Barack Obama, Free Will, and Atheism

One of the consequences to being an atheist (if you’re willing to look closely enough) is the rejection, not just of God, but of human free will. In other words, an atheist is likely to acknowledge the outward appearance of choices, but ultimately not the inward presence of free will. Free will is a religious concept, not a scientific one, and it must go with the rejection of God.

Everyday we see animals, including the human animal, making choices. An old dog in a backyard might in one minute arouse himself to go after a cat on a brick wall, and in the next minute look for a comfy place to lie back down. Humans can also be observed making choices. But are any of these humans (let alone the animals) free? In other words, could a human, at any given moment in his or her life, have really chosen otherwise, or are all humans, like all dogs, ultimately soulless, completely deterministic animals?

In short, do you and I have free will?

If you are a strict naturalist you must, if you are being logical, say no, for you believe—how can it be otherwise?—that everything that happens in the universe is fully explainable by the laws of physics and chemistry—of determinate “atoms rustling in the void”. Human beings, made up wholly of physical and chemical elements, are making choices that only appear free. In fact, according to the intellectually consistent and coherent strict naturalist, we can—and indeed, must—explain every action, dog or human, ultimately by recourse to physics and chemistry. In the final analysis, no organism—including the human organism—interrupts or initiates any action apart from where our determinate atoms, rustling in the void, were heading in any event. We are no more free than pachinko balls falling through a pachinko machine:

There is, in other words, no contra-causal free will. How could there be? There’s no ghost-self inside us, and there’s nothing beyond atoms and the void. If you do not need the “God hypothesis” to adequately explain the world, you also have no need of the “free will” hypothesis to explain human choices, right?

And so it was with a great deal of interest that I observed Barack Obama’s recent Nobel Prize acceptance speech. What a spectacular speech it was—a speech that will probably be read by high school and college students for decades to come. And Barack Obama, at the very beginning of that speech, put out an implicit shout for free will. Here’s what he said:

I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations – that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.

What strikes me here is that Obama clearly sets human free will at center stage of the human drama—as amongst the “highest aspirations” of humanity. We are not “prisoners of fate.” And this is precisely what no atheist can affirm. Indeed, in a culture a mark of its strict naturalism and scientific advance is the degree to which people are not under the spell of free will (because it’s an illusion).

But maybe Barack Obama’s very existence, and the existence of progressive individuals and causes everywhere, illustrate that free will is an illusion (if it is an illusion) that we can’t really live without. Is, for example, this wonderful and assertive feminist, Marina (of Marina and the Diamonds), under the spell of an illusion? Is the video below funny and ironic because a robot is saying she’s not a robot? Or is this profound because, well, she’s not a robot?

Free will is in the house?:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to Barack Obama, Free Will, and Atheism

  1. Santi

    This is at least an appeal to consequences (argumentum ad consequentiam): if naturalism is true there is no free will, but I like free will, so naturalism is false.
    I don’t see as free will can be a religious concept, as in the past, and actually still, everywhere where some religion have power, nobody have or ever had freedom of choice. Nobody could freely choose to embrace a religion different of that of his/her parents (apostasy, heresy, blasphemy were always been punished by death), until very recently in history. That means people only have some freedom when secularism arises. So your claim that “free will” is a religious concept, is a-historycal at best, plain bullshit at worst.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I agree that, were I to say no to strict naturalism solely from an appeal to consequences, the argument would be fallacious. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to emotionally flinch at the logical consequences of certain ideological positions. I recall that Kant once responded to a Panglossian theological argument that made a divine excuse for the death of a four year old girl with this retort: “My heart rejects it.”

    It’s not a final argument, but it might be a nice place to start with regard to some questions.

    Christopher Hitchens was once asked whether he believed in free will, and simply said, “I have no choice.”


  3. Freedom or fire says:

    I propose thought on other religions older than the concept of free will being determinable by a presence of a (the) god.

    Older oriental patterns of thought and theory of kami had men entrusting that all things had a spirit and a soul and though intangible in this world… may have had substance and power in another. So the basics of the religion were the same; don’t harm, steal, etc. Hell wasn’t objective, but rather pissed off spirits on the other side waiting to get their just dues.

    It’s in hindsight that we allow any one to believe they don’t have free will, because of the “what if” ipso facto that Christian religions enforce… those people, friends or family may be sheep, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have free will. They just didn’t know what to do with it or how to evoke it from their spiritual depth.

    Unfair to say we don’t have a choice. We are one of the few beings that recognizes it’s feelings and consciousness, is able to practice spirituality without the need or even availability of education. Some people just know it. Shamans in Amazonian tribes, or native Americans.

    The ability to even consider whether free will exists or not should be enough to exemplify proof of it. That’s a duh~

  4. josef johann says:

    Santi, you wildly misrepresent the possible decisions by forcing a choice between determinism and specifically contra-causal free will. Contra-causal free will is a sub-sliver of the possible ways one can believe in free will.

    You can believe in free will without theism. Metaphysical libertarianism, for instance. You can even believe in free will without rejecting determinism. That’s compatibilism, the single most dominant position among philosophers on the question of free will. Neither of them need to reference god.

    And that response I promised.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Thanks for the link, Josef. I’ll look at it tommorrow (Sat.). And I’ll also check your blog comment.


  6. santitafarella says:


    I think of compatibilism as a bit of sophistry, actually. Of course, if a person feels himself to want something, and chooses it, and he still cannot choose otherwise, then he is not really free. Even his desires are determined.

    It’s a complicated question, obviously, but I want the self and I want free will. I don’t want to think of these things as illusions akin to the misperception of grounded people that the Earth is flat.


  7. josef johann says:

    The point of compatibilism is that it unravels the presuppositions of free will and shows that everything we think we have when we claim free will- individuality, choice, moral responsibility, happiness, really is there, but that these need to be decoupled from presuppositions that we mistakenly attach to them. Since the resultant creature is identical in practice to the one we think we describe as having free will. So, it treats of free will from a semantic internalist position rather than a semantic externalist.

    In any case there is a multitude of varieties of free will that aren’t contra-causal free will that you can still believe in without being a theist of any stripe whatsoever.

  8. santitafarella says:


    In other words, bullshit. Compatiblilism obfuscates the problem, and pretends that there is no problem. Look, can all that happens in the universe be reduced to physics and chemistry, or not? If you say yes, you’ve got the answer to the question, “Do we have free will?” If you say no, then maybe mind is a second ontological mystery apart from the first ontological mystery, matter. But if you reduce mind to what matter is doing, free will is toast. You can put a lot of elaborate language around it (so the prisons and courts can keep up their work, and Barack Obama can make an inspirational speech), but the pachinko machine will continue in its course.

    What’s the lyrics to that Beatles song? “And the time will come when you see we’re all one / and life flows on within and without you.” That’s the pachinko machine.

    Maybe it’s true. I don’t know.


  9. santitafarella says:


    Another thought or two on this.

    One thing is clear: to see what is in front of your nose requires a constant effort (Orwell). Compatiblilism can be summed up thus: You are an animal that wants what you’ve got, and goes after what you want—therefore you’re free! But this is also true of a rat in a maze, isn’t it?

    In a sense, Buddhism and science converge here. The spontaneous Buddha nature is whatever particle state the universe is in at any given instant. The water flows, the self and free will are an illusion, human beings have a “compatible” will in accord with the spontaneous Buddha universe. All is harmony. But look closer, and what you see is that the serene waterfall in the Zen garden is the pachinko machine and you are dropping through it (as a mouse, trapped in a roofed maze, might fall through it were a person to hold it diagonal).

    No exit from the maze, no transcendence, no free will.


  10. Samuel Skinner says:

    Naturalist and I have time- I’ll give this a shot.

    I don’t see how free will can exist even if naturalism is false. Add in souls or anything else and you still have something determining your actions. Your future actions are still determined by your past and your makeup, you just are made up of something non-material.

    How do you have an alternative to determinism that doesn’t boil down to randomness?

  11. santitafarella says:


    You ask a good question. Perhaps free will is like a delicate buttery pastry that flakes into bits with too rough a handling.


  12. Samuel Skinner says:

    But that doesn’t make sense. It contradicts causality.

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