I've just about finished re-reading a great book by a British attorney, Richard Oerton, who has spent half a century pondering the nature, or rather lack thereof, of free will.
Previously I've written about "The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing Up to a False Belief" in these posts:
Oerton makes some highly persuasive arguments against free will, building his case with a mixture of logic and facts. I'm enjoying his book even more the second time through, perhaps because I've had five years since the first reading to do my own further musings about free will.
I'm going to share some excerpts from Oerton's chapter, "Free will and religion: some parallels."
A basic parallel is that both free will and religiosity come naturally to people. It just seems so obvious that humans can freely choose to do this rather than that. It also appears so obvious that God exists, since how could the universe come into being without a creator?
Well, reality doesn't give up its secrets easily. This is the lesson of science: coming to know how things really are, as opposed to how they appear to be, is tough going. Religious belief is easy to come by. So is believing in free will.
What Oreton does is his book is challenge the easy belief in free will. He also makes a good case for viewing religion and free will as two sides of the same faulty-belief coin. Here's some passages that I particularly liked in the above-mentioned chapter. He's just spoken about the Age of Faith many centuries ago when atheism would have been almost unthinkable.
There may have been a few who questioned the existence of God but, by and large, it would not have entered anyone's head to do so. Religious belief was in the air that people breathed, taken for granted. They were born into it, they lived in it and they died in it.
They knew that God existed, and knew with such certainty that they would never have felt the need to say so. And don't we think now about free will in very much the same way as our ancestors thought then about God? Don't we accept it just as unquestioningly? Our own age may not be an age of religious faith, but it is an age of faith in free will.
...One of these parallels lies in the fact that God and free will are both mystical concepts. The idea that we might be able to understand God is almost blasphemous. God is by definition transcendent, supernatural, and (as the old hymn has it) moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
If an unbeliever questions a believer about the nature or behavior of God, the unbeliever will be met sooner or later (and probably sooner) by the assertion that, because God is what God is, such questions are unanswerable. And so it is with free will: those who want to live by it must accept that there are no good answers to the questions which they might (but seldom do) ask about its nature and purported effects.
...those who believe in free will see the behaviour of their fellow human beings in such a way as to justify and reinforce their belief -- just as religious believers see the work of God so clearly in the workings of the world that they cannot see these workings in any other way.
And here's some passages that make some great points about how, if we accept the reality of evolution, as every educated person should, some tough questions about free will arise.
We can't very well say that free will has always existed, if only because the human race hasn't always existed. It would not be credible to suggest that the earth's first life forms had free will. It would not be credible to suggest that an influenza virus now has free will, or even a tapeworm, or a woodlouse.
All these living things must be creatures of causality, governed and moved purely by physical processes. If we, as twenty-first century people, are not governed by physical processes because we have what we call free will, we must have managed, at some stage of our evolution, to detach ourselves from the laws of nature which up until then had governed us.
But when and how? So far as I know, evolutionary scientists have not concerned themselves with these questions, and they are unlikely to do so unless they themselves believe in free will, know exactly what it is and manage to devise some criteria according to which its existence or non-existence can be recognized.
We would be wise not to hold our breath.
Yet another parallel lies in the fact that like belief in God, belief in free will (so long as it remains unexamined) tends to be comforting to those who hold it.
...And the "utilitarian" argument for belief in God -- that it ought to be fostered because it is socially cohesive and leads people to live better lives -- is paralleled by a similarly utilitarian argument for belief in free will: that it is an important part of our society, our culture, our morality, our sense of self, and so on, and that we must therefore hang on to it however incoherent it may prove, on examination, to be, because humankind cannot stand very much reality.