The Shape of Reality: Are We Really Free?

Anthony Weber —  May 18, 2013 — 11 Comments
“Your worldview has to have the same shape that reality does.”  – J. Budziszewski

As noted in the opening post in this series,  I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. The second post addressed the need for an objective foundation for morality. Of course, using the language of morality only makes sense if we are moral beings – that is, if we are significant moral agents who have an obligation to choose good and avoid evil.  This can only happen if we are free to make that choice, and therein lies another key question: Are we really free?

Generally, people believe that at some point everyone freely chooses  to make good and/or bad choices. Jaegwon Kim, philosopher at Brown University, has noted, “We commonly think that we, as persons, have a mental and bodily dimension….Something like this dualism of personhood, I believe, is common lore shared across most cultures and religious traditions.”1  Mind and Language published a paper in 2010 entitled “Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?” After studying a broad sample of people in the United States, Hong Kong, India and Columbia,

“The results revealed a striking degree of cross-cultural convergence. In all four cultural groups, the majority of participants said that (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.” 

Consensus is not an air-tight way to arrive at truth, of course, but it is an insightful way to see what experiences humanity in general share. Most people believe we exercise some form of free will.

Not everyone agrees. When Rodney Brooks and Rosalind Picard debated the question, “Can Robots Become Human?” at a Veritas Forum at MIT in 2007, the following exchange took place2 :

Brooks: “ I think of myself as a robot, as a bag of skin full of biomolecules, and if I step back, that’s what [my wife] is, that’s what my kids are. But I have this completely different way of interacting with them, with unconditional love, which is not part of that scientific view. So I have multiple views I operate under every day.”

Picard: “I don’t just call those multiple views, I call those inconsistent views…so there’s no purpose, there’s no meaning, there’s no free will.”

Brooks: “That’s why I said I have a set of inconsistent views that I live under, because that’s really desolate, but it’s the truth.”

Picard: “Yeah, that does seem pretty desolate, and I wonder how you – why you care?”

Brooks: “I live in a fantasyland. That’s the fantasyland I’ve chosen to live in…”

So what is actually happening?


 For adherents to naturalistic or materialistic foundation of atheism, our choices are simply behaviors that inevitably arise from the impact of evolution, genetics and environment. The chemicals inside our body bag fire; our pre-programmed evolutionary urges surface; our families and communities mold us. As for free will?  Well… 

  • Publishers Weekly began their review of philosopher John Gray’s book3 this way: “Humans think they are free, conscious beings, but they are deluded animals.”
  • Alex Rosenberg writes: “”If the brain is nothing but a complex physical object whose states are as much governed by physical laws as any other physical object, then what goes on in our heads is as fixed and determined by prior events as what goes on when one domino topples another in a long row of them.”
  • Psychology Today noted,4Evolutionary psychologists see human nature as a collection of psychological adaptations that often operate beneath conscious thinking to solve problems of survival and reproduction by predisposing us to think or feel in certain ways. Our preference for sweets and fats is an evolved psychological mechanism. We do not consciously choose to like sweets and fats; they just taste good to us.”

If we are deluded animals whose thoughts topple like dominoes in our subconscious, then no, we are not free.  That’s fine when it comes to eating habits –  nothing of much import hangs in the balance if I eat Reece’s instead of Fritos. (Bacon is another matter, but I digress). What about more significant decisions in life?  Are all of our actions reducible to biological and psychological mechanisms? If  we live in a purely naturalistic, mechanical world, then perhaps they are.

  • E.O Wilson believes that we are “puppet egos” with an illusion of free will that we should passionately believe in because the idea is helpful.
  • Anthony Cashmore notes, ““The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.”  He goes on to argue that the justice system has it all wrong, since we are not actually guilty of making bad choices.
  • Nicholas Humphrey goes even further. “The bottom line about how consciousness changes the human outlook — as deep an existential truth as anyone could ask for — is this: We do not want to be zombies. We like ‘being present,’ we like having it ‘be like something to be me.’ ” Alas, this “want” is a “benign evolutionary illusion.”
  • Tom Clark writes, “Judged from a scientific and logical perspective, the belief that we stand outside the causal web in any respect is an absurdity, the height of human egoism and exceptionalism.”5

As interesting as the philosophical discussion may be, it faces a bumpy road when faced with the practical reality of every day life. French philosopher Luc Ferry provides a great summary of this tension:6

“The cross of materialism is that it never quite succeeds in believing what it preaches, in thinking its own thought. This may sound complicated, but is in fact simple: the materialist says, for example, that we are not free, though he is convinced, of course, that he asserts this freely…He says that we are wholly determined by our history, but never stops urging us to free ourselves, to change our destiny, to revolt where possible! He says that we must love the world as it is, turning our backs on past and future so as to live in the present, but he never stops trying, like you or me, when the present weights upon us, to change it in the hope of a better world. In brief, the materialist sets forth philosophical theses that are profound, but always for you and me, never for himself. Always he reintroduces transcendence – liberty, a vision for society, the ideal – because in truth he cannot not believe himself to be free…” 

We live as if our subjective experiences, consciousness, and choices matter. Our legal system is based on the premise that people choose to do things. How can we hold people accountable for something that is not their fault? If someone robs, or murders, rapes, or drives impaired, we expect the people involved to be treated as morally responsible people.  We certainly act as if people have libertarian agency  – the ability to rise above their influences, be they biological, societal, or chemical.

If the atrocities alleged to have recently taken place in Gosnell’s clinic  and Ariel Castro’s home are true, we face a choice:  will they be held accountable because they are morally significant people who chose to do terrible things, or must we absolve them of blame because they are no more free than any animal, operating beneath conscious thoughts that predispose them toward brute survival and reproduction?


Christianity offers a worldview in which free human beings make morally significant decisions.

Yes, we live in a universe comprised of material things that science studies with great vigor. It hardly follows that all that exists is therefore material.  Christians believe in substance dualism, claiming that both material and immaterial things make up the furniture of the universe. We are biological beings , but we are not merely biological.

James Oliver Buswell wrote,7 “We find in the created universe an important difference between beings which think, and being which are spatially extended, or spiritual beings and material beings… In the body and mind of man we see integrated interaction between the spiritual thinking being, and the material extended being.” Our physical nature interacts with our mind, our spirit, that part of us that interacts with but is not caused by our material bodies.

Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland offers the following argument:

(1) I am essentially indivisible, simple spiritual substance. I do not exist in degrees; my ongoing mental states and personal experiences are unified; I have a strong sense that “I” and my physical body have different persistence conditions, etc.

(2) My physical body is essentially a divisible or complex entity (like any physical body, it has spatial extension or separable parts).

(3) The Principle of Indiscernibility of Identicals says that if the mind has properties the body does not (or vice versa),they are not the same thing.

(4) Because they do not share all properties, I am not identical with my (or any) physical body.

Moreland has a lot more to say about the topic, but what he offers is a defense of substance dualism that confirms what we intuitively believe to be true about our consciousness and identity. Paul Copan8 takes a more specifically theological approach to show the stark contrast between the ability of Christianity vs. Naturalism/Atheism to explain what we experience as real:

  • We experience self-consciousness. Christianity says this reflects the consciousness of the Creator (consciousness arises from consciousness); atheism says this may be an illusion. If there is consciousness, it has arisen from mindless non-consciousness.
  • We believe personal beings exist. Christianity says this reflects the personal nature of a Creator; atheism says the personal has been produced by impersonal processes.
  • We believe we make free personal choices. Christianity says our Creator freely chose to act, and we reflect His nature. Atheism says this may well be an illusion. If there is free personal choice, it arose from materialistic, deterministic processes.

Christianity claims that our ability to choose feels real because it is real. While we are influenced by many things, we are at the mercy of none of them. Because we can choose, our history is not our destiny. We can truly approbate those who do well, because their life reflects a conscious choice to be better than they once were. We can admonish and challenge those who choose poorly, because we know that they do not have to resign themselves to the cruel dictates of history.

If we are deluded in our belief about freedom, and everything we do is determined by genetics, environment, or the forces of the universe, then an atheistic view of the world explains reality better than Christianity.  But if our common human experience of freedom actually matches reality, then the Christian worldview explains reality better than atheism.

Alistair McGrath, a former atheist who now teaches at Oxford, has noted :

“Atheism just sees a meaningless world, devoid of purpose, as Richard Dawkins so often emphasizes. But faith goes deeper, and sees purpose and meaning beneath the surface. This sort of hope is not about running away from reality. It’s about going deeper than a purely surface reading of things. It’s a hope that is deeply grounded in the way things really are!”  ((as quoted in Socrates in the City))


(Up next: “The Shape of Reality: What is Justice?”)

  1. from Bioethics, Substance Dualism and the Argument from Self-Awareness, by J.P. Moreland []
  2. as recorded in “Living Machines” and published in A Place For Truth []
  3. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals []
  4. “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature []
  5. []
  6. a full account can be read  in his international bestseller A Brief History of Doubt []
  7. A Christian View of Being and Knowing []
  8. How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong?” []

Anthony Weber


Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (,, and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.
  • Steve Ruble

    Anthony, what observable differences do you suppose there would be between our world and a world in which determinism were true? (I don’t mean a world in which everyone thinks determinism is true; I mean a world in which it is actually true.)

    • Anthony Weber

      I don’t know that it would appear different, but it would be different (stress the word “be in your mind as you read that :))
      For example, take reality shows on TV (please!) Paris Hilton did some forgettable show where she and her friend went out into the country and milked cows for our viewing pleasure. She kissed a boy, blah blah blah. Not long after that, the news broke that the show was scripted. The producers wanted ratings, and told Paris what needed to happen.
      Now, in viewing that episode, one did not know it was determined (so to speak). One assumed actions were freely chosen. If you watched it before you knew and after you knew, it looked the same. But it mattered to the viewers whether or not the story line they saw was determined or freely chosen.
      Now, real life. The Boston Marathon was bombed. No matter if their actions were freely chosen or determined, the event happened. But doesn’t the distinction make a difference as we decide what to do with the bombers? If their actions were determined, they are not culpable. They are victims too, and deserve our sympathy. If their actions were chosen, they are culpable, they are monstrous, and they deserve justice.
      For that matter, in a world that is determined, don’t words like justice, choice, love, hope, right, wrong, and goodness lose their meaning?
      I will turn the question back to you. In a world in which strict determinism is false and something like libertarian free will is true, would you expect to see observable differences?

      • Steve Ruble

        In a world where libertarian free will was real, I would expect to see four-sided triangles and invisible green ideas sleeping furiously. In other words, I don’t think that libertarian free will is a logically coherent concept which could actually exist, so it’s difficult for me to imagine what the world would look like if it were true.

        The quote at the opening of this post says, “Your worldview has to have the same shape that reality does.” But when I read your response to my question, it sounds to me like your position is actually, “Reality has to have the same shape that my worldview does.” You don’t point to anything about objective reality which is more consistent with free will than determinism; instead, you point out that determinism is incompatible with your subjective attribution of meaning to events.

        Is there something about reality itself which makes you think free will exists?

        • Anthony Weber

          I think you have avoided the point of my initial post and my reply. There is a dominant belief in humanity across time and cultures that we are not determined but free. Now, is this experience a useful fiction forced upon us by the drive for survival in evolution, or is it real?
          Atheism/determinism dismisses this overwhelming human experience by saying things like, “You believe you make free choices? You believe people are moral agents who ought to be held accountable and deserve praise or blame? That’s like having an invisible green idea!” Christianity, on the other hand, ends the previous quote with, “That’s because that’s what is happening.”
          You obviously misrepresented the opening quote. In fact, the way you stated it is precisely the opposite of what I claim. Reality cannot conform to Christianity; reality simply is. The job of any worldview, including Christianity, is to present truthfully what’s real. That is, of course, my claim. I also don’t see why your atheism would not exempt from your own accusation. As i read your responses, you seem committed to making reality match the shape of your worldview too. I assume you would make the same defense I just did. Maybe we should both acknowledge that we believe what we believe because we think it’s true – we think it does, in fact, accurately makes statements about reality as it is.
          I also notice you said nothing in response to the discussion in my previous post about the bombers, justice, and culpability. I eagerly await your reply.

          • Steve Ruble

            It may have been common throughout history for people to believe in free will, but it was also common for people to believe the Sun went around the Earth, that slavery was acceptable, and that their gods were better than anyone else’s gods. “Reality” and “things lots of people have believed” are quite different things, and we don’t typically take the latter to be proof of the former.

            (It’s worth noting that it has also been common for people to believe that they were determined: much of Greek mythology invokes the Fates, the personification of determinism; Muslims append “if God wills” to any description of their plans; Reformed Christians believe that everything that happens has been determined by God. Belief in free will may have been more common, but belief in determinism is certainly not unknown in human cultures.)

            Regarding the atheist/determinist “dismissal” of “overwhelming human experience”, and the question of justice and culpability: there is nothing about determinism which prevents us from holding people accountable for their actions. The only difference is that rather than acting out of a sense of moral outrage we are acting out of a desire to create the social world we want to live in. If holding people accountable for their action fosters a better world – and I think it does – then we ought to do that. The way in which we react to people who commit abhorrent acts may differ based on the context:

            If someone commits a crime because they are delusional, we are likely to try to treat their delusion rather than punishing them, as that is the action most likely to reduce the chances of them doing it again. On the other hand, if someone commits a crime out of anger or hatred, we are likely to imprison them and may try to offer some form of behavior-altering therapy, because that is what we think is most likely to prevent them from doing it again, as well as discouraging others from doing it. If a criminal seems irredeemable, or we want to strongly discourage others from the same act, we may imprison them for life, or execute them, depending on what we think will improve the world the most. The point is that determinists will tend to try to respond to the world as it actually is in a pragmatic way, rather than responding to metaphysical labels attached to things – labels like “monstrous” or “evil”.

            I think the problem you’re having understanding the actual beliefs held by determinists is that you’re demanding that determinists justify your worldview in our terms, then criticizing us for not being able to explain how your senses of morality or meaning can be maintained in our deterministic world. The answer is: they probably cannot. But that does not de-legitimize our worldview any more than the fact that Christians cannot explain the holiness of the Koran de-legitimizes Christianity. If you insist that the one true definition of “culpability” depends on the existence of mystical free souls which magically imbue material human bodies with mysterious free will, then you will forever be convinced that determinism cannot provide an account of justice.

          • Anthony Weber

            My next post will have to do with justice, so I am going to save most of my comments on that for later. I’m sure you are waiting with great anticipation :)

            I would note this: you gave several categories of people societies respond to, but I think there is only one category: people who are determined. And if all the claims of evolution are true, we are just animals. So, everybody is a determined animal. When we interact with animals, we don’t use words like “justice.” We might put down a wolf that kills a farmer’s sheep, but nobody calls that justice. I ask once again: what role does justice have in human societies if this is true?

            I must not be clear about the argument I am making. I am not making a scientific argument about the state of the brain or mind, though others do (as is the case in The
            Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul). I am making an existential one. I am talking about the inner perception people have about how life unfolds. Even the Greeks felt and lived like they had free will;
            they just believed it was an illusion. Oedipus, for example, thought he was freely choosing his life’s path, but apparently the fates had set it out for him.

            But deterministic Greek philosophy was just that – a philosophy. It did not align with how people experienced their inner existential life (I think“qualia” is a word tossed around a lot now to capture the idea). That is the modest boundary of this particular argument. We believe we make free choices all the time. Some worldviews affirm this, others do not. Christianity is one that does.

            Throughout history and across cultures, people live and act as if they have free will (the give praise and place blame; they believe in justice and culpability; they fight for “choice,” the experience guilt if they believe they have failed or joy if they believe they have succeeded, they claim to fall in love on their own accord, etc).

            Religions and philosophies have offered two basic explanations: people are free, and thus their internal existential sense of freedom matches reality, or people are not free, and thus their internal existential sense of freedom does not match reality at all, but is merely a useful illusion.

            Christianity claims that our internal existential sense of freedom matches reality. Christianity’s existential claims match our existential experiences. Determinism claims it is
            a useful illusion. Determinism does not match our existential experiences.

            Therefore, Christianity provides an existentially compelling worldview that matches the world as we experience it.

            Let’s say the sense of freedom is only a comforting illusion. Very well. Determinism is making a claim that flies in the face
            universal human experience (not human theories, but human experience). I believe the burden of proof is yours.

          • Steve Ruble

            You may not find determinism “existentially compelling”, but I can’t imagine how determinism could be said to conflict with “the world as we experience it”. You may say, “I experience making free, undetermined choices.” Really? Do you experience the molecules which make up your nerves and muscles disobeying the laws of physics when you initiate an undetermined act? Do you experience the neurons of your brain being manipulated by undetermined supernatural forces? Do you spend much time reading Timothy Leary? I submit that what your subjective experiences of your mental processes are so far removed from the level of reality at which things actually happen that they cannot qualify as any kind of evidence for reality.

            Consider this: you experience your visual sensorium as a seamless field within which everything is in focus. It feels as if you can see pretty much everything in front of your face equally well. So, try an experiment: read the first word of this line while focusing your eyes on the last word of this line. Try another line. I’ll bet you can’t do it. Surprise! You actually can’t focus on very much at all. Your everyday concept of what your qualia are actually like is not as accurate as you might have thought. Now reflect on how much less calibrated your sense of how your mind works might be.

            Here’s another little experiment: find a friend and ask them to stare into your eyes. Ask them to focus on your left eye, then slide their gaze over to your right eye. Observe that you can see their eyes moving. Now, get a mirror. Stare into your own eyes. Focus on your left eye, then slide your gaze over to your right eye. Observe that you cannot see your own eyes moving. Surprise! You go blind when you move your eyes.* Do you still think that your subjective experience of how you work is reliable evidence for how reality is?

            You should! In fact, subjective experience is remarkably reliable. It has allowed untold millions of humans to survive and prosper for millenia. The problem I’m trying to point out occurs when our confidence in our subjective experience comes into conflict with objective evidence. Some people are unwilling to accept the evidence, and insist that their usually reliable experiences are entirely reliably. Other people accept that there are limits to the reliability of our experiences (as I hope my examples above have demonstrated) and realize that there can be true facts about reality which are beyond – or indeed, contradictory to – our subjective experiences.

            And so it is with determinism. We all have the experience of possessing free will, just like we all have the experience of uninterrupted, 120-degree in-focus vision. Our experiences, convincing as they are, do not always reflect reality. This is as true as anything can be.

            * To be precise: you go blind when you change your focus. If you stare into your own eyes in the mirror while rotating your head horizontally, you can see your eyes move just fine. And you’ll look a bit like a puppet. It’s worth trying.

          • Anthony Weber

            Steve, your examples involve ways in which my physical sense experience of the world can deceive me. They are fascinating examples, and I don’t think anyone disagrees with you. But they are examples that do not correlate with the crux of my argument.
            I’m not talking about how my sense of sight, smell, taste, sound, or touch can be tricked. My original post made, once again, a very different existential claim, one that cannot be adjudicated by science. You agree with me that we all have the experience of having free will, then compare it to having uninterrupted vision. Surely, an internal, existential experience is qualitatively different than external one? “I think, therefore I am” is very different from “I look, therefore I know.”

          • Steve Ruble

            I think you’re missing a nuance of my argument. The experience of having uninterrupted vision is not a feature of the external world, it is a subjective experience, and it is experience which is inaccurate. In a world without mirrors, it would be hard to convince someone that their vision is intermittent, because our experience of continuity is so persuasive. When you have a mirror available, the discontinuities become undeniable. With regard to free will, we are in a world without mirrors; we have no simple experiments which demonstrate determinism. But given all the other facts available to us about how the world works, it’s more than reasonable to accept that our experience of free will is as deceptive as our experience of continuous vision.

          • Steve Ruble

            I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the opening quote, though I suppose I may be misrepresenting your position. It seems to me that you are making this argument:

            1.1) Belief in free will is part of my worldview.
            1.2) Many other people also have free will as part of their worldview.
            C1) Therefore free will is part of reality.

            2.1) Christianity holds that free will is part of reality (in some denominations).
            2.1) Atheism holds that free will is not part of reality (in most cases).
            C2) (Given C1,) Christianity is a better description of reality than atheism.

            I think that C1 is an invalid conclusion. I asked you (informally) if there were any other premises you could add relating “free will” and “reality” and your response was (roughly formalized):

            1.3) There is no empirically observable difference between a world where determinism is true and a world where it is not true.
            1.4) People have different feelings about things that appear to be scripted than they have about things which appear unscripted.
            1.5) The standard definitions of words we might use to describe crimes wouldn’t work well if determinism were true.
            1.6) The way we react to crimes ought to be different if determinism is true.

            I don’t think that improves the validity of C1 at all. It still looks to me like you are declaring part of your worldview – the belief in free will – to be reality, then going on to claim that Christianity is consistent with that belief. It’s nice you have a consistent worldview, but the title of this series is not “The Shape of My Worldview”.

            Here’s an example of a way reality could provide evidence that determinism is false: we could have areas of our brains where the commonly understood laws of physics do not hold, and which seem to send controlling signals to the rest of our brains. Of course, there is no such part of our brains that we know of; in fact, as far as we can tell, everything within our brains and bodies follows the laws of physics, which are deterministic on most scales and random on very very small scales. It is facts like this that make me comfortable advocating determinism not only as part of my worldview but as part of reality itself. Do you have any facts of that kind which favor free will?

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