Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Religion Doesn't Explain Willpower, But Neither Does Science

Is there an explanation?

Key points

  • Will and power are different, since will is motivation and power is effort.
  • Religion and spirituality focus on a higher power's will without interest in how it translates into physical effort made by organisms.
  • Scientists alternate between describing motives (will) vs chemical mechanism (power) without explaining how motivations become effort.
  • Biologist Terrence Deacon has an explanation for the emergence of will and how it translates into power and how that emerges at life's origin.

We talk about willpower, but here let’s separate those words: will and power. Will is what you want to have happen. Power is the work you do to make it happen. Will is how you want things to work, power is your work to make them work that way. Will is your preference, your desires, appetites, motivations, aims, goals. Power is your trying, working, effort, how you manifest your will. Will is your hunger. Power is your work to get something to eat.

Religion, spirituality, and science all deal with those two distinct concepts, will and power. But none of them, not even science has solved the mystery of what will is and how it gets translated into power, how what you want, turns into effort to get it.

The religious think, preach, and debate about God’s will, what God wants to happen. But God’s power? The mechanics of how God influences things? That gets almost no attention. How does God, a supernatural being, make things happen in nature? Well, God is omnipotent. He can do anything. He’s all powerful—never mind how? Besides, God works in mysterious ways, a saying more often used to describe how what God wants is mysterious. You can’t know God's will. What about his power? How does a supernatural being physically move mountains? That’s left mysterious, too.

It would have to be. God is supernatural, beyond nature. A supernatural being would be a nonphysical force acting on physical forces. For religions, God’s will is the focus, what God wants to have happen. But God’s actual physical power? It’s to be respected, not understood.

OK, what about the spiritual, the folks who reject God with the white beard but respect what they call a higher power? Is it a power or a will? Does the higher power will anything? Does it want love, harmony, and connection? Usually. The spiritual have trimmed the beard but not the will. Their supernatural force has goals. And what about this higher power’s power? Same problems ignored. How does the higher power move mountains? The higher power's actual physical power? It’s to be respected, not understood.

OK, then what about the sciences? Science is a campaign to find natural, physical explanations for all natural, physical phenomena. No supernatural explanations permitted, and here’s why. There’s nothing you can’t explain by claiming a supernatural phenomena caused it. Supernatural phenomena is the ultimate wild-card trump card. A wild card because you can claim it wills anything. A trump card because it’s super, outside and above nature, exercising its power to move mountains. So the supernatural is off limits to science’s campaign.

In the physical sciences there is no will. Nothing in astronomy, geology, chemistry, or physics wants anything. There’s only power, material/energetic entities doing, working away at each other with no aims or goals.

In the life and social sciences, there is will. It’s local. You and I have wills. Animals have their individual wills. Even plants and microbes. Their struggle for existence is will. Though they have no thoughts or feelings, they have agency, an implicit inherent preference that manifests in the work they do to survive and reproduce. That’s natural will manifest in natural power. Nothing supernatural about it.

Though in a way there is. You have motivations, right? How do you know? You know because you make effort. When you see effort out of any critter you assume it has motivations.

OK, so what is a motivation? It’s something inside you, right? It’s got to be made of the same stuff as you’re made of. You’re made of molecules. Molecules don’t have motivations. You’re completely physical. Nothing about you defies physical laws. You’re made of nothing but molecules. So what and where exactly is your motivation?

In science, natural, not supernatural, will still works in mysterious ways. Top scientists can’t explain what a motivation is. It’s why many of them assume that we’re like machines, that we have power but we don’t have will. I’ve read many a scientist trying to convince their audience that trying isn’t real. Choose determinism: You can try to believe that trying is real, but it isn’t. Such scientists alternate between will and power talk. They’ll describe you like you’re a machine, just power, an incredibly intricate engine or computer humming away. They’ll describe your motivations. They still talk like you have will. But what it is, they don’t know. They assume that when they see effort, will must have proceeded it. If you reach for food, they assume you’re motivated by hunger.

So again, even in science, will works in mysterious ways. We still don’t know what will is or how it translates into physical work. Even scientists who assume that will is natural, not supernatural, don’t know what it is or how it has the power to move molecules as you reach for your grub.

Mind you, we should be able to explain willpower. It’s obviously natural.

Here’s one simple idea worth considering, drawn from ongoing research conducted by University of California, Berkeley biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon and myself. A chemical system that is perpetually regenerating itself is the missing link from chemistry, which has no willpower, to beings that do. Even the simplest possible organism is perpetually self-regenerating. It is struggling for its own existence; in other words, it has willpower to live. Thus, explaining willpower as grounded in science would be a matter of explaining how a perpetually self-regenerating chemical system could emerge within nothing but simple chemistry. Here is a Google Talk in which I report more of the explanation.

Here's this article as a video.


Sherman, J. (2017) Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves, NYC: Columbia University Press.

Sherman, J. Google Talk: Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
More from Psychology Today