Response to the Claim that Atheists Can’t Justify Believing in Free Will

Blogger Wintery Knight argues that atheists cannot ground the claim that we have libertarian free will.

Atheist Jerry Coyne explains why morality is impossible for atheists

He quotes atheist Jerry Coyne:

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.

First of all, giving examples of atheists who believe that there is no free will does not establish a logical connection between the two positions. There is considerable diversity among atheists in terms of what they believe about free will. Two examples of atheists who believe in libertarian free will are Ayn Rand and John Searle. Robert Kane and E. J. Lowe have also presented accounts of libertarian free will that are consistent with atheism. So, quoting an atheist who happens to be a hard determinist doesn’t prove anything.

Secondly, this is bad evidence for determinism. The decision about which of two buttons on a computer to press is not a significant one, and there is no real basis for making the decision given the experimental setup, so subconscious influences may have a bigger role here than they would in a decision that something actually rode on.

Thirdly, it is self evident that we are capable of making decisions rationally, and the determinist’s own argument presupposes that he is capable of rational deliberation. If his conclusion is correct, then his own belief in determinism is merely the result of arbitrary subconscious influences, which means that it is invalid.

In conclusion, Wintery Knight has provided no reason to think that atheism is inconsistent with libertarian free will.


4 thoughts on “Response to the Claim that Atheists Can’t Justify Believing in Free Will

  1. Marvin Edwards

    Good point. Atheism asserts but one thing, “there is no God”. Beyond that atheists share no other common creed.

    For example, I’m a Humanist atheist. And I find no incompatibility between a perfectly deterministic universe and our ability to decide for ourselves what we will do, when free from coercion or undue influence. After all, without reliable cause and effect, we could never reliably cause any effect, and the will would be impotent to implement any intent.

    But, unlike you, I would find Ayn Rand morally objectionable due to her influence upon Alan Greenspan’s decision to stand in the way of derivatives regulation that might have avoided the financial meltdown in 2007 (see

    So, there is a great deal of variety in viewpoints on many things among atheists.

  2. Marvin Edwards

    Oh, by the way, I had a discussion with Wintery Knight in which I explained how rules of behavior could be objectively derived. After the discussion went on for awhile, he decided to delete all my comments from his blog. He was nice enough about it. He sent me an email explaining what he was doing, insisting I had yet to provide proof (to his satisfaction). Oh well. 🙂


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