Atheist Contradictions: Lack of Free Will

In a discussion on Free Will (the idea that we have the ability to make independent choices not determined by genetics, environmental history, or brain chemistry) atheist Jerry Coyne makes this rather startling statement concerning his view of free will:

“We simply don’t like to think that we’re molecular automatons, and so we adopt a definition of free will that makes us think we’re free. But as far as I can see, I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet. I don’t like that much, but that’s how it is. I don’t like the fact that I’m going to die, either, but you don’t see me redefining the notion of “death” to pretend I’m immortal”.

That statement itself is not the contradiction I want to address. Indeed, despite the fact that many atheists might believe in free will, the lack of free will is actually the consistent position within atheism. This is because since naturalism denies the existence of a soul or something like it all that remains of our cognitive facilities is chemical processes in the physical brain. In short there is no ‘I’ there to hold opinions, make choices, or hold beliefs – there is only the organ of the brain responding to stimuli. As much as ‘we’ might feel like ‘we’ are making choices about what ‘we’ desire, this feeling would by necessity be merely illusory in a naturalistic schema; all that exists is the mechanism of the brain; there is no ‘person’ actually there.

Where the contradiction comes in is the when atheists discuss what is or isn’t true concerning beliefs about religion and atheism. If no free will exists, and if thoughts and beliefs are merely the result of physical and chemical processes in the brain, then what an individual believes is already determined and they are no more able to change that reality than they are able to fly to another planet by merely thinking about it. Religious sentiment as well atheistic rejection of that sentiment is simply the way our particular cognitive equipment responds to the stimuli we encounter – it has nothing to do with someone being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or any more or less reasonable or logical. So the entire conversation for an atheist is moot, and any devotion to advancing their beliefs is an exercise in futility.

But then again, if atheism is true, they may have no other choice in the matter.

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8 Responses to Atheist Contradictions: Lack of Free Will

  1. Grant Dexter says:

    It’s like arguing with a Calvinist. :chuckle:

  2. jackhudson says:

    Funny; I thought about that when I was writing this. In a sense, the extreme Calvanist would agree with the determinism of atheism, though they would consider it depravity.

    Deprived because they are depraved, as it were.

  3. Sean Thomas Maher says:

    Coyne’s deterministic world view does not exclude the ability to change one’s mind. Children are more likely to believe their parent’s every word, but as a person matures, their though processes can change. Genetics does not not define every decision we’ll ever make, but usually a range of decisions; how much do you like sugar might determine how often you’ll choose soda over tea.

  4. Dan says:

    @Jack: That’s strange, I would have thought that you would be a Calvinist. I guess that’s one more thing that you and I disagree on, Jack!

    [[Sean Thomas Maher says:

    Coyne’s deterministic world view does not exclude the ability to change one’s mind. Children are more likely to believe their parent’s every word, but as a person matures, their though processes can change.]]

    @Sean: I agree that we would be able to change our mind, but aren’t we at the mercy of receiving the correct external inputs in order to do so? Our brain chemistry can’t change arbitrarily, can it? If we are not but genes and environment, then some gene would have to kick on in our brain or be acted upon by some other force, like a soda.

  5. Grant Dexter says:

    I am not a Calvinist by the eternally predestined will of God. 😉

  6. jackhudson says:

    Hey Dan – I am much to crtical about my ability to accurately parse the line between God’s sovereignty and the man will to cast aspersions on Calvin. That being said, I like William Lane Craig’s take on the issue, which I find to be Scripturally accurate and intellectually satisfying.

  7. jackhudson says:

    Coyne’s deterministic world view does not exclude the ability to change one’s mind. Children are more likely to believe their parent’s every word, but as a person matures, their though processes can change. Genetics does not not define every decision we’ll ever make, but usually a range of decisions; how much do you like sugar might determine how often you’ll choose soda over tea.

    I am not sure this analysis makes us any less the ‘molecular puppets’ Coyne presumes us to be. In wholly naturalistic evaluation, the influence of our parents and environment would certainly be part of the stimuli our brains react to, as would the physiological processes inherent in maturation. We are still left with a mechanistic brain acting and reacting, not the mind of a person making choices from various options – there is no wholly biological basis for that. Atheism, as much as it is dependent on a naturalistic worldview, seems to be necessarily deterministic.

  8. […] made it 8 brutal truths, and that didn’t have the same ring to it. Also, I have posted about this earlier, but I think it should be included as an additional consideration here. Possibly related posts: […]

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