Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Purpose, Religion, Salvation, Truth

3 Questions for Atheists — 3rd Question

The first post in this series is here. Here’s the 3rd of unkleE‘s questions:

3. You live your life with some sense of purpose. But Richard Dawkins assures us that that purpose is illusory and the universe shows us just blind pitiless indifference, Professor William Provine, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, confidently asserts that “Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent”, while Francis Crick talks of his astonishing hypothesis: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” So what is the logic that allows you and many others to ignore these conclusions of some of the finest biology minds we have?

I don’t feel like these issues have been ignored by most atheists, nor do I think I’ve ignored them. In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville makes the point that it can be depressing to think that humanity doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things. Then he simply acknowledges that “the truth just may be sad.” It might be preferable to believe that there’s a higher purpose to our existence, but that doesn’t mean there is. So the lack of purpose argument might be interesting, but it doesn’t count as evidence against atheism, in my view.

Also, isn’t it a bit arrogant to assume that we are such magnificent creatures that we must have a higher purpose? Do you suppose giraffes believe in a giraffe-god because without one their species would have no higher purpose? And it seems strange that this argument would be put forth by the same group of people who believe humans are naturally depraved individuals. Which is it? Are we worth nothing or does the universe revolve around us?

All that said, I don’t see what’s so bad about making our own purpose. The people that matter most to me are the ones who know me intimately. If I make a good impact in their lives, that’s enough for me. If people 200 years from now have no idea who I was, so what? I won’t be around to lament that fact, and I won’t even know who those people are — why should I care if they know me?

And what’s the benefit in having a cosmic purpose anyway? If my purpose is to serve God (as Ecclesiastes teaches), doesn’t that pale in comparison to making my own purpose? Think of it this way: if I’d only had my children for what they could do for me, doesn’t that make me petty? Wouldn’t it be better to help them find their own purpose than to make myself the center of it?

Finally, if we need a purpose higher than ourselves in order to have value, what is God’s value? By definition, there would be no purpose higher than himself, so wouldn’t that make his existence rather sad and pointless by this standard?

In the end, I think it’s up to each of us to make our own purpose. And in a way, I find this exciting. I don’t believe the end of the human story is set in stone — there is really no limit to what we might accomplish as a species if given enough time. Will we eventually visit other planets, other stars? What advances will we make in medicine and technology? Can we achieve some semblance of world peace? I think our ability to make our own purpose is more hopeful than depressing.

41 thoughts on “3 Questions for Atheists — 3rd Question”

  1. But Nate, instead of asserting that you think we have free choice, can you explain how it happens within physicalist assumptions? How we (who are no more than a physical brain and body) can initiate a physical process that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?

    I thought that I did… It seems to me that you’re ignoring the physical and chemical processes that we ourselves initiate when we make decisions or perform actions. I think our free will is limited, but I don’t think it’s non-existent, because many of the processes you’ve been talking about happen within ourselves. In my opinion, that’s our “free will” in action.


  2. “It seems to me that you’re ignoring the physical and chemical processes that we ourselves initiate”
    But how does a physical and chemical process initiate itself? (Remember, under naturalism, “we” are no more than the physical and chemical processes.)


  3. why would it have to initiate itself?

    actually, let me clarify my earlier comment. We respond to things and formulate new ideas… I view that as a part of free will. Initiate may have been a misleading term.


  4. Nate, I don’t think we are connecting at all. I don’t want to keep labouring the point, so let me have one more go.

    1. Assume physicalism, i.e. there is nothing in existence but the physical, what we can observe and measure by science.

    2. Therefore we are no more than the particles which make us up. Our consciousness is just a product of our brains – which means the physical processes that occur in our brains. And our choices are made through brain processes.

    3. Processes that are beyond our control (e.g. external stimuli, nervous responses) can initiate a brain process, but we don’t freely control these. For us to exercise freewill, we would need to be able to initiate or change a brain process from what would have occurred naturally.

    4. But how do “we”, who are brain processes, initiate or change a brain process? I cannot see any mechanism, can you? “We” are the result of such processes, not the cause.

    5. It is clear from logic that the only way we can exercise free will is if “we” exist outside our brain processes – then there is something other than the processes than can affect them. But that isn’t possible if physicalism is true.

    It is worth noting that I didn’t dream this up myself, I got it from discussion with a friend. His name is Steve Grand, and he is, or was, an artificial intelligence researcher. He is also an atheist and a determinist (i.e. he believes free will is illusory). About 7 years ago we corresponded for about 2 years by email (and it was he who first put me onto atheism forums etc on the web). He convinced me that atheism = determinism. I think I am not doing as convincing a job as he did to me! : (

    I hope that helps. The key challenge, if you want to believe in freewill, is to show how the mechanism works – i.e. how there is something of us that can change a brain process from what would have happened naturally. It requires a clear description of that process rather than an assertion that it is there. We both agree it is there, I am just asking you to justify it from your current viewpoint. As long as you cannot explain its mechanism, I suggest your confidence in freewill is an argument against your current worldview.

    Thanks again.


  5. Thanks for the explanation — I have a better idea of what you’re talking about now. I’ll have to think about it for a while, because I’m not really sure what I think about it.

    The key challenge, if you want to believe in freewill, is to show how the mechanism works – i.e. how there is something of us that can change a brain process from what would have happened naturally.

    I don’t believe that there’s an “us” outside our brain processes. I’m not sure I agree that this would force me to think free will is illusory, but I don’t have a good way of formulating why at the moment. If I can think of a way, I’ll comment (or post on it) again. Thanks for spending so much time on it. 🙂


  6. Thanks Nate. I was worried I was going on a bit too much, but it was worthwhile if it gave you something to consider. Best wishes.


  7. “I think, therefore I am.”

    If thought is independent, then free will has to be a by product.
    suggest otherwise requires developing a scenario so complex it would have to account for every single variable of human behaviour, and as we are constantly evolving, to follow the non-free will path suggests a ”çontroller” of some description.

    If one applies philosophy to anything one can eventually arrive at any result one truly wishes. Like accountancy.

    PS. Jesus just told me it’s past my bedtime. Nite nite…


  8. Thanks Nate, I didn’t realise Persto had a blog. I had a look and found it interesting, and commented too – would you expect me not to? : )

    Yes it was relevant to what we’ve been discussing, and I agree with a lot, disagree with some. I found it interesting that he addressed the question of whether an atheist should accept the more reductionist (but logical) conclusions of atheism – a matter I was preparing a blog on (see The loneliness of the long distance atheist).


  9. Nate and UnkleE-
    Very good discussion here.
    You guys really demonstrate the kind of back and forth that is very refreshing.


  10. God did give us our own purpose, he does give us our own individual gifts too but we need him to fulfill those. Our purpose is to serve him but it benefits us too. We were made to serve him not as slaves but as part of his wonderful plan to be a part of it to be next time not below him. Jesus said to the man next to him on the cross you will be with me in Paradise. Paradise, unlike how some believers or some who claim to be believers portray it I do not think of Heaven as us all sitting their praising God like slaves being miserable doing what he wants. As a Christian here on Earth when I obey God, when I do good for others, I receive reward, but I a not a miserable slave, because that is what I was made to do, made for, I am serving my purpose but when I do not not do this I sometimes receive earthly rewards that do not last or eventually cause suffering and that is what you get when you seek our your own purpose without God and then I feel like a slave, a slave to other people, to the Devil to Earth or whatever else you want to believe, you can be a slave to anything but no one is a slave to God he made us all free. You do have a purpose but God is the one who made you, you cannot figure out what it is or accomplish it without him. It is to serve him by doing things he made you to do but it is things that will bring as much happiness to you as it does to Him. God is not selfish and he is not a slavedriver but we were made to serve. ON this earth serving is made to be such a bad thing but it is not, any time you see someone serve someone humbly by choice to someone that is loving to them and rewards them it is actually am amazing thing to watch whether it be a husband to a wife or wife to husband or employee to employer etc One of my favorite Bible verses is about those who exalt themselves being humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted because I see it played out every day in life especially at work as an HR Director.


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