“Yes, free will is an illusion,” say Dawkins and Gervais, “but don’t worry about it”


The two most recent podcasts of Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig have analyzed a popular YouTube video in which “new atheist” author and scientist Richard Dawkins interviews fellow atheist and comedian Ricky Gervais.

I was intrigued with the atheists’ candor regarding free will: they’re happy to concede that it’s an illusion, as you see in the following exchange.

RICHARD DAWKINS: I feel as though I have free will, even if I don’t.

RICKY GERVAIS: Of course. And, you know, I’d say determinism is sound. But it is when they start making these leaps that we can’t be responsible for our own actions. Well, you’ve still got to lock someone up if they go around murdering people to protect the innocent.

RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes. It wasn’t me that did the murder . . . it was my neurons and my genes.

RICKY GERVAIS: Of course. Yeah, it doesn’t work. There is obviously a little bit of that creeping into everything – responsibility, being adult about things. But yeah it doesn’t change a thing. I feel that I make my own choices, and if I don’t I certainly feel like I am choosing. So yeah it is not even worth worrying about. But yeah this thing that takes the art out of something or the humanity or the beauty – why? Why does it? It is strange.

Why, from their point of view, is free will an illusion?

Because, as philosophical materialists, they’re committed to a worldview that says nothing exists beyond this material world. Obviously, this worldview rules out God—and it also rules out immaterial created things like angels and demons. But if you’re an atheist, who cares?

The problem is that it also rules out another immaterial thing that every human being, whether theist or atheist, experiences all the time: an independent mind, which stands over and above our bodies and has the power to direct our thoughts and actions.

From an atheistic point of view, however, the “mind” is nothing more than the byproduct of blind, unguided physical processes that take place in the brain. These physical processes in the brain create the “mind” at every moment—the way a movie projector projects an image on the screen. Just as an actor on-screen can’t step outside of the projected image to adjust the focus or the volume, or go to the concession stand and buy popcorn, so our “minds” have no power to control our bodies.

Everyone, including Dawkins and Gervais, grants that the mind seems to have this power, which we call “free will,” but it’s only an illusion. Who cares, Gervais says. “I feel that I make my own choices, and if I don’t I certainly feel like I am choosing. So, yeah, it is not even worth worrying about.”

He hastens to add, however, that our lack of free will doesn’t eliminate individual responsibility. (Really? Explain how.) But even it does, “you’ve still got to lock someone up if they go around murdering people to protect the innocent.”

Is he blind to the irony of that statement? His words are truer than he knows: If we have no free will, then, by all means, you’ve “got to lock someone up.” I mean, you’ve got to—because the people who are going around locking others up also have no choice! They’re only doing what blind, unguided physical processes are compelling them to do. And all the while, their brains are lying to them, making them believe that they’re choosing to do so.

Yet somehow Dawkins and Gervais have no problem with this? I say that they are “of all men most to be pitied.”

After all, in the very next breath they complain about Christians who insist on a worldview that fails to see the world as they do. But why complain? By their own reasoning, Dawkins and Gervais aren’t atheists because they’ve thought it through, and they’ve chosen the worldview that makes the most sense of the world; they’re atheists because—again—blind, unguided physical processes have made them this way.

And those same blind, unguided physical processes have made Christians like me the way I am.

They should simply have compassion on less enlightened people like me. Of course, whether they do or don’t isn’t up to them.

26 thoughts on ““Yes, free will is an illusion,” say Dawkins and Gervais, “but don’t worry about it””

  1. i laugh at their absurdity. or rather my molecules laugh. better yet my petaquarks laugh at them. dawkins prides himself on his logic. there’s no logic. ok ill logic, as in diseased, sick, infirm, unwell.

  2. That was incredible. What a bunch self important nonsense. It’s a wonderful example of the “pride of man” in the face of God, though. The more they protest, the more I believe that they really do fear and resent God.

    I would be happy to listen to R.C. Sproul argue logic with Gervais. He would eat him alive.

    I’ll listen to Lane Craig later. 🙂

    1. William Lane Craig is a hero of mine. I did not have a head for philosophy when I started this blog six years ago, but Craig helped to whip my mind into shape.

      1. I used to get a headache whenever someone used the word “reality.” Richard Weaver, IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES is a great intro to humanity’s loss of a moral imagination. Tom Oden’s AFTER MODERNITY, WHAT? is a great introduction to the interplay of worldview, culture, and faith. Did this William Lane Craig write a commentary on Mark?

      2. Ha! No, the author of the Mark commentary was William Lane, no relation. I need to read that Oden book.

  3. In my opinion, without free choice, there can be no justice. This may put me at odds with some Christian theologians as well as these atheists. The “logistics” of free choice are difficult, but I don’t see any other “choice” but to believe in it.

  4. Right you are Tom. But, I also must say that without God, their can be no justice. Or, as Mao said, justice will come out of the barrel of a gun.

    1. Compatibilist arguments are also used as a defense in some forms of Calvinism. Given that a meaningful life and moral responsibility are impossible without free will, it doesn’t surprise me that a majority of philosophers believe that determinism is compatible with free will. How else could they live with themselves?

      Nevertheless, do you believe that? If so, why? If the “mind” is purely a creation of the brain, how does the mind freely alter the mechanism that is itself creating it at every moment? Is my film projector analogy flawed, and if so, why?

      1. “Mind over matter.” Our brain cells’ activity does not create our thoughts; rather, our thoughts create our brain cells’ activities. Of course there is “interaction” between the two (e.g., what our eyes see may result in thoughts about that), but ultimately it is up to our minds what we think. In a similar but more compelling fashion, God directs the activity of matter–it does not “act on its own.” (Though, God may set matter “in motion” in a particular path and let it then progress “on its own” per laws God has created if he chooses to do so. Nevertheless, he has certainly “intervened” to modify those paths from time to time [such as the scriptural miracles, most notably Christ rising from the dead].)

        An interesting aside, however. What if God has “ordained” how things go, but only in keeping with what he foreknew our hearts would be like? In other words, he puts us where we are (born when, where and to whom, for example) and accomplishes his plans, but only in keeping with the state of our hearts, which is up to us. Difficult concept, and not necessarily correct, but conceivably things could be “on a track” given the initial “free choice” of ours for or against God, and to what degree, that God foreknew we would be like from eternity past. From our current perspective, we are “working out our own salvation,” but simultaneously it is “God working in us.” A key to the puzzle is that we don’t know God’s “foreordination,” and, indeed, our not knowing that is part of determining how things go. I am acting based on my heart, and in doing so, given the circumstances I am in, I will necessarily “freely choose” to do exactly as God foreknew (and thereby, perhaps, foreordained) I would do given my heart and given those circumstances.

        Well, just a little bit of theorizing, philosophizing, and theologizing! If anyone has any ideas in that regard, I will be glad to hear them. (But am leaving now.)

      2. I agree with “mind over matter,” but it would be the burden of a materialist who also believes in mind over matter to show how a mind could direct the activities of brain cells when the mind itself is determined by those same brain cells. The mind would, in a sense, be “creating” the mechanism that creates itself.

        Your account of foreknowledge and foreordination seems plausible to me. So based on that, you could say that you’re in every circumstance because God wants you to be in it AND because you and others freely acted.

      3. Sorry for the late reply.

        I am a determinist (quantum mechanics can be ignored for our purposes) but I’m not committed to the compatibilist or incompatiblist position.

        I think moral culpability exists on a coarse-grained level at the very least. If a crime is committed by a sufficiently reflexive, reason-responsive agent with healthy executive functions and the capacity to learn, then I would hold them responsible. I would do so even if their actions were inevitable, given some initial conditions billions of years ago.

        But I must emphasise the “coarse-grained” character of this reasoning. It is an open philosophical problem for both atheists and Christians. Would you, for example, consider mental afflictions as relevant when evaluating whether or not someone is responsible for their actions?

      4. Morbert, I am interested in your view of determinism. It may be that things are “bound to happen” as they do, but only because of what kind of person each of us is. In other words, it may be “inevitable” that I respond to you. But that is because of the fact that I am someone who likes to debate (part of my “character” or “who I am”), and then what the circumstances are that I “fall into” (I read your comment). Thus, even if things are “bound to happen” as they do, this is not because of some “overriding” of our free will, but instead exactly because we are exercising our free wills in accordance with our character. And free will therefore entails “responsibility” and therefore justifies God judging as he does.

        I do agree with your point about “mental afflictions” and the like. Certainly we are only “free” to the extent that we are not constrained by factors beyond our “control.” Thus, certainly a child is not to be judged to the same degree as an adult would be, etc. “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

      5. But the problem, Tom, as far as I can tell, is that if philosophical materialism is true, there exists no decision-making part of our brains that isn’t itself dependent at every moment on forces outside of itself. I call this the “mind” in this post (because everyone, theist or atheist, lives as if they have a mind), but it may as well be the “soul,” since in either case they are immaterial things.

      6. Of course! Our legal system does, and God isn’t less just than that.

      7. But then, you have to determine which factors are “within our control”, and which are “beyond our control”. Which, depends on how you define “control”.

      8. Grant, what we can and cannot “control” is certainly an interesting question, which in this life we are not likely to resolve. God will make that all clear come Judgment Day or the hereafter. “Judge nothing before the time.”

      9. I’m constantly reassured by the fact that God is the one in control. In tough decisions, I try and ask, “Is this what God would want, or is it just what I think I want?” It’s not perfect, but it sure helps.

        I don’t know about compatibilism. The explanation kind of makes my brain hurt. 🙂

        Very interesting thread on this one, though.

      10. I was listening to a Tim Keller sermon on Hell this morning, and he made some interesting points on free will. One, that God gave us the free will to reject him. Another, that Heaven is where we say “Thy will be done”, and Hell is where God says, “Thy will be done”. In essence, we put ourselves in Hell, or a C. S. Lewis said, “The doors of Hell are locked from the inside”.

        So, it would seem that we have all the free will we need to rebel, but our will needs God’s assistance (Grace) to subject ourselves to his will. Makes sense to me…

      11. I know Keller is a huge Lewis fan, as am I. I hope that Lewis and Keller are right because that really does make good sense to me. It also makes sense of Jesus’ words about the “unpardonable sin”: “every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Is this blasphemy our ultimate failure to accept God’s gift of saving grace? I think so. If we don’t want this gift, God’s not going to force it on us.

  5. We also believe in something called “the soul”. Theologically, it is more important than the mind or the body. It is our spirit connecting with the Spirit. It is eternal in the sense that God means eternal.

    1. Right, and someone’s objection to an immaterial soul may as well also apply to an immaterial mind.

  6. I don’t think it’s just an “interesting aside”, or a “what if..”, Tom. I think you are dead right on the heart of the matter. It’s hard to conceptualize, and harder to verbalize, but the fact of the matter is that, God is completely in control of every action in the universe, while at the same time, not “interfering with” man’s free will. We are, and must be responsible for the choices we make, but it makes all the difference in the world if ask God to guide us in those choices, and acknowledge his supremacy in all things.

    What a beautiful mystery are the ways of God as they relate to his creation.

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