This atheist believes in free will

Would the existence of free will threaten atheism? The answer is no. Life began on earth and that life evolved intelligence. The human brain is the pinnacle of that intelligence. It’s a thinking machine capable of making decisions, even, on occasion, controlled decisions. So what?

How does this threaten atheism at all? Does free will give any legitimacy to the talking snake fable? Is arguing against free will simply an attempt to attack the Abrahamic religions? We are materialists to the extent in which we understand all that we are is in the physical brain. But we shouldn’t treat materialism like a religion. What’s the alternative to a worldview of free will? Hard determinism?

Can your decision to read this article be traced to the beginning of the Big Bang? According to Hard Determinism the answer is yes. Every event was caused by a past event without exception. Through reductionism everything can be traced back, or reduced down, to one singular thing.

As soon as the Big Bang began, and anything leading up to that moment which is unknown to us, everything was determined. Hence the word determinism. With the size, speed, and direction of celestial bodies we can trace where they were in the past and determine where they will be in the future.

Our minds are made up of star stuff. They contain the same elements and therefore must contain the same determined paths. Or do they?

To provide another view of the implication of hard determinism, think about the following scenario. Take our current universe and go back 10,000 years. Freeze time and make a snap shot. Make 100 exact copies and unfreeze time. Our universe will be exactly the same as it would be akin to rewinding a movie and letting it play again. The 10,000 years already happened for our universe. But for the other 100, it was a fresh start 10,000 years ago.

So here’s the question, after 10,000 years are the 101 universes exactly alike? The positioning of the stars and galaxies would be exactly the same. But what about human civilization? If human events and history is different in all 100 worlds; that would mean random choices exist. Anything random destroys the concept of determinism. An action out of randomness is unpredictable and not determinable.

Why should we believe that the human mind contains the same determinism of celestial bodies? Why would we not believe that the human brain is an agent capable of making undeterminable random choices?

How does this relate to free will? Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded. You’re making a decision, there are at least two options. Not only are you unimpeded on what to choose, you are unimpeded in what not to choose. According to hard determinism, free will is just an illusion. Any decision we make was already determined.

Our gender, parents, genes, cognitive ability, innate talents, time, place, and economic circumstances into which we happen to be born were not our decisions to make and yet provide enormous influence on who we are and how we think.

Do these factors influence our decision making? I don’t see how anyone can argue that they don’t. But do these factors not only influence, but determine every decision we make? I would argue no.

I believe that humans have free will. But let’s not think of this as an on-and-off switch. And let’s be clear on all that’s necessary to debunk determinism. Let’s suppose out of every 10,000 decisions you make, 9,999 are predetermined based on past events and one is based on choosing possible courses of action unimpeded. Hard determinism is dead, and every instance of the 100 word scenario has a different human civilization.

But would only a fraction of a fraction of free will make any significant difference? The answer is yes. A small decision can have an enormous rippling effect. Let’s suppose an ancestor 10,000 years ago that was female, instead of going with male A mated with male B. An entire lineage is changed. Generations expanding exponentially to other generations over 10,000 years are effected.

In our own history, let’s suppose Plato dedicates himself to writing tragedies instead of being a student of Socrates. That would result in a significant change to our current history of Western Civilization.

Going back to the circumstances that we’re born into, I don’t believe those factors mean we don’t have free will. The implication is that not everyone has the same level of free will. Making decisions is about having options. As a writer in the United States with a laptop, internet connection, and blogging site, I have an enormous set of options on how I want to express myself. But let’s suppose I was born into poverty in North Korea.

In all the discussions about free will, what should be included is freedom. If all you have to eat is rice, guess what you’re going to have for diner. Let’s suppose you have money and traveled to Chicago, New York, or Paris. You go out to eat, but haven’t decided what. You go out the door and start walking around a place you’ve never been to. Where will the journey take you?

No one can predict what you’ll wind up eating. You can’t predict what you’ll wind up eating. You pass 20 restaurants, back up five, and wind up at restaurant number fifteen. There are 100 things on the menu. You narrow it down to two choices, and you can go either way. You wind up with A instead of B, but you could have gone with B instead of A.

Sam Harris believes that free will is an illusion, it doesn’t exist. But the premature conclusions of the Benjamin Libet experiment which he uses to base this claim in his book Free Will has since been debunked. Sam Harris cannot say that science has proven free will doesn’t exist. He wrote a book and gave lectures based on a conclusion from an inconclusive experiment. That is one heck of a blunder!

In matters of randomness, Harris argues that random choices do exist but doesn’t mean free will. Why? He argues that unless you can explain why you picked one option over the other at random, like the two choices in the restaurant scenario, that’s not free will. I would argue that Sam Harris is wrong. You don’t need to explain why, you simply need to make the choice, understand the choice, and accept the consequences.

You picked from the menu. If the food is delicious, you picked wisely. If the food is terrible, you screwed up! And now you’ll have to live with regret.

I found it interesting that Harris injected this “you need to understand why” into the definition of free will. Seems like an attempt to move the goal post. My statement that free will is simply an illusion rests on shaky ground, therefore I’ll attempt to redefine the term rather than admit my logic may have been a bit faulty.

I really found this statement of Harris interesting as I’ve heard the exact opposite. If you understand why you made a decision it was not free will. Why? Because there were obviously pre-existing reasons that determined the choice. So people arguing that there’s no free will seem to be saying that if you know why you made the choice, it’s not free will, and if you don’t know why you made the choice, it’s not free will. How convenient.

When it comes to analyzing a decision and finding out why it was made, here’s the problem. No matter what decision was made, it can be analyzed and reasoning can be made. If out of 1,000 choices someone went with #937, we can examine the reasoning as to why. But if they went with choice #47, we could also examine the reasoning as to why. For a hard determinist, reasoning why a decision was made becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that it must have been made.

But let’s suppose hard determinism is right. Each instance in the 100 world scenario is exactly alike. Each world contains the same population, and the same history. Everything was indeed determined before the human species even existed. Well now what? What are the practical implications? Are there any?

A big criticism of hard determinism is that if people aren’t free to choose their options, nobody can be accountable for them. Criminals were going to do bad things, it’s not like they had any control. We should feel sorry for them. Why should we punish people that couldn’t help what they were doing?

So shouldn’t we change our justice system if we have determined free will doesn’t exist? The answer is no. Not that we should never make changes to our system, but not based on determinism.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “there’s a new sheriff in town.” Where did this expression come from? When European settlers in the U.S. headed west, remote towns were established. Without organized law enforcement, these towns were lawless. People didn’t feel safe walking the streets.

So some tough son-of-a-gun comes into town, takes the badge, and makes their presence known. I’m the new sheriff in these parts and everyone will obey the law. If they don’t I will hunt them down and string them up. Not wanting any part of that, people who were causing problems are now walking the straight and narrow. Crime goes down significantly and people now feel safe to walk the streets.

What if the sheriff came in and said, “All your actions are determined, and since everyone is going to do what they’re going to do anyway, no one can be blamed for anything.” What would happen? Crime would continue.

The actions of the sheriff establishing law and order immediately became a past action that directly impacted future actions. Even if these actions were determined, they still made a positive and significant impact. Fatalism is the belief that none of our actions mean anything. That doesn’t make any sense at all.

The bottom line is that a society must establish law and order. Good arms and good laws as Machiavelli would say. This means people need to be made accountable for their actions in order to guide others in making constructive decisions. Actions to help determine future actions.

Hard determinists will often throw out extreme examples where people didn’t have free will. A brain tumor or schizophrenia caused someone to be violent. How can you punish people in those instances? But our justice system already has ways to address those uncommon scenarios. Reasons of insanity or temporary insanity, if proven to the court, receive a different sentence than those determined to have control, meaning free will.

What about someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol? They are made accountable for taking the drugs or alcohol. We don’t let off drunk drivers because their judgement was impaired.

Mentioning half-baked experiments, and stating the obvious that past events have impact on our thinking and decision making, simply doesn’t add up to a good argument for hard determinism. The arguments that our justice system should somehow reflect an understanding that we don’t have free will, even though that claim is uncertain, don’t appear to offer any intelligent reasoning as to why.

Sam Harris seems to argue that when people hurt people, we should feel the same way as if the damage was done by a lower animal or weather event. We shouldn’t hate the people that hurt people and we shouldn’t want vengeance upon them. To me, that ideology is naïve, incoherent, and self-destructive.

The idea of determinism may belong in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, but outside of academia, it doesn’t appear to have practical applications. So keep doing what you’re doing, even if you don’t have a choice.

-James Kirk Wall

Sam Harris on "Free Will"

Daniel von Wachter - Libet’s experiment provides no evidence against strong libertarian free will because readiness potentials do not cause our actions

Alfred R. Mele - The Case Against the Case Against Free Will

Alfred Mele - Do Human Beings Have Free Will?

Noam Chomsky on Free Will

John Searle - What is Free Will?

Free Will - A Question to Sam Harris - Zarathustra's Serpent

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