3 Questions for Atheists — 1st Question

A week or two ago, friend and fellow blogger unkleE posed some questions to atheists, and instead of getting into them in that thread, I decided to address them here.

1. Do humans have choice to change the course of events? If so, how does it work in a physicalist universe? If not, who is kidding who that belief and disbelief are about evidence and choice?

Free will is admittedly a difficult subject. We all feel like we’re making our own decisions — that we could have just as easily made a different choice than the one we actually made. But is that really true? There are many factors at play when we make decisions: the physiology and chemistry of our brains, our biases and preferences, our upbringing, the time and culture in which we live, and our past experiences. All of these things heavily affect the choices we actually make. When I graduated from high school, I had a state scholarship that would have let me attend any school in the state of Florida, essentially for free. I chose to go to a college in the same city I lived in. On the surface, it seems that I could have made any other choice just as easily, since cost wasn’t a big factor. But could I really have chosen any differently given the same time and circumstances? It’s impossible to say.

So unkleE raises a good point: how can any of us say that we’ve come to our positions on things like religion solely based on evidence? Are we not being influenced by other subconscious factors? I don’t have a good answer for that — I’m not sure that anyone does. However, I don’t see how religion handles this problem any better. Most brands of Christianity teach that salvation depends on faith in Jesus. But if our position on Jesus is influenced by so many factors that we can’t really help whether or not we believe in him, it wouldn’t be just for God to judge us on it.

As an atheist, I can’t tell you how much free will we have. For the record, I do think we have some measure of free will; I’m just not sure how much. But I can tell you that I don’t think it really matters. No one is going to judge us at the end of our lives. We aren’t going to be held to a standard that’s impossible for us to meet. It’s okay if we all make it to the end of our lives having come to different conclusions about religion, the end of the world, etc. So while I can’t completely explain the nature of free will, I don’t really see where that’s a problem for atheism.

We’ll talk about question 2 in the next post.

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36 thoughts on “3 Questions for Atheists — 1st Question”

  1. I agree. I read Sam Harris’ Free Will essay last year and it gave me a headache. I think for all intensive purposes, if it looks like free will, then it, more or less, is. Maybe we’ll figure it out for sure sometime in the future when we can have nano-engineers recording every electron that travels through our brains, but for now, I’m sticking to that. 🙂

    And, yes, I don’t see what that has to do with atheism. I see what it means for religious folks, but not for me.

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  2. “I don’t see what that has to do with atheism. I see what it means for religious folks, but not for me.”

    G’day tmso. The point is this. If there is no God and naturalism is true (i.e. this physical world is all there is), then the only thinh happening in our brains are the physical (electro-chemical) processes – there is no “us” to change those processes, because ‘we” are those processes. So granted our genetic make-up and the inputs we receive, the processes happen according to physical laws, and there is nothing to change them. This means no free will.

    Accordingly, most neuroscientists and philosophers I have read on the subject agree that we have no freewill, but it is helpful to believe that there is.

    If it is true, then you aren’t an atheist because it is true, and neither am I a christian because it is – that just happens to be the way the physical processes work out. If we have no freewill, then ethics, crime and punishment seem to be meaningless concepts.

    Do we believe this is true? Can we live really according to that belief? I don’t think so. I think this enormous disjunct between what we instinctively feel to be true, and seem unable not to live by, and the logical consequences of naturalism, are a big reason to doubt it and atheism are true.

    But if you can’t accept that atheism/naturalism are untrue after all, I wonder if you could try living without using concepts of freewill, logic and evidence, ethics and justice, which seems to me to have no meaning under an atheist worldview.

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  3. Perhaps we’re making this a little too strict. Because we’re influenced (heavily at times) by external factors and experiences as well as internal, inherited makeup, doesn’t mean that every action or choice operates on cruise control. It is likely more of a mix to varying degrees.

    I now realize it would take far too long to fully express all of my thoughts on the subject, so I freely choose to say no more.

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  4. I think freewill exists in as much as we are able to recongnise patterns in what we percieve through our senses and also what we create based on those patterns. I believe absolute truth exists, but we as communities of human beings divide and define shared patterns. In other words, to the extent we choose to recongnise and value some patterns over others (and there are social pressures and inecentives for us to do this) we adapt to these patterns and they become collective ways of living.

    For example I might choose to have a sandwich for lunch, however the concept of eating lunch is a pattern of routine that we practice as a social norm. I might choose to have ham and cheese instead of chicken. However this preference is influenced by the foods I have grown up with and what my tastebuds have adapted to as I’ve been fed both these foods as a child and bread coupled with chicken or ham is considered to be tasty mix by people I know. Maybe I loved chicken because I associate it with other things I enjoyed growing up. on the flipside maybe I grew up hating chicken beacuse my mum forced me to eat it at the dinner table as a child. there are many factors that impact our preferences.

    My point is I think our free will is limited, Yes we have choices of preference, but I think often these choices are options that serve similiar purposes and are confined to what is avaliable to us and really our preferences are what we like over other things. I dont think Our preferences just came out of thin air. They gradually evolved, along with our bodies based on what we were exposed to and the patterns we identified in those exposures. I think the reality is that we may have less “choice” than we think. Although I could be wrong,

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  5. Great comments, everyone — thank you for chiming in.

    I think this enormous disjunct between what we instinctively feel to be true, and seem unable not to live by, and the logical consequences of naturalism, are a big reason to doubt it and atheism are true.

    But if you can’t accept that atheism/naturalism are untrue after all, I wonder if you could try living without using concepts of freewill, logic and evidence, ethics and justice, which seems to me to have no meaning under an atheist worldview.

    UnkleE, I think this takes it way too far. Yes, our minds are made up of electro-chemical processes, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of those processes combined are “us.” This is really no different than the psychological discussions about conscious and unconscious thought. How much does each affect what we do? We don’t know the appropriate mixture; regardless, both conscious and unconscious thoughts originate with ourselves. We’re still in control — we’re just wading through a lot of cultural, experiential, and preferential baggage.

    It’s true that some criminal acts are brought about by physiological or chemical aberrations. It raises some ethical problems when we consider punishing individuals for those kinds of behaviors when they couldn’t really help doing them. Charles Whitman, for instance, was the guy that climbed the tower at Texas A&M and shot a bunch of people. The autopsy revealed that he had a nickel-sized tumor in his head pressing upon his amygdala.

    However, not all crimes are committed by people who have mental deficiencies. And those of us who have raised children know that it’s possible to move them toward specific behaviors. Our kids are ultimately the ones that choose to adhere to the rules or not — but it’s up to us to teach them how to do that. To me, the ability to teach others proves that free will exists, at least to some degree.

    As with most things in this world, a number of factors determine how we make our decisions. But to say that free will can not exist in a naturalistic world view is slanting the evidence a bit, in my opinion.

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  6. So in relation to what I was writing above, I see science as just another pattern, another way to categorise and identify order in the world.

    Except, one of the crucial differences being that the accumulation of scientific thought has produced a method that is able to test our patterns and test their conclusions. Some people have been exposed to the scientific method to varying degrees, other haven’t. It is a choice whether or not one is to adapt this method.

    However, the exposure people have had as they have grown up that would make them either more susceptible or apprehensive regarding certain scientific enquiry. And the same can be said for religious beliefs. In this sense, our free will in terms of preference is again possibly a result of what we are exposed to and how we adapt to it.

    Therefore choice is about evidence, but it also can be about the patterns we have been exposed to and have grown up with. I think as human beings we are a mixture of both. What we base our choices on what we think gives the most benefit to who or what we value the most. Whether or not that makes us free agents (given that values are often passed onto us) I don’t know.

    However, if no one was ever exposed to other patterns of thought or new information, then they wouldn’t be able to make any new choice.

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  7. “If it is true, then you aren’t an atheist because it is true, and neither am I a christian because it is – that just happens to be the way the physical processes work out. If we have no freewill, then ethics, crime and punishment seem to be meaningless concepts.”

    Only meaningless if you believe this life means nothing. Atheism does not lead necessarily to nihilism. Only believing that there needs to be a supernatural afterlife will you feel apathy towards this life. So when a theist assumes, for arguments sake, that there is no afterlife they forget to lose the apathy for this life. Only under theism can this life be meaningless, in that without a supernatural purpose, it is all for nothing. And under atheism it is realized that this life is the one with individual meaning.

    “…and the logical consequences of naturalism, are a big reason to doubt it and atheism are true.”

    Not at all. A truth being uncomfortable does not make it untrue.The consequence that life as a whole may be meaningless (some atheists question this) does not stop atheists from finding meaning and purpose in individual avenues and endeavors. I can enjoy life while understanding that in the grand scheme it may be meaningless.

    Assuming that there is no afterlife for the rest of the animal kingdom, why then do a plethora a social animals form societal rules, complete with punishment for behaviour deemed unacceptable? Under naturalism it is a product of the need for survival. Survival is not possible with a society plummeting into self destruction and chaos. Why would these things exist for societies of animals that have no supernatural purpose to life? They aren’t doing it for any supernatural afterlife which ties meaning to their life as a whole.

    “But if you can’t accept that atheism/naturalism are untrue after all, I wonder if you could try living without using concepts of freewill, logic and evidence, ethics and justice, which seems to me to have no meaning under an atheist worldview.”

    These all have a purpose under atheism. Even animals who are denied a supernatural purpose to this life form societies and rules. On the surface it seems to be a natural consequence of societal animals.

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  8. No problem. Thanks for sending the love back to my humor blog.

    In all honesty I was considering more of a focus on the types of topics found on your blog and others like it. I think i would have more to say. Who doesn’t like talking about this stuff? 😉 That, and writing humor is hard!

    Love your blog by the way.

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  9. Thanks! I really enjoy yours too. I had a personal blog years ago, but stopped posting to it for some reason. After reading yours, it made me want to start up again. Kids give you tons of material; you just have to catch it when it happens.

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  10. Nate, I think you are not yet really grappling with the point.

    “UnkleE, I think this takes it way too far. Yes, our minds are made up of electro-chemical processes, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of those processes combined are “us.”

    We understand that our brains work by electrical and chemical processes that obey physical laws. So, if the physical is all there is, then what can interrupt those processes? There is nothing else but the physical processes controlled by the laws.

    Yes, if naturalism is true, those processes are “us”, but that means “we” are controlled by physical laws. So I again invite you (and William, despite him bowing out of the conversation) to explain how we can make any choice other than what the physical processes determine.

    I am convinced that this is a deep and fundamental flaw in naturalism/atheism, and I am suggesting that one can only remain an atheist who believes in ethics and freewill if one doesn’t grapple with the issue.

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  11. “Only meaningless if you believe this life means nothing. Atheism does not lead necessarily to nihilism.”

    G’day Slimdusty, your name means you are a fellow Aussie I presume? I trust not one where the pub’s run out of beer!

    I think you have addressed a different point than the one I was making (though perhaps I have misunderstood you). I was not suggesting that atheists should be nihilists or have “apathy for life”. I was simply pointing out that atheism seems to imply lack of freewill and ethics. What one does with that conclusion is something else. Do you agree with that conclusion?

    “A truth being uncomfortable does not make it untrue.”
    Of course. But the fact that we have evolved in such a way as we seem unable to live according to the logic of atheistic belief surely gives a reason to think again? I certainly wouldn’t be happy to think that I was living according to beliefs that I knew to be totally wrong. Would you?

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  12. I also believe that our “decisions” are influenced and based on some subconscious external source, be it God, past experiences, etc. So having true free will to me is questionable.

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  13. unkleE, how would you go about showing that anything beyond the physical even exists?

    And I may misunderstand your point, but I still don’t see where believing in only the physical creates a problem with free will.

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  14. “I was simply pointing out that atheism seems to imply lack of freewill and ethics. What one does with that conclusion is something else. Do you agree with that conclusion?”

    Lack of ethics? No.

    If there is only the physical then there is no free will. Free will in the sense that we could make a different choice in any given circumstance given all of the parameters are the same. But the environment/context/situation in which a choice is made can and does vary. Meaning different outcomes are possible given external factors. In relation to your original question this would mean that evidence and choice matter under a purely physical universe and atheism. For example, I chose to accept evolution as true because the evidence has been shown to me and it paints a very convincing picture and I have no prior ideology/religion that conflicts with the conclusions. Would I believe in evolution if indoctrinated from a young age to believe something different? Maybe, but likely not. Most likely I would deny the evidence or rationalize it away. A choice, given circumstance, context, situation etc. (environmental factors), is the outcome of physical laws but is affected by environmental factors. I hope I have made this clear.

    “Of course. But the fact that we have evolved in such a way as we seem unable to live according to the logic of atheistic belief surely gives a reason to think again? I certainly wouldn’t be happy to think that I was living according to beliefs that I knew to be totally wrong. Would you?”

    These are two loaded questions. Any way I answer it has me agreeing with your logical conclusions of atheism. I do not. First I would have to be clear on what you believe the false conclusions actually are.

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  15. I still don’t see where believing in only the physical creates a problem with free will

    Nate, I base this on the laws of physics. Physical process follow laws in a predictable way. Brain processes are physical processes that obey laws. So what can initiate a thought? There is no “you” to initiate the thought apart from the processes themselves. So how do “you” change anything if you are simply physical processes that obey laws?

    If you suddenly choose to do something random, say yell out “whoopee!” at the top of your voice, what starts that process off? It could only have been started by other physical processes.

    So if the physical is all there is, everything must be explicable in terms of physics, and there is nothing that is left to be explained by your “choice”. What might seem like a choice is in fact just a decision made by the physical processes in your head. So there can be no “free” will (i.e. a choice that changes the physical processes) because there is nothing but physical processes.

    unkleE, how would you go about showing that anything beyond the physical even exists?

    There are many ways that I would do this, and this is just one of them. (You can see more at Why believe?.)

    In the case of freewill, the thought process would be as follows. It feels like we have freewill (as this discussion shows). We seem unable to live without assuming this. Yet if there is no God, no supernatural, freewill appears to be impossible. Therefore I have a reason to question whether atheism is true. And if I continue to live as if freewill (and ethics, and consciousness, etc) are real, then the only way to be consistent with the way I live is to conclude that atheism is after all false, and something else is true – i.e. that these is something beyond the physical = supernatural.

    If I find enough of the anomalies of naturalism/atheism (which I do) then I have a strong case for believing something beyond the physical exists and indeed that God exists.

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  16. “If there is only the physical then there is no free will. Free will in the sense that we could make a different choice in any given circumstance given all of the parameters are the same.”

    This is the key, Slim, and we apparently agree on it. Now the fact that if the circumstances were different, the processes would be different and the “choice” would be different makes no difference to ethics.

    I don’t know how you define ethics, but it surely has to do with what we “ought” to do – i.e. choosing behaviour that conforms to some ethical standard even if something else is more attractive to us. But if you can’t choose, how can you have ethics, crime and punishment? How can anyone be blamed for anything?

    In law, there is diminished responsibility – if we were coerced, or drugged, or insane at the time, we cannot be held fully responsible for the crime. But if atheism is true and there is no freewill, we all have diminished responsibility all the time, and nothing we do can be judged ethically. Adolf Hilter, Pol Pot, that pedophile in the next city, none of them were responsible for their actions and we have no way to make an ethical judgment about them – i.e. we can judge the actions as inconvenient, but we cannot blame them.

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  17. “These are two loaded questions. Any way I answer it has me agreeing with your logical conclusions of atheism. I do not. First I would have to be clear on what you believe the false conclusions actually are.”

    Slim, this is a very honest answer. But I don’t see why the questions are loaded – rather, I have simply pointed out a dilemma for your worldview. The way to “unload” them is to show how you resolve the dilemma, that is, either

    1. Show how genuine choice (i.e. the ability to change the natural course of events) is possible given naturalism/atheism, or

    2. Show how you can actually live with the conclusion that choice and hence ethical responsibility are illusory.

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  18. So if the physical is all there is, everything must be explicable in terms of physics, and there is nothing that is left to be explained by your “choice”. What might seem like a choice is in fact just a decision made by the physical processes in your head. So there can be no “free” will (i.e. a choice that changes the physical processes) because there is nothing but physical processes.

    I don’t know how you define ethics, but it surely has to do with what we “ought” to do – i.e. choosing behaviour that conforms to some ethical standard even if something else is more attractive to us. But if you can’t choose, how can you have ethics, crime and punishment? How can anyone be blamed for anything?

    But I think you’re neglecting that what we “ought” to do plays in to all the factors of what we decide to do. I agree that given all the same factors, it’s hard to imagine how one could make a different choice than the one they actually made (at least in most major things). But that doesn’t mean they didn’t make a choice, and the rules about how they ought to behave are integral to what course they choose to take. If this weren’t true, then it would be impossible to teach people new behaviors, yet we do it all the time.

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  19. unklE,

    The issue is larger than a conversation in a comments section.

    I acknowledge your points and have discussed them before.

    I am comfortable living in a reality without free will. I don’t have a choice after all ;P

    One last thing. Ethics are not a pointless endeavor and societies should be protected from all types of threats. From natural disasters to criminals. True that punishment would look different if our legal system accepted the full consequences of no free will. But we are social animals and social animals form social systems of ethical behaviour and standards. This is what we do for the benefit of the whole – which is beneficial for the individual, whether or not we freely choose to do so.

    P.S. I am not a fellow Aussie 😦 I’m Canadian. [Uncle] Slimdusty is a nickname given to me by my neice who at the time loved The Wiggles. Slimdusty appeared in one of their shows… and the nickname was given 😉

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  20. “If this weren’t true, then it would be impossible to teach people new behaviors, yet we do it all the time.”

    I think you are still misunderstanding determinism Nate. Even if determinism is true, it is still possible to teach people new behaviours – they would just have no real choice in the matter.

    “I agree that given all the same factors, it’s hard to imagine how one could make a different choice than the one they actually made”

    You seem to be caught up in believing that we have some element of freewill, but not being able to explain how that can occur if naturalism/atheism is true. I don’t want to be rude, but isn’t this the sort of ‘faith’ response that you have rejected?

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  21. “I am comfortable living in a reality without free will. I don’t have a choice after all ;P”

    Lol!! I wonder then if you never use words like ‘choose’, ‘ought’, ‘should’, etc, and if you never criticise a person for doing ‘wrong’?

    “I am not a fellow Aussie ….. my name is Dustin.”

    The Wiggles have a lot to answer for!! : )

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  22. I don’t really agree with the way most are trying to flesh out the meaning of ‘Free Will”. I tend to have a much simpler view of it. However I fail to understand how if we cannot choose what we believe that automatically makes atheism or any other theism untrue. For the record I very much believe we do have free will, just don’t see how it alone proves or disproves a god.

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  23. You seem to be caught up in believing that we have some element of freewill, but not being able to explain how that can occur if naturalism/atheism is true. I don’t want to be rude, but isn’t this the sort of ‘faith’ response that you have rejected?

    Yes, I suppose this is a “faith-position” to some degree. Like I said in the other thread, I’m a bit ignorant when it comes to philosophy. I still rely heavily on things like Des Cartes’ “I think; therefore, I am.” I have faith that my perceptions are reasonably accurate. To me, that doesn’t require a great deal of faith — going off of what we experience, it’s a reasonable position to have.

    I feel like I have free will, too. Maybe I don’t — and I can understand why my will is limited based on many external factors. I don’t think that means I have no free will, but I don’t see how that can ever be proven one way or the other anyway.

    But none of this makes atheism untenable, in my view. And even if I felt discomfort about the free will thing, that can’t manufacture actual belief in God within me. At best, it would make me slightly more agnostic than I already am. Since I personally see things a bit differently than you, UnkleE, and because I haven’t had the same kinds of personal experiences that have helped you develop your faith, my current position still seems most reasonable to me, even if it requires some aspect of faith.

    For instance, if you were to see a flying object, but you couldn’t see it clearly, you could assume it was a helicopter or plane. Assuming that requires a certain amount of faith, because you can’t make out the object clearly. You could also believe that it was a flying saucer of alien design, but that position would (presumably) require more faith for you, because it’s so unlikely.

    That’s how I feel about all this. I feel like our existence is best described by natural phenomena, even though we don’t understand them fully. I acknowledge that there could be a God; I just don’t find that as likely a scenario.

    Sorry for the long-winded response. 🙂

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  24. Thanks Nate. I know that our beliefs are not easy to define and the reasons for holding them and questioning them are complex. They generally change gradually and in small steps. So I can empathise with what you say even as I don’t fully agree.

    I am happy to have had the opportunity to make a few points, and leave them there for you and other readers to have in the backs of your minds. And to have learnt from what you and others have said in response. Hopefully the conversation, on this and other issues, will continue. Thanks again.

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  25. but as a Christian I believe Christianity is a very personal thing, a relationship between you and God, that he communicates with all of us and we all make choices based on that. Some choose to ignore it. I don’t think what you are taught decides your fate at all. Some who grow up to be raised to believe it like you become Atheists and that is for now and might change again at some point, but some are not raised with it at all and become Christians, obviously something or someone influenced them in some way but not as strongly as their overall upbringing and surroundings, at some point we all make a choice, just like two siblings raised the same who end up completely different. I personally do not believe God would never give someone the chance to know him and then send them to Hell for not knowing him and I have never believed that because it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know what the alternate answer is but I don’t believe that but I still believe in God and Heaven. I have seen enough in life to believe that God is a fair and just God and that is not the God I know.

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  26. @Amanda Dodson Gremillion

    As your god is Yahweh, found in the Old Testament , which is acknowledged by all genuine biblical scholars today to be nothing but historical fiction how do you square away belief in this deity?

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  27. I am happy to have had the opportunity to make a few points, and leave them there for you and other readers to have in the backs of your minds.

    And I for one welcome the input for I believe that not a single deconvert on this or any other blog you patronize would consider your apologetic arguments have any merit or veracity whatsoever.

    In fact, the more of this nonsense you espouse the more you convince those who also once pandered to this pernicious diatribe that their decision to walk away from such filth was likely the most beneficial and rewarding life decision they made.

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