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.