Ask your average New Atheist whether or not they believe in free will, and you'll almost always hear "yes". Most will affirm the human ability - and right - to freely choose what he or she does in life. This is foundational to concepts like good and evil - that is, there is right thing to do and a wrong thing to do, and we have the ability - and responsibility - to consciously choose one or the other. Name any hot-button issue in the news these days, and the New Atheist will always have an opinion on which side is right, which side people should choose and which the law should enforce.
That, however, ignores the simple fact that if naturalism is true - that is, if there is no God, nor any supernatural element in the universe - then there is no such thing as free will. On naturalism, humans - like animals, insects and plants - are simply biological machines acting out what their DNA prescribes them to do. This is called determinism, where every action and choice we make in life is not due to our own free will, but to a pre-programmed action or reaction to external stimuli governed entirely by the laws of chemistry and physics. If that's true, we have absolutely no ultimate control over ourselves.
To say that free will exists, one must affirm the existence of some metaphysical 'core' in human consciousness that can interface with our biological machinery and override where our DNA would otherwise take us. This is inescapable. Naturalism/atheism demands that there be no metaphysical explanation to anything in the universe, so to stay true to that worldview, the idea of free will must be rejected.
But where else does determinism take you? It means that belief in God or any religion is deterministic. Just as deterministic as, say, homosexuality. If you invoke determinism to affirm that one group of people has been born a certain way, you cannot escape the fact that the same determinism has resulted in religious believers being the way they are. On determinism, you cannot compel any group of people to change who they are, no matter their beliefs, physical traits or psychological quirks. Then again, on determinism, one group thinking they need to try and compel another to change is *also* deterministic! (As you can see, determinism's a pretty deep rabbit hole).
If determinism/naturalism is true, there is no rational grounds to compel anyone to change, not even their religious or political beliefs. On naturalism, there is no such thing as 'rights' that one can appeal to. Any construction of a moral system with concepts like 'rights' and 'human dignity' is impossible to do rationally within a deterministic framework, because in such a reality, there is no such thing as right and wrong. On naturalism, you *must* appeal to something that does not exist in the natural universe to build your moral system - whether it be God, human life having value or something similar. (As a side note, you'll sometimes hear a New Atheist say that they deal with this by making up their own meaning of life. "Making up" meaning? How is that different from "making up" God? Neither exist if naturalism is true - why is it rational to appeal to one but not the other?)
If determinism is *not* true - and free will is a real thing - then what or who dictates what a person can or cannot change about themselves? Furthermore, if one can accept the existence of a metaphysical concept like free will, why not a God, who just might have given us such a thing?
The skeptics are always saying 'question everything', and I think these are real issues to consider before naturalism tries to suggest a moral high ground.
The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:
this is a really good article and you got a really good point! Normally I only read your stormchasing accounts a lot, but today I just thought why not have a look at what a stormchaser may think about religion and your posts, especially this one, really made me thinking! I don't consider myself a typical Christian and I believe what can be proved and always question everything what can't. But I never deny anything unless that denial can be proved. Generally, I only read scientific papers and journals and do not go to Google information much (unless I have to) as anyone can write anything on the internet and it's much more likely to find information that has thorougly been researched in peer-reviewed literature. I always believed science and thought about everything in the deterministic way, but I never denided God as I couldn't prove he doesn't exist (even if space was driven by a given set of physical laws and constrained to space-time, then why was space created and could it create itself?) But to the point you made here. I always believed what neuroscience said about humans and how our brain works and I still believe they've got a good grip on at least the basic functions that happen in our brains. But I just thought it is just the brain that controls everything and once I die the "machinery" where my consciosness has been is dead and there is just oblivion. But you're right about the free will, I never thought about that. If we knew the state of our brain and all the laws that govern it, then we should theoretically be able to use a super fast supercomputer (if we had one) and predict, what the person will do based on what the brain receives through the sensors (sight, taste, etc.). That would imply that we are just biological machines as everything, except on the quantum level, could be predicted if we knew the exact state and had a super-super-computer. Such a biological machine would have no free will. Now it is very difficult to prove if a free will really exists and I've actually been sitting for about an hour after reading your article and trying to find or figure out a way to prove it (I rarely sit and think like this for so long, even after reading complicated science). I'd welcome further comments, but I think I (and all humans, maybe even some animals) must have a free will. Overall, my decisions are generally driven by the decisions of my brain based on the information that comes in. However, I can always, either randomly or on the basis of some feeling of "right" override what my brain tries to think is the best way. I came to this conclusion by looking at the fact that if I was just a biological machine, there would be no need for consciousness, feeling, emotions, etc. Biological machines would just behave in the same way as people in computer games such as "sim city, etc.", only in much more complicated way, but there would be no need to know that I'm here alive and that I know that I exist and that I can override what my brain tells me as seeming the most logical thing to do. If I was a biological machine, I would just not know about myself and my body would just exist here without my consciousness and would only perform actions based on what the brain tells it after performing "zillions" of caculations. So I believe in free will, but now the point is how one can prove that something other than our brains control our decisions. As far as I believe, neuroscience would be strongly against any form of a soul and all experiments trying to "prove the existence of a soul" generally failed or were inconclusive. This may seem highly metaphysical, but the answer may not be in the actual soul but in some form of "distant communication" with the brain. This would very unlikely be a communication based on radiowaves, but some other form, which is now unknown to us in the same way as if someone in the year 1000AC would see 2 people talking on a cell phone. This is just my idea, but I remember reading an article about the discovery of some microtubules in our brain, which would allow for quantum-mechanical processes to take place in our brains. I'm not an expert on quantum mechanics, but quantum mechanical effects seem to be the only physical unknowns, which would not make it possible for us to make a computer model of the whole Universe (if we could) and run it forwards, as they appear unpredictable and random. However, if they only appeared random when studying them in a lab, but could be driven by some "outside being", such as our soul in case of our brain, or perhaps "God" in the "world around us", then, I would imagine, there would be enough opportunities to distantly control and make observations of the brain (otherwise a biological machine). This would suggest that our brain would not work only as a biological supercomputer, but that this computer could be controlled by an external factor, which would be what makes us know about our existence and what enables our free will. But this is only my idea of the only explanation I could think of based on current generally known scientific knowledge. The real mechanism may be totally different, perhaps even impossible to scientifically explain from within this Universe and hence not possible to know for us until after our departure from this world - death. I have actually quickly read a scientific paper by "EMILY WILLIAMS KELLY" called "NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES WITH REPORTS OF
MEETING DECEASED PEOPLE" when I was thinking of free will and they actually have some scientific statistical analysis on reports from people who were dead for some period of time and brought back to life later. Based on the analysis, more than half of people actually remember experiencing something after death, which would suggest that we are not the "biological machine" of the brain, but "something else". There are many good references to other similar papers in this one. Some may argue that these "experiences of afterlife" could actually be produced by our brain, either before or after the period of "brain inactivity" and saved into memory so the people think they have actually experienced them. This may be possible, but, as the paper states, it would be very unlikely that the brain could produce anything as clear as what the people experienced and there would be no obvious reason why it would produce such "virtual experience" when faced with death. Anyway, this is a very interesting as well as controversial topic and one could make lots of arguments for and against both determinism and all religions. What I believe is part from both and I believe that the main principles behind both determinism and religion are somehow connected and it's only people who take one or the other into extremes that creates the problems, disbeliefs and disagreements. I believe the best to do is believe what one finds the most easy or comfortable to believe, but everyone should always question everything from both sides before claiming to be proving or disproofing any ideas, either based on determinism or religion.
Miroslav - Posted by Miroslav Provod from Bradford, UK
Miroslav, Thank you so much for the reply! It is encouraging to get such a well-thought response. I too have been fascinated by reading about the developments in neuroscience as it pertains to free well (Libet's and the more recent Haynes experiments). I will be following the work in that field closely in the future. They seem to have nailed down the fact that the brain 'likely 'makes up its mind' before we are consciously aware, at least for somewhat menial motor functions like pressing a button. I'm curious how they will approach the less-menial actions like reasoning and deliberating bigger decisions. I have also been very interested in the work of Gary Habermas in the field of "evidencial" NDEs (near-death experiences with details that can be proven) that offer some very compelling cases that point to something bayond pure naturalism. Either way, as a theistic supernaturalist, I'm confortable in whatever science discovers. I believe the supernatural by definition can't be observed and quantified (at least reliably) in naturalistic terms, and vice versa. That is, I think the possibilities are endless regarding how the two realms might interface. - Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
If God is omniscient doesn't he already know what you will do, think or say every second of your life? Is that not determinism?
Isn't it just a delusion for the believer who thinks he has free will?
Or is your god not omniscient? - Posted by bruce
" I believe the supernatural by definition can't be observed and quantified (at least reliably) in naturalistic terms, and vice versa."
So you believe in something that can't be observed and quantified, in other words known, in terms of the time and space dimensions we inhabit?
On what basis?
You speak of two realms. One, I assume is the naturalism you seem to disdain. What is the other one? The supernatural which you have no means to observe or describe?
Which circle back again to: on what basis? - Posted by bruce
Bruce, the supernatural, by definition, cannot be observed naturalistically. However, it can be deduced logically and rationally (IE, resonablefaith.org) as well as being personally experienced. - Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
To answer your first post Bruce, an omniscient God can choose to either impose a full deterministic regime on human life, full free will or a combination of the two (the latter is what I tend to believe). - Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
It cannot be personally experienced because experience depends on natural senses. Indeed experience itself depends on your existence as a natural organism. No existence as a natural organism, no experience.
Feel free to share your logic and rationally justified belief in the supernatural. - Posted by bruce
Your answer to my first post is nothing but a weak cop-out. Of course you can make up a God that can do anything you want it to do. It's a non-answer.
But I see the matrix that you "tend to believe" in.
I believe you are simply a presuppositionalist and will always apologize your way out of a paper bag. I understand your need to discount all things atheist. Your need for certainty. That's cool.
I'm done. I don't care for the hoops required at the end of posts anyway. - Posted by bruce
I'm willing to talk, Bruce, I enjoy these types of discussions. Many of the objections you are raising are handily answerable, I have asked them myself when I went through a period of questioning my faith. However, I also detect some contempt for me personally and an unwillingness to be open minded. I am willing to approach you with respect as long as you are me. Maybe we could learn something from each other. I would humbly ask you to check out reasonablefaith.org as a bit of 'homework' that might do a better job of giving you more detailed information than I could hope to provide in a rapid-fire pace on my blog. And yes, I apologize for the hoops at the end of posts, but comment spammers have been really causing issues lately. - Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL