Free Will Hunting

Question from John:
Do atheists have “free will” or is it just everybody else except them?

Answer by SmartLX:
I think we’re all agreed that as a human race the same state of affairs is true for all of us regardless of what we think, so either we all have free will or none of us do.

The reason a lot of atheists reject the idea of free will is that it seems to require a supernatural mechanism within the brain. The actions we take result from the decisions we make, and the decisions we make are determined by the physical state of our brains and the electrical signals within them at the time. To go against all that and avoid the choice which is pre-determined by the external and internal factors beforehand literally requires that the brain go against the laws of physics. Many people who do think we have free will get around this by thinking that the soul influences the brain in such matters, which doesn’t give atheists much confidence that free will is compatible with a materialistic view of the brain. But again, if atheists are wrong then they have a soul like everybody else, and therefore free will.

This scientific perspective on the problem sounds abstract and doesn’t strike people as having any bearing on the decisions they’ve made themselves, so I like to explain it this way instead. We have things that we want and we make decisions and take actions to achieve them – in other words we have will. It’s not free will because it is driven entirely by the things we want, and we can’t decide what to want. The only reason, the ONLY reason we ever act in a way that denies us something we want is because we want something else more. We refuse a delicious cake because we want to lose weight. We don’t pursue romance with someone we desire because we want to avoid rejection, or because we want to preserve an existing relationship. This is not necessarily selfish in the usual sense because what we want most might be for someone else to be happy, or to advance a cause that will benefit a group we’re not in. Nevertheless we are literally slaves to our desires, it’s just a matter of which desire wins out in the moment.

Now You’re Thinking With A Bunch of Atoms

Question from Jeff:
I’m sort of in a searching phase of life where I really don’t know what to believe. I recently heard a compelling argument for the existence of god and want to get some input. The argument goes like this:

If there is no god and the world is just an accident, if everything about people, including what they think and feel, is just the chance combination of molecules and is explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? On the basis of atheism, weeds grow because they are weeds (laws of physics) and minds just do whatever they do. People act like they are free to think about different kinds of ideas and then choose the best one. On the basis of atheism, that’s impossible. Our minds are just a bunch of atoms vibrating and will do whatever they have been programmed to do. If there is no god and the physical world is all there is, there is no logical basis for logic. But people, including atheists, do trust reason and logic even though they have no reason to assume that it works.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Minds, or brains to be more specific, indeed do what is dictated by their physical structure combined with the electrical signals travelling through them, so you could say that they do what they’re programmed to do. The thing is, they are programmed to think. They have the necessary complexity to store something as abstract as an idea, among other information, and they apply ideas to the world around them. This leads them to make choices based on the information available to them, and act upon those choices. This can be called a person’s will. Its ultimately deterministic nature in the absence of supernatural influences (like a soul) leads many to stop short of calling it free will, but it’s will all the same.

We have plenty of reason to assume that reason and logic work, because we live in a world where reason and logic regularly help us make predictions about the world that turn out to be correct. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s simply a lifetime of observing the practical power of understanding the logical workings of an apparently consistent universe. We don’t know why it’s that way (and many religious people jump on that fact to make an argument from ignorance in favour of gods – back to this in a moment), but we learn that it is so and we use it to our advantage. That’s what learning is, really. If the world weren’t consistent we couldn’t learn anything.

The argument you heard is rather close to the transcendental argument for God (TAG) and ultimately has the same problem: to establish a god as the source of logic in its premise it has to assert that there’s no other possibility, when there’s merely no other KNOWN source. In fact the possibilities are endless, but the simplest one is that logic has no source and has always been in place, much like God is supposed to have been. The other important thing about the TAG, in my experience, is that its persuasive power is not targeted where you think it is. It almost never convinces non-believers, but it very often convinces believers that their belief is justified when they might be in doubt. It is primarily a tool for reassurance, not conversion. The same may be true of all apologetics at this point, but TAG more than most.

Belief and Choice

Question from Apostate:
Hi there,

I have seen this statement, “belief is not a choice,” in several atheist documents. I have never seen it well supported. For instance I once saw an atheist state they were unable to believe they could fly and then flap their arms to demonstrate that they are unable to fly. That supports the belief that they can not fly by flapping their arms but says nothing of their ability to find an environment where our arms could provide enough lift.

From my perspective, while I’ll agree there are some beliefs that must be held if we want to refrain from delusion, such as my belief that you are reading this, other beliefs seem quite malleable and within conscious control, like my belief that I will have everything I need to meet any challenge I face or the decision to look upon an event as positive instead of negative.

What do you mean when you say, “We can not choose our beliefs” and why do you feel that way? To me it seems to be an abdication of personal responsibility for the list of things you consider to be true.

Answer by SmartLX:
The statement “belief is not a choice” (a variant of which I used here) may be more absolute than is justified, especially given varying definitions of “belief”. Nevertheless it applies very well to the most likely subject of those “atheist documents”, namely belief in gods.

I would actually go further and say that for the most part, opinion is not a choice. Whether to take action based on belief or opinion is a choice, whether to state your true beliefs and opinions is a choice, but the ultimate position of your mind on an issue is usually not.

When one is presented with evidence for a given proposition, one either accepts it or doesn’t. This is a subconscious process (as evidenced by several studies where people’s brains were scanned while they made quick decisions, and their own thoughts beat them by several seconds). One may consciously decide to openly accept the evidence or else pretend to reject it, but this has nothing to do with what one really believes.

Your atheist who couldn’t believe he could fly was assuming that conditions such as gravity, atmosphere and the size and shape of his arms would stay roughly as they really were. If the question were changed to, “Do you believe you could fly, given your choice of environment and any imaginable conditions?” the same person would probably give an answer like, “Yes, if I could really change anything at all about the world.” Importantly, this person would not suddenly choose to believe, he or she would believe. The altered conditions would provoke a different judgement of the possibility of the act, about which the atheist would merely choose whether to be honest.

The second example you raise is essentially optimism, a belief that the future will turn out favourably. You might think of this as a deliberate belief, but what of all the pessimists who wish they could be optimistic but can’t manage it? It seems to be either a predisposition or an ongoing opinion based on one’s circumstances.

That brings us to the general exception to all of this: the case where one convinces oneself of something. It does happen, and in fact an entire industry has been built around your example alone; think how many books and seminars there are on how to think positive and become optimistic. Actually turning 180 degrees on an issue without any changes to the evidence or arguments one way or another (and emotion can have a great effect on what we perceive in this area) requires one to manually affect one’s own subconscious thought processes. This can be achieved through self-hypnosis, or affirmations, or forms of brainwashing, or all three, and the results are not often permanent. The important thing here is that for most of what we think and believe, we don’t do any of this to ourselves. Our beliefs and opinions are therefore nearly all the natural conclusions of our brains, and our choices are based on them rather than causing them. I do not regard these conclusions as deliberate decisions.

Applying all of this to the debate between atheism and theism, whether one accepts or rejects the assertion that a god exists is down to how one’s brain reacts to the evidence presented. This includes simply being told there’s a god, which children in particular will often accept as good enough and later reinforce.

The resulting theological question is why a god would punish people for not truly believing in Him if it’s not their choice, and especially if He has the power to show Himself. Believing in and yet denying a god is a conscious action which might legitimately earn punishment if the god is real (and many believers do think “atheists” secretly believe), but simply not believing is nothing of the sort.

Materialism, Free Will and Rationality

“Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics.”

Question from Graham:
If atheism is true then it would seem that materialism – physical matter is all that exists – is also true. If that is so, is it possible for there to be free will?

Materialism would seem to imply that everything functions in a purely mechanical way, with molecules simply interacting according to the laws of physics, and that would seem to leave no room for free will.

If there is no free will then it would seem to be impossible for us to engage in rational discussion. After all, the product of our “minds” would be determined entirely by a long chain of molecular interactions rather than by non-physical reasons.

Atheism implies materialism: materialism implies a mechanistic universe: a mechanistic universe implies no free will: and no free will implies non-rationality.

Do you agree?

Answer:
I’m with you some of the way, because I don’t believe in free will.

This is for roughly the reason you give. Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics, and for which there is no evidence.

That’s not to say that will doesn’t exist. We still want things, and we do what we want to do. The absence of free will simply means that we can’t choose what to want. We are driven by our desires. If we refuse to do something we want to, it’s because we want something else more. For example, if you want to lose weight, you don’t eat the big cake.

Will is an example of an abstract concept which accompanies the materialistic worldview for functional purposes. It’s a word which effectively describes an action or quality without physical presence except for a representation in the brain. In a physical sense, my will is a subset of my neurons which stores my short-term and long-term desires and coaxes my brain as a whole to think of other things in terms of those.

There is a long list of such concepts, which fall into the category “information”, including opinions, rules, agreements and of course discussions. A rational discussion is taking place between us, as defined thus: relevant, related information is getting from your brain to mine and vice versa, roughly as intended, through the media of our hands, our keyboards and a ton of networked hardware.

The religious or dualist alternative is that the discussion is essentially taking place between our souls through our subservient brains in addition to all the other media. The only difference is the nature of the participants, since the same information is exchanged. I submit then that if a discussion between two souls is rational then the same discussion must be rational between two brains, or for that matter two computers or other groups of molecules. Of course the brain is a computer, so it’s a thin distinction.

I suspect you have a definition of rationality in mind which makes a much larger distinction, and I’d like to hear it.

SmartLX