Free Will, Ice Cream, and Souls – Airplane Reading pt 1

Why This Book?

I just got back from traveling—my first flight post-pandemic!—and as you know, it is impossible for a bookworm to go on a trip without lugging some books, plural. I had to travel light, so I set aside Middlemarch and packed two small paperbacks plus an ebook to finish during the many hours of waiting and flying.

Free Will was an impulse purchase from a local bookstore. My naive self had, in the last two years, become acquainted with two people (including a Christian) who do not believe in free will. What I had taken for granted could no longer be glossed over, and this book seemed to fall under my radar at just the right time. This short work is by no means as in-depth as it gets, but Mark Balaguer is a professor of philosophy at California State University so he brings some academic credentials.

What Free Will Is (or Could Be)

While you might expect this pocket-sized volume to be something along the lines of Oxford’s “Very Short Introductions,” it makes no claims to be neutral or purely informative. Balaguer is actually seeking to defend a thesis statement in this book. His proposal is that while we do not have conclusive evidence for free will, neither do we have conclusive evidence against it and thus we must leave the possibility of free will as an open question. He does not believe in God nor in nonphysical souls, although (happily for me) he extends his “for” arguments to be inclusive of those of religious belief.

Balaguer writes in an informal, sometimes bantering style and opens his book by going over classical and contemporary theories against free will, plus explaining philosophy vocab like (in)determinism and compatibilism. He also explains why belief in nonphysical souls does not in itself refute belief in decisions being caused by prior events or by chance. He dedicates a whole chapter to describe exactly what type of free will he is arguing for. Lastly but not leastly, he responds to scientific studies that seem to suggest free will doesn’t exist and highlights problems with those studies.

This is the kind of book I will need to read again to fully retain this new knowledge, but I heartily enjoyed Free Will and felt I could understand and follow it well. What I found most interesting was that Balaguer doesn’t write-off environmental factors or decisions that are made under influences. Rather, his whole point is that we encounter situations, often several times a day, where we must make torn decisions (his example: chocolate or vanilla ice cream?), and he proceeds to defend his view that such decisions cannot be proven to originate from prior brain activity or events. The other thing I found interesting is that he takes such a passionate view of the subject—he actually describes his opponents as “enemies of free will,” which is language I’d sooner expect from an apologist than a philosophy professor.

What About Souls?

I want to give a Christian’s response, very briefly and incompletely, to Balaguer’s question at the end of chapter 7:

If we have nonphysical souls, then why would we need to have brains to carry off our mental actions? Or to put the point the other way around, if all mental states and events correspond to neural states and events, then why should we believe in nonphysical souls at all?

One could spend an entire book on the subject of souls in Christianity, but essentially, the concept of soul/body division is mostly Greek in origin. (There is an entire Wikipedia article about this.) Indeed, a core belief of the Christian afterlife, as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, is that the faithful believer will receive one’s resurrected body, just as Jesus did. At the same time, Christians believe humans were made in God’s Image and are preeminent among earthly creatures. For these reasons, I do believe in nonphysical souls or some spiritual essence of ourselves, yet not necessarily in a soul that permanently resides outside of one’s body after death. I think our physical, mental, and spiritual components are linked closely in this life and the next, so it is no stretch for me to suppose that God created the brain as a physical vehicle for mental and perhaps even spiritual activity.


  1. I’m a Materialist and (as I suspect you already know) an Atheist – so, for me, no soul and no ‘mind’ as a separate kind of ‘stuff’. As to Free Will, I’d say its (highly) probable that we do possess it. It certainly *feels* like we do. If we didn’t have it how could we tell? I know people throw up the idea of cause & effect and I agree that we live in a Causal universe where C&E exist. Does that eliminate Free Will? No, I don’t believe so.

    I used to describe it like this: If you trip over something C&E (plus Gravity) means you WILL hit the floor. The Free Will part is if you decide to break your fall. Later, during my Philosophy degree, I did an essay on Determinism and (I think) the Stoics. Between us I proposed this idea: Chains of C&E exist everywhere and we are certainly part of those chains. BUT, because we are self-aware, we exist INSIDE what I called the ‘Causal Nexus’. This means that we have two abilities – we can CHOOSE to start/originate a chain of C&E or, if an exterior one reaches us, we can likewise CHOOSE to continue it or stop it. For a mundane example – your brain might say “I’d really like some chocolate ice cream” and *you* say: No, I’m on a diet and kill that (potential) C&E chain. Interesting, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s