Saturday, January 5, 2013

How To Talk To A Christian: Debating Materialism & Free Will


I live for debate. I really do. One thing I get a real kick out of is challenging theists on their nonsense. I have been debating this ultra-conservative Christian fundamentalist named Daniel for several months now, largely out of entertainment. He writes a blog dealing with Christianity, problems of faith and other things related to his religion. He occasionally attacks atheism and secularism using some of the typical tricks I see and hear theists make all the time. Whenever I can, I try to respond to his posts and call him out on his bullshit. We recently debated determinism's impact on free will and although I'm not a determinist, we were still able to disagree with the overall concept of free will.


On his blog Daniel writes in part of free will and materialism:

The atheist starts out with the presupposition or worldview that there is no spiritual reality, just matter and energy – what you see is what you get. Accordingly, thinking and choosing must also exclusively be a matter of chemical-electrical activity.

This understanding leaves little or no room for freewill...A denial of freewill goes against everything we intuitively know about ourselves and our lives. When I make any decision, like flipping through the TV channels, it seems that I am freely choosing one station over another. Of course, like anyone else, I am subject to powerful biological-genetic forces. Admittedly, I am biologically predisposed to not like loud and glitzy programming. Therefore, some will say, “Well, this proves you’re pre-programmed to make certain choices.”

If our brain chemistry compels all of our choices, then we cannot truly be culpable and responsible moral agents....These ideas mean the destruction of civilization, and the atheists recognize this. Consequently, they are scrambling to resurrect the concept of moral responsibility, which they have undermined.

I wrote back:

Well, a person who becomes an atheist, usually doesn't start out "with the presupposition or worldview that there is no spiritual reality, just matter and energy". Rather, he/she comes to the conclusion that there is no spiritual reality because there is no evidence to support it, and then after that becomes an atheist. That was how it was for me anyway and many atheists that I know who were once religious.

I don't think you mentioned compatiblism here. It is the most popular position for people who identify as naturalists and determinists. Compatiblism says that although all matter in the universe may be determined (hence our lack of free will), since we can never know the future, we can operate under the assumption that the choices we make are not determined, even if it is an illusion.

It's kind of like an actor in a play whose every action and word is known in a script. But the actor doesn't have access to the script, and so when they do or say something, they think they are doing it out of free will, but really they are following along the script. 


I personally am not a determinist, so I do believe we make actions that are not determined by prior events. But, it must be acknowledged that we are all born with predetermined genetics and situations that can push us towards many negative life choices. So, we are hardly complete agents of total free will.





  • Daniel responds:



    Michael,

    I certainly agree with this:

    "it must be acknowledged that we are all born with predetermined genetics and situations that can push us towards many negative life choices. So, we are hardly complete agents of total free will."

    I'm just wondering though that, as a materialist, what the basis of you belief in freewill might be?





  • I respond: 


    Good question. As a materialist, I of course am immersed in the scientific discourse between physicists regarding the quantum probability of matter. If this is true (and I am not 100% certain it is) that matter is not determined and predicable but rather probable, then it can be assumed that my actions and decisions are made free of antecedent physical events.

    We are all dealt a hand of cards at birth. Some of us get a good hand, some of us don't. This imposes restrictions on my free will, and thus, whatever free will I have is limited.


    My basis for free will would be in consciousness. I know I can exercise moderation in response to cravings consciously with the help of reason and intellect. Some people do not have the ability to resist temptation so at some level, our exercise of free will may be predetermined.

    The problem I've had towards Christian ideas of free will, is that I'm told that god somehow takes into consideration all these genetic and environmental factors. But how does that explain the sociopath, or the mentally handicapped, who are physiologically not capable of exercising constraint? It seems that these anomalies wouldn't fit into god's plan, if his plan is to have us exercise free will in a world filled with temptation.





  • Daniel responds:


    Michael,

    Thanks for your response. I sense that you are really attempting to grapple with these difficult issues to arrive at a coherent system. I’m glad that you believe in freewill and therefore human culpability. I would also agree with you that freewill is relative – some have more than others. Therefore, you appropriately ask how God can judge when some have less freewill than others.

    The Bible teaches that He judges by weighing our actions from the perspective of the heart (motivations, awareness and ability). In contrast, we humans can’t penetrate with wisdom into another’s heart and therefore our judgments are imperfect. However, I trust that His aren’t subject to the same limitations as mine are.

    I don’t know that you can carve out a basis for freewill from the indeterminacy principle. Here are some thoughts on the subject:

    1. Simply because we haven’t been able to detect the laws that control these particles might not mean that they are undetermined.

    2. Even if they are undetermined, I think that it’s quite a stretch to go from non-determinism to self-determinism (freewill). It seems like we are talking about apples and oranges.

    3. It would seem that the basis for freewill must be something other than materialism – something that is entirely “other.”





  • I respond:


    1. I agree with you that it might just be that our limited knowledge gives us the illusion that the future state of matter is probabilistic.

    2. If things are non-deterministic, then it is reasonable to deduce from that, that one of its causes is due to self-determination.

    3. If you are assuming that a spirit force is in all of us and is the foundation of our free will, then why is this spiritual or "other" force so limited by the condition of the physical body it possesses? For example, what does the sole do who inhabits the body of a person born without the ability to empathize with another's pain, leading to acts of cruelty?

    In other words, if our constraints of free will are ultimately due to our bodies (the material world) then by what sense are you justified in believing the non-material force is of equal or greater importance?

    Finally I still struggle to understand why a god would design a world in which many of his subjects would be incapable of behaving in the very way that he has determined is necessary in order to receive salvation and avoid eternal punishment. It would seem that some of us are determined to be sick and deserving of hell. Such a god would himself lack empathy.





  • Daniel responds:


    Michael,

    You wrote:

    • “I still struggle to understand why a god would design a world in which many of his subjects would be incapable of behaving in the very way that he has determined is necessary in order to receive salvation and avoid eternal punishment. It would seem that some of us are determined to be sick and deserving of hell. Such a god would himself lack empathy.”

    I too would have a hard time loving, adoring, and understanding a God who lacked empathy. However, Scripture uniformly reveals that He has a deep abiding concern for all He has created.

    This brings us back to freewill. It is our freewill choices that inevitably harden our heart against God. Initially, it is not that we lack the ability to come to God, but rather that we WON’T come to God. Here’s a famous passage on this subject:

    • Romans 1:18-24: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.




  • I respond:


    Well I think if god truly were in the business of making his presence known to us so that we could all be saved, he would simply reveal himself, instead of making us believe in him on bad evidence. It is because of this that new "prophets" emerge, and new religions are created associating god with various different characteristics.

    And it is because of this that someone like me is even capable of making the case for naturalism. If god truly had a deep concern for all he created, he could've found innumerable alternative ways to design this world. For one thing, he could have left out the idea of hell from his plan.

    Well, aside from our differences, all I wish to achieve is that a Christian like you can understand how Christianity looks from the perspective of someone like me who hasn't been indoctrinated by its dogma. Christianity says we are born sick, all deserving of hell by default from the sins other people made, and that the only cure is of course - Christianity. No matter how this is explained to me, I just see it as a product of man's masochistic imagination.

    For if it were true, that would mean punishment & reward lies solely with repentance and not at all whether you led a good and decent life. I just cannot accept this idea on faith, it requires too much. If this is true, I require more evidence than the Bible or what any human can provide.

    But I do have to admit, it is interesting to talk about these concepts.


  • END

    He responds through another post.

    Daniel has this way of selectively responding to me perhaps out of reasonable time limitations. What is interesting to see here is that the determinism that we are debating has such a profound attack on Christian thinking because it cracks the very foundation of the idea that we are all moral agents acting upon our free will. Without free will, Christian theology has little to stand on. Now whether determinism is true or not is not a matter of theology or philosophy, it must ultimately be answered by science. If it is true, our only hope for any illusion of free will is compatibalism. In which case the illusion of our free will acts as a veil, and criminals are imprisoned not for punishment, but merely to prevent them from committing further criminal acts.

    10 comments:

    1. I think it's important, when discussing free will with someone who asserts the existence of contra-causal/libertarian free will, is to point out it's incoherence.
      If, as is required by contra-causal free will, we could have done otherwise given the exact same circumstances, then our experiences, our personalities, our moral outlook are not determinative of our decisions. This means that our choices are strictly undetermined, and are therefore basically random in nature. If contra-causal free will were true, then when going to buy a loaf of bread, you would be just as likely to steal it - the fact that you want to abide by the law, and have sufficient funds do not determine your decision to purchase or steal the loaf of bread.

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. A short blog post concerning the problem of "present luck" related to libertarian free will, which highlights the problem I mention above: Present Luck and Little Agents

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    2. Ps. Good luck with your continuing discussions with Daniel.

      ReplyDelete
    3. Michael: If this is true (and I am not 100% certain it is) that matter is not determined and predicable but rather probable, then it can be assumed that my actions and decisions are made free of antecedent physical events.
      As I sketched above regarding contra-causal free will, a lack of determinism does not automatically result in some place for "free" choices of the sort you seem to be suggesting.

      Also, though quantum events appear to be probabalistic, events on the scale of brain structures are classical, and therefore deterministic, and so we can have confidence that our brains are deterministic. As is argued by compatibalists, some sort of deterministic free will, where our choices are the result of rational deliberation rather than some undetermined (and therefore essentially random) choice is the sort of free will we should want to possess.

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    4. Well I always knew I was meant to be an atheist.

      But how does quantum indeterminacy relate to our brains being deterministic? Is there any correlation?

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Basically it doesn't. Brains are, for all intents and purposes, classical systems, and quantum "weirdness" doesn't seem to play a role in their functioning (of course, they're still quantum).

        And, even if brains were subject to quantum weirdness, or somehow amplified the quantum indeterminacy/probabilities and subsequently made use of this in it's normal processing, all you'd get would basically be random noise being introduced, not the sort of "decision making" mechanism that would be required for some sort of libertarian free will (you'd be in the same boat as dualist libertarian's, as pointed out above) :-)

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      2. I'm noticing quite a large number of naturalists are determinists. I'm not prepared yet to dive into total determinism but it is interesting to note.

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      3. I guess I'm a determinist as far as quantum mechanics is deterministic (I think the term is statistically deterministic).
        As far as macro-events (such as those at the scale of our brains) are concerned, our current understanding is enough to basically declare it deterministic I think, though there are still events that are indeterminate (such as the radioactive decay of a single atom) but in the aggregate all of these end up being deterministic for our purposes (the half life of a mass of radioactive atoms).

        As I mentioned above, indeterminism doesn't quite get you the sort of "choice" that is required for "classic" free will, which explains the compatibalists and deniers of free will out there :-)

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      4. What about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, does that only apply at the quantum level?

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      5. Pretty much. As you have greater numbers of quantum particles, the quantum effects become smaller, and the uncertainty decreases.

        It's also more of an operational issue rather than an in principle problem (or at least can be thought of that way).

        Basically, when you measure some property of a particle (position or momentum are usually used) you're hitting the particle with another particle (often a photon). This obviously effects the initial particle. If the thing you're measuring is a large collection of particles, then hitting them with a photon is going to have less of an effect.

        That's how I understand it, anyway :-)

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