Relatively recently, I accepted determinism as the way the universe works. It took me several years and I fought tooth and nail to hold onto some notion of free will, but in the end I've had to accept that we are all determined beings and that free will is an illusion. If one accepts a purely materialist universe, which is essentially what atheism is, then one pretty much has to accept the notion that there is no free will. This is an implication of atheism that even many atheists do not even consider.
But consider this:
(1) If the universe is fundamentally material and all material obeys the laws of physics, and
(2) If human beings are fundamentally material, then
(3) Human beings obey the laws of physics, and
(4) Therefore there is no free will
There is no way to squeeze free will into this picture if one accepts materialism. But how then can we reconcile this with our experiences and how can we call ourselves "freethinkers" if we really are just determined organic machines? I've recently been thinking about this after getting into an online debate with a dualist over the data we have from neuroscience and its interpretations.
The data from neuroscience is completely compatible with the idea of determinism. In fact, it is from the data of neuroscience that one can reasonably conclude that we are determined by the laws of physics. Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London says, "As a neuroscientist, you've got to be a determinist. There are physical laws, which the electrical and chemical events in the brain obey. Under identical circumstances, you couldn't have done otherwise; there's no 'I' which can say 'I want to do otherwise'. It's richness of the action that you do make, acting smart rather than acting dumb, which is free will."
The fields of neuroscience and physics are filled with materialists. Given the data we have about how our consciousness is the last thing to show up on a list of brain functionality, I find it hard to see how anyone can still be a dualist, especially since both Cartesian dualism and interactionist dualism do not correspond with the data and have failed to yield any predictive power.
Hard Determinism vs. Compatiblism
That said, if we are just determined biological machines, which is what the data shows, then how do we reconcile this with our intuitive perception that we have free will? Well, there are generally two paths that you can take within determinism. There is hard determinism and compatiblism. Hard determinists say that determinism is true and it is totally incompatible with free will. Compatiblists say that determinism is true but that it can be compatible with some notions of free will.
Here's my take on this issue. I would agree with the hard determinists that determinism is incompatible with free will, especially the traditional libertarian notion of free will. But I am sympathetic to the compatiblists who view our behavior as the result of our own motivation. And by that I simply mean that this motivation is not due to other influencing beings. I do not believe that our will, or our desires are something of our choosing, rather they are the result of previous determined brain states. But if those brain states have not been directly controlled or influenced by other people, diseases or other natural physiological conditions, then I think we can reasonably assess the person as doing what is natural to them - in a sense, their own volition. So I call myself a compatiblist even though I fully recognize that determinism is not compatible with libertarian free will.
I still struggle with notions of justice, criminal responsibility, and personally, the notion of revenge, which I have always felt strongly about. The person who wrongs me is no more in control of themselves than the animal that attacks me, or the natural disaster that harms me. I look at criminal justice as more like removing a faulty product from the assembly line at a factory: Some of us are simply born hardwired for violence. They have to be removed from society because they cause harm, just as a car with machinery problems must be taken off the assembly line.
What is the 'Will'?
I use the term "will" differently from how it is commonly used by many dualists. The will to me is simply our conscious desire states that are determined by previous brain states that we have no control over. This essentially means that "we" have no control over our thoughts and actions. What "we" are is not some immaterial soul controlling the physical body behind the scenes. "We" are essentially the collection of atoms that are determined by the laws of physics. "I" am a particular combination of those atoms, and "you" are a different combination. The "will" as a kind of soul that drives our decisions is not something I believe in.
How can a "freethinker" be a determinist? It might seem like a contradiction for materialists and atheists to be waving banners and making pronouncements that we are the "freethinkers" when our worldview logically implies that we are all determined biological machines with no free will. I don't see a contradiction. To me "freethinker" does not mean I have free will, it means that I am not going to let other faith-based and religious-based thinking determine me and my way of thinking. That is, I'm going to search where the evidence leads and let that be my determining factor. Of course, this too is fully determined.
Determinism does not also mean that we can never assess the truth of one's claim. Many dualists like to say that if we are determined beings, then all of our beliefs were also determined and that makes it impossible to determine who is right. Not at all. In a determined universe, some of us may be determined to be right and others to be wrong. The way we figure out who's right and who's wrong, is to test the belief up against the evidence using logic and science. If my belief matches the data and has better predictive power, then mine is likely right. If for example, someone is determined to believe something that is wrong, the best we can do is show them how they're wrong and hope that they may change their mind. All of this can be fully determined without any contradiction.
There are additional challenges that I will address in a future post. For now, coming to grips with determinism, although challenging, is not a challenge that one cannot address into a positive worldview. One thing to keep in mind is this: We don't know what we're going to be determined to do in the future, we will find out in real-time. So we can act as if the future is in a way, unwritten, even though it isn't. We don't have access to the script, and so epistemically, it might as well be unwritten.
Update: Although in this post I logically argue against free will from materialism, there is no need to assume materialism to refute free will. For a purely logical argument that is neutral on materialism see here: Logical argument against free will
Welcome to Atheism and the City. This blog is about exploring atheism through contemporary urban living. I live in New York City, the secular metropolis, and I have an avid interest in all things religion, science, philosophy, politics, and economics. I am an atheist, a humanist, a philosopher and a thinker, and the purpose of Atheism and the City is to write about my thoughts and experiences on the subjects and topics that I have a passion for. Feel free to respond to any post whether or not you agree.