigorous, evidence-based thinking to each new assumption or proposition.
    – user66933
    Jul 22, 2023 at 20:55
  • The acceptance of free will does not give us a license to abandon critical thinking and blindly accept unfounded premises. As for your final point, the circularity persists even if free will is derived from religious text rather than stemming from assumptions about sin, punishment, and reward. If the religious text is used as the basis for the concept of free will, and then free will is used to justify the doctrines of sin, punishment, and reward that are found in that same text, we are still presuming the conclusion.
    – user66933
    Jul 22, 2023 at 20:55
  • [it does not automatically legitimize other unproven assumptions, as you suggest] I neither granted the premise of free will nor suggested any such legitimization. I did note that you granted the (counterfactual) premise that you believe in free will and showed how you used an unsupported premise to make your point.
    – g s
    Jul 22, 2023 at 21:35
  • [If the religious text is used as the basis for the concept of free will, and then free will is used to justify the doctrines of sin, punishment, and reward that are found in that same text, we are still presuming the conclusion.] I'm not going to respond to this since you already know that I disagree and I'm not here to argue. However, I encourage you to try to apply the principle to things that aren't emotionally loaded, like, say, building codes, auto repair manuals, or the plots of romance novels. I believe you will discover the error eventually.
    – g s
    Jul 22, 2023 at 21:50
  • [The only way to break this circularity is to establish the validity of the religious text independently of the concepts it espouses.] This is correct, although I wouldn't use that phrasing. (I would say something like: "the only way to establish whether X makes true claims is to measure reality and find out whether or not the measurements comport with the predictions made by X").
    – g s
    Jul 22, 2023 at 21:56
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Your question embeds several invalid assumptions, which I will try to pull out and identify for you, as learning about them will assist you in your philosophical development.

  1. You presume that philosophy requires foundationalism -- the building up of a philosophic worldview from unquestionable starting points. The most famous foundationalist was Descartes, who noted our inability to question our experience and selfhood and reasoning ability. Descartes effort to build up a worldview from there -- was then assisted by a more questionable assumption of a benevolent God whose benevolence justified our faith in our intuitive knowledge. Without that more suspect step, foundationalism does not really get off the ground. There is so little that one can establish based on this limited set, that it leads to a nearly useless worldview. AND -- multiple philosophers have even challenged Descartes very limited set of unquestionables -- including selfhood, experience, rationality, and consciousness. None of these are actually "unquestionable". Foundationalism is both flawed in its concept, and would be useless in application if we could implement it.
  2. Rationalism -- you are presuming a rationalist worldview -- that one can establish reality based on reasoning. This was challenged by Kant, who pointed out that pretty much all of science was contingent -- it could have been otherwise. Hence rationalism is inapplicable to science, and more generally to all empirical subjects. Rationalism also falls afoul of the Munchausen Trilemma: Is the Münchhausen trilemma really a trilemma? It has also run afoul of the inability of logic systems to be complete, per Godel, and of the infinite number of different logics.
  3. Motivated reasoning. You have an objective, to attack religion. Motivated reasoning has been shown in multiple studies to drive people to accept bad arguments and rationalizations in order to justify the conclusion they want to reach.

Alternatives to rationalism include:

  • Coherentism -- make a collection of assumptions, see if they cohere into a valid combo of principles, and produce a useful worldview. This is the alternative approach adopted by many philosophers. Coherentism does not arrive at just one possible conclusion -- there can in principle be multiple simultaneous coherent proposals. Coherentism has been criticized by empiricists as -- impossible to achieve. Science is not coherent today, and the majority of philosophers of science think it is not possible to make it coherent, ever.
  • Pragmatic empiricism -- accept that "Truth" is only ever approximate, and that we have to live with reasonable approximations to truth and knowledge, rather than any certainties or coherencies.

Under coherentism, the difficulty you identify for defining free will -- would prohibit including free will in a coherent worldview. At least some of your critiques of free will would remain under that alternative.

Under pragmatic empiricism, observations are king, and free will is observed. Our inability to develop a full and coherent theory uniting our observations of the world -- is seemingly insurmountable, and would not be an objection to free will thinking.

The supposed empirical evidence against free will you assert, however, would be an obstacle. However, that deterministic objection is generally based on bad science, see: The Mediocrity Principle, The Laws of Nature and Free Will for one set of citations against either a physics or logic based anti-free-will argument, and ‘Libet’s delay’ and the philosophy of mind and free will for a repudiation of the standard determinist interpretation of Libet type experiments.

Using free will as a reasonably well supported reality in religious reasoning would be fine in a pragmatic empiricist worldview, provided one accepts the evidence against the determinist rejection of free will.

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It's not disproven either. When you examine philosophical discussions of free will, you find the pivotal issue is, defining your terms. And, it is basically impossible to get the different groups to agree to define the same terms in the same way.

I like Nietzsche's analysis in Beyond Good & Evil.

"The desire for "freedom of will" in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one's actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness."

And he concludes

"The 'un-free will' is mythology; in real life it is only a question of stronger and weaker will."

The existence of gravity limiting our choices does not make us unfree. And the same for all the laws of physics. Because freedom is an experience not a fact, it is the experience of choice-making, in the face of our limited knowledge of the world, and of what the consequences of our choice will be. We know perfectly well that some people are slaves to their impulses, while others have developed skills to avoid cognitive biases, conditioning by experience, and coercion. We have a term for being relatively more free, and it is embedded in the core of the origin of philosophy, the term is wisdom. I describe it as the lived practice of finding the integrated centre of our concerns, towards developing the skill of solving dilemmas, here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises?

No one argues that our freedom to act in the world is unlimited. But Sartre says:

"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."

-from his essay Existentialism and Human Emotions

This is in the sense that, we can imagine different futures from different actions, and so decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of life we will live, based on what consequences we expect. It doesn't matter what physics says. We experience choice-making, and imagine consequences, and to pretend otherwise is to live in Sartre's Bad Faith.

I would caution those bent on a Determinist denial of free will, that 'predictable in principle' is a mirage. All the computing power on Earth can barely keep track of the quantum states in piece of matter the size of a tennis ball. And we know from quantum mechanics and relativity, that what information can be transmitted about one piece of matter to another, and what cannot, has real substantial consequences. Sequences of random quantum events rapidly become impossible to keep track of and predict, even with all the material of the known universe directed to such a task. So in what sense is such a prediction, part of our universe?

And yet, heuristics like character, might make pretty good predictions of a system too complex for our entire universe to keep track of. Like, a human building a nanomachine that could turn our galaxy into copies of the nanomachine all engaged in a computation. Physics alone cannot be used to determine the future of our universe, from within it. We have to accept other heuristic explanatory layers like 'intentions', where agents make choices, because they have a great deal of explanatory power to account for events which physics conducted in our universe cannot.

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  • Your discourse is indeed well-articulated and reverberates with echoes of eminent thinkers. However, we must tread carefully. The problem of free will is not merely a semantic one. It's not just about how we define our terms, but about how we reconcile our subjective experience of free will with the objective reality of a deterministic universe. Nietzsche's notion of a 'stronger and weaker will' is indeed intriguing, but it doesn't necessarily settle the question of whether our will is truly 'free'
    – user66933
    Jul 22, 2023 at 20:58
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    The fact that some people are more susceptible to their impulses than others could just as easily be explained by deterministic factors such as genetics, environment, and upbringing. The assertion that freedom is an 'experience' rather than a 'fact' raises another issue. Our subjective experiences are not always reliable indicators of objective reality. There are countless examples of cognitive biases and perceptual illusions that demonstrate this. So, the experience of choice-making does not necessarily prove the existence of free will.
    – user66933
    Jul 22, 2023 at 20:58
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    Now, to Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist argument: while it is indeed empowering to believe that we are 'condemned to be free' and responsible for our actions, this doesn't establish the existence of free will on a metaphysical level. It is more of a moral stance than an empirical claim. As for the limitations of determinism, I agree that our current scientific models cannot predict every single event in the universe. Quantum mechanics, in particular, introduces a level of randomness and uncertainty.
    – user66933
    Jul 22, 2023 at 20:59
  • However, this doesn't necessarily imply free will. It simply means that there are limits to what we can predict. Finally, the usefulness of concepts such as 'intentions' in explaining human behavior does not imply that they are fundamental realities. They could still be emergent properties of a deterministic system. Just because we find certain concepts useful or necessary for our day-to-day functioning does not mean they are metaphysically real.
    – user66933
    Jul 22, 2023 at 20:59
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    @SergZ.: The only way a quantum universe can be deterministic, is across Many Worlds, or Superdeterminism where an 'outside' perspective to the universe is required & within the universe it's not deterministic. 'Free' is a spook, a causa sui imagining a disconnect is possible from the past, & from present conditions; & you are refusing to be shewed from a linguistic bottle. You have the choice, whether to be conditioned by a past of incoherent philosophy, or understand & accept the basis of your own freedom in relation to the dilemmas you face.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 22, 2023 at 21:07
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You seem to subscribe to an invalid definition of free will. There should be no question whether free will exists or not. All valid definitions make it clear whether we are talking about a real or an imaginary thing.

One of the best definitions is "the ability to make decisions". We do have this ability, naturally. This definition makes sense in both religious and non-religious contexts.

We can choose what we do and we are responsible for our actions. To God, to other people, to the society.

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    I read your question on meta re. downvoting, and thought it fair I comment here. I think this is the first time I've downvoted one of your questions and I didn't comment because our discussions (while polite) never seem to be productive. The reason I downvoted here was your claim, "We do have this ability, naturally". This is a highly controversial claim, yet you provide no reasoning for your confidence. Many professional philosophers who claim we have no free will would claim that our experience of making decisions is illusory, so it's wrong to simply write this view off without explanation. Jul 28, 2023 at 12:11
  • When you contradict a significant viewpoint, it's important to at least acknowledge that your view is controversial rather than claim your opinion as fact. If the experts in the field acknowledge we cannot prove the issue of free will one way or the other, what special access to information do you have that they don't? If you do have access to such information, it would make for a relatively famous philosophical contribution at the moment, because you're claiming to have solved a question most agree is currently unsolvable. And doing this doesn't help anyone here. Does this make sense to you? Jul 28, 2023 at 12:21
  • I don't want to represent my views as anyone else's but it wouldn't surprise me if the reason you keep getting downvoted is because you are prone to making assertions without providing supporting evidence, in a similar way to the way you have in this answer. I could be wrong of course. Jul 28, 2023 at 13:00
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    @Futilitarian There is no controversy about our ability to make decisions. It is a proven fact that we can perform voluntary actions that, unlike involuntary actions, are not mere causal reactions to past events. We do decided things that serve a purpose, attempt to achieve a goal in the future. The only way this could be an illusion is to assume that we are remotely controlled puppets under someone else's control. We have no reason to assume that. There is no indication of any kind of puppet master. Jul 28, 2023 at 15:07
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    This is what I mean. It is not a proven fact. And, contrary to your claim, the only alternative to free will is _not) that we are under someone's control. These are very basic mistakes that lead to your comments being downvoted. It's not a personal issue. Jul 28, 2023 at 15:10
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First of all, you do not give any definition of free will, as has been told to you in several answers and comments. The answer obviously depends on the definition of free will.

If you define free will as your ability to choose without knowing beforehand what will you choose, then, no matter how predetermined your choice will be by biology, environment or genetics, it may still exist. Even if everybody else knows what you will choose and only you don't know it, you still have free will.

If on the other hand you define it as ability to make choices which are absolutely unpredictable, then precisely religious beliefs contradict it. For, if you believe that there are subjects placed outside of time, able to observe your future directly, then for them the very notion of prediction loses any sense.

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Let's suppose that there is no such thing as free will. Then we might ask why we use the concept. Answer: we might use the concept because we lack free will, but are forced to act as if it existed; in order to disbelieve in free will, we would need to choose the believe, i.e., we would need free will.

A shorter answer is just that it is a non-question.

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    So, if everyone thinks the same thing, then effectively we are ants: we don't have free will. Does everyone think the same thing? Hmm. We could still say that thoughts vary based on prior conditions: Joe and I think differently about something because 5 minutes ago we were in different spots. My definition of free will is that I could have chosen otherwise. The only way to test it is if I do indeed make different choices in similar situations and can give reasons why. We could ask why evolution gave us the ability to give explanations after the fact when we can't in fact choose.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 23, 2023 at 12:26
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    @ScottRowe I don't know about you, but I had only two legs (last time I counted), which would make me a poor sort of ant. I'm not taking a position on whether or not we have free will; I am responding to the OP's question, by arguing that either free will exists, or it is a necessary fiction: the legal system could not function without an assumption that there is free will; whether or not there is free will, or whether to concept makes sense, is a different kettle of fish. Jul 23, 2023 at 21:19
  • And fish, clearly, have not evolved legs yet. So the legal system needs to be involved. :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 23, 2023 at 22:14
  • You don't choose your beliefs, you either are or are not convinced by the evidence. And you seem to be equating the philosophical concept of free will with the ability to make any choice whatsoever, which just isn't what that is (although the philosophical concept of free will is kind of ill-defined and incoherent to begin with).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 24, 2023 at 2:27
  • @NotThatGuy Thanks for your humble opinion. Not everyone would agree with you, for example Kierkegaard, but what would he know? Jul 24, 2023 at 2:33
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I'm not religious and I don't accept that free will exists, so take my answer on how free will factors into religious reasoning with a grain of salt.

  • Free will has a strong emotional attachment because we don't just want to be bound to some inevitable destiny based on our biology and environment. We want to be free. (This also factors into religious beliefs, because if we don't have free will, it's questionable for a god to punish or reward us for how we act.) But... that doesn't really make sense to me. We are biological creatures. It's difficult to deny that we make decisions based on our biology and environment. And if I'm doing the things I most want to do, that I believe would bring me the most joy and meaning and satisfaction, does it really matter if this is ultimately just a product of my biology and environment? It doesn't seem so.

    To me, this seems like a case of believing something due to emotional appeal, rather than it actually being the most reasonable conclusion based on the evidence.

  • There is no scientific consensus that free will, as commonly conceived, actually exists. But there is also no scientific consensus (nor arguably scientific evidence) that a "soul" exists, or that God exists, so this problem isn't really specific to free will.

    Theists commonly argue that religion is outside the domain of science (even if some make dubious claims that science proves God). While atheists argue that science (possibly in addition to maths and logic) is really the only reliable tool we have for gaining knowledge about reality, and if a god does anything in reality (that would make their existence relevant to us), then we should be able to detect it with science.

  • Yes, asserting free will exists because we subjectively feel we have it is questionable. Our perceptions are imperfect and biased. (I also don't really know what people feel that gives them that impression, or what exactly this "free will" thing is that they're getting an impression of, because, if anything, I feel rather bound to my desires and the limitations of my mind, which tells me that free will doesn't exist.)

    This, again, is not unique to free will. It's similarly a problem for the bulk of spiritual experiences, theology, and just a whole lot of religion as a whole.

    I would consider this to be one of the biggest problems for many religious beliefs. All I've really seen as a rebuttal is that these experiences are more than just feelings, but I haven't seen this claim be substantiated.

  • I haven't seen anyone try to conclude free will from logical arguments, or from religious assumptions (even if the belief that we are somehow above the laws of nature can subconsciously be tied to religious beliefs in many cases).

  • There is an additional, significant free-will-related problem that God supposedly already knows everything we'll do, and also created us the way we are, and also then punishes us for all of eternity for acting in line with how he created us. So he created us knowing he'll punish us for all of eternity, and he created us anyway... and he's supposedly all-loving.

    This represents more of a problem of internal consistency for religious beliefs.

    Some may also say that you wouldn't actually have free will in this case, but I wouldn't subscribe to that.

    But of course this only represents one particular set of religious beliefs (albeit a common set), while there are many possible religious beliefs.

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  • Could you please define what free will "as commonly conceived" means to you? Why do you think it's a matter of belief? Doesn't the definition make it clear whether it's a real phenomenon or an imaginary one? Jul 24, 2023 at 5:32
  • Self-mastery allows you to be free of your tendencies and desires. Since few people attain it, that is what is missing from the picture provided by religion and science. "And then a miracle occurs" is at that spot on the whiteboard. You could look in to self-mastery, to see if it seems valid, and perhaps worth pursuing. My warning is that actually something else happens before you can 'achieve' it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 25, 2023 at 1:25
  • I still love your answer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 16, 2023 at 21:32

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