Free Will and Evil

January 1, 2013

As often happens during times of great tragedy of the sort we saw recently in Connecticut, there are a number of questions about how a good God could allow such events to occur. I personally think much is explained by the existence of free will and how if God did intend to create mankind as creatures with free will, inherent in that act was at least the possibility they would do acts that lead to the suffering of others. This video is a succinct presentation about the connection between free will and evil, and how it frames our view of the goodness of God.

I would further contend that we intuit this connection between free will and evil actions. For example when one considers much modern fiction, when the plot involves humans creating a self-aware artificial intelligence, more often than not the intelligence turns on its creator, i.e. man. From HAL of 2001 a Space Odyssey to Skynet in the Terminator movies or the intelligence that oversees The Matrix we see there is an inherent realization that whenever an intelligence can choose to operate outside the parameters for which it was designed there is the possibility it will use that power to destroy.

In fact, I would argue the notion of evil is much more problematic from the perspective of atheistic philosophies like naturalism and materialism than it is for the Christian. As no actions within those philosophies can be considered inherently evil, and as those beliefs render free will illusory, there is no ultimate explanation for why we categorize some human actions as evil and others as good. If there is neither intention for our behavior nor a plan for our existence then our actions merely are what they are, no different than the behavior of any other organism on the planet.

A Christian has no such dilemma; our belief is rationally superior to atheism because it can coherently acknowledge the horror of suffering and reality of evil, empathizing with the sufferers while gently and lovingly affirming the goodness of God.

Free Will and Stupid Questions

April 16, 2012

A recent article in Psychology Today by neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman begins with one of the most stupid questions I have ever seen someone ask. He clarifies that the question itself is ironic, but it reveals the flaws in materialist thinking.

What would you do differently if you found out there was no such thing as free will?

Obviously the question rather answers itself. If one didn’t have free will one wouldn’t do anything differently because…one…wouldn’t…have… free will.

Though the question is silly Lieberman rightly points out that a materialistic viewpoint certainly requires one to dispense with notions of free will:

It is impossible to take a materialistic view of the universe (i.e. the view that there is nothing but physical material in the world, atoms bouncing off one another in perfectly predictable patterns) and not come to the conclusion that free will is an illusion because your will must ultimately be caused by events in your physical brain which were caused by previous events in your brain, body, environment and so on.  It makes no sense to talk about a will that is disconnected from causal chains of biological events.

 Of course even this description is problematic – if we have no free will, then how does one come to contemplate the nature of the thought to begin with? If our brains are merely acting on purely physical processes subject to the laws of physics, then how do they come to contemplate the very laws which constrain them? How does one contemplate consciousness? Even the very discussion implies an outside observer gazing at inward processes.

To his credit, Matthew Lieberman acknowledges the materialist view of the mind is a “leap of faith” rather than a scientific precept, which would simply verify something I have regularly claimed, which is that atheist beliefs are as faith-based as any religious tenet.

There is an essential difference however. If we have no free will as the materialist contends then we can place no confidence in our ability to base our actions on reason and rationality, the very intellectual territory atheists claim to have taken. We could only develop beliefs based on reason and rationality if we have the capacity to direct our thoughts in accordance with evidence and logic. This understanding comports with Christian thought, which holds we have not only been given a brain, but a soul as well – the seat of the mind, the will and emotions which operate apart from physical processes.

Both beliefs may require faith, but only one faith allows us to confidently discern the truth.

The Absurdity of Jerry Coyne on Free Will

January 9, 2012

In a recent USA today column, New Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne explains how the proper (read: atheist) view of our minds renders it impossible for us to have free will; we are in fact “meat computers”:

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

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.

As one can imagine, such a view of the mind would modify our vews on a whole host of issues. Of course Coyne atheist that he is, sees this reality as undermining Evangelical Christianity:

But there are two important ways that we must face the absence of free will. One is in religion. Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don’t freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied “soul” — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

Coyne is apparently unaware that a number of Evangelicals are Calvinists (and that Calvinism is Christian theology) but he is right that as much as one’s theology depends on free will it would be undermined by his view of the mind. Obviously all of this is moot if we accept that Coyne’s premise that we are merely ‘meat computers’, so why he bothered to go down this road to begin with is a mystery. Alternatively if we think humans are something more than that, that is we have a spiritual aspect, then we would reject Coyne’s reductionism anyway.

But what Coyne doesn’t seem to be aware of is that the ‘no free will’ argument undermines atheism as well. After all, if what we believe is merely the product of incidental physical inputs that produce “nothing more than structural and chemical changes” than that would also include beliefs about atheism. The atheist idea that our beliefs are the result of either ‘reason’ or ‘faith’ is absurd since if atheism were true all ideas are merely the result of uncontrollable physical inputs. Coyne’s materialism destroys both reason and faith.

This was not always so. Once upon a time atheists and skeptics referred to themselves as ‘free thinkers’ – my own father considered himself one of these, predicated on the notion that he had chosen to embrace reason and reject the authority of religion. The word ‘skeptic’ connotes the same thought process – one is deciding what to believe as a result of skeptically evaluating the options. If what Coyne says about free will is true, then no such thought processes or choices are going on. Religious, irreligious, skeptical, atheistic – all are merely organizations of molecules in the brain resulting from processes far beyond the control of the thinker.

And it is not only atheism and Christianity that are undermined by Coyne’s view of the mind, but the common view of human history as well. Ordinarily we view human history as a set of events driven by the choices of humans in the past. Choices to conduct one war or another, choices to follow one set of beliefs over another. We even designate entire periods after those choices – the Enlightenment or the Reformation for example. If Coyne is right, human history is no different than any other natural phenomena; that is, merely the inevitable interaction of physical events set in motion by the Big Bang. Human history would be no more a product of choice than is the orbit of the moon or the chemical composition of Martian soil. And if past history is merely the result of forces set in motion by the origin of the universe, then so too is all future history – and we would no more be able to change the future by our choices than we can change the motion of a our galaxy. The future of humanity was already determined moments after the Big Bang.

Of course, most people don’t believe any of this. The vast majority of humanity has been and is theistic in one form or another because people don’t like to pretend that the evident design of nature, the innate desire for truth, the hunger for meaning and the sense a choice are all illusory. They prefer to live lives where truth can be known and meaning can be found and choices can be made in internally consistent ways. And the reason people become Christians is because they believe that truth and meaning are best found in the person of Christ Jesus.

It is the great irony in all this that people become atheists in part because they don’t want religious dogmas to control their choices; if atheist Jerry Coyne is right then that is not a choice anyone can make.

*Hat tip to my friend Neil at Eternity Matters  for spotting this first – he makes a number of fine points in his post*

Who’s Pretending Now?

September 15, 2011

In a recent post discussing the debate between philosophers and neuroscientists about free will, Jerry Coyne concludes that a world without free will isn’t that big a deal, because we can still act as if we had free will:

The more I read about philosophers’ attempts to redefine and save the notion of “free will” in the face of the neurological facts, the more I think that they’re muddying the waters. I believe that the vast majority of nonphilosophers and laypeople hold a consistent definition of free will: that we really do make decisions that are independent of our physical make-up at the moment of deciding. If this isn’t the case, we need to know it. Yes, it may be depressing—Haynes admits that he finds it hard to “maintain an image of a world without free will”—but we can still act as if we had free will. We don’t have much choice in that matter, probably because we’re evolved to think of ourselves as choosing agents. But rather than define free will so we can save the notion in some sense (this is like substituting the word “spirituality” for “religion”), why don’t we just rename the concept we’re trying to save? Otherwise we’re just giving false ideas to people, as well as providing succor for religion, where the idea of real free will—the Holy Ghost in the machine—is alive and crucially important.

*emphasis mine*

I find this interesting, because one charge leveled against Christians is that they cling to their notions of God not because they have any evidence He exists, but because the find the idea of God comforting. Of course atheists say this to denigrate Christians, the implication being that Christians believe certain delusions to be comforted, while atheists are skeptical realists.

Now we have Coyne suggesting that atheists embrace a delusion (that we have free will) in order to avoid the fact that being automatons is depressing. Not only is Coyne arguing for delusional thinking, but he is arguing that atheists embrace a delusion knowing full well it’s a delusion. His argument is even more convoluted given that he is recommending that people choose to act in a certain way to avoid the implications of the reality that we are incapable of choosing how we act. The mind boggles.

At the very least Christians can say their belief in God and a mind independent of a physical brain is consistent with the sensation we all have that we are choosing to do certain things. Unlike Coyne and his New Atheist followers, Christians don’t have to pretend something is true in order to make sense of their own experiences.


April 7, 2011

I am often interested in how my life experiences inform my understanding of God’s motivations and purposes. For example, unbelievers often indict God for creating humanity knowing full well that they would be capable of harming and destroying themselves. I have to admit for number of years this was hard to understand – how could a loving Creator do that?

 But now as a parent of four children such motivations are clearer; after all, this is exactly what parents do. An act of love creates our children, and through love we raise and nurture them. But the reality is we are creating beings capable of destroying themselves – able to hurt themselves and others; and of course many do. They are also capable of returning our love and going on to lead prosperous and fulfilling lives, and many do that as well. It is the latter possibility that motivates us, as well as a desire to see ourselves reflected in them.

 Now I understand that like a parent, God’s desire to reproduce Himself in a free-willed creatures with whom He had the possibility of a mutually loving relationship simply wasn’t defeated by the reality that some would choose to destroy themselves.

1 More Brutal Truth About Atheism

August 29, 2010

I had orignally considered posting about the atheism undermining the notion of Free Will as one of the 7 Brutal Truths About Atheism but then it would have 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.

Atheist Contradictions: Lack of Free Will

July 29, 2010

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.