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.

The Determination Of The Universe

Question from Alejandro:
Message: I was debating (not formally) in my university about the existence of a god, and we ended up in the topic of determinism. My theist opposition argued that determinism would prove the existence of (their) god, that it would prove that, say, life was determined to exist by physics and chemistry, so there is a teleology in it.

In sum, they said the old adage: “Laws require a lawgiver”.

I believe this is a very common argument theists make to atheists, and some don’t know how to answer that.

Does determinism prove there is a god?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a common argument all right. Actually it’s two different ones mashed together, so let’s split them up.

Determinism means that everything that’s ever happened or will ever happened was destined to happen from the very beginning, if indeed there was a beginning. God’s plan is one interpretation of this, and a highly disturbing one because it implies that everything bad that’s ever happened was God’s plan, including all the people who’ve gone to hell. There was no way they could have done anything other than commit the sins that damned them.

Another valid interpretation of determinism is that it all simply happened because it had to, without any plan at all. Some very interesting stuff has happened, like the emergence of life and Beethoven’s Fifth and that amazing coincidence that happened to you last week, but in a universe as enormous as ours you would expect at least a few amazing things to happen by chance in a few corners of a few galaxies. If billions of people played the same lottery at million-to-one odds, you’d get thousands of winners.

Finally, regardless of any of the above, determinism can’t establish a god until determinism itself is shown to be true, and it hasn’t been. Decades ago quantum mechanics put paid to our self-assurance that every particle must have a plan, by telling us that a particle’s exact position can be a matter of probability, with no apparent reason why it’s in one spot and not another. Until the accurate predictions of quantum mechanics can all be explained by another completely different and intrinsically determined mechanism, determinism cannot be assumed to be reality.

The second argument is the argument from design, in this case applied to the origin of life. I covered it very broadly in my Great Big Arguments series, and I’ve written a few things on the fine-tuning argument which you might find relevant. Briefly, just because the universe supports life does not mean the universe was designed for life.