free will

An Islamic answer to Sam Harris and other deniers of free will

This article is an Islamic answer to Sam Harris and those who follow in his tracks. Below is a video that shows the dynamics of the free-will-denying discourse; the way it uses a collection of scientific facts to leap to the conclusion that there is no room for free will:

The main argument of the video can be stated as this: if this universe is a closed physical system, then everything that happens inside it is a consequence of the system itself.

If you imagine this universe as a closed box with atoms floating inside it, when you see an atom move faster than another, you do not say that atom chose to move faster. The atom has no free will. You instead say that the way this atom interacted with those other atoms caused it to move faster.

Sam Harris’s philosophy is therefore entirely reliant on the assumption that the universe is, when it comes to free will, a closed system. If everything we do is a consequence of the design of the brain and body and our past experiences, then naturally this means there is no room for free will. According to this view, if you have perfect knowledge of everything that goes into a person’s brain, and perfect knowledge of their physiology, then you can predict with 100% accuracy every one of their thoughts and actions. They are just a highly sophisticated robot responding to their own design and their environment.

Islam’s answer to that is this: this universe is a simulation with the soul residing outside of it. We are happy to acknowledge everything scientists say about the way human behavior is affected by material causes. But we reject the unproven hypothesis, the leap of faith of free will deniers, that this leaves no room for free will. By placing the soul outside the universe, we can say that the soul can act independently of the universe. It can “transcend” the universe and do its own thing when it chooses.

The most fundamental question when it comes to the question of free will, according to the Islamic perspective, is whether God exists. From there we can come to whether the soul exists. And from there we can come to the material universe. The soul, according to Islam, is “more real” than the universe, the same way that in the film The Matrix the real people are outside the universe, controlling avatars inside it. The universe is merely like a computer game, with the players residing outside.

While as a soul I am constantly affected by the universe, by my hormones and past experiences, since I am “more real” than these things, I can “sit back”, think apart from all that, and come to choices that are not demanded by the material factors. I am like Neo in the Matrix; my avatar inside the Matrix an send all kinds signals to my real self which resides outside of. But since my real self is outside of it, it continues to maintain a form of independence from the Matrix; it can transcend it. I can choose to be selfless and generous even if all material causes make me want to be otherwise.

As Muslims we say the player is more real than the game and controls it. They say there is no player; there is just the game. They are like characters stuck inside a video game, or inside the Matrix, denying that there could be anything outside the game. And they keep telling us about the wonderful features of the game and how it affects the avatar as if this proves there is no reality beyond it. To them everyone in the game is an NPC (non-playable character) controlled by the game itself. To us, humans are real players who are not deterministically controlled by the game, even though the game affects them strongly.

They will say that since there is no proof that there is anything outside the game, we must believe the game is all that there is. That is another way of saying that there is no reason to be Muslim (and have such beliefs about the universe) since there is no proof that Islam is God’s one true religion. To that I say that since I have experienced God through the Quran, and since thousands of great men and women before me have also experienced God in similar ways (and not just Muslims), I could not be anything but Muslim. To me my framework, my worldview, is more authoritative than theirs. There is no scientific proof that God or the soul do not exist, or that Islam is false. But there is strong soft (not hard) evidence for the truth of Islam. Therefore my view of the universe, to those who have had similar experiences to mine, actually has more evidence on its side than their view of the universe. I take a leap of faith based on experience and soft evidence. They take a leap of faith that goes against experience (all humans act as if free will exists even if they can come up with clever theories to deny it) and that only has soft evidence behind it (suggestive facts about the way human behavior is affected by physiology and the environment).

If they say that only foolish people believe in religion and that more intelligent people will believe in their worldview, the evidence of the real world disproves their claim. There are highly religious Muslims and Christians who believe in a worldview similar to mine who are just as intelligent as any atheist or non-believer in free will.

For more on the Islamic theory of the universe as a simulation and a discussion of soft versus hard evidence, see my essay: Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template: A Plausible Reconciliation of the Quran and the Theory of Evolution

This article is based on an email I sent to a friend who sent me the video above and asked for an Islamic answer to it.

Islam’s theory of free will versus physical determinism: Why humans are responsible for their actions even though God operates the universe

Emission Nebula

In your essay "God, Evolution and Abiogenesis," you said an atom has no power to move on its own. It is God who has to move every single thing that moves in this world. Given that, does that mean we don't have free will? On the atomic level, it is due to the chemical reactions and the firing of neurons in our brains that we think and make decisions. So, since God is responsible for everything that's in motion (including atoms), then isn't God to blame for all my immoral actions?

Your soul is “plugged into” this universe without being part of it. When you desire to lift up your hand, the desire is yours, therefore you are responsible for this action, but it is God who actually has to move the atoms (and everything else) for your hand to actually move.

When you play a video game, you can issue a command for your game character to lift its hand. You personally have no power to lift the character’s hand, it is the video game engine that actually has to carry your command out, and if the video game engine malfunctions, no matter how many times you issue the command for your character to do something, it may not do it.

When your soul, which is independent from this universe, issues a command, it is fully responsible for this command. But this command is nothing but a feeble wish, it has zero power to change the universe. It is God who has to communicate the soul’s commands to your body, and it is God who has to carry the command out by moving the universe, since nothing in this universe has the power or ability to move or change by itself.

So your soul is free, it is not part of the functioning of this universe. This universe can be thought of as a simulation that is entirely upheld and operated by God. Your soul has no power except to wish for things, and God can transfer these wishes to the body that is temporarily under a human’s control inside our universe. When a person dies, the soul is simply “unplugged” from the universe, and when the person is resurrected, the soul is plugged back into a new body.

Since He wants us to have the choice of disbelieving in Him, He always reliably operates this universe for us, making us think that we have control over our brains and bodies, and making us think that this universe would function by itself even if there was no God. This is a necessary part of the design of the universe, to make faith in God a choice.

Imagine yourself as sitting in a room outside of this universe, holding a remote control that enables you to send commands to your brain and body which are inside the universe. You are responsible for the commands you issue, but you do not have any power or authority to cause a change within the universe. God (or some mechanism laid down by Him) changes the universe so that the command is carried out. He does this so reliably for us that we are tricked into thinking that we have power over this universe.

In reality, the view of the universe we arrive at from the Quran is that it is a simulation-like thing upon which humans have zero power. The human soul is temporarily given the illusion of control over a body, and as the soul issues commands, God moves the body in response, as part of everything else He does in operating this universe.

Saying the soul is independent of this universe does not mean that it is not affected by it. By being plugged into this universe, it experiences it and responds to it. When a human is presented with a temptation, the physical body (and I include the brain in this), which belongs to this universe, responds to it and desires it. The soul, however, maintains final judgment on whether the human succumbs to the temptation or not. The stronger the temptation is, the less room there is for the soul to exert control over the physical body, and the weaker the temptation, the more control the soul has over the body. For this reason we are not always, perhaps never, entirely responsible for the bad deeds we do, the environment affects us and pushes us toward some things. The mistake is in thinking that the environment completely controls us, which is what some atheists say. The Quran says that while the environment affects us, our soul maintains its independence, being able to go against the environment if it wants.

God could prevent all evil from happening, since all that He has to do is stop carrying out an evil person’s intentions, or cause slight changes so that a terrible accident does not happen. I explain why He does not prevent evil things from taking place in my essay Why God Allows Evil to Exist, and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Humans would have had no responsibility for their actions if they were merely brains and bodies, similar to other animals. If things were so, they would be parts of this universe, and everything they do would be a consequence of the motion of particles and forces within the universe, similar to the actions of bacteria in a pond. But when a soul is plugged into the body, the soul “rides” the body, taking charge of it, directing it, and being responsible for it.

At times, the physical body is out of control, such as when under the influence of a drug, or due to mental illness, or due to witnessing some horrible crime. When this happens, when the soul loses control over the brain and body, it is no longer responsible for what the brain and body do until it regains control.

Our responsibility for a sinful act increases as the involvement of the soul increases. If there is no terrible temptation making us partially lose control over the human body that we control, if our sin is done in cold blood while having full control over the earthly body, then this is a far greater sin than a sin done out of overwhelming desire.

This concept also applies to good deeds. A person who forces their unwilling earthly body to do a good deed is going to deserve higher rewards than a person who only does good deeds that make them feel good. It is for this reason that Umar ibn Abdul Aziz says:

The best good deeds are those that one has to force the ego to perform.

When your ego wants to do evil and your soul overcomes it and prevents it from doing it, or your ego dislikes to do a good deed but your soul overcomes it and forces it to do it, in both of these cases you deserve reward, you used your free will to go against the environment, against the ego your soul is plugged into.

The ego is the earthly body’s sense of self. Even if humans had no free will, if they were merely animals, they would still have an ego. This ego makes them seek what they desire and avoid what they do not desire. The soul is an add-on over the ego, able to override it or go along with it. The ego is arrogant, loves pleasures and dislikes work. The soul can submit to it and do as the ego pleases. It can also receive guidance, submit to God and go against the ego when the ego desires something harmful.

You will meet some humans who mostly live inside their egos. The soul has nearly fully relinquished all control, letting the ego make nearly all of their decisions for them. These people are greedy, power-hungry and love pleasures, they are kind and loving toward their own families (since it is an animal instinct to be this way toward one’s own family), but have no empathy or understanding for others. If their child unjustly beats up someone else’s child, they will continue to defend their own child without caring about right or wrong, since they judge things based on the ego, and the ego wants what is good for the human animal’s interests and does not care about justice.

An easy way to find out if someone lives in their ego is to ask yourself, “Will this person help me if helping me required them to do something that gave them some inconvenience and discomfort?” People who live in their egos will generally only help others if helping others is easy and costs them nothing. If there is any cost involved, they immediately ignore the person who is asking for help, treating them as an annoyance to be gotten rid of. But if helping others will bring them fame and praise, they will do it.

The concepts mentioned in this answer are not meant to be used in scientific discussions with atheists, they help explain the Quranic view on these matters for people who have already accepted the truth of the Quran. The concepts in this essay are also useful in discussions with atheists like Sam Harris who falsely claim that the theory of physical determinism proves free will wrong. If the universe was physically determinate, there would be no free will. But there is no proof for this, as I will explain. What they say is similar to saying “If God did not exist, then there would be no God.” In reality, we can have a perfectly scientific universe that appears physically determinate, while also having free will that operates in parallel to it, and which to a scientist appears either as randomness or as a chaotic and emergent behavior

There is no proof that free will exists, the same way there is no proof that God exists. All that we have is soft evidence (rather than hard evidence) that the Quran is true, and once we have accepted the Quran as true, we accept that both God and free will exist.