The Insanity of Denying Free Will

Reductive materialism defeats itself when matter is the only thing that matters.


John Stonestreet

Shane Morris

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton observed that even insane explanations for the world can have a perverse consistency. A madman who thinks he’s the king of England has a ready explanation for anyone who denies his claim: They’re conspirators trying to keep him from his throne. “His mind,” wrote Chesterton, “moves in a perfect but narrow circle.”  

Chesterton’s asylum example also applies to a recent article published at about a scientist who has written a book to convince everyone that humans don’t have free will. Neuroendocrinologist and MacArthur “genius grant” winner Robert Sapolsky has studied people and primates for over 40 years. In his book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, Dr. Sapolsky argues that humans are molecular machines, wholly determined by our genes, our environments, and our past. Thus, our behavior, even when condemned as criminal or evil, is no more a choice than “the convulsions of a seizure, the division of cells or the beating of our hearts.” 

Of course, the implications if this were true would be incredible. As a Los Angeles Times reporter memorably put it:  

This means accepting that a man who shoots into a crowd has no more control over his fate than the victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It means treating drunk drivers who barrel into pedestrians just like drivers who suffer a sudden heart attack and veer out of their lane. 

However, rather than justifying or enabling acts of violence, Sapolsky believes his deterministic view of human choices could actually make society better:  

The world is really screwed up and made much, much more unfair by the fact that we reward people and punish people for things they have no control over. We’ve got no free will. Stop attributing stuff to us that isn’t there. 

Sapolsky’s argument isn’t new. It is, in fact, the standard, reductive version of metaphysical naturalism, which teaches that all phenomena have material causes. Since these causes are themselves materially caused, nature is a closed system of dominoes. In this theory, an observer with perfect knowledge of the initial conditions of the universe could accurately predict every event that followed, right down to the choices individuals make about what to eat, where to live, who to love, what to believe, and even whether to kill. 

The problem, which philosophers and writers over the years have pointed out, is that if everything is determined and humans do not have a free will, that would include the belief in metaphysical naturalism and every part of the thought process that led to it. Assuming this view, the reason Sapolsky believes what he does has nothing to do with what he has learned in his research or whether it’s true. Instead, it is the predetermined result of a long process of material causes stretching back to the Big Bang. His book, his arguments, and his belief that they’ll somehow make the world a better place are not meaningful. They’re just the latest dominoes to have fallen, and it could never have been otherwise.  

In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis critiqued this brand of reductive naturalism 

[N]o account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. 

To his credit, Sapolsky seems aware of this absurdity but just accepts it: “It is logically indefensible, ludicrous, meaningless to believe that something ‘good’ can happen to a machine,” he admits. “Nonetheless, I am certain that it is good if people feel less pain and more happiness.” 

But why is it good for people to be happier or have less pain if everything is determined? Why is it preferable to live in a society marked by peace and safety, instead of chaos and violence? And why appeal to people to make a meaningful choice between these options when their choice is already determined and meaningless?   

Chesterton’s answer to such small, reductive worldviews was to confront them with the immensity of the real world and human experience, and to notice how they do more explaining away than explaining.  

We know our choices are not mere results of physical processes, and that they have a deep moral significance. We know it so deeply that even those trying to convince us we’re mere machines must contradict themselves by treating some choices, such as their choice to write books to convince readers, as if they mean something.  

In the very act of denying our moral responsibility in a moral universe, we must, in some sense, act as if meaning exists. It’s a crazy effort to deny meaning, but that doesn’t stop even geniuses from trying it. All the more evidence of our profound freedom, and of our ability to abuse it. 

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. If you’re a fan of Breakpoint, leave a review on your favorite podcast app. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to 


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