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. For unklee to dismiss Creationism and yet accept the virgin birth and resurrection is intellectual dishonesty as all are considered miracles, yet he accepts evolution.

    Therefore why should one entertain any of his claims?

    As to why …. well there is indoctrination, of course, and this plays a major part.
    There are other, psychological reasons which I am not qualified to judge.
    As most deconverts seem to acknowledge, coming to understand the fallacious and pernicious nature of such beliefs is always up to the individual one can only hope that by showing up the untenable position the likes of unklee takes that those reading along will see how (I believe) disingenuous he is. And if not disingenuous, then willfully ignorant or delusional.

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  2. @ Zoe
    I should add re: the virgin birth. The narrative in Matthew has been demonstrated to have been ripped off from Isaiah simply to fulfill supposed prophecy and has been attested to as such by people like Raymond Brown. In fact, it had nothing to do with a coming messiah but rather a prophecy directed at King Ahaz. As Unklee knows this full well it only compounds his intellectual dishonesty.

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  3. Howie, thanks for posting that link. It does provide some background into UnkleE’s position on this free will topic. Without free will how can we trust ourselves to make good decisions since we ultimately have no choice in the matter? I think that is close to what he is asking.

    Let’s say we have two different chess computers that are competing in the world chess championship along with humans. One of the AIs has the ability to learn from all of it’s past games and use this experience to make “decisions”. The other AI only uses basic IF THEN logic to make “decisions”. Neither of these computers have “free will”, but the first one has a significant advantage over the second because it is basing it’s decisions on more information.

    More information = more accuracy for determining truth and better decision making. This happens regardless of how much free will we have so I think the point UnkleE is trying to make is not very strong.

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  4. I Don’t buy that freewill is an illusion, of course I can’t seem to understand how any of that would be a problem for atheism.

    We freely choose based on information and desires and wants, etc. we can sometimes have conflicting wants and desires – like a person who really wants to be faithful to their spouse, but who also wants to have sex with someone who is not their spouse. You can’t have both, and can only pick one or the other – is that not a choice, and is that person really incapable of making a free decision there? It smells like a ton of bullshit to say there is no freewill.

    I don’t see where freewill does not come into play there. And, if there is no freewill, I would say that there’s no point in discussing it, since people like me can’t help but believe there is freewill – but then, that would be silly too because then there’d be others who couldn’t help but say there is none…

    Does a parent choose to spank his child, or choose to restrain? does a person choose to eat that piece of cake, or remain on their diet?

    Freewill is the ability to choose between these conflicting wants – basing that choice on something like knowledge and experience doesnt mean that there is no choice, it just means that all decisions are not the same – but that doesnt necessarily mean that they’re unequal – one just may give way to a since of nobility, while the other may give more to a carnal desire – they’re not the same, but could could be equal in that you want them both, albeit in different ways..

    still, this doesn’t pose any dilemma to atheism that I can tell.

    I’m curious to see the other questions.

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  5. It has been interesting to read the responses. A quick read suggests that maybe the majority commenting agree that humans don’t have free will in the sense that Travis defined it: “(libertarian free will), wherein we have some uncaused component of the self which directs our decisions”.

    I think this is a great definition, and it alludes to the main reason I believe that if naturalism/physicalism is true, then we have no free will in that sense. For there have been physical (and the resulting chemical and biological) processes going on before we were all born, and our birth, our genetics, etc are the result of those processes.

    Many of these processes are now well understood, and in principle all could be described if we knew enough. (There may be truly random processes as well, but there may not be at the level of human choice. I’ll come back to them.) So that means if there are only physical things, then we are the result of those processes, and the processes continue in our brains. There is nothing to interrupt the physical processes.

    The only way then we could have free will is, as Travis says, there is some uncaused component in our thinking (I would prefer to say not totally caused by these processes). And a random process, if such exists, won’t help, because it isn’t under our choice either.

    Those wishing to argue for free will in this sense thus need to be able to show where and how the chains of physical (electro-chemical) processes in the brain are interrupted by something that isn’t itself also part of such a chain. I don’t think, if physicalism is true, that there is such a way.

    This means that the only way we can have “real” choice is for there to be something other than physical in the mix. Obviously this can imply something “supernatural”, but some philosophers (e.g. David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel) believe there must be some natural but non-physical aspect to the universe. If either of these viewpoints was true, then there would be the possibility of spontaneous choice, although we would still have to work out how it happens.

    I’ll leave it there for now, to see if anyone who believes in libertarian free will has an explanation, but if not, then I’d like to go on to the bigger question of why this is all a difficulty. Thanks.

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  6. I’ll wait and see what others have to say. Personally, I don’t see the problem. I think it’s a big assumption that anything non-physical would need to be involved at all. The physical and chemical processes in the brain still obviously react to information: it’s how we know how to navigate our surroundings, it’s how we limit our order to what’s on the menu, and it’s how we interact with one another on this blog.

    I just don’t see the smoke, much less the fire. Though it’s very likely that I’m missing something, so I’ll see what others have to offer.

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  7. No, I don’t believe libertarian free will exists as defined here. This posits an immaterial, uncaused cause interacting with our brains. I think I could make a compelling argument against it’s existence, but we can skip that for now and move on to why it is a difficulty.

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  8. I’m not convinced that “libertarian free will” even makes sense.

    I think we have free will, but the compatibilist account of what we mean by “free will” seems better. Note that I am not a determinist.

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  9. Neil – yup, your first sentence is my feeling as well. Something just doesn’t seem to make sense of a part of us deciding things in some un-caused way (and that goes for whether we are material/non-material/or both). If the decision is uncaused then it seems it would be detatched from the actual decision itself which seems absurd to me. But I’m sure philosophers could pick apart and find the problems in what I just wrote so I’m just not completely sure that it’s absurd.

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  10. If we mean “freewill” as something that allows humans to choose without any external influences whatsoever, then no, I not only think that we don’t have that, I think it’s absurd to define “freewill” that way. And even if we did, how does having a god even begin to provide that?

    Nothing exists in a vacuum, yeah, we have natural, physical urges and hungers, we have past experiences and observations, and we have other things that we want and value based of various things – these do not rob us of the ability to choose, they are tools we use when making a choice, they are the things that help a person decide to walk away from an argument instead of resorting to murder; they are the things that hopefully help a young man not to rape his date; or help a person decide to give their sandwich to a homeless person even if they were really hungry and wanted to eat it themselves.

    Like nate, I don’t see any smoke. To me it looks like desperate apologetics to assert that there can be not freewill or freedom of choice without a God, and it also looks like the opposite extreme to try and suggest that we dont have freewill, therefore there is no God….

    How could we prove either? These arguments appear to be based on anecdotes, baseless assertions, and giant leaps in argumentation. Because a person makes the same menu selection 95% of the time, does not mean that person can’t help what selection he makes, and then my own anecdote is when we’re presented with competing options where one choice will give us want A while depriving us of want B and the other choice will us B, but not A – but whatever…

    None of this, as far as I can tell, actually proves or disproves god or the bible

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  11. Hey Nate. Let me offer a little bit here. I kind of see at least part of the problem with free will. I think the difference for me though is that I don’t see how souls or gods ends up resolving the issue, and as I mentioned before an all-knowing God seems to eliminate the possibility of any free will anyway, but for different reasons than physicalism.

    That said, what you describe here goes along with the compatibilist view of free will (which I kind of see as a pragmatic view of free will). Basically that our processes of the brain are clearly making decisions based on information.

    However, I think the problem that comes in is when we begin to think about the causes of that process, which you kind of hinted at in your original post. Example: If I thought about it for a while and finally decided to punch you in the face (which would be fun, but I’d probably avoid it since you’re such a nice guy) you and I would both agree that pragmatically speaking my brain processes made the decision to go ahead with it. But that whole decision process can be traced back to the history of my life, both my genetics as well as environmental/social influences. All of those influences could then be traced backwards until we begin to realize that the whole decision while feeling very much like a choice was kind of predetermined by a whole bunch of very complicated processes in the past. One caveat is quantum mechanics which is debatable, but all that says is that it’s possible that there are things that are not predetermined. However, it just says that some things could be completely random, and randomness doesn’t seem to solve the problem because then the choice is just a mixture of random stuff + predetermined causes – and we want to feel like we really truly made a choice and then are somehow accountable for it independent of fixed causes + randomness. You’d probably feel I was accountable for punching you in the face.

    So one problem is accountability/morality. The other problem I think is even deeper. No matter what my current worldview is, then it seems that worldview that I hold is also based off of fixed causes (and maybe some random stuff). This is where things begin to look a little paradoxical to me. If my beliefs I hold are predetermined and/or random then that doesn’t seem to say much about the veracity of those beliefs.

    Ok, ok – too much philosophy. Where I think you and I would probably end up is saying something similar to what I think Travis tried to say. Pragmatically we can see if our views about the world match up with the way the world acts and we can predict and see if things occur in the future according to those things so who cares. So maybe the whole smoke no fire thing really is the right way to say it. But it still is a little of a nagging thing for me to be honest.

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  12. Hey Howie,

    Thanks for delving into that a bit more (and for not punching me in the face) 😉

    I’m not up on all the terms, so it’s helpful to see some of them defined. I understand the idea that any choice we make is the result of a long causal chain that includes all of the past (including the Big Bang and beyond), our genetics, our time and place, culture, education, beliefs, hormones, blood sugar, medications, etc, etc. And I agree that the choices we make, since they’re based upon that, could only ever go one way.

    Even in William’s example of someone choosing the same menu item 95% still having the freedom to make another selection, the same forces still apply. Whenever that person makes a different choice, they’re still doing so for specific reasons — hunger level, a feeling of spontaneity, seeing the meal at the next table, etc. He was always going to make that choice, even if it was different from his normal choice, and even if it felt like whim. 🙂

    But oddly enough, that doesn’t bother me too much. Perhaps “free will” isn’t the right term for that — maybe we should just call it “choice” or something. Either way, I still think the person is actively making a decision, even if the alignment of all the relevant factors meant that person was bound to make that decision.

    Like some of you alluded to — what alternative could there be? How could reality work any other way? It reminds me of how people say there must be a God because our universe operates within a natural order. Well, what else would it be? Do they expect that things would just operate randomly? Like gravity works one moment, then it doesn’t? That we depend on oxygen at one moment and silicon the next? Any other system quickly becomes absurd.

    I think a system where we thought and did things without any connection at all to past experiences, the environment, our physical and chemical limitations, and all the other factors that influence our decisions is similarly absurd when you really think about it.

    At least, that’s where I see it, atm. And if I’m wrong, it’s not like I can help it. 😉

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  13. “Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, has declared that “Philosophy is dead.
    Speaking to Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, the author of ‘A Brief History of Time’ said that fundamental questions about the nature of the universe could not be resolved without hard data such as that currently being derived from the Large Hadron Collider and space research. “Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” he said. “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

    Prof Hawking went on to claim that “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” He said new theories “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it”. ”

    Gary: Existence is biological. Our actions can be explained by biology not philosophy. Philosophy is a dead field. I suggest that we skeptics stop allowing Christians to drag complicated, sophisticated-sounding philosophical riddles into every discussion of their imaginary ghost god.

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  14. Nate, you said,

    “Whenever that person makes a different choice, they’re still doing so for specific reasons — hunger level, a feeling of spontaneity, seeing the meal at the next table, etc. He was always going to make that choice, even if it was different from his normal choice, and even if it felt like whim.”

    I just disagree – not that it matters. Neither position can be proven. We can’t go back and change that position, but we use all of our external influences and wants, desires and knowledge and beliefs to choose. You’re just saying that it could only go one way, but why?

    feeling torn between conflicting options is an illusion, why?

    I just disagree and it makes everything pointless, because no one can help but only do what it is that they’re already doing… But the pointlessness isnt even why I disagree.

    I want salmon today – except I’m not freely choosing the salmon, I was pre-programmed to make the selection? I’m not really deciding to cheat on my wife, or to steel that car, or to defend religion regardless of the issues, I can’t help but do what I do, because people are just robots who act according to their programming?

    I just disagree. The fact that dude above picks the same thing at the restaurant most of the time, to the extent that his wife can prophecy what he’ll select before he has decided is not proof of absence of freewill, because it’s not 100% certain – the fact that it’s not 100% certain is evidence of freewill, not the absence in it.

    But forget all that, I dont even really get the point to discussing this – what is the point in it? Just fun, or what?

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  15. “But forget all that, I dont even really get the point to discussing this – what is the point in it? Just fun, or what?”

    Answer: mental masturbation.

    We choose based on biology. We choose based on an innate desire to survive and to thrive. The concept of “free will” has no more relevance in the modern world as does “predestination”.

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  16. It’s not that the choice is preprogrammed — it’s not at all. He’s still making the decision, just as you made the decision to type your comment, and I’m making the decision to respond.

    The thing is, if this event could play over again, you’d still decide to make the comment you made — even down to the grammar and spelling, because you made those choices for very particular reasons. And if you could go back in time and relive the moment but had no new information at all then you’d still be the exact same individual you were in that moment down to your very molecules and thought processes; therefore, you’d do the exact same things you did the “first time” you wrote that comment.

    Does that make more sense? It’s not that anything’s preprogrammed or fated — it’s just that we do the things we do for reasons, not arbitrarily.

    You’re right that there’s no way to demonstrate or test this. But when I walk through it carefully as a thought experiment, it seems pretty clear to me that things work that way.

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  17. “And if you could go back in time and relive the moment but had no new information at all then you’d still be the exact same individual you were in that moment down to your very molecules and thought processes; therefore, you’d do the exact same things you did the “first time” you wrote that comment.”

    This is true, but only if ALL environmental factors are the same. And not just the environmental factors at that one moment in time, but all environmental factors of the past. Our environment shapes us and our decisions. Take the same individual and put him in two different environments and give him two different past life experiences and his decision at one particular point in time may be very different.

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  18. “We choose based on biology. We choose based on an innate desire to survive and to thrive.”

    Except when we dont. Except when we’re presented with multiple options where each promise something we want, while removing something else we want…

    “The concept of “free will” has no more relevance in the modern world as does “predestination”.”

    Ok

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  19. “The thing is, if this event could play over again, you’d still decide to make the comment you made…”

    I dunno nate, this sounds a lot like middle schoolers complaining how the USA isnt really a free county because we can’t literally do anything we want – ok, fine. again, if we mean that freewill is the ability to make a choice without any external influence, then ok, fine – but I still think that’s silly.

    But we’re not helpless in these choices. We are able to weight our options, based on all of the external and internal influences and factors.

    And it’s easy to say that “if this same even were to play out forever, you’d make the same decision each time,” but it’s as easy to say the opposite – and neither can be proven.

    But when at a crossroads, we can decide – the choices may not be infinite, and there could only be two, but I still say that we are free to decide between the two – even if we use the culmination of all our knowledge and experience to make it.

    And I’d disagree with Gary, I think masturbation has more of a point behind it

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  20. “We choose based on biology. We choose based on an innate desire to survive and to thrive.”

    Except when we dont. Except when we’re presented with multiple options where each promise something we want, while removing something else we want…

    Gary: I do not see the problem. When confronted with multiple options, we choose the one that best meets our need to survive/thrive at that moment in time.

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  21. “Yes, I completely agree.”

    I’m not sure that i do in every instance, but maybe in most. But again, it’s really moot, isnt it? We cant test it in any way at all.

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  22. I do not see the problem. When confronted with multiple options, we choose the one that best meets our need to survive/thrive at that moment in time.

    Generally, I think that’s true. But there are times when people make selfless decisions that put themselves at a disadvantage (sometimes even offering their lives in the process), because they’re focusing more on some ideal than on the typical drive to survive and thrive.

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  23. But we’re not helpless in these choices. We are able to weight our options, based on all of the external and internal influences and factors.

    … the choices may not be infinite, and there could only be two, but I still say that we are free to decide between the two – even if we use the culmination of all our knowledge and experience to make it.

    Yes, I agree

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  24. Masturbation does have a point behind it: pleasure, which is just another term for “thriving”. Humans, like all other animals, engage in activities to maximize their chances of survival and to increase their level of comfort/pleasure (thriving).

    Thankfully, after tens of thousands of years of bloody trial and error, we humans have learned that simply looking out for MY individual survival and pleasure is not the best method of securing my individual survival and happiness. We have learned that by being socially conscious and concerned for the survival and happiness of others in our “herd”, the chances of everyone surviving and being happy are much, much greater.

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