Tag Archives: free will

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.


I posted the following on a forum I belong to, and I think the point is general enough to post here as well:

I doubt that any two people on this forum have exactly the same beliefs and values, or even exactly the same beliefs and values about all of the major issues we discuss here.

For example, Christians like to paint atheists as moral subjectivists, but this isn’t quite right. Atheists disagree about whether morality is objective. In addition, the atheists on this forum who think morality is objective all have different ideas about what objective morality looks like, and the atheists who think morality is subjective on this forum all have different ideas about what subjective morality looks like (e.g., HRG’s ideas on the subject vs. Corvidal’s).

Christians aren’t a uniform group, either. No two Christians on this forum have exactly the same views. There are Catholics and Protestants, liberal Christians and evangelicals, Christians in favor of homosexual marriage and Christians opposed to it, and Christians in favor of legalizing abortion and Christians opposed to it. And there are all kinds of different specific variations within each of these camps.

The metaphysical reason for this is that people have free will – they choose how they interpret the evidence available to them, and no two people have exactly the same evidence or make exactly the same decisions. To take an example we’re all familiar with, if you post a story about a Christian terrorist blowing up an abortion clinic, one person will interpret it as an isolated incident, another will interpret it as representative of the logical implications of Christianity.

My point is that you have to learn what each individual poster thinks by talking to them. Broad generalizations about what a group believes are necessary for some purposes, but don’t rely on them too much when you’re dealing with a specific member of that ideology.

Free Will is Scientific

Determinists often attempt to associate determinism with science. The idea is that determinism is scientific and free will is not, because the laws of physics as we currently understand them are deterministic.

I think one fact this overlooks is that science requires the concept of intellectual responsibility. A scientist is expected to look at the evidence and draw only the conclusions that it warrants. Scientists who draw unjustified or irresponsible conclusions are criticized for doing so, and scientists who draw the correct conclusions from the evidence are praised and sometimes idolized.

A determinist might respond that it would be useful to praise and criticize scientists on the basis of whether they drew the correct conclusions from the evidence even if we didn’t have free will. The problem with this response is that it assumes that the speaker has free will and can choose whether or not to praise and blame the scientists. You can’t say that no one has free will and then tacitly assume that you have free will.

So, I think belief in free will should be seen as the scientific position, not determinism.

Determinism and Addiction

I recently saw a short video about how hard determinists respond to people with an addiction (addiction to alcohol was the example used).

The premise of the video is simple. If an alcohol addict comes to a hard determinist and asks for help, what advice could they offer the addict that would not make him or her despair? If they just tell the addict that they don’t have free will, the addict might lose hope.

The hard determinist in the video responds that they could help the addict by identifying the influences that are contributing to their addiction and offering the addict a series of steps that they could follow to recover. This is what agencies like Alcoholics Anonymous do. We can’t just tell the addict “you’ve got to recover, or else!” We have to tell them how to do that.

Here is my response, as a libertarian about free will.

First of all, it’s not clear to me why we can’t tell the addict “you’ve got to recover,or else!” The addict has the ability to choose whether he will continue drinking alcohol. It will be very difficult for him, but in the vast majority of cases the addict does have the ability to quit by will power.

Nevertheless, there are ways of making it easier for an alcoholic to quit using alcohol, and it is useful for the addict to be made familiar with these so that he will be more likely to recover. This is not inconsistent with free will, since the existence of libertarian free will is consistent with there being limitations on our consciousness.

The fact that there are limitations on our consciousness has very important epistemological and moral implications. Specifically, it means that I can’t expect more out of my mind than it can deliver. I need to keep the fact that my consciousness has limitations in mind when I am planning out how to study for a test, e.g., I shouldn’t make a plan to study for ten hours straight, since that would cause exhaustion. This process of forming plans in light of what one’s mind is capable of is an important responsibility that every adult has.

The fact that some means of recovering from addiction make it easier to recover than others is not a refuge from responsibility, it is an instance of responsibility. If someone is addicted to alcohol, they have a responsibility to think about the problem and seek out the most effective means of escaping their addiction, like joining Alcoholics Anonymous. If an alcoholic tries to quit on his own, fails, and does not seek out a more effective means of quitting, then that is a form of irresponsibility on his part, albeit one less severe than not trying to quit at all.

So, to return to the main issue at stake: Is libertarianism a more effective framework for quitting an addiction than hard determinism?

In spite of the arguments in the video, I say yes. Libertarianism implies that the addict can usually quit on his own, by his own will power, or find an effective method of quitting that is based on research other people have done. This is a more encouraging message than the video’s brand of determinism, which implies that he is helpless to quit unless someone else saves him by spoon feeding him the steps required to quit.


Descartes, Spinoza, and Hume on Free Will

I’ve been reading a lot of early modern philosophy recently, so here are a few different perspectives on free will from that era. Descartes was a libertarian, Spinoza was a hard determinist, and Hume was a compatibilist.

Descartes was, famously, a substance dualist, which meant that he thought that the mind was actually an immaterial thing distinct from the brain. He thought that it was self evident that we have libertarian free will, conceived as the ability to affirm, deny or suspend judgment about a proposition that has been put before us and as the ability to choose what actions we perform. Descartes also thought that all of the actions that occur in the physical world are completely determined by the mechanistic laws of physics, which made it difficult to explain how the mind, which was immaterial and non-deterministic, could interact with and effect change upon the body, which was material and deterministic. His “solution” was that the soul exerts control over the body through the pineal gland, which is hardly a solution.

Spinoza was a little more consistent than Descartes. He was a panpsychist, meaning that he thought that everything physical was conscious in some degree. He actually thought that everything physical was identical to a conscious state, conceived under a different aspect. My mind and my body are just different ways of looking at the same thing, on this view. The body is governed by the laws of physics, which Spinoza claims reduce to a few self evident principles that we know a priori (he lays these out in the Ethics, and yes, they are all wrong), and the mind is governed by a different set of principles that always have the same results as the laws of physics. So for example, my belief that I am wearing a green shirt is identical to some physical state of my body, and my body is acting according to the laws of physics, and my mind is acting according to the laws governing states of consciousness, but both the laws of physics and the laws governing consciousness have the same result, namely that I currently have this belief.

Spinoza is not a substance dualist, because he thinks that the mind reduces to a bunch of different beliefs and desires that don’t have a common underlying substratum. There is no “self,” for Spinoza, just a bunch of different mental states. Further, Spinoza thinks that everything that happens is absolutely necessary, like it is necessary that 1+1=2. So, there is no question of our having free will, in Spinoza’s view, because there is no one to exercise the free will and even if there was, their decisions would be completely determined by the laws of physics and logic. The appearance that we have free will is an illusion created by our ignorance of our own mental processes.

This raises a problem for Spinoza that I mentioned in a previous post. Namely, if there is no self and everything we do is determined by the laws of physics, why should we trust any of the conclusions that we arrive at? Spinoza would address this concern, I think, by dissolving the distinction between truth and justification. He says at one point that “truth is its own criterion.” Spinoza thinks that if one of your beliefs is true, as opposed to arrived at by accident, then you have proved it by such a powerful a priori deductive argument that there is no way you can be wrong. So, the issue of justification doesn’t really come up for Spinoza, because there is no way of questioning the conclusion of an overwhelmingly powerful deductive argument like he requires for knowledge (although one might wonder whether we ever have knowledge that is this powerfully justified).

Hume’s conception of free will is based on his moral psychology. For Hume, as for Spinoza, the mind is a succession of beliefs and desires rather than a single, unitary entity. According to Hume, we act when a belief aligns with a desire. For example, I perform the action of going to the store because I want ice cream and I believe that there is ice cream at the store. This is a deterministic account of action, but Hume doesn’t see it as opposed to free will. Instead, he argues that free will consists in “liberty of spontaneity,” the ability to act without being coerced by an external force. Hume thinks that liberty of spontaneity is not only the only kind of free will we could possibly have, but also the only kind of free will that is consistent with the institution of moral responsibility.

I view my position on free will as distinct from any of these. I am a libertarian, like Descartes, and I agree with Descartes that libertarian free will is self evident, but unlike Descartes, I don’t view consciousness or free will as supernatural. Free will is not a puzzle to be explained by means of mysticism, but rather a normal part of the natural world that can in principle be studied and understood by science.

The Self Refutation of Determinism

In this post, I will expand on my earlier posts “Free Will” and “The Experience of Free Will.” Those posts presented positive arguments for the existence of free will, and this post will present a negative argument against determinism.

Let’s first think about the claim that the determinist is making. The determinist typically claims that our minds operate by means of mechanical cause and effect relationships, like any other chemical process. One way of spelling this out is to say, with Daniel Dennett, that the mind is a collection of different, basically independent neurological processes including reason, memory, and perception. These processes in turn reduce to yet simpler processes, which reduce yet more until we reach neurological reactions so simple that they are not recognizable as being conscious. There is no one “in charge” of your mind, on this view, just billions of neurons operating according to the blind laws of physics and chemistry.

Suppose this were true. Clearly, in that case, all of our beliefs would be the product of deterministic chemical and neurological reactions. I would just believe that I enjoy programming computers because the chemical reactions going on in my brain had percolated in that belief. But if that is true, then there is no reason to trust any of my beliefs.

Suppose I want to know what book is on my desk, and I decide that since the book looks blue, it must be my book on John Stuart Mill. The problem with this strategy is that I also have a number of other blue books in my possession, so the fact that the book is blue doesn’t prove that it is my book on John Stuart Mill. The evidence I have under-determines my conclusion. This is the position that the determinist is in with respect to his beliefs – there is a very real possibility that he is being tricked by his brain into holding beliefs that are false, and he has no way of finding out whether or not this possibility is actually the case. He might hold his beliefs if they were true, granted, but he might also hold them if they were not true. But this would also apply to his belief in determinism, so his belief in determinism is self refuting.

If we have free will, then we don’t get into this trouble, because we have direct control over our belief forming process and can make sure that it is based on evidence and logic at every step. If I am solving a problem for my math class, I can be confident of my conclusion because I have done a number of examples of the same type of problem before and I have consciously guided my thought processes in such a way that I applied the rules of inference correctly. This doesn’t mean that I’m infallible, but it means that my mind is generally pretty reliable. By contrast, if determinism is true, there is no reason to think that an argument that seems reasonable to me is any more likely to be true than one that doesn’t seem reasonable.

Now, the determinist might say that he can escape my argument by asserting that his belief forming process is guided by reason. This overlooks the fact that the belief that the determinist’s belief forming process is guided by reason is itself subject to the skepticism that determinism entails. If determinism is true, it’s quite possible that the determinist is deceived about his belief that his belief forming process is guided by reason, for the reasons I have given.

That concludes my argument that determinism is self refuting. I have another negative argument against determinism, which I may give in another post.