Free will, without God?

Part 8 in series: 20 Atheist answers to questions they supposedly can’t

11. How is free will possible in a material universe?

Short answer: Depends what you mean by ‘free will….’

Long answer: What exactly do we need to ‘count as’ having free will (and does our situation satisfy that?) Particularly, if we live in a world that is apparently determined via laws of nature, surely our brains (and perhaps therefore our minds) are included in this inviolable causal chain. So, if our thoughts are determined, what then for our intuition we have free will?

Here’s a quick and dirty theoretical taxonomy

‘Hard’ determinism: We only have an illusion of free will. In fact, all matters are determined, including our thoughts and desires, so they are not free.

Free Will Libertarianism: We ‘really do’ have freedom of the will, and so at some level (perhaps close to our minds, perhaps generally) determinism is false.

Compatibilism: Even if it was the case that determinism was true – that even our mental states stood as casual results of events stretching back to the beginning of the universe, we still have free will. Free will is not so much about casual freedom, but rather about freedom to act if one had this will. “I am free in this sense: if I will to move, I may; if I will to remain, I may” (Paraphrase Hume).

There’s a vast literature on  what we should believe re. determinism, free will, compatibilism, etc (see further reading below). For my own part, I’m some sort of counter-factual compatibilist. If it were the case that the universe were deterministic (and I’m not sure of that), I don’t think free will is threatened, because the right conception of free will – the one that preserves the significance and moral responsibility of our actions -should be something like Hume and not ‘my thoughts are casually independent of prior states’ – indeed, that seems really weird (whither reasons for belief?)

But back to apologetics. The argument behind this question is that atheism has really poor resources to handle free will, and as theism can deal with it better, our belief in the freedom of the will should lead support to theism. The above suggests this is no good reason at all: there seem lots of ‘outs’ atheist can take here: that maybe our world isn’t determined, that even if so compatibilism, and failing that just to say ‘Hard’ determinism is not that implausible. Shelly Kagan puts it rather neatly with his debate with Craig:

Kagan: …[A]m I a determinist? Well who knows what quantum mechanics teaches us about that. But I believe determinism could be true without in anyway threatening my conviction that humans are special.

Moderator: [to craig] Did you have a follow-up on that?

Craig: Well, only to say it seems to me to rob moral choices of any sort of significance if we’re determined to do it by that antecedent physical causes that lead up to the point of choosing and then cause our brains to react one way rather than another. And I can’t see how that can have any more moral significance than a tree growing a branch at a certain point.

Kagan: Because you’re not a compatibilist, you don’t believe determinism and free will.. [inaudible] This is a debate for another night. It’s not that I think the truth of compatibilism is at all self evident –

Moderator: Can you explain what –

Kagan: Compatibilism is the view that there is no logical contradiction between determinism, on the one hand, and the existence of free will, on the other. They’re compatible –

Craig: That’s a little bit misleading, though. You need to explain what you mean by free will in that case if everything’s determined.

Kagan: Well, what I was trying to do was simply give a quick definition. Remember, I said – as you know – this is a very big complicated question. We could hijack the entire rest of the evening talking about determinism. So my thought was the plausibility of the compatibilist view that I hold I don’t take to be self-evident. I believe it takes philosophical argumentation for it.

I completely agree that those drawn to incompatibilism; those drawn to the view you can’t have both deterministic physical laws and robust free will, will think that, if naturalism is true, and our best science teaches us that determinism is true (itself a controversial question of whether that’s the best interpretation of our best science), then we’ll lack free will. And if free will is necessary for us having special value – but there’s a lot of premises to get to this conclusion that naturalism doesn’t have space for this special value. And I reject several of those premises, which is why I’m not feeling uncomfortable by the challenge that Bill’s raising.

So there doesn’t seem a big problem here. Moreover (once again) it may be that theism has even more problems. One is theism tends to rely on libertarian free will when answering the problem of evil, so if compatibilism looks better, so much the worse for answers. Two is that theism raises worries that if god knows your future actions before you perform them, then necessarily you will perform them, and so no free will. So again, no biggie for atheism, and, if anything, a bigger concern for theism.

Further reading

Stanford encylcopedia on free will, compatibilism, causal determinism and foreknowledge and free will

I’ve only just found it, but the Flickers of Freedom blog on free will/moral responsibility/action looks really cool.

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