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”
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.”
Do we though, every time?
Is that why a lady decides to jump in front of car that’s about to hit a kid?
And at times when making a decision “at the time” there’s still scenarios where any decision we make will satisfy a survive/thrive need, yet in conflicting ways. So it’s not always like option A will make me hurt, while option B will make me happy – yeah, that’s an obvious choice – but when both A and B give and take the same amount but in different ways, there’s no real choice there?
I have trouble buying it, but maybe that’s just because I cant help it.
It just sounds too much like an excuse or worse, the extreme opposite of apologetics if we use this to leap to, “therefore god cant be real, because none of us really choose to obey him,” etc.
“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.”
agreed, yet not every lives this way. some people ignore those in their immediate herd, while others will sacrifice a lot (ever their own lives) for others in another herd. Some people even risk their own lives to save animals they’ve never met before.
I dont see where this eliminates freewill, or the ability to choose between options.
Why does someone sacrifice his or her life for a stranger?
Those members of a herd who are socially conscious and concerned about others in the herd are more likely to pass on their genetic material, and therefore social consciousness becomes an inherited trait within the herd. The “loner” who only cares about himself, keeps to himself, refuses to assist in the defense of others, etc., becomes unpopular with other members of the herd, and therefore has a lower likelihood of mating and passing on his genetic material.
The trait of social consciousness does not only exist among humans. Adult apes have been seen showing compassion for the infants of non-relatives. Adult wild dogs in Africa will taunt a lion; putting their own lives at risk; to draw its attention away from a den containing another female’s pups. Social consciousness is part of herd/pack behavior.
biology is maybe only part of the answer
“I don’t see where this eliminates freewill, or the ability to choose between options.”
We are not robots. I don’t think that Nate is saying we are. We have choices, but our genetic make up and our environment shape our choices. We do not make choices in a vacuum.
of course we dont – I dont think “freewill” should imply that anymore than “free country” should mean that we literally do whatever we want, whenever we want.
So we do in fact choose, and yes, we choose based on information and other influences, but I say that those help us in making choices – and of course they also eliminate other selections.
So if we just dont like the term “freewill” then fine, but again, i dont think it was meant to take to the extreme – as in free to choose without any influence or any knowledge, etc…
Hi Nate and others,
I still think we haven’t got any explanation for how choice (libertarian free will) can occur. Let me pose the question again and give some caveats.
First of all, libertarian free will. This means that while there are clearly definable causes, these causes don’t fully determine our choices. Take choosing a meal at a restaurant. I have become, through genetics and experience, to prefer fish, but I also enjoy vegetarian. So those preferences help determine my choices, so I am unlikely to choose steak. But on a particular day, I think “I had fish last time, so maybe I should choose vegetarian just for a change. But then again, I do like fish better. I guess today I’ll choose ….” Compatibilist free will says I will make a choice based on what my brain inputs processes determine, and with those inputs and processes, I was never going to make a different choice because those processes determined the choice. It was my brain making a choice, but the preceding events determined the choice. But libertarian free will says that I could, in fact, make either choice because it is a genuine choice, not based 100% on my brain inputs and processes, influenced by them but involving something that isn’t determined, but genuinely chosen.
There are physical processes which follows patterns we call laws. They determine how physical, chemical and biological processes turn out, granted all the inputs and conditions. (Yes there are apparently random events at the quantum scale, but it is doubtful if there are at the scale we are talking about.) So the input and brain processes that make up the choice of meal were themselves the result of previous brain processes and external events, which were in turn …. Any physical event or process which affects our decision will itself have been determined be other processes and laws.
All this is, I suggest, true, if physicalism is true because there is nothing else but the physical so nothing else to make a choice, except events and processes that have been determined.
Now the challenge for those still unsure about libertarian free will, is to show how a “free” choice can be inserted into all those determined processes. Not just to say they think we do have free will, but to show, against the logic I have briefly outlined above, the mechanism by which it can occur. It is not for nothing that most naturalistic biologists, neuroscientists and philosophers I have read (and I admit I haven’t nearly read them all) don’t believe libertarian free will exists. The discussion has moved on from there to how we address the implication of that conclusion for ethics, criminology and humanity (see for example this workshop).
Before I move on to the difficulties with compatibilism and determinism, I would really like to see if anyone has an explanation of how libertarian free will could work. Thanks.
Thanks for the explanation, UnkleE. Based on that, I don’t think libertarian free will exists. I’m perfectly comfortable acknowledging that everything we do is the ultimate result of physical and chemical processes (including the processing of information, of course).
You have to start by asking what we mean by “cause”.
In “free will” debates, causation seems to be treated as if causes are platonic entities; there is some platonic cause from which an effect invariably ensues. This is sometimes described as “billiard ball mechanics” — a billiard ball strikes another, with guaranteed consequences.
Yet we also say that smoking causes lung cancer. However, some people smoke and never get lung cancer. In this case, we clearly are not talking billiard ball mechanics. We are using “cause” in a statistical sense. Smoking increases the probability of cancer, but we cannot say that if you smoke you are certain to get cancer.
If quantum physics has taught us anything, then it has taught us that there is only statistical causation. Even the behavior of billiard balls is statistical. It is just that the probability is high enough, that we can over-simplify and treat it as if the cause-effect sequence is a sure thing (it actually isn’t).
It seems to me that arguments against “free will” all fail by ignoring the statistical nature of causation.
This is an assertion that is often repeated. It is nonsense.
Typically, quantum scale events are described as “micro-events”. And ordinary life events are described as macro-events. Any, typically, people arguing against free will assert that micro-events cannot cause macro-events.
There are many books on quantum physics. Publishing a book is a macro-event. And micro-events are why these books exist. The idea that micro-events do not affect macro events is clearly wrong.
As I see it, biological system (and that includes us) are amplifiers. The biological processes manage to amplify micro-events, so as to affect macro-events. Biology depends on that ability to amplify. Without it, there would be no biological life.
HI Nate, I’m happy to move on then. I’ll get onto my second step as soon as I can.
Hi Neil, thanks for your comments, but I’ll have to disagree with two matters.
“Yet we also say that smoking causes lung cancer. However, some people smoke and never get lung cancer. In this case, we clearly are not talking billiard ball mechanics. We are using “cause” in a statistical sense. Smoking increases the probability of cancer, but we cannot say that if you smoke you are certain to get cancer.”
Medical science can indeed tell you that smoking is a cause of cancer – not the only cause and not always a cause, but generally, as the following link explains. The Mayo clinic says this: “Doctors believe smoking causes lung cancer by damaging the cells that line the lungs. When you inhale cigarette smoke, which is full of cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), changes in the lung tissue begin almost immediately.” So smoking is not just a cause in the statistical sense, but in the physical and medical sense.
“Publishing a book is a macro-event. And micro-events are why these books exist. The idea that micro-events do not affect macro events is clearly wrong.”
I’m sorry, but I think this is not a relevant example. I am not saying that micro events cannot cause macro events, I am saying that the apparent reality of random quantum events doesn’t provide a natural explanation for libertarian free will, because it is doubtful if events at the human scale are random, but even if they were, they wouldn’t entail choice.
To me, that seems like a deceptive move.
The arguments of the form “because of determinism there can be no choice” fail once there are random events.
You dismissed the significance of random events so that you maintain the argument against choice. My whole point was to argue against that dismissal.
I agree that the existence of random events does not, by itself, entail choice. For that, you have to examine how biological systems work. In my opinion, you come up with a kind of choice that fits the compatibilist account.
I’ll note that if there are random events, then determinism (as a cosmological thesis) is false. So “compatibilism” is a bit of a misnomer, and compatibilist choice can be genuine.
Neil did not dispute this. he merely stated that some people smoke and do not get cancer.
”Smoking increases the probability of cancer, but we cannot say that if you smoke you are certain to get cancer.”
You obviously did not read his comment correctly.
Hi Nate, now that I feel we are on the same page, that naturalism almost certainly entail no libertarian free will, I want to talk about why I think this present problems for you.
1. Free will is an important component of ethics, psychiatry and law, all of which assume that people are free agents (within obvious limits) who can be held responsible for our actions. Aussie judge David Hodgson: ”Our system of criminal justice is based in various ways on common-sense ideas of free will and responsibility for conduct.” Read papers and books on psychology, especially positive psychology, and you’ll find people treated all the time as free agents.
But if we have no libertarian free will, all this is at risk. Studies have already established that when people stop believing in free will they are more likely to behave unethically. Philosopher Saul Smilanski says free will is a ”morally necessary illusion … vitally important …. to maintain or promote crucial moral or personal beliefs and practices.” Richard Dawkins once admitted that we need to believe in moral responsibility, even though it is inconsistent with naturalism, ”otherwise life would be intolerable”. Edward Slingerland is more blunt: ”There may well be individuals who lack this sense [of feeling they are free], and who can quite easily conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental. mechanistic terms, but we label such people “psychopaths”.
2. Rational thought requires us to be able to assess truth by a process of logic, which is reasoning` based on ground and consequence thinking – for every conclusion, there should be an evidential ground, a view much loved by naturalists (think of Clifford’s Principle). Philosopher Thomas Nagel: ”If we can reason, it is because our thoughts can obey the order of logical relations among propositions.”
But naturalism says our conclusions are reached by a quite different process of physical cause and effect. These processes follow well known laws, and if naturalism is true, then there is nothing outside them that can interfere with them. Philosopher John Searle: ”In order to engage in rational decision making we have to presuppose free will.” So it is difficult to explain rationality if we have no free will.
3. It is a virtually universal human experience that we have libertarian free will, and that is strong evidence. And most people I have read on the subject agree that we cannot actually live without that sense. Cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky: ”Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief ….” John Searle: ”We can’t give up our conviction of our own freedom, even though there’s no ground for it.”
So not only is free will contrary to our experience, but if we don’t have free will, we are all forced to live an illusion – you might even say naturalists have to consciously embrace being “delusional”! Edward Slingerland says we have to “pull off the trick of …. living with a dual consciousness, cultivating the ability to view human beings simultaneously under two descriptions, as physical systems and as persons.” Martin Minsky says: ”We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it’s false.” The irony for those who argue against christians on these sorts of grounds should be obvious.
So, ethics (including law and psychiatry), rationality and truth are all placed at risk if we don’t have libertarian free will. I think that justifies saying that naturalism has a significant reality problem.
“To me, that seems like a deceptive move.”
I think it’s up to you to demonstrate that by logic not just accusation. I’m certainly open to discuss any argument you put forward.
“The arguments of the form “because of determinism there can be no choice” fail once there are random events.”
“I agree that the existence of random events does not, by itself, entail choice.”
It seems to me that these two statements don’t fully agree. So again I invite you to make your case – to demonstrate how random events are “choice”.
Here is where UnkleE is coming from:
“Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. All “free will theists” hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility, for if our choice is determined or caused by anything, including our own desires, they reason, it cannot properly be called a free choice. Libertarian freedom is, therefore, the freedom to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition and greatest desires. Responsibility, in this view, always means that one could have done otherwise.
The Compatibilist believes that free will is “compatible” with determinism (as in the sovereignty of God). The incompatibilist says that the free will is “incompatible” with determinism. The Libertarian is an incompatibilist who consequently rejects any determinism associated with the sovereignty of God. Hence, Libertarian Free Will is necessarily associated with both Open Theism, which maintains that God does not foreknow or predetermine the free choices of man, and Arminianism, which admits that God in his omniscience foresees man’s free choices and reacts accordingly. Libertarian freedom is the general view of liberal Protestantism and a growing number of evangelicals.”
As I have said before, I believe our “free will” comes from biology: it is the innate desire of individual animals to survive and thrive and the conclusion by most mammals, that the best manner to accomplish this goal is to exist in a herd. So where do our “moral choices”, our laws, come from? Answer: They come from the herd determining what is and what is not in the best interest of the herd. That’s it.
Theists and their friends, the philosophers, are making this much too complicated. It’s all about biology.
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1: I did not assert that random events are “choice”.
2: I have never asserted that random events are “choice”.
3: I do not believe that random events are “choice”.
Yet twice, now, you are reading that idea into what I wrote, and demanding that I defend a view that I do not hold.
In the circumstances, further discussion seems pointless.
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I’m sorry Neil, I’m not asking you to defend views you don’t hold, I’m asking you to defend the views you have expressed, or at least, that I have understood you to have expressed.
You said: “The arguments of the form “because of determinism there can be no choice” fail once there are random events.”
The first part of this statement is a proposition of the form If A then ~B, where A = determinism and B = choice. But in the second part of your statement was of the form if C then ~D, where C = if random events and D = ~(A implies ~B), i.e. C implies the possibility of B.
I agree that the logic doesn’t follow exactly, but as far as I could understand it, you were saying random events imply that determinism can possibly lead to choice.
But I am glad to be corrected. Thanks. So now, do you agree that naturalism implies there is no libertarian free will, or that there is?
Whether there is free will or there is not, this no more establishes the reality of his or any other god than it does Santa Claus.
Christianity is ultimately based upon untenable presuppositional beliefs.
And where these beliefs come into conflict with the evidence then the evidence is thrown out the window, and unklee has no qualms in doing this to further his agenda.
After at least a couple of centuries of collective Christian indoctrination and theological abuse that most here have been subjected to it is indicative of just how little respect he has that he would believe for one second that anyone here is somehow ignorant or unaware of such tactics!
I dunno, maybe it is just a case of him simply being bone-headed or stupid, even?
He is constantly allowed to manipulate dialogue that draws attention away from the core foundational elements of his Christian worldview – the indoctrinated death cult fantasy that he clings to,
As Gary adroitly notes, such dialogue almost always becomes convoluted and unnecessarily complicated.
While it might be fun to show up the idiocy and disingenuity of his arguments, without his faith his position crumbles. Thus, to make his faith work he has to assert there is historicity to his claims as well as regarding as inconsequential a great many aspects of the bible which contradict his position.
The Isaiah prophecy of the Virgin Birth is a glaring example I have referenced before and no one seems prepared to take him to task for this.
And his ability to hand wave away so much of the Old Testament as irrelevant to his faith.
The question I have raised on several occasions is why on earth does he bother?
His ridiculous arguments and somewhat devious, bloody-minded style of apologetics does more to convince those reading along just how shallow he is rather than cause any here to stop and pause to consider if there is any merit to his position.
There is, of course, nothing wrong in taking the contrary position, as he is wont to do on most posts.
We can all learn something from the ensuing open discussion.
But as a potential ”goodwill ambassador” for his death-cult belief system all he does is continually reaffirm just how disgusting and untenable his position is.
To highlight his position maybe it would be best for all concerned if Nate ran a series of post that focused solely on the core foundational beliefs of a Christian like unklee and made every effort to keep the discussion tight at all times?
I simply disagree. Part of our decision-making process involves our ability to parse information, and I think that makes all the difference. I feel like the objections you’re raising overlooks that fact.
Again, I just don’t see the problem here.
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Ark asks of unkleE, The question I have raised on several occasions is why on earth does he bother?
IMO, he “bothers” because this is the way he spends his days. Plus, he’s the type of person who is simply unable to admit defeat … in any way, shape, or form.
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But as a Christian should he not be witnessing rather than arguing all the time?
Well, perhaps. But one cannot witness incessantly the same way one can write arguments on blogs. 😉
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My thoughts on the three objections you raised:
1) You may or may not recall that we engaged on the free will question several years ago and I wrote a post in response to one of your comments. I think I still agree with everything I said there and believe that it adequately addresses the practical concerns you raise.
2) It appears that I mostly predicted this objection correctly in my initial response on this post, where I offered an anticipatory response of “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 would slightly expand this to equally question the presumption of a transcendent ontology of logic versus an understanding in which logic is the outworking of the way our brains axiomatize the regularity of nature.
3) You may not understand the compatibilist position if you think that libertarian free will is the only option that corresponds with the “virtually universal human experience” of free will. The compatibilist embraces the subjective experience of choice and sees that this is sufficient even if determinism is true. And I definitely reject the suggestion that to not accept LFW is to live an illusion or consciously embrace delusion, though I suspect that was more rhetoric than argument. The subjective experience of choice is compatible with both LFW and determinism. I also discuss this aspect in the post linked above.
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Travis’s post is well worth reading, btw.
I guess it’s fair to say I’m disappointed in that response. You have agreed that if naturalism is true then we don’t have libertarian freewill. Therefore our ability to parse information is determined just like everything else. So it doesn’t in any way explain how we avoid the 3 dilemmas I posed.
I can quote dozens of expert (and atheist) philosophers, cognitive scientists, psychologists, etc pointing out the difficulties inherent in these questions, and you don’t see there is a problem, let alone have an explanation.
From time to time you get christian 6-day creationists coming here, and you patiently explain to them that there is evidence they need to look at, though mostly they don’t. I guess I feel similarly here.