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

Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 1

A little while back, my friend UnkleE suggested that I should consider some questions that he believes are problematic for atheism as a worldview. He listed 5 questions, and I want to take them one at a time, so they can each get the focus they deserve.

That said, my initial responses to each of these questions may not be very long. Instead, I’d like to use each of these posts as a launchpad for discussion. I know these are issues that UnkleE (and probably many of you) have thought about at length, and I’d like to consider those arguments as fully as possible without subjecting everyone to my own rambling preamble. So, here’s question 1:

Do we have free will? If so, how? If not how can any choice be based on evidence rather than brain processes?

I don’t know.

I’m aware that a number of physicists and other scientists sometimes argue that free will is an illusion. That was shocking to me when I first heard it, but I now realize what they’re saying.

Imagine you could go back in time to a point where a decision was made on something seemingly insignificant. In 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash. It’s said that another musician, Tommy Allsup, was going to be on the plane instead of Ritchie Valens, but they flipped a coin for it, and Valens “won.” If you could go back in time and witness that coin flip without interfering, would anything happen differently? Whoever came up with the idea of flipping for it thought of that for very specific reasons that would still be the same if it happened over again. Allsup flipped the coin at a specific level of force, and it flipped through specific atmospheric conditions. Those things would still be the same if you were watching it happen. Valens called “heads,” which he did for specific reasons, even if they were subconscious. In other words, every single thing that happened, even though they were seemingly random, happened in particular ways for particular reasons. If you could replay it over, there’s no reason to think anything would play out differently.

And every decision you’ve ever made, you made for specific reasons, even if the decision was close. If you went back in time and made the decision over again, but only knew the same things you knew at that moment, could you have made any other decision?

There’s no real way to test this, but the thought experiment leads many to conclude that true “free will” is not really possible.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I do think that if you could replay decisions, it’s unlikely they would ever change. But that’s not really what I think of when I think of free will. Just because I made all my decisions for specific reasons and was “powerless,” in a way, to do anything different, that doesn’t mean that I had no control over the decisions. Thought processes were still firing in my brain as I calculated a number of factors, considered past experiences, estimated probabilities, and tried to predict possible outcomes. I might always come to the same conclusion in the same circumstances, but my mind is still very active in the process.

[H]ow can any choice be based on evidence rather than brain processes?

I think any choice — any good choice — should be using both. Brain processes deal with information, and that’s all that evidence is, so I see them as being very closely related.

Ultimately, I don’t see how this question causes a problem for atheism. I may have more to say about it in the comment thread, but I’ll need to see the case against atheism filled out a bit more before I can really weigh in on it.

322 thoughts on “Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 1”

  1. I listened to a Sam Harris lecture where he argued that humans do not have free will. Whilst I could appreciate some of Sam’s arguments, on balance I was not convinced:

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  2. Hi, have you seen this talk by Sam Harris on freewill?

    Years later, I have yet to find a better explanations, and still see no flaws…

    Also, regarding your answer, one thing that is missing is turning the question around: what does it mean to truly have freewill with God in the picture? And/or with some sort of purely non-material consciousness? I don’t see how Theism explains the ‘how’ it works either, it’s just stated as fact that we have it…

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  3. Hugo, I would argue ‘great minds think alike’.

    Cheers.

    Whilst on free will folk like Matt Dillahunty speculate about whether there would be free will in heaven. As we are told that only “God’s” will is done in heaven as per the Lord’s Prayer.

    But then again did that mean that the rebellion of Lucifer and a third of the Angels was “God’s” will. I guess so!

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  4. To me, it always seemed clear that we have free will — whatever that means.
    I do think some of the disagreements are really disagreements over what we mean by “free will”.
    If physics says that we cannot have free will, then I see that as a problem in physics. For it seems to me that without free will, science itself would be impossible.

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  5. I’d like to weigh in but I’m not sure I have understood the objection. Regardless, my two cents: I consider myself a compatibilist, so I say yes to free will but I’m pretty sure it isn’t the kind Eric has in mind (libertarian free will), wherein we have some uncaused component of the self which directs our decisions. In the absence of LFW, how can any choice be based on evidence? I agree with Nate that this isn’t obviously a problem, but if I try to unpack this a bit further I think he’s suggesting that we can’t claim rational, truth-directed decision making if those decisions are just chemical reactions in the brain. I think this is begging the question, though, in that it assumes that rationality transcends neurological processes. Why can’t we understand rationality to just be the neurological processes which employ evidence in the pursuit of truth, where the effectiveness of those processes is judged pragmatically (i.e., what works)?

    I suppose the next objection is then to raise the evolutionary argument against naturalism and suggest that the processes which gave rise to the neurology used to make decisions (and that pragmatic judgment about what works) are not themselves truth directed. Here I first assume the validity of the intuition that I can be rational and then use this faculty to see if it holds up. I then note that genetic propagation is aided by the development of neurological processes which accurately facilitate interaction with the external world, and so I find a good explanation which sustains the pragmatic assumption that I possess faculties which can discern truth.

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  6. I’m of the view that free will is a mere illusion. I don’t see it as a problem for atheism, or science, it is a problem for theism though. A god that knows what we will do and how we will act is a god that does not give us free will.

    Two examples I would give in support of this are:

    – a recent news item showing that scientists wired electrodes to a monkey’s brain and by monitoring the activity of about 200 cells related to facial recognition, they were able to reconstruct the human face the monkey was looking at.

    – My wife likes to play a game where she predicts what I will choose from a menu. She has often decided what I will choose before I even finish reading the options. She’s also right the vast majority of the time. We’ve not recorded the results, but I am confident are hit rate well exceeds the mean. (confirmation bias warning noted)

    That we make decisions based on information is not an argument against free will. It shows that our brains are information processors and the decisions that come out are predictable, based on the information given. This supports the notion that free will is an illusion.

    I would also use that argument in response to Neil’s comments regarding science and free will. Experiments provide information and we ‘make decisions’ using that information as the inputs. Change the inputs and the results will also change. This is a feature of a processing system and is why we feel like we make free decisions.

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  7. I think we do have free will if it is defined as the ability to make choices based on our experiences, preferences, desires, empathy, etc., basically using all of the information our brain has accumulated throughout the years that we’ve been alive. We can choose to eat healthy and keep our body in shape or be lazy and sit on a couch all day. These are real choices and we make real decisions. The underlying neural framework that does all of the computation and analysis might be “determined”, but we are still making choices and can weigh the probabilities of what may or may not be true.

    If, however, free will is defined as the ability to make choices without relying on a “determined” neural framework then I would like to know what this actually looks like. Can UnkleE provide some kind of description of how this would work? Is there some kind of immaterial “choice-maker” interacting with our brain? What does the choice-maker use to make decisions?

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  8. The theistic argument, I suspect, is that if there is no free will, then we can’t be blamed for not believing in God. (The Devil made me do it?) This is why God has to have given us free will, because otherwise, we are not responsible for our actions. Legal proceedings require the presumption of free will for the same reason.

    I think this whole discussion comes a cropper because we automatically restrict free will to our conscious thoughts. Making conscious decisions is tedious and difficult and we mostly avoid it like the plague. Most “conscious” decisions we make are really not. We scour data, we consider alternatives, then we decide, but the decision is often for things there is no data on. So, we prowl Consumer Reports and product reviews but then we buy a car based upon how it looks or how it makes us feel. We may eliminate a number of bad choices through data, but the differences in the data are usually too small to distinguish between the front runners.

    If the concept of free will were to be opened up to both conscious and unconscious processing, which I think is required, the answer to “do we have free will” would be incomplete because we understand so little about the unconscious mental processes making up that “mind,” but the answer would not be “no.”

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  9. “If the concept of free will were to be opened up to both conscious and unconscious processing”

    Wouldn’t that then also grant that non-human animals have free will, something that many theists would wish to avoid because free will is something that sets humans apart, apparently.

    I would also argue that unconscious free will grants free will to automated electronics.

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  10. Re “I would also argue that unconscious free will grants free will to automated electronics.” I think you have the free part covered but not the will. Currently all actions to be taken by a computer have to be programmed, even learning algorithms.

    And what if animals have free will? So what? A monkey can choose between a banana and a bunch of grapes, but not both. They choose. So what? This is not a moral question because we eat all animals that won’t poison us and even some that do (fugu?). The arguments that we should not all seem ad hoc. Lions eat water buffalo in the wild, should we not, then?

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  11. I wholeheartedly agree with you on animals, I think their free will status is exactly the same as ours. Well for those with discernible brains anyway. It gets more fuzzy lower down the chain.

    It’s the theist who claims that humans are special that have an issue to face. (WLC and his animal pain argument being an example of the mess it brings up).

    Re electronics, is it possible to tell the difference between an unconscious action / reaction and one that is driven by electronics? I would love to see an experiment based on that, it would be fun to see the results.

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  12. Existence is biological.

    “Free will” is simply another way of describing an organism’s innate desire to survive and thrive.

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  13. I’m confused as to how this is a difficult question for atheists. Is there some definition of free will that causes problems for a natural world without deities? Additionally, I’m not sure why evaluating evidence and brain processes have to be mutually exclusive. Does it break the world if our brains are able to subconsciously find and evaluate all relevant evidence and only bring the best bits to our conscious thinking?

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  14. Peter and hugo: in reference to that video, “Simon Longstaff” is such a great porn name 🙂

    And now we have a pretty good idea what Nate is doing while he stays away from his blog for such a long time and goes to great lengths to pretend he is busy.

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  15. Hey, busy is busy no matter what you’re doing

    Claiming to be ”very busy and I have my hands full” is something I would prefer not to explore the full ramifications of if it’s all the same with you, Nate?

    And now we have completely derailed the thread …

    What’s the next question?

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  16. Is atheism a worldview

    Only if being a Taylor Swift fan is also considered a worldview. ‘Cos sometimes, baby them fundies is gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.

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  17. For reference, the comments from the following post may give some background for people regarding unkleE’s views:
    https://findingtruth.info/2013/02/13/3-questions-for-atheists-1st-question/

    As others have said, the traditional theistic view of an all knowing God eliminates the possibility of free-will as well. In order for there to be libertarian free will we need 2 things to be true – (1) it has to be possible that the future can turn out in more than one way and (2) the cause of either of those different ways is not random but based on a choice of the individual. Traditional theism makes (1) impossible. Taking an example: if I go to the fridge to choose a beer or milk and there is an all-knowing God then that God would know which one I pick and that means that one of those choices is actually not possible. Common response for this from theists is that God is not forcing the choice, but this response misses the point. Who forces it is not relevant. If it’s only possible for one choice to be made then we can’t have free will.

    Another conundrum regarding free-will occurs for people who believe in a heaven where people will no longer sin. If they can’t sin then there is no free will.

    And then of course, related to that is the fact that if there is an all perfect God then he can’t sin either, so it seems such a being wouldn’t have free will either.

    As an aside, having thought some about this issue, I have a sense that there is something paradoxical about the idea of libertarian free will. I can’t seem to understand it even if I posit us as “spiritual beings”. But if such a thing is possible, then we can’t rule out the possibility that we could be spiritual beings which have free will in a world where there are no gods. That would be an atheistic world but not a naturalistic one. Just some food for thought.

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  18. I am wondering how anyone here or elsewhere can entertain any degree of supposed intellectual seriousness from unklee who considers the Virgin Birth of the biblical character Jesus of Nazareth a genuine historical event and one of the core tenets of his belief.

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  19. I don’t think the Virgin Birth is the problem Ark. If one posits that gGod(s) exist than is it really a stretch to go to miracles such as a virgin birth? Isn’t the core tenet of Christianity (and other religions too I guess), miracles? The first miracle is gGod(s). The virgin birth and other miracles are just part of the narrative that comes later.

    As for “intellectual seriousness” one could argue about someone’s intellect but I personally don’t recommend it. I think one can be both intellectual and serious and hold to these beliefs. One then has to ask, why? It’s not that they do, it’s why they do? I think there’s a purpose in beliefs. They serve a purpose to the individual and I think one’s intellect (where ever it falls on the spectrum) is dedicated to maintaining that belief in order to meet the needs of the individual.

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