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Do We Have Free Will? Is Free Will An Illusion?
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All but one of the ‘Four Horsemen of Atheism’ deny the existence of free will. Dan Dennett is the sole exception. Even the most acclaimed scientist Stephen Hawking considered free will as an illusion.
So, atheists have no choice but to deny free will!
An atheist is a materialist. If all there is is nothing more than matter and energy, then strictly, the concept of free will should be negated. If every event is connected to a past (antecedent) event, then any decision cannot be ‘freely’ decided. The materialistic perspective holds every thought captive to things external – the forces of nature.
Discussing the topic of
necessitates a brief understanding of free will and its competitors - determinism and compatibilism, at the very least. The definitions found below are from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on
“…free will can be defined as the unique ability of persons to exercise control over their conduct in the manner necessary for moral responsibility.”
“A common characterization of determinism states that every event (except the first, if there is one) is causally necessitated by antecedent events. Within this essay, we shall define determinism as the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future. According to this characterization, if determinism is true, then, given the actual past, and holding fixed the laws of nature, only one future is possible at any moment in time.”
“Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Because free will is typically taken to be a necessary condition of moral responsibility, compatibilism is sometimes expressed as a thesis about the compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism.”
Since these definitions include the term
, here’s a brief understanding of moral responsibility:
“A person who is a morally responsible agent is not merely a person who is able to do moral right or wrong. Beyond this, she is accountable for her morally significant conduct. Hence, she is, when fitting, an apt target of moral praise or blame, as well as reward or punishment. And typically, free will is understood as a necessary condition of moral responsibility since it would seem unreasonable to say of a person that she deserves blame and punishment for her conduct if it turned out that she was not at any point in time in control of it.”
One method to ascertain the reality of free will is to think if its archrival, determinism, is real or not.
If we are not determined, then the other possibility is that we are free rational beings.
Is Determinism For Real?
William Lane Craig assaults determinism by terming it as an unlivable view, “A determinist cannot live consistently as though everything he thinks and does is causally determined—especially his choice to believe that determinism is true! Thinking that you’re determined to believe that everything you believe is determined produces a kind of vertigo. Nobody can live as though all that he thinks and does is determined by causes outside himself. Even determinists recognize that we have to act “as if” we had free will and so weigh our options and decide on what course of action to take, even though at the end of the day we are determined to take the choices we do.
Determinism is thus an unliveable view…
insofar as naturalism implies that all our thoughts and actions are determined by natural causes outside ourselves, free will is an illusion. But we cannot escape this illusion and so must go on making choices as though we had free will, even though we don’t. Naturalism is thus an unliveable worldview.” (Emphasis Mine).
An article entitled
Determinism's Self-Destruct Button
by Christian apologist Tim Stratton exposes determinism as a
Those who presuppose determinism have big problems on their hands. Consider the words of Greg Koukl:
“The problem with [determinism] is that without freedom, rationality would have no room to operate. Arguments would not matter, since no one would be able to base beliefs on adequate reasons. One could never judge between a good idea and a bad one. One would only hold beliefs because he had been predetermined to do so. . . . Although it is theoretically possible that determinism is true — there is no internal contradiction, as far as I can tell — no one could ever know it if it were. Every one of our thoughts, dispositions, and opinions would have been decided for us by factors completely out of our control. Therefore, in practice, arguments for determinism are self-defeating.” (Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 128-29).
The ironies exhibited by those who negate free will
should not be neglected. In an article entitled
Atheism & Free Will
website, author Kyle Butt exposes these ironies:
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.”13 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.14
In addition, it seems humorous and superfluous for people such as Harris to write an “Acknowledgements” section in their books. Why thank people and acknowledge their contributions to your work if they could not have done otherwise? He writes, “I would like to thank my wife and editor, Annaka Harris, for her contributions to Free Will. As is always the case, her insights and recommendations greatly improved the book. I don’t know how she manages to raise our daughter, work on her own projects, and still have time to edit my books—but she does. I am extremely lucky and grateful to have her in my corner.”15 That’s all well and good, but since she has no free will, she didn’t choose to help Sam. It was thrust upon her by the nature of the Cosmos. Why thank a person who stays with you and helps you due to no choice or decision of her own, but due to an unalterable course of cause-and-effect actions in her brain? Why not thank the computer that “typed the words so faithfully as I hit the key strokes,” or the oxygen that “so generously entered my lungs and allowed my cells to function,” or the light that “so gracefully bounced from the screen (or page) to my eye, allowing me to see”? That Harris thanks his wife and not his computer gets to the point that there is something very different about the two entities. You thank a person because that person helped you (but could have chosen to do otherwise).
These are more than adequate reasons to negate determinism as an existential reality. So
free will is not an illusion. Free will exists.
We may negate naturalistic determinism, but we need to consider
, which we shall in my next article. (According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
is the view that God determines every event that occurs in the history of the world.)
cannot be ignored as well. The sequel to this article will discuss both theological determinism and compatibilism with respect to libertarian free will. (
Libertarian free will
is the ability of human beings to make a choice that is independent of being causally determined.)
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