Free Will in the News

Below are a selection of excerpts from recent news stories that refer to free will in various contexts, a few of which are annotated. They illustrate how the term "free will" is used, and how beliefs in free will function as a background assumption in justifying attitudes and social policies. What's deliberately ignored in this selection are mentions of the term in phrases such as "of their own free will", which simply means "voluntarily." What's under-represented in this selection is the use of the term in religious contexts, e.g., in which god has given us free will to choose between good and evil, although I've included a number of those. I've found these stories using the Google news search function, which is most useful if you sort stories by date, not by relevance. I've kept a bit of the original formatting, both for variety and to save myself work. Remember, these are for the most part only excerpts. Enjoy!

Genes 'hold clue to cancer lifestyles'

6/17/03, BBC News

However, Dr Jonathan Chick, a consultant psychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, who specialises in alcohol problems, told BBC News Online that regardless of the influence of genes, free will still played an important role.

He said: "There is no genetic condition that completely removes free will with respect to drinking or smoking.

"Genes may make someone more likely to get a 'buzz' from alcohol or set up a pattern of behaviour that is more likely to become fixed than another person."

Dr John Maule, a psychologist who specialises in how humans make decisions, said that it was "implausible" to put too much emphasis on the role of genes in unhealthy living.

He told BBC News Online: "In younger people, certainly, it's much more about conforming, fitting in with other groups of young people - which seems to me to be quite far removed from a theory that everything is predetermined, and that you're either a risky person or a non-risky person.

"When it comes to risk it's too simplistic to link risk-taking behaviour to a single gene."

Be a good Jew and disagree

“In order to do righteous acts, people must have free will. This concept is central to Jewish theology, and is one of the beliefs that separates Judaism from more deterministic religions. If we were all automatons, we would simply do whatever we were pre-programmed to do. We would lack the ability to act ethically or unethically, to choose between good and evil. Similarly, if we were compelled to do good deeds by government law, or else suffer the consequences of acting illegally, there would be little that could be said in praise of these good deeds. After all, good-deed-doers would simply be following the law, doing what they are compelled to do.”

In Bangor salesman's words, son finds a life of meaning

Sunday, October 5, 2003 (book review)

Harley asks, "Can anybody really change?"

Al quotes a favorite Rabbi in his answer, " 'If you really believe that people have no free will, then there's no real possibility for creativity. If you're creative it's because your culture made you that way. If you're destructive - say a criminal - you can blame it on society. You can justify anything without conscience or responsibility. With this view you lose all sense of purpose and meaning in life.' So I came to believe that even though it may not be easy, people do have the free will to change. Without this fundamental belief, nothing else matters."

'I embraced the hand that had killed and maimed'

Nicknamed 'Prime Evil', Eugene de Kock was apartheid's chief murderer. Now a psychologist from the townships says it's time to forgive him. She tells Rory Carroll why

Monday November 3, 2003

The Guardian

“If abuse corrupts a hitherto innocent person's psyche and predisposes them to evil, do they deserve sympathy? Or should they be condemned for not exercising free will to suppress evil impulses? Or both? Which is worse, she asks: Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann who commit evil acts not thinking they are evil, or De Kock committing acts that he knows are evil? The latter, she suggests, has a more normal moral compass, albeit one that is ignored.”

Redefining Omniscience

Theologians Who Contend That God Doesn't Know the Future Face Fervent Criticism -- and Expulsion From Evangelical Group

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2003; Page B09

[TC: note that the issue described below – not being able to truly love God if one is determined to do so - is what drives Ken Miller to assume free will in his otherwise good book, Finding Darwin’s God]

Sanders, now a professor of philosophy and religion at Huntington College in Indiana, said his confusion increased when well-intentioned friends said that his brother's death was part of God's plan -- and that the plan must be to help Sanders accept Jesus as his Savior.

"I asked, 'God killed my brother so I would become a Christian?' "

Thirty-two years later, Sanders, an evangelical Christian, still considers such arguments absurd and, over the years, has developed a view of God that he believes to be more realistic. He no longer asks whether God does terrible things to people, he said.

Instead, Sanders lays the responsibility directly on humans, arguing that they have the free will to make choices that determine events. God knows everything that happened in the past and is happening now, but God has no foreknowledge of events because the future has not happened, he said.

Open theists, in essence, say there would be no point in praying for a sick child if God already knew what the outcome of the illness would be. Why struggle over making the right decision, they ask, if God has decided for you in advance? And how can you love anyone, even God, if that love is forced on you or away from you?

"It's a fundamental incoherence to say we're determined, yet I love," Sanders said. If there is no free will, he added, "is God dancing with manikins?"

Review of Matrix

by Ray Pride, November 8 , 2003

In the odd but oddly satisfying ending, the Wachowskis make a ringing endorsement of free will.

The philosophy of the Matrix



Last sentence of review:

And a fresh twist is posed to the question of determinism versus free will — do the two really have to be incompatible? To find out the answer, watch the Matrix Revolutions.

Review of The Mind and the Brain

Cleveland Plain Dealer, 11/15/03, review of Schwartz & Begley, The Mind and the Brain

"The Mind and the Brain" suggests that human beings possess an immeasurable entity called the mind that stands apart from the brain, per se, and controls inspiration, free will and effort. It's a controversial viewpoint in some scientific circles, to say the least.

Stars and signs forever

Ptolemy, Kepler, and other great astronomers were astrologers on the side. Has modern science really banished the soothsayer for good?

By Jascha Hoffman, 11/30/2003

Boston Sunday Globe Ideas section

But for Berlinski, it's the very idea of knowing the future that raises difficulties. On the one hand, if we accept a Newtonian world that can be explained by mathematical physics, we are locked into a universe where effects follow inexorably on causes, and, in exchange for unlimited powers of accurate prediction, we ultimately relinquish our free will. On the other hand, if we assume people with perfect information about the present make free choices on the basis of that information, the future becomes a "random walk" -- like price fluctuations in the stock market -- and essentially unpredictable.

Why don't we care about the poor anymore?

By F Allan Hanson
But communism collapsed, the War on Poverty was lost, and recent thinking about poverty has taken a decidedly different turn. At first blush, it looks like a return to the ideas that dominated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As then, contemporary writers and legislators have little patience with notions that the able-bodied poor are helpless victims of an unforgiving economic system and the culture of poverty. Instead, the blame for poverty is placed on the poor themselves. Thus, in a passage in his 1984 book Losing Ground Charles Murray conveys a curiously staccato concept of human experience: "People--all people, black or white, rich or poor--may be unequally responsible for what has happened to them in the past, but all are equally responsible for what they do next."

I forgave apartheid's chief killer

February 21, 2004

The Age, Australia

If abuse corrupts a hitherto innocent person's psyche and predisposes them to evil, do they deserve sympathy? Or should they be condemned for not exercising free will to suppress evil impulses? Or both? Which is worse, she asks: Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann who commit evil acts not thinking they are evil, or De Kock committing acts that he knows are evil? The latter, she suggests, has a more normal moral compass, albeit one that is ignored.

The Passion of the Christ

The Very Rev. David M. O'Connell
President, The Catholic University of America
Wednesday, February 25, 2004; 11:00 AM

O’Connell took questions, excerpt:

Clinton, Md.: Hi Father, Do you think Judus, Pilate, the Sanheddrin and Roman soldiers had free choice and will? I am a cradle Catholic and I remember since my days in CCD that I was taught that Jesus went willing to the cross and it was the will of God.

Father David M. O'Connell: Good morning. Thanks for your question. I do believe that all human beings are gifted and graced with free will. That is what enables us to decide to choose the good and avoid evil when presented with that choice in life. Free will is one of the things that distinguishes human beings from animals and other forms of life.

TC note: this is typical of religious mentions of free will, that God gave it to us in order to make us responsible for choosing between good and evil, and therefore make us, not him, responsible for evil.

Christianity more varied than often presented

Toronto Star, 2/29/04


People know too much. They find the idea of God having laid a trap for humanity by giving us free will and then having to "zap" us for our having (as he/she surely foresaw we would) used our freedom to make mistakes; that the sole way to cover our depraved sinfulness and sate God's thirst for justice was an agonizing, sacrificial death of his "only Son;" that only those who "accept" this vicarious sacrifice can be "saved" from eternal damnation in a fiery hell — all of this — they find too bizarre and too opposed to true morality and rationality to take seriously.

(author goes on to promote a saner version of Christianity)

From Israeli Refusenik to Organizer

March 15, 2004

AWOL in New York


Soldiers should not be excused from moral judgment, for they chose to be killing machines much as a sober man chooses to be drunk. They chose to enter the cycle of violence from their own free will. Humans are born free and thus must ultimately be judged as such. During the second World War, a student came up to the French philosopher Sartre and asked him whether he should join the French Army or support his his mother at home. The philosopher famously answered: You are free to choose.

Man blames mom for computer theft

The Mercury, 3/29/04

The judge was angered by Lohin’s comments, scolding him for blaming everyone but himself. The judge said Lohin isn’t "some innocent baby being led down the path by the evil mother."

"We can sit here and make this mother the worst mother who ever walked the face of the earth. The fact is that Mr. Lohin had free will. He had the ability at any time to say no. You chose to commit these crimes. This is about you, not about your mother," DelRicci bellowed at Lohin.

One Nation, On the Dole

George Will, NY Post, 3/29/04

DeMint's fear, that dependency produces "learned helplessness," echoes Tocqueville's warning about government keeping people "fixed irrevocably in childhood," rendering "the employment of free will less useful and more rare." It is, Tocqueville said, "difficult to conceive how men who have entirely renounced the habit of directing themselves could succeed at choosing well those who will lead them."

In the context of a welfare state devoted to assuaging the insecurities and augmenting the competencies of its citizens, conservatism's challenge is to use government - collective action - to promote individualism.

When children question the existence of evil, honesty is the best policy

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Home life

By Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News

I tell them that I believe that the reason evil exists is not because God created it, but because human beings did.

When God made human beings, He made us superior to all other of his creations, even animals. He gave us an intellect, in which we can reason, understand and create.

He gave us a soul, which is the self, each person’s identity. It is what makes you distinctively you, and sets you apart from all the other billions of human beings that ever were, are now and ever will be. I believe that soul is everlasting; it never dies.

The tricky part is that He gave us free will: the freedom to choose to either love or to hate. While that freedom to choose makes love possible, it is also our freedom to choose that makes evil possible.

All I can figure as to why He didn’t program all of us to love each other is because we would not appreciate love if it wasn’t voluntary.

An Interview with Rebecca Hagelin

by Peter & Helen Evans
31 May 2004

Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation

Rebecca: I hate to make it so simplistic, but it's the very same problem that existed since mankind was created in the garden of Eden. It's the voice saying "you can do what you want, you can be all knowing and all powerful, you can demand anything, you want to eat the apple, eat it. It goes all the way back to the first idea of free will. God gave us the most powerful thing that exists: free will. We were given the opportunity to determine our destiny, but consequences were clearly outlined. So when mankind doesn't submit to a higher authority, we don't have ordered freedom.

Catholics speak out on politics and religion

Thursday, June 3, 2004

The Cincinnati Enquirer asked local Catholics for their opinions on their faith and their politics. Here are some of their responses

I think it should be up to the individual to determine if they are deserving of the sacraments. One of the big things we're taught is that God gave us "free will" mainly because love can't be forced or coerced -- it must be given willingly and freely. And that "free will" applies to all that we do. I believe the church and bishops should be there to help guide each individual with this choice, but not to make it for them.

The health secretary should read his job description

Muriel Gray slams British Health Secretary John Reid for singling out single mothers over smoking


Reid’s comments are reminiscent of those who believe that poverty inevitably leads to criminal behaviour, in essence, that being poor removes the choice of free will. Since the majority of people living in deprived circumstances in Britain are not criminals, the assumption is not only wrong, but also insulting.

Similarly, the theory that poverty robs one of the ability to make choices about health is equally misguided. If Reid genuinely believes that smoking is the only pleasure of the working class, which, judging by the furious reaction he received from a great many estate-dwelling single mothers, it quite clearly is not, then how unspeakably ashamed should he be of his own government, for having done so little to alleviate poverty, atrocious housing, and substandard education and health care for those who need it most?

The art of being human in a scientific age

By George Ellis, winner of Templeton prize, 2004


Free will (note that I've responded to this in Deflecting reductionism, questioning faith))

In order for ethical choices to be meaningful, it is crucial that the human mind has ‘free will.' We must be responsible for our actions in some serious sense for our lives to be meaningful. Many scientists in various ways deny that free will exists, because of the way that physics and chemistry underlie brain activity. It seems as if our brain is a computer that computes output according to immutable laws of physics, its operations shaped by either our evolutionary history or our culture in such a way that consciousness is a mere epi-phenomenon superimposed on its unconscious operations - with the disastrous implication that there is no sound biological basis for humans to develop a consistent self-concept, to exercise free will or to accept responsibility for their actions.

This deterministic and reductionist denial of the core of personhood is based on laboratory results which fail to take into account the complexity of real-life interactions, and do not adequately represent the way the mind develops and functions as part of a distributed cognitive network. Nor does it take into account the causal effectiveness of consciousness. If it were actually true, then science would not be possible, because we would not have the power to assess theories on the basis of their internal consistency and compatibility with the data. Our brains would be computing output in some internally determined way that would not necessarily relate to any concept we might have of rationally deciding whether theories are scientifically acceptable or not. The whole supposed basis of the scientific enterprise would turn out to be a charade.

Portions Of Clinton's Book Invite Spiritual Reflection

June 30, 2004

Joe Bell of Frontiers of Freedom

God never created evil. He created the possibility of evil because he gave mankind free will. Kreeft is right: The source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom.

C.S. Lewis, a professor at Oxford and Cambridge universities, made a spiritual journey that took him from atheism to Christianity. He observed, “God has made it a rule for himself that He won’t alter people’s character by force. He can and will alter them – but only if the people will let Him.”

Mankind, without free will, ceases to be mankind and freedom allows mankind to do good or evil.

He who blesses Israel...

Jul. 1, 2004 11:46

By REUVEN HAMMER, Jerusalem Post

The lesson of this is clear. "There is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel..." (Numbers 23:23). Magic has no effect. Curses are meaningless. God is all powerful and cannot be coerced into damning and harming Israel through spells and incantations. But Israel can be corrupted because sin and temptation are under human, not divine, control. Since we have free will, the only way we can prevent ourselves from becoming corrupted is to decide not to succumb. Furthermore, God can prevent Balaam from cursing, but not from giving evil council. Even Balaam has free will to do good or evil.

COMMENTARY: The brief life of a principled magazine

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Tibor Machan writing in the Desert Dispatch

People have free will and can abandon convictions -- slowly or rapidly -- just as easily as they can learn about and consistently adhere to them.

Jury begins deliberation on Helzer sanity

By Matt Krupnick

CONTRA COSTA TIMES Posted on Wed, Jul. 14, 2004

Using a theme he has repeated throughout the 10-week trial, Jewett told jurors Helzer was of sound mind when he made the choice to participate in the plot he, his brother and their roommate Dawn Godman called "Children of Thunder."

"We all have free will, but we are all subject to influences," Jewett said. "We take it in, and somewhere, somewhere inside, we make choices.

"It's up to us which channel we tune the radio to."

So don't gamble

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Pittsburg Tribune-Review, letter

Some thoughts regarding slots, now that they are legal in our state:

First and foremost, Ed Rendell made slots and property tax rebates the cornerstone of his platform. Without a doubt, that was the primary factor for his election as governor. Many people, especially those who consider gambling to be morally repugnant, need to be reminded of that.

If that is one's attitude about gaming, then don't participate. The good Lord gave each of us a conscience and free will. No one is forcing anyone to enter those establishments.

J.J. Pacelli

TC: note that free will here is being used to avoid any collective responsibility for the fate of others. It’s just someone’s voluntary choice to gamble, they don’t have to make that choice, so why should we worry or take any steps to help them avoid that potentially bad choice? Citing free will like this is to ignore the causal factors behind choosing, to fail to see that choices stem from conditions that policy can affect. This conveniently lets us off the hook by failing to distribute responsibility for behavior.

To the Editor: (NYTimes)

"Lemons in a Row" (editorial, July 13) says "slot machines are fast becoming America's preferred way to tax the poor."

Yet free will is not lost with colorful lights and exciting sounds; it is still an individual choice to load money into these machines.

Of course these machines "are mathematically rigged to take your money." There is no other way to program them because computers do not have the capability to act randomly.

Gambling is not a tax; it is a choice. Responsibility should be given to the American people to make this choice on their own and not have it made by some well-meaning government bent on saving us from ourselves.

Knoxville, Tenn., July 13, 2004

Heavy Burden

The consequences of treating obesity as a disease

Jacob Sullum

Taxpayers may not benefit from Medicare's new policy, but John Banzhaf cites one group that he thinks will: trial lawyers. "If obesity is thought of as a disease related to eating like anorexia or bulimia, it is something at least in part beyond the 'personal responsibility' and 'free will' of the individual," Banzhaf writes in a recent press release. "Therefore, a plaintiff's tendency to overeat is not a complete defense to an obesity lawsuit."

Through neuroimaging, marketers hope to peer inside consumers' minds

By Scott LaFee

July 28, 2004

Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist, worries that neuromarketing will make advertising too effective. Instead of producing commercials that are at least somewhat hit or miss, neuromarketers will use brain research to zero in on the brain's "buy button."

Such a region does not actually exist, but the metaphor is real enough.

"Advertisers and marketers are fond of talking about individual choice, that people are free to ignore their pitches and buy what they want," said Linn, who is the author of "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood."

"But reality is much more complicated than that. Even consumers who think they're acting out of free will are responding to cues they're not aware of. Advertising works because it bypasses cognition and works on emotion."

"Manhunt" Banned

Dixons Group remove game from store shelves...

July 29, 2004

[from a game industry web site and news service]

The mother of the victim has blamed the videogame on her sons death, stating that it caused an obsession in the murderer and is almost totally to blame for the murder. This story has been lapped up by the mass media, and quite frankly it is rubbish.

Whilst the murder is horrible and hugely saddening, you cannot blame it on the gaming industry, it is misplaced and irresponsible. It is something that is a long running stigma in gaming, just look at games like GTA and Hitman.

The notion that you can blame a videogame on the actions of a person to murder someone is ludicrous. At the end of the day it is the persons own free will that leads to such an action, not the events that appear in any violent game.

UMaine's Paul Silverman engaged the brain and heart

Bangor Daily News, 8/2/04

Third, and most surprising for me, Paul described how he had begun the Human Genome Project with a belief in a kind of scientific causal reductionism and complete determinism. What Paul said in the strongest of terms was that the lesson of human genome research is the exact opposite of what some still believe and others fear: It provides a refutation of strict determinism and a justification for human freedom. It turns out that human phenomena are complex, nuanced, creative, contradictory, multidimensional and full of unexpected breakthroughs and developments.

This should teach us humility. This should make us appreciate human dignity and responsibility for using our freedom in ethical and life-enhancing ways. While carrying on our rigorous scientific research and development, isolating causal determinants and establishing connections, we should appreciate how much we do not know, and we should celebrate the appropriate sense of awe and wonder in experiencing reality.


Magic and the multiverse

Martin Gardner gives quantum-mechanical fantasies a good kicking in Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?

Nicholas Lezard
Saturday August 7, 2004
The Guardian

Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?, by Martin Gardner (WW Norton, £9.99)

Well, are they? The American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce believes they are: that there may even be an infinite number of universes. If the word of a philosopher cuts no ice with you, then consider that about half of the experts in the field of quantum mechanics favour the Many Worlds Interpretation - the hypothesis that "at every instant when a quantum measurement is made that has more than one possible outcome... the universe splits into two or more universes, each corresponding to a possible future." As you'll have worked out by now, this more or less cancels the possibility of free will. We live inside "a monstrous wave function which never collapses unless it is observed and collapsed by an intelligence outside the multiverse, namely God".

Or take the matter of positrons. These opposites of electrons, tricky to spot, may actually be electrons, fleetingly observed, travelling backwards in time. Not weird enough for you? Then try this: the reason all electrons have identical charge and mass is because there's only one electron in the universe, weaving an incredibly complex path back and forth through reversible time. Our perception is an intersection through its travels and creates the picture that we call "now".

Aha, I hear you say, but that would mean positrons would have to be much more plentiful than they appear to be. And, in a universe where everything has already happened, and we're just waiting to get round to experiencing it, the notion of free will goes up the spout again.

Gardner won't have it. He likes free will. And he has no time, reversible or not, for the MWI. "As far as we can tell, universes are not as plentiful as even two blackberries... I can only marvel at the low state to which today's philosophy of science has fallen."

Which is ever so slightly disingenuous of him, for a large part of his stock-in-trade consists of holding fantastic theories up to a light and debunking them. Not that all fantastic theories are equivalently nonsensical. The MWI or the hypothetical time-travelling electron may be fantastic, but they are also thought-provoking and mathematically possible. Other beliefs - that people can be cured of all manner of illness simply by having a healer's hand waved over them; that autism is caused by emotionally costive parenting - are downright pernicious….

Free will ensures that dangerous activities continue

Statesman Journal, Salem Oregon
August 9, 2004

Your July 30 article on train deaths (“Train deaths puzzle locals”) illustrates the fuzzy thinking seeping through and in some cases sweeping through various units of government. As long as people have “free will,” they will continue behavior that violates common sense and the unwritten and written rules of society.

Look around: no use of life jackets while boating, kids on bikes and skateboards without required helmets, etc. The list is extensive. Sadly but not unexpectedly, some of these behaviors result in serious injury or death. No amount of money or legislation will change this.

“The Wall” running along 12th Street and the railroad tracks serves as a current monument for fuzzy thinking. Prior to “The Wall,” pedestrians disregarded the danger posed by trains and died from suicide, inattentiveness, trying to beat the train and drug/alcohol abuse.

Three million dollars later, people are still dying from the same causes.

Short of moving the tracks or total suppression of civil liberties, the deaths will continue because some people will always make unfortunate choices.

— David Turner, Salem, Oregon

TC: note that this is a great example of how appealing to free will suggests that there’s simply nothing we can do to prevent suicides, etc. Since there’s something that isn’t connected to prior causes or conditions, no matter what we do people will still do crazy things. This works as an excuse to do little or nothing, a nice justification if you’re of the libertarian persuasion.

A better way to levy taxes

Charlotte Observer, Posted on Tue, Aug. 10, 2004

Similarly, when government seeks to be all things to all people, we lose the opportunity to practice charity, thus the "moral" problem. In our Judeo-Christian society we are taught to provide for the poor, but our moral imperative is balanced against the concept of free will: We are free to choose to offer charity.

When government-sponsored services supplant charity, it robs us of opportunity as well as money. The tax burden may limit our financial ability to act in accordance with our religious teachings. Do you tithe before taxes or after? What portion of my obligation to "give to the poor" is handled via the government's benevolence?

TC: interesting how free will here is used to argue against government support. Government usurps our choice to freely give to charity, robbing us of the opportunity to show our good character and benevolence. Thus we can’t be truly good citizens if we are forced to pay taxes. This is similar to God giving us free will to make sure that our love for him is truly love, the result of a freely chosen good character, not compelled by determinism.

Hey, James E. McGreevey: It Has Nothing To Do With Homophobia

By Joseph Grant Swank (bio), 8/14/04

Since what McGreevey confessed is indeed wrong and shameful — as his Catholic upbringing has instructed him — then he cannot blame society. Why can’t a self-proclaimed logical governor in his mid-40s understand that?

One attaches wrong and shame to one’s own soul. It’s by free will a person decides on wrong and shame. In this particular case, society had absolutely nothing to do with McGreevey’s angst-driven circumstance. It’s all about McGreevey — plain and simple.

So, McGreevey, lay off society. We didn’t have anything to do with your confessional litany on Thursday.