A Conversation for The Freedom From Faith Foundation

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 1

Otto Fisch ("Stop analysing Strava.... and cut your hedge")

From the Dawkins thread in 'Ask':

Another question for atheists is whether you believe we live in a deterministic universe or not. If you take God out of the picture and reduce the universe to something that's purely mechanistic in terms of cause and effect, and reduce consciousness to purely physical phenomena, doesn't that rule out free will?

Is it possible to be an atheist and still believe in free will, or would that be guilty of 'cherry picking' from science in a similar way to how Christians cherry pick from the Bible?

Some atheists will no doubt 'bite the bullet' as it were and deny that there is free will. Fine, that's consistent. But I want to know if there's any defensible position for an atheist to believe in free will (or something close to free will), or whether an atheist should be logically committed to determinism.

Genuine question - I don't know the answer.

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 2


Hi Otto,

I don't know that answer either.

On the one hand, I certainly feel like I have free will.

On the other, feelings don't count for much when making judgements about the real world. There is some evidence that many of our 'free will' decisions aren't made consciously until we're already unconsciously carrying them out. Our succeptibility to advertising (for example) would also seem to indicate that we have less free will that we thought.

So I'm a 'free will agnostic' tending towards 'free will atheism'.

Gif smiley - geek

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 3

Stealth "Jack" Azathoth


What in philisophical circles is the definition of free will?

People always have a choice. But, our choices are clearly defined by the experiences, judgments and beliefs etc, of the past and present.

Whatever people do, no matter how self destructive it always something that serves some part of their conciousness.

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 4

Otto Fisch ("Stop analysing Strava.... and cut your hedge")

Okay, let me define things more tightly. We have free will if (and only if) we could have chosen to do other than what we have just done.

So for current purposes, I'm not talking about the degree to which we are subconsciously influenced by society as impacting on free will (although of course it does) nor the degree to which we have knowledge about our options in life.

Roymondo said this in the Dawkins thread (3420)
"We are naught but a bunch of chemical processes. Everything we are is a chemical process. All we think, dream, feel and all we physically are be nothing but atoms."

I suppose my question is, is the atheist committed to this kind of hard core determinism, or can free will be rescued? And is that consistent?

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 5


No time right now, so the briefest of comments (although I will be back soon).

Yes, we're just collections of chemicals and therefore our choices are in principle predictable. Does this make them unfree? I would say no. In fact, the idea of free will that some people have seems to reduce to the possibility of making random choices rather than free choices (if I could have done otherwise, my choice not to was not based on anything that ever happened to me, any thought I was having, or indeed anything other than pure chance).

The mistake from my point of view is to think of the 'I' in 'I am making a free choice' as something other than your constituent chemical parts and the physical processes and laws that govern them. When 'I' make a free choice, it's something being done by those chemicals and processes, not by some external Cartesian other wordly thing.

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 6


No time now, but remind me to say something about quantum theory, 'many worlds' and free will.

Gif smiley - geek

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 7


I think it might be illuminating to more closely examine the preconceptions and assumptions regarding both 'free will' and 'determinism'

For example:

1. What would be required to exist in order for there to be free will?

2. Similarly, what would the existence of determinism necessitate?

One could also ask:

3. Does the non-existence of one render the existence of the other inevitable .. smiley - erm

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 8


OK, here goes with the 'quantum' thing.

One of the possible interpretations of quantum theory is that every time a quantum event happens, the universe 'splits' into a version where possiblity A happens and a parallel universe where possibility B happens. Since uncountable trillions of such events happen every fraction of a second, it would follow that there is a near-infinite number of such parallel universes.

Since our brains are, ultimately, made up of quantum particles (as all matter is), it has been proposed that every time we make a decision, the universe splits into one where we decided one way and another universe where we made the opposite choice.

This would meet the definition of 'free will' above - we could have acted differently than how we did - yet would leave it as an essentially random process.

Once again I'll point out that I'm not saying I have the answer(s), only that I'm interested in people's comments on the ideas.

Gif smiley - geek

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 9


The quantum randomness/free will thing is an intriguing, yet somehow unsatisfying speculation, since it only seems to fulfill the 'free' part, by equating 'free' with 'random'.

I'm not ready to accept the notion that virtual particles possess, or even explain, free will. Although they certainly appear to 'behave' as though they 'choose', this is necessarily a post hoc observation.

Doesn't 'free will' imply, as Dogster suggests, some kind of a-causal, immaterial Cartesian entity with the capacity to make a conscious choice prior to actually making it?

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 10


OK, so I've got a bit more time to say more now.

In answer to Otto's original question, my inclination is to say: I have free will and the universe is deterministic. But, I need to heavily qualify that (below). Before I do that though, I want to add that an atheist needn't be a materialist. You could be an atheist that believed in something like souls without believing in God. Indeed, consciousness is apparently a qualitatively different type of phenomena than the ones in any of our scientific models, so presumably these miss out something (but it's not clear exactly what).

Qualifications then: first of all, my definition of free will is perhaps at odds with others definition (since by my definition, a deterministic process can make a free choice). Secondly, I'm not sure that determinism is well defined. The world is certainly not entirely predictable either in practice or in theory (by a combination of randomness at the quantum level, and the sensitive dependence of many nonlinear differential equations to their starting conditions).

More than that though, the way of talking about determinism and free will uses what seems to me a meaningless type of linguistic construction: talking about how things could have been other than they were. It makes sense in the context of repeated actions to ask what conditions the action depends on, whether the action would always be the same or different, etc. I don't consider such definitions as meaningful, and so I don't think there's any sort of paradoxical problem with free will and determinism. That's not just a way of dodging the question though. I'm happy to tackle the problem even if I think it's ill-defined or a non-problem.

As a first, and probably quite naive, stab at talking about free will and determinism from the materialist, atheist perspective, I would say we need to first distinguish two broad senses of 'free' in 'free will'. The first sense is that some decisions are more 'free' than others because there are strong pressures on us to make some choices rather than others. I could - in some sense - pick up a kitchen knife, go out into the streets and murder someone, but I won't, and I personally never will. So, in some sense I'm not free to do that. That's the first sense of 'free'. In the second sense I am free to do that, in that there is no external physical constraint stopping me from doing so. In this second sense then, I am free to make that choice, but I'm not (for example) free to decide not to be killed if someone drops an atom bomb on southern Paris. The distinction between these two sorts of freedom is a little hazy, but roughly speaking it's the difference between internal and external constraints. In the first case, I have an internal constraint (my sense of morality, a property of my brain), and in the second case I have an external constraint (the sudden movement of the particles that make up my building etc.). The distinction isn't precise though, and is not entirely physical (suppose someone shoots me in the brain, is that internal or external). Having said that though, it's not clear there can be an entirely precise definition of free will, because it's not clear there can be a precise definition of the self. Suppose you have an individual who has had the two halves of his brain split as a treatment for epilepsy. The two halves of the brain are now not communicating, and may well be thinking and doing quite different things. Has this person become two people?

To sum up: I don't find that there's anything problematic about free will and determinism from an atheist materialist perspective. A slight change in the sorts of questions you are willing to entertain is necessary, but I think that's necessary anyway. Some questions just don't make any sense, even though they appear to.

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 11


The problem of consciousness can be approached in two distinct ways:

The traditional Cartesian model of consciousness posits an immaterial, or otherwise hidden agent acting upon the world via the brain.

The neuro-physiological model posits consciousness as an apparent outcome, or emergent result of physical processes. In this view, consciousness is a self-model, created 'on the fly', by the patterns of brain activity, which correspond to external stimuli and internal organism states.

Although the latter view appears to be far more complicated and complex than the Cartesian notion, there is growing evidence for the one, and none whatsoever for the other, which, by definition, depends ultimately upon a non-falsifiable immaterial entity.

Yes, science has not yet unraveled the problem of consciousness, but I suggest it is rapidly closing in!

Quantum randomness notwithstanding, free will/determinism only becomes a dilemma, I think, if we accept the Cartesian model of an immaterial consciousness, or entity, such as the soul.

An impalpable entity potentially existing apart from material reality could have the potential capacity to make decisions separate from the causal chain.

Alternatively, such an entity could be bound irrevocably to whatever is fated to be, subject to the whim of linear causality.

The nature of an immaterial entity precludes falsification, therefore the free-will/determinism problem cannot be resolved under the Cartesian model.

Conversely, the materialistic view of consciousness resolves the paradox, because it removes the entity from the equation

smiley - zen

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 12

Joe Otten

Putting the theory of mind to one side for a moment, Determinism, as regards the universe in general, is a philosophical theory not a scientific one. There are no empirical predictions that would be different depending on whether or not determinism was held to be true.

Therefore it is wrong to suppose that a scientific or materialist position must be determinist.

Whether the truth or falsehood of this kind of determinism has much bearing on the problem of free will is hard to say. But I think we should be wary of assuming causality is everywhere. David Hume would have been aghast.

"Free" refers to an absence of restrictions. So in considering free will, what restrictions are we talking about? It doesn't make much sense to talk about freedom from brain events when our decisions are brain events themselves. You may as well say that I am not free to visit Shrewsbury because I would have to take my body with me.

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 13


"There are no empirical predictions that would be different depending on whether or not determinism was held to be true."

There's the Bell Inequality... quantum theory holds the universe to be essentially random, rather than deterministic. This is testable in a complicated way that Google can probably explain better than I can.

Gif smiley - geek

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 14


I like that the universe is essentially random, if only because it bugs the hell out of the godders!

smiley - evilgrin

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 15


Fairly decent article -- http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/02/science/02free.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

"Dr. Dennett, the Tufts professor, is one of many who have tried to redefine free will in a way that involves no escape from the materialist world while still offering enough autonomy for moral responsibility, which seems to be what everyone cares about.

The belief that the traditional intuitive notion of a free will divorced from causality is inflated, metaphysical nonsense, Dr. Dennett says reflecting an outdated dualistic view of the world.

Rather, Dr. Dennett argues, it is precisely our immersion in causality and the material world that frees us. Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.

“All the varieties of free will worth having, we have,” Dr. Dennett said.

“We have the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes,” he said. “We have the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures.”

In this regard, causality is not our enemy but our friend, giving us the ability to look ahead and plan. “That’s what makes us moral agents,” Dr. Dennett said. “You don’t need a miracle to have responsibility.”"

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 16


Interesting. I should really read more of Dennett some day.

Gif smiley - geek

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 17

Joe Otten


Bell's inequality - it is a while since I read about this - the idea is that a deterministic hidden variable theory cannot make the correct predictions that quantum theory does.

I don't think this works against determinism in general, just the particular attempt to remove the randomness in quantum theory by positing a physical hidden variable that determines the apparently random outcome in advance.

It doesn't work against esoteric ideas such as non-local hidden variables, or backwards causation.

Obviously in the face of quantum theory it is quite difficult to believe in determinism, and there is no good reason to believe in it. But on a basic level a philosophical theory like determinism can always say "well it happened like that because that was pre-determined" whatever does in fact happen.

I suggest that there is a whole category of "philosophical theories" like determinism that are generally false, always irrefutable, and possibly meaningless.

Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 18

Noggin the Nog

I missed this one, due to not being on line much recently. This is a little something I wrote elsewhere.

Perhaps the most common mistake that people make is to disregard the way we actually use words, leading either to a denial of the possibility of choice and freewill, or to the postulating of abstruse metaphysical principles to justify a usage which is not, in fact, the normal one for the terms in question.

Consider a simple example. I am walking down a road, and I come to its end. I can turn either left or right. Plainly I have a choice. That is there are two recognisable options presented to me by the world. I can only do one of them, but both are logically possible.

Now, in fact, I choose to turn left. The question then appears to be, “if all the conditions leading to the original choice were exactly reproduced, could I in fact end up turning right? But this is a non-question. No empirical demonstration is possible. Nor can we look that closely at the internal working of the mind/brain.

The real question here is whether we can make sense of the non-deterministic viewpoint. If in this situation I could in fact turn right, what is it that makes the difference? If there is nothing that makes the difference, the “choice” is purely random - it is not what we think of as a choice that has some sort of reason or purpose behind it, however right or wrong that purpose may be. If there *is* something that makes a difference, then the conditions are not identical.

Many people worry that this undermines morality and ethics, and takes away our freedom to choose. Others say we still have real choices, and that those choices are mine in a way that is not possible if my actions are not causally connected to my ongoing plans, projects, experiences etc.

What about choice of belief? The situation is essentially the same. There are certainly a myriad of ways that we could organise our experiences and expectations into a belief system. We certainly can and do make judgements (choices) about which of these gives us the best fit, the best “handle on the world”. We believe what we believe because we think this is what has the greatest probability of being true. It would make no sense to choose to believe something that we thought was false.

It is also not logically possible to choose “right the way down”, for the criteria by which we make choices would themselves be matters of unrestricted choice, and so on ad infinitum, so that our choices would “float free” of all reasons. Every free choice, to have meaning, has ultimately to be grounded in something that is not a choice, in some aspect of the way the world is, or at least how we think it is.

Our choices are our responsibility because they are ours. This responsibility does not rest on some incomprehensible principle of metaphysics, but on the ordinary everyday meanings of the language with which we describe the way we live.


Atheism and free will versus determinism

Post 19


- Evolution, history and culture, he explains, have endowed us with feedback systems that give us the unique ability to reflect and think things over and to imagine the future. Free will and determinism can co-exist.-

Read Dennet's 'Freedom Evolves' He makes the point that we have the ability to be conscious of and to understand the world around us. Since your brain is constantly being re-formed by its environment and since that environment includes the conscious understanding of it, you have the ability to make your own brain.

That brain then deterministically creates your mind.smiley - smiley

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