Atheism and free will

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In the Western World, most atheists hold to the philosophy of philosophical naturalism (see: Atheist worldview).

If naturalism is true, then we ought not to trust our capacity for reason, for the human brain would be a byproduct of blind/unintelligent natural forces. [1] Therefore, believing in naturalism is self-defeating. See also: Atheism and reason

In short, atheism/naturalism and reason are incompatible.[2] See also: Intelligent design and Evolution

Philip Vander Els in his article Can We Be Free Without God? writes:

How then can we have free will or attach any validity or importance to our reasoning processes? If we are bound to think or behave the way we do because of our internal biochemistry, how can we be free agents or know that we are in possession of objective truths about science, ethics, or politics? If our perception and use of the rules of logic are merely the inevitable end product of a long chain of random and purposeless physical and chemical events, how can we know that our examination of facts and arguments yields real knowledge? Surely, if atheism is true, our thoughts and values have no more significance than the sound of waves on a seashore, as C.S. Lewis argued at length and so convincingly in his famous book, Miracles...

The truth, then, is that we can think and reason correctly, since the argument that we can’t, in itself involves an act of reasoning and is therefore self-contradictory. We cannot ‘know’ that we know nothing! Our belief that we have free will is similarly valid, not only because we are aware of our capacity to choose between alternatives and change our minds, but because the denial of free will also involves the use of a self-contradictory argument. If all our reasoning is solely ‘determined’ by our physical constitution and is therefore not ‘free’, so too is the belief that we have no free will, so how can we know that it is true? It is, again, an argument that refutes itself.

But if logical reasoning shows us that atheistic materialism cuts its own throat over the problem of knowledge and free will, how can we explain our ability to think, know, and choose? Surely the best answer is that we are spiritual as well as material beings, and as such, we are the creation of an eternal, self-existent Intelligence outside ourselves and the physical universe, from whom we derive our inner freedom and rationality. Our minds can discover truth because they are illuminated by the Divine Reason. Our spirits are similarly free because free will is a gift of the Omnipotent Creator. In short, we are, as the Bible tells us, made in the image of God.[3]

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry declares:

If matter and energy are all that exist in the universe, then how do you rationally defend the idea that you have free will and can properly use logic?

The point is this--how can you as a strict materialist really trust your own mind? I mean, if everything in the universe is matter and energy, then that means your physical brain is bound by the laws of physics. Think about this. In a purely materialistic worldview where the human brain is nothing more than the summation of chemicals and brain wiring, how do you justify having both free will and rationality?...

...perhaps you “believe” you have free will. Maybe you “think” you’re logical. But then again, perhaps you are forced to believe and think that way due to the neuro-chemical wiring in your brain. I have to ask. How do you know that the neuro-chemical wiring in your brain doesn’t just produce a set of processes that force you to think and feel a certain way so that, according to evolutionary theory, your genetics can be passed down to other generations? In this evolutionary, materialistic process, deception could be a reality provided it results in genetic descendants. This way, your atheism is nothing more than a set of chemical states in your brain which forces you into certain beliefs and behaviors so that genes are carried on throughout the centuries.[4]

See also:

Atheism, free will and determinism

Sam Harris speaking in 2010.

See also: Atheism and consciousness and Atheism and personhood and Atheism and morality

Determinism is the philosophical doctrine that events are solely determined by natural causes.

The Christian apologist Kyle Butt wrote:

Sam Harris, recognized in skeptical circles as one of the four leading voices of modern atheism, penned a book titled Free Will. In that short volume, he wrote: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making…. We do not have the freedom we think we have.” He further stated, “I cannot determine my wants…. My mental life is given to me by the cosmos.” Again, “People feel (or presume) an authorship of their thoughts and actions that is illusory.” And, “What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery—one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contributions of chance).” As he begins to summarize his views toward the end of the book, he says, “You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise.”

Why does Harris demand that free will is non-existent? His commitment to materialism paints him into this corner, which is obvious from his statement: “In improving ourselves and society, we are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with.” On the second-to-last page he writes, “Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.”

There are striking ironies in the position that Harris and others take as they deny their own free will and their readers’ as well. First, why in the world would these men write books and articles in an attempt to persuade anyone to believe their “no free will” position if the reader cannot decide for himself to change his mind? What is the point of trying to convince a person who believes in free will, if that “belief” is nothing more than the consequence of the cause-and-effect, natural processes that are banging around in his brain? If the reader does not have the ability to choose his or her belief, what is the point of trying to “show” the superiority of the “no-free-will” position? According to Harris and crew, you believe what you believe because of the physics of the Cosmos working in your [brain]], and how in the world words on a page could change those physics would indeed be a mystery worth uncovering. The fact that modern atheists are writing books to convince people that there is no free will belies the undeniable fact that humans have free will.

Second, Harris’ concluding statement brings to light another glaring difficulty in the no-free-will position. He says, “Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me.” Wait just a minute. Who is the “I” or the “me” in the sentence? If there is no free will, and humans are simply the combined total of the physical processes at work in their brains, then there should be nothing more than the “mind” in Harris’ sentence. The fact that he can differentiate between “himself” and his “mind” shows that there is something more at work than determinism. A purely physical entity such as a rock or atom does not have the ability to think in terms of “I” or “me.” In truth, that Harris is conscious of an “I” or of a “self” contradicts his claim that free will does not exist....

It is often the case that many atheists attempt to distance themselves from the views of Dawkins, Harris, and other free-will-deniers. They contend that, even though they are atheists, they still believe that humans have free will and choose their own behavior. They do this because they know, deep down in their heart of hearts, that they have chosen their behaviors in the past. The problem with their mode of operation, however, is that atheism necessarily implies that free will cannot exist. If humans actually make their own, personal decisions, then something must be at work that is more than nature—which is over and above the natural, physical movement of atoms.[5]

Commenting on a speech of the evolutionist and atheist Jerry Coyne Butt wrote:

Near the end of Coyne’s speech, he attempted to explain the benefits he sees in adopting the idea that free will does not exist (not to be tedious, but keep in mind that he does not really think you can adopt it; instead, you are forced to accept whatever your chemistry determines). He said that a benefit of denying free will is that you would have a “lack of regret for bad things that happen. It takes away a certain amount of guilt feelings from you. You don’t have to beat yourself up over, ‘I should have done this instead of that.’” There you have it. Humans, from the beginning of Creation, have looked for ways to plead “not guilty” in the face of their own sins. We have attempted to blame everyone else except ourselves for our moral failures. Humans have tried to blame God, their parents, their genes, their society, their spouses, their circumstances, and everything under the Sun for the selfish, sinful choices they have made. The next step with this approach is to say that, since we cannot choose our behavior, then “punishment is not justified for retribution (people get—or should get—what they deserve).”[6]

Harris stated about his position that the self is an illusion and a person's sense of self is illusion:

Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity.

I do not think there are many cognitive scientists who would doubt that the experience of I is constructed from a multitude of unconscious mechanisms and processes. Me is similarly constructed, though we may be more aware of the events that have shaped it over our lifetime...

Answering the question of who is experiencing the illusion or interpreting the story is much more problematic. This is partly a conceptual problem and partly a problem of dualism. It is almost impossible to discuss the self without a referent in the same way that is difficult to think about a play without any players.[7]

For more information, please see: The atheist Sam Harris on the problem of consciousness for an atheistic worldview

C.S. Lewis's argument from reason and for the irrationality of materialism

C. S. Lewis, photographed in 1947.

See also: Atheism and the brain

Clive Staples Lewis, commonly referred to as C.S. Lewis, (b. November 29, 1898, Belfast - d. November 22, 1963, Oxford) was an Irish writer, novelist, essayist, moral mythologist and a world-acclaimed master of Christian apologetics.

Below are some resources on C.S. Lewis' argument from reason:

The Christian apologetics website declares:

Bereft of the certainty of reason and truth that results from a godless worldview, it seems better for the atheist to seek an alternative. In his book C.S. Lewis’ Case for the Christian Faith, Richard Purtill offers the biblical perspective on reason and its origins:
One way of getting a preliminary insight into Lewis’ argument [from reason] is to ask whether nature is a product of mind or mind is a product of nature. If God created nature, as Christians believe, then nature is understandable by reason because it is a product of reason.

Christianity offers that man is made in the image of God and from this we gather that our mind is formed in likeness to God’s mind. Thus, we have a reason for our reason which is Jesus Christ, the creator of the universe, Earth, and our mind. Indeed the apostle John describes how 'the Word' (Greek word logos, which can also be translated as 'reason') was with God in the beginning, how reason formed all of nature, and how the incarnate Word came to Earth.[8]

Christian Apologetics Alliance on atheism and free will

evolution darwin theory
Late in Charles Darwin's life, Darwin told the Duke of Argyll that he frequently had overwhelming thoughts that the natural world was the result of design.[9] In a letter to Asa Gray, Darwin confided: "...I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of true science."[10]

According to the Christian Apologetics Alliance:

The atheist starts out with the presupposition or worldview that there is no spiritual reality, just matter and energy – what you see is what you get. Accordingly, thinking and choosing must also be exclusively a matter of chemical-electrical activity.

This understanding leaves little or no room for freewill. Consequently, there is no basis for any thought, choice or decision somewhat independent of our steady stream of chemical reactions. Every thought and decision is therefore the result of prior brain chemistry.

Even as far back as 1871, Thomas Huxley, a zealous advocate of Charles Darwin, advocated for this position:

Mind is a function of [just] matter, when that matter has attained a certain degree of organization.

Similarly, in his new book, Free Will, atheist Sam Harris writes, “Free will is an illusion.” What feels like freewill is nothing more than chemical processes.

With such a narrow worldview, counter-factual and counter-intuitive conclusions quickly multiply. Here are several:

A denial of freewill goes against everything we intuitively know about ourselves and our lives. When I make any decision, like flipping through the TV channels, it seems that I am freely choosing one station over another. Of course, like anyone else, I am subject to powerful biological-genetic forces. Admittedly, I am biologically predisposed to not like loud and glitzy programming. Therefore, some will say, “Well, this proves you’re pre-programmed to make certain choices.”

Although there is truth in this claim, it falls far short of proving that pre-programming is the only factor involved in my choices.

Of course, Harris and the other atheists will respond, “Your experience of free choice is just an illusion.” However, if something that I experience with such clarity is illusory, perhaps my own existence and the existence of this world are also illusory. Perhaps I’m just someone else’s consciousness. Perhaps, as some Buddhists claim, we are just part of one universal consciousness and lack any individual existence.

However, if our intuitions and perceptions are simply part of this great delusion, then science and all reason are also part of this same delusion, along with Harris’ thinking. If our thinking and perceiving are illusory, so too are Harris’ challenge and the entirety of his book.[11]

Atheism, determinism, justice and criminality

See also: Atheism and justice and Atheism and social justice and Religion and crime reduction and Atheism and stealing and Irreligious prison population

The Christian apologetics website Cold Case Christianity declares:

Strict atheistic determinists like Sam Harris don’t even make an effort to explain how free will could exist “inside the room” of the natural, physical universe. Instead, they describe free will as completely illusory and challenge the rest of us to explain why we find it necessary to possess (or account for) it in the first place. Harris sees no need for free will to effectively prosecute law breakers: “We need not have any illusions that a causal agent lives within the human mind to recognize that certain people are dangerous.” Criminals still need to be isolated from potential victims, even if their actions are not the result of free will. In the end, according to determinists like Harris, we need not acknowledge nor accept the existence of free will to explain our need for a criminal justice system. In fact, Harris argues our world would be a far better place if we accepted the non-existence of free will: “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.” Harris believes our inclinations toward hatred would be reduced if we came to accept free will as an illusion. But is Harris’ optimism justified, and does this attitude toward free will do anything to explain our own experiences of free agency?...

Our experience of (and belief in) free will appears to be an innate and necessary characteristic of human beings, and studies continue to show what happens when we reject this attribute of our being. Our native experience of free will seems to cut across cultural boundaries. In a 1998 International Social Survey Program study, people from thirty-six countries were surveyed. More than 70% agreed their life was in their own hands. More importantly, a number of studies have demonstrated people behave differently if they can be convinced they have no free will. In 2008, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia conducted experiments highlighting the relationship between a belief in Determinism and immoral behavior. They found students who were exposed to deterministic literature prior to taking a test were more likely to cheat on the test than students who were not exposed to literature advocating Determinism. The researchers concluded those who deny free will are more inclined to believe their efforts to act morally are futile and are, therefore, less likely to do so. In addition, a study conducted by researchers from Florida State University and Kentucky University found participants who were exposed to deterministic literature were more likely to act aggressively and less likely to be helpful toward others. Even determinist Michael Gazzaniga concedes: “It seems that not only do we believe we control our actions, but it is good for everyone to believe it.” The existence of free will is a common characteristic of our experience, and when we deny we have this sort of free agency, there are detrimental consequences...

Atheists who are willing to deny the very existence of “free will” pay a huge price when doing so. If our free agency is simply an illusion, so is any expression of love, empathy or compassion. If free will is illusory, so is any expression of creativity or reasoning. No genuine act of love, empathy, compassion, creativity or reasoning occurs without a free choice. Worse yet, no one could truly be held culpable for any act unless he or she was acting freely. The existence of “free will” is an important piece of evidence in the universe and is impossible to explain if atheistic determinism is true. Denying the true existence of free agency only makes the problem worse. The best explanation for “free will” is simply the existence of a creative Free Agent outside the limits of the physical universe who has created free humans in His image.[12]

Christian apologetics website Wintery Knight on atheism, morality and free will

The Christian apologetics website Wintery Knight declares about atheism and morality:

Moral duties (moral obligations) refer to the actions that are obligatory based on the moral values defined in 1). Suppose we spot you 1) as an atheist. Why are you obligated to do the good thing, rather than the bad thing? To whom is this obligation owed? Why is rational for you to limit your actions based upon this obligation when it is against your self-interest? Why let other people’s expectations decide what is good for you, especially if you can avoid the consequences of their disapproval?...

Moral accountability

Suppose we spot you 1) and 2) as an atheist. What difference does it make to you if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?...

Free will

In order for agents to make free moral choices, they must be able to act or abstain from acting by exercising their free will. If there is no free will, then moral choices are impossible. If there are no moral choices, then no one can be held responsible for anything they do. If there is no moral responsibility, then there can be no praise and blame. But then it becomes impossible to praise any action as good or evil....

Here’s prominent atheist Jerry Coyne’s editorial in USA Today to explain why atheists can’t ground free will.


And that’s what neurobiology is telling us: Our brains are simply meat computers that, like real computers, are programmed by our genes and experiences to convert an array of inputs into a predetermined output. Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

If you don’t have free will, then you can’t make moral choices, and you can’t be held morally responsible. No free will means no morality.

Here are some more atheists to explain how atheists view morality.

William Provine says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

When village atheists talk about how they can be moral without God, it’s important to ask them to justify the minimum requirements for rational morality. Atheists may act inconsistently with their worldview, believing in free will, expecting praise and blame for complying with the arbitrary standards of their peer group, etc. But there is nothing more to morality on atheism that imitating the herd – at least when the herd is around to watch them. And when the herd loses its Judeo-Christian foundation – watch out. That’s when the real atheism comes out, and you can see it on display in the Planned Parenthood videos. When God disappears from a society, anything is permissible.[13]

See also

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