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?: