Do Human Beings Have Free Will?

In 2002, a schoolteacher with previously normal sexual desire began experiencing sexual desires that he was not used to. He began looking at child pornography and engaging in sexual activity that was not common to him before this point. Little did he know, he had an egg-shaped tumor in the orb frontal cortex of his brain, and when he had the tumor removed his sexual desires stopped. A little while later the desires reappeared, so he went back to the doctor’s office. Lo and behold, the tumor had returned to the same region of his brain.

When a child is sexually abused their brain shuts down the memories of abuse. Depending on how much the event affects them, their brain will close down access to the memories until . Their brain will instill self-protective behaviors in them until they are consciously ready to face the events, which is often triggered by some form of flashback, dream, or memory that is brought up by something they are living and are presently aware of.

What neuroscience tells us is that there are things that get in the way of our lives that change the way we consciously face life. We only have conscious control of around 80% of our brain. So while we are thinking certain things in this moment, chances are our brain has already been working on that thought for days, and maybe even weeks.

Do you think human beings have free will? Do you think God wired our brains this way for a certain purpose?


20 thoughts on “Do Human Beings Have Free Will?

  1. Yvonne Shek says:

    Not sure if you can take an edge case and build an entire argument or world view around that.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      I’m not making any case. Just conversation. The brain does certain things to us that may or may not have complete control over.

      • Yvonne Shek says:

        We are more than a collection of neurons. We have a spirit.

      • Mike Friesen says:

        I know that we are. In fact fascinating research has shown that there are neurological pathways connecting our heart to our brain (more to right brain/creative thinking). We are more than our thoughts, but how we think (and how our conscious and unconscious reality’s affect that) deeply shapes our lives, and what can enter into our spirit. As Thomas Merton reminded us, that every moment is a new experience for our soul.

  2. We have free will in the sense that there are always options – not in the sense that we control everything (or even most things) in our life. In my view, free will is more a case of how drastic and unexpected choices can change the course of a human life.

  3. juliabloom says:

    Hello Mike – I’m new to your blog – thanks for creating a space for conversation here. I’m wondering how you view God’s creative process – you spoke of God wiring the human brain. Do you see God as a deliberate designer, as in the theories of intelligent design?

    • Mike Friesen says:

      Thanks Julia,
      Are you talking about things like the Big Bang and Evolution? I see God in his creation, I don’t think that’s possible to dismiss. I believe that God is at work in the creation of his creation. That being said, there are things like at the beginning of creation where it is cursed, so things like spiritual warfare and a creation that is cursed can definitely get in the way of how the creation is not in perfect cooperation with the creator.

      Does that answer any of your questions?

      • juliabloom says:

        Thanks for your quick reply. I guess the heart of my question is about *how* “God is at work in the creation of his creation.” And yes, I am thinking about evolution, not so much the big bang.

        I think an evolutionary understanding of life doesn’t rule out God’s creative process, but I wonder if it does rule out the idea that God designed a perfect prototype for each life form. I think it is oversimplifying to analyze the human brain – or really anything – in terms of perfection vs. curse.

        But – I am narrowing in on one idea in your post and I don’t mean to derail the conversation. You raise some interesting questions on an interesting topic!

  4. Yvonne Shek says:

    Mike, I just think it could be dangerous to build a hypothesis around an edge case (a problem or situation that occurs only at an extreme (maximum or minimum) operating parameter), when free will is pretty central to the personhood of God (He who gives us that out of His infinite love – so that we can love Him back – not forced – but of our free will).

    Our biology is fallen – like the rest of creation. I couldn’t call these occurrences as things that God has *done* to us on purpose. Rather, I would say it is a consequence of the evil that has permeated the Fall.

    What is central is His sacrifice and suffering. Suffering that includes His understanding for our diseases and failings – be they physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual. We all continue to struggle each and everyday through consequences of the Fall. And in your story, I praise God for the fact that the man had the will and sense to go back to the doctor after the second occurrence. He exercised his free will to take care of the problem rather than to “go with it” and use it as an excuse to keep doing wrong. Maybe exercising that free will saved his life. And maybe that can be a take away for us too – when we discover certain things about ourselves (be it through research, or whatever), we should use our judgment and free will to make positive and godly changes in our own lives.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      Yvonne, I agree that I think that God would willfully create a broken biology. Every experience can change the neurological patterns of our brain. So the free will of others (or limited free will based upon some of those situations because they are operating on a limited frame of consciousness), will change our experiences, and change the neurological wiring’s of our brain. A great book on this in a Christian context is Greg Boyd’s Escaping the Matrix, I am reading David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Both talk about the complexity of the brain.

      I am not saying that people don’t have free will, people choose all the time, but it seems that we are operating on something that we don’t have complete control over as well, our unconscious.

      • Yvonne Shek says:

        Thanks Mike. I love Greg Boyd! That’s great.

        Maybe the question could be framed as: Are we accountable or be judged on things that we cannot control?

        On that, I think our God is generous (as in A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian D McLaren) – if that is the question.

  5. Mike Friesen says:

    Agreed. That is a great secondary question to the original (people will still want to talk about free will in terms of God’s involvement in/over human beings0.

    I think your question will get at the heart of how God relates to people who were not born into cultures of Christianity, or people who were severely spiritually abused and walked away from God.

  6. Noel says:

    I can’t speak for Mike but the way I read the post . . . here are some things that show a direct link between circumstance and change in thought, that got me thinking about free will and how much we might have, what do you guys think? I may have missed something but that is my take away.

    On the abuse issue, it’s not a fringe case, that is the number one thing that happens to people, especially children, who are sexually abused. On one hand, I would say that the ability to shut it all off is a gift from a loving God to separate the child from a situation that they are not equipped to deal with (GRACE). On the other hand, it has it’s down sides too. Behavior and thought are learned within that context that deeply skews how life and relationships are approached and much work (inside job) needs to be done to rectify the wounds. Now, what does that say about freewill? Among others (I’m sure), 1) my free will can be taken by the use of someone else’s free will; 2) God can choose to grant us grace that we don’t know about (or you might say that we deeply need and maybe our soul is crying out for unknown to us); 3) While the wounds that we incur have a dramatic affect on how we interact with others and the world, that is not a blank check to turn our backs on God; 4) the importance in community to walk arm in arm with each other.

    You said it well “He who gives us that out of His infinite love – so that we can love Him back – not forced – but of our free will” but that does not negate that we are in a fallen world and are subject to the fall, thus directing our free will elsewhere.

  7. This is a brave and interesting question! (The church is usually not so brave or interesting). I wonder, too, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that looking at a woman lustfully is indictable, how much of my cerebral cortex do I/can I control. While I don’t think it’s 0%, I also don’t think it’s 100%, either. It doesn’t mean I stop waging “Every Man’s Battle” in such a way to win, but perhaps the victory, if it comes, will be pretty messy.

  8. Roland says:

    It’s a great question. Personally after having 3 children and 2 parents I believe that a huge amount of our character is determined by our genes, psychologists believe it is about 50% based on studies of identical twins separated at birth.
    Having free will doesn’t mean I can stop looking at a woman and quickly assess if she is of child bearing age and looks healthy. My genes have programmed me to do this without thinking. What I do about it afterwards is more to do with free will. Unfortunately this sort of behaviour is considered ‘sinful’. I call it human and something that we need to understand and accept so we can love ourselves.

  9. Noel says:

    Love it – Brave and interesting!! It strikes me that we are “sinful” – that’s the deal. The problem comes when we feel the necessity to hide that in the one place we should be able to have support, grace, love, guidance and all that sort of thing. That would be brave and interesting indeed. (ljms: not as a way to prolong or indulge the sin but as a way out or at least a leg up on the road)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: