“Free will” and atheism…

One of the “unconvincing arguments” for God set out by the Minnesota Atheists has piqued my interest. It is argument # 26: Free will is proof that God exists. Whether or not its existing proves God or not is besides the point here. Here is the text quoted:

(26) Free Will – Some people argue that without a god there would be no free will, that we would live in a deterministic universe of cause and effect and that we would be mere “robots.”

Actually, there is far less free will than most people think there is. Our conditioning (our biological desire to survive and prosper, combined with our experiences) makes certain “choices” far more likely than others. How else can we explain our ability, in many cases, to predict human behavior?

Experiments have shown that our brain makes a “decision” to take action before we become conscious of it!

Some believe that the only free will we have is to exercise a conscious veto over actions suggested by our thoughts.

Most atheists have no problem admitting that free will may be an illusion.

This issue also brings up a conundrum: If a god who created us knows the future, how can we have free will?

In the end, if we are enjoying our lives, does it matter if free will is real or an illusion? Isn’t it only our ego – our healthy self-esteem that is beneficial for survival – that has been conditioned to believe that real free will is somehow better than imaginary free will?

So my initial reaction to this criticism is that it is ballsy. I have to give credit to the author here for bringing up a tough subject to argue. My first reaction is one of amusement. To deny that there is no free will makes logical argument as a practice meaningless, since it cannot be freely believed. The very statement of saying free will does not exist is self-contradictory. It is in line with other self-contradictory positions such as stating that the only real truth is that truth is relative. Wouldn’t the stance of truth being relative be also relative? Similarly with free will? If free will didn’t exist, either does logic to formulate the argument to make such a claim. Do environment and brain chemistry effect everything we believe?

But it looks more like that author wasn’t sure if there is free will or not. He/she seems more comfortable suggesting that there is less free will than we think, but still some. I agree with this completely. The way we are has a lot to do with brain chemistry/malfunction and environment. However, we have the ability to override our naturally acquired beliefs, whether they were right or wrong in the first place. We choose to make choices beneficial to ourselves for our survival and our children’s survival (to look at things from a completely natural perspective).

However, emotions over logical debate confuse me. If, for instance, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris really believe that free will doesn’t exist, why would they be angry that some people believe in God? Why would they not see it just as a phenomenon akin to why fish swim or birds fly – actions or beliefs rooted in biological makeup and environment without caring one way or the other? It’s like a bird getting angry at another bird just because of what it “thinks.”

Emotions and reactions against our nature imply free will, which implies a mind operating independent of purely natural causes, which implies a mind independent of our physical brain. This implies we are a combination of natural and supernatural substances. It doesn’t take long to ask the question – where did both come from?

If all we were programmed to do was to survive, I don’t think we’d desire to live in beautiful houses with beautiful clothes and nice cars and high-tech gadgets and nice paintings. We are creative and emotional – two aspects of the reality of humanity that doesn’t seem to be able to exist by purely natural mechanisms.

This a tough one to think about, and I feel like I’m confusing myself more by thinking about it.  Like  I said,  I admire the author for bringing it up.

    5 Responses to ““Free will” and atheism…”

    1. Martin
      1

      I guess it all depends upon how “free will” is defined, and I wouldn’t know how to begin (free will is connected to reasoning and responsibility, but how?), but it strikes me that a social animal/mechanism that had blindly evolved to use language in order to communicate with the rest of its group could be expected to get emotional about beliefs relating to the group’s sense of itself as a group. I think that Dawkins thinks that it is similarly natural that we were religious, and that we were very emotional about such matters, and so it is quite consistent for him to get emotional about his post-Enlightenment atheism (e.g. he might see it as a political issue). I don’t see how the existence of such emotions implies the existence of free will (e.g. birds get emotional about their pecking order, and politics can be seen as a very complicated version of that sort of thing).

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    2. Jonathan
      2
      Author Comment

      Martin,
      Good stuff! Your rebuttal that the existence of emotions do not imply free will is quite legitimate. I feel myself somehow holding back on a deeper exploration of this issue because the subject of having no free will makes me take a step back and wonder about the origin of my opinions and beliefs, and if in fact many of them were adopted involuntarily rather than deliberately chosen. If anything, this confusion may bring about humility on the part of the atheist and theist alike in debate, which is a refreshing insight. I really dislike it when we become arrogant of our own opinions.

      But I would like to return to the subject of emotion as a barometer of free will. You raise an interesting thought – do animals ‘get emotional?’ To answer this and move to the more exciting conclusions and ideas that evolve from that answer, I think I will turn to C.S. Lewis’ theory of transposition. I’ll write about it…

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    3. Asara
      3

      Hi Jonathan,

      I’ve finally returned to the blog world (for the moment, at least).

      Thinking about the concept of free will confuses me as well. I recently read the chapter on free will from Alonzo Fyfe’s online book, Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist’s Quest for Moral Truth. You might find it interesting.

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    4. Samuel SKinner
      4

      Of course you have free will- you have to believe in it. Seriously I don’t get your point- either the future can be known if you have absolute knowledge of the present (deterministic) or it can’t be (free will). Unfortunately “free will” doesn’t mean that you are free to choose- it means things are random. What is more likely: the path we take is determined by the sum of who we are or that life is a bunch of coin flips? I’ll give you a hint- the first one most closely resembles reality.

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    5. Jonathan
      5
      Author Comment

      Asara!
      It’s so good to see you here again! Welcome back! Thank you for the link. I am especially intrigued by an atheist’s perspective on moral truth – that site will be a gold mine for me. 🙂

      Samuel,
      Lol, my beliefs are either unconsciously attained or rigorously thought out, and they often change, but I am never forced to believe something against my will. 🙂

      We can both agree that humanity cannot operate under a deterministic perspective that you mentioned since of course none of us can have perfect absolute knowledge – which is only a concept in philosophical ether. So we are left with operating under this confusing system of “free will.”

      Your statement of “the path we take is determined by the sum of who we are…” is a great statement – but you must agree – ambiguous. That is the reason for this post. Do we have much control over the “sum of who we are?” Do we have a say in what our path in live is? To what degree does our environment shape us? What portion of ourselves can we attribute to our own will?

      What I was trying to address is that if we operate entirely by natural inclinations, we would be primary interested in survival, and concepts of beauty, love, passion, and emotion would have not place in our existence. But they do.

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