Atheism and Free Will: The End of Praise and Shame?

If you’re an atheist and have concluded that free will doesn’t exist, where does that leave praise and shame?

Atheist Jerry Coyne, who does not believe humans have free will, suggests that it leaves praise and shame in the dust:

If you committed a crime, you are responsible for that crime, whether or not you had a choice to do it.  You have to be punished for societal protection and deterrence of yourself and others.

Responsibility isn’t threatened by science, but moral responsibility is. If people want to hold onto that, then they are threatened by science.

In other words, you’re responsible for your thoughts and actions in the exact same sense that a white mouse running a black maze in search of cheddar cheese is responsible: the mouse can be fingered as the locus of an action and so can you. If a piece of cheese goes missing, you can cast suspicion on the mouse and hold it potentially responsible; if your father goes missing, you also can be cast under suspicion (by the police), for you too might be responsible.

But not morally. Look again at what Jerry Coyne says:

Responsibility isn’t threatened by science, but moral responsibility is. If people want to hold onto that, then they are threatened by science.

Got it? If the universe consists, ultimately, of determinate physics and chemistry and that’s all—and science knows of nothing else—then you needn’t feel shame for murdering your father, you need only be incarcerated for it (for “societal protection and deterrence of yourself and others”).

Jerry Coyne describes the relief his determinism provides to his own conscience:

I, for one, have tried to stop fretting about bad “choices” in the past, since I had no alternative […]

And this seems reasonable, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t, after all, praise or blame a mouse for seeking cheese, for that’s what a mouse naturally does. You wouldn’t get mad at it; you’d be humane towards it. You’d protect the cheese you mean for yourself, but you wouldn’t do so out of maliciousness toward the mouse.

On this model, imagine yourself a prisoner in a penitentiary run by atheists who reject free will. Your confinement wouldn’t be anything personal, and you wouldn’t waste any effort seeking praise from guards or feeling shame about your past deeds. Your detention would be solely for “societal protection and deterrence of yourself and others.”

Isn’t that nice? Better than jails premised on free will, right? No guilt, but still a fitting Skinnerian dose of physical constraint and unpleasantness for your nerves and neurons to process (and hopefully avoid in future).

But wait.

There’s a problem here. What if you don’t have access to the violence of the state to settle disputes and force people’s thoughts and behavior in the direction that you want? What do you do then?

Enter Aristotle. He provided the famous (and best) answer: if you’re not going to use violence to settle disputes, your recourse is to rhetoric, the art of persuasion. But this is precisely what an intellectually consistent determinist cannot resort to, for persuasion is premised on the idea that people are self-determined.

Athenian democracy, after all, was an experiment in collective self-determination, and Aristotle, in observing it, realized that if you’re not going to resort to violence to settle disputes, then you’ve got to figure out how to use language well, which means getting people to do or think the things you want them to through artful persuasion.

But persuasion consists not just of critical thinking and appeals to evidence laid out objectively. Persuasion also cajoles emotions and appeals to values that can be freely chosen by hearers.

Persuasion appeals, most specifically, to an audience’s moral responsibilities and purposes: to things like truth, beauty, dignity, justice, what is praiseworthy, and what is “shameworthy.”

And persuasion calls attention to actors—those who initiate actionsand it does so for purposes of getting audiences to evaluate, appreciate, or mock them. Persuasion seeks from audiences moral judgments and asks them to bestow or withhold such things as justice, forgiveness, and mercy.

All these imply free will: that things can be other than what they are; that one really can choose the better over the worse and exercise will over a matter.

So if you’re an atheist who rejects free will, you’re in a bind, for rhetoric is tied up with assumptions about freedom. On deterministic terms, for example, it makes no more sense to call a president or senator “just” or “unjust” than it does to call a volcano’s eruption “just” or “unjust.” There is simply no place for praise or shame in a deterministic universe.

Therefore, if you declare for determinism, an existential choice (ironically) lays before you. Concerning the language of freedom, shall you:

  • reject it and cease to use it;
  • be cognitively dissonant about your own incoherence toward it; or
  • for purposes of manipulating people, use it pragmatically without actually believing in it (as a Machiavellian might do)?

Below, for example, is Jerry Coyne using the language of shame to describe the state of Alabama. Given Coyne’s belief in determinism, it’s surprising he still uses the language of freedom in this manner. What could he possibly mean? Perhaps he’s being cognitively dissonant or merely cynical:

Alabama, to its eternal shame, is the only state in the U.S. that requires an evolution disclaimer to be affixed to public-school biology textbooks in the form of a sticker.

And here’s Jerry Coyne, quoted in the Guardian, taking after Ralph Cicerone:

Jerry Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago, said: “It is shameful that the president of the premier science organisation in America has endorsed a prize for conflating science with religion, […]

And here’s Coyne praising Ken Miller:

I give Miller plaudits for his continuing fight against creationism, not only in his Dover trial, but in his book and many public presentations of why evolution is a scientific fact.  But he gets no plaudits for deliberately refusing to identify why Americans dislike evolution.

But how can one assign praise or shame if what we think or do is ultimately out of our control? What’s the proper way to speak?

Are we robots or not?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Atheism and Free Will: The End of Praise and Shame?

  1. Vauxhall says:

    Good imaginary Lord, so much cluelessness…

    Free will is a logical fallacy. You don’t have an “option to believe” in it, this is not Santa or God, whose existences cannot be disproven through argument. Free will is axiomatically disprovable: it is logically, physically impossible.

    All events fall into two categories. They either predictably derive from preceding states and events (in which case they’re called deterministic) or they do not predictably derive from preceding states and events (in which case they are called random). Neither is compatible with the fallacy of “Free Will”. In order to make “moral responsibility” a coherent concept, “Free Will” requires spur-of-the-moment “control” over decision-making, i.e. the incredible ability to make decisions that are:
    – neither a consequence of things as they existed prior to facing the alternatives (i.e. anything deterministic, for you do not control the past),
    – nor anything that is NOT a consequence of things as they existed (that is, anything that is random, for you do not control random events).

    Oops. “Control” over decision-making is a self-contradictory logical impossibility.

    We simply CANNOT “control” our decision making non-deterministically. In order to make a “controlled”, rational decision we must rely on whatever pre-existing information, reasoning “software”, genetic predispositions, etc. we have at our disposal (which automatically makes our decision “pre-determined by past events” and causes free-willies to freak out). Alternatively, any decision in our heads that was not based on our reasoning, our stored information, our genetic predispositions, etc. will appear to us perfectly random – we won’t have the slightest clue of where it came from, how, why, and whether it’s good or bad (unless we analyze it later on our own).

    And that makes perfect sense. Most people understand that other people, in the way they think, are to a large extent shaped by their genes and their environments – especially the environments of their formative years. Bizarrely, the free willies seem to freak out when they realize that they cannot simply erase their knowledge, their memories, their genes, their history in any way they want, whenever fancy strikes them, and all that’s needed is the desire of their consciousness at that particular moment. They call the inability to erase large chunks of yourself lack of “free will”.

    Your fallacy is defining “yourself” as your current “consciousness”, a creature with no past and no future, with no accumulated wisdom and no developed reasoning skills, existing only in any given moment. Yes, defined as such, you have no ability to affect your decision-making process. But if you look at yourself as the “sum total” of yourself so far, your life, your accumulated experiences, wisdom, genes, and so on and not just your consciousness as it exists this very moment (and that is dead and forever gone the next moment) – you will understand that it is indeed you that is making the decision, not some external forces, and you will realize the silliness of letting the “in-the-moment” you overrule the “sum total” you.

    But alas, this still doesn’t solve the “moral responsibility” problem. You cannot overrule yourself at any given moment, yet from the time you’re born, your decision making is deterministic. This does mean that our decision making is heavily shaped by our genes and our childhood experiences. The idea that our genes and our childhoods profoundly affect us in our decision-making seems perfectly reasonable to anyone.. so I ask again: what’s with the freaking out and wailing once you realize you cannot erase most of yourself from your consciousness on a whim ? When did you seriously start thinking this was a realistic possibility?

    Deterministic decision making makes “moral responsibility” a meaningless term, and yes, makes it incoherent as a justification for criminal punishment (deterrence and most other theories of criminal punishment would remain unaffected). This turns heaven and hell into a lottery system that strikes most people as grossly unjust. This, fundamentally, makes God of the Bible and the Quran a (partly) malevolent God and destroys Judaism, Christianity and Islam as religions – or at least as morality systems (though I can hardly imagine a functioning religion that cannot offer a complete morality framework).

    The Abrahamic religions are, of course, fundamentally defective. Since God is the source of everything in monotheistic religions, God is the source of all evil in the world (yes, that pesky Problem of Evil). To weasel out of the troubling logical conclusion that God is the source of all evil and thus cannot possibly be omni-benevolent, the Abrahamists had to desperately cling onto the “free will” theodicy – God does not create moral evil, you see, God creates people that have the free will to do (or not do) evil.

    Well, this would’ve worked if free will was not such laughable nonsense.

    Let’s try it again. God hands you a black box called “free will”. It cannot make decisions that you’d call “rational” – since your understanding of what’s rational is pre-existing, it would make the decision deterministic. It cannot make decisions that would seem purely random to you. So, the final option: your “free will” makes decisions that you’d consider irrational? Sadly, this won’t work: this would be partly deterministic, since what your understanding of what’s irrational is also pre-existing, and partly random (if there are several irrational decisions to one rational one and you don’t understand why a particular one was chosen). Sigh. Yes, the brilliant idea that you can choose a third option out of two theoretically possible just doesn’t seem to work out.

    And so here it is. You cannot escape your genes, your accumulated knowledge, your decision-making habits when you make your decisions. The gods of Christians, Jews and Muslims are not omni-benevolent gods – they do evil, too, which sort of destroys the Abrahamic religions – how can you trust the word of a god who does evil?

    “But this is precisely what an intellectually consistent determinist cannot resort to, for persuasion is premised on the idea that people are self-determined.”

    No, persuasion is premised on the idea that people can be made to feel certain emotions or come to believe in certain things given sufficiently smooth rhetoric. Persuasion is an attempt to MAKE you feel indignant, not an offer for you to CHOOSE to be indignant.

    “All these imply free will: that things can be other than what they are; that one really can choose the better over the worse and exercise will over a matter.”

    No, they don’t. “Things can be other than what they are” – um, even hard determinism makes no claims that things will always remain the same, or that people don’t change things. “that one really can choose the better over the worse” – again, “free will” makes it impossible to choose the better over the worse. You must know – based on your past experiences – what “better” is and what “worse” is, making such decision a priori deterministic.

    “On deterministic terms, for example, it makes no more sense to call a president or senator “just” or “unjust” than it does to call a volcano’s eruption “just” or “unjust.” There is simply no place for praise or shame in a deterministic universe.”

    Even if you know that a certain politician was largely shaped by his genes and environment, you can still consider his policies “unjust” if they clash with your morality, and transfer the epithet onto the politician. Ditto for shame and praise. Saying “these actions are unjust” or “this behavior is shameful” would be better, however.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      You make a number of good points. And I’ve never heard someone refer to free will as the free will fallacy, but it’s catchy.

      My response, first off, is that free will is a religious idea–it comes out of religion. As religion declines, the idea of free will will surely decline with it. Most atheist who start thinking about free will earnestly (as Coyne has) find their way to determinism. Then they struggle with the cultural language of freedom and free will (how to use it; whether it should be used).

      Free will is also tied up with the debate over essences. If people have essences, such as a mental self or soul that is inclined to “good” or “bad”, then it’s not incoherent (I don’t think) to speak of such a mental self as the locus of causation. The buck can stop there if there are two worlds and not just one (a mental or spiritual realm and a material realm). Such a self would require (I suppose) creation by God. But the idea that the self is an illusion and is in flux (as all other things once regarded as fixed are in flux, such as species boundaries) is bad for free will. Who do you blame for actions if there is nothing essential about people–if each of us is just one (materially determined) damn thing after another?

      I can’t agree with you, therefore, that it’s coherent to use the language of praise and blame with regard to politicians–or anyone at all if you are a determinist. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

      Free willies and determinists both context drop in certain ways that the other is then quick to notice (without charity). And I agree with you that God is responsible for the whole universe–including evil, if God exists. Did God herself have free will? Wherever we push our explanations to their limits, they seem to run up against paradoxes.

      Your categories are law and randomness and these exclude independent essences. And if independent essences existed, they would need themselves to be internally lawful or random. So there’s no escape. I suppose that would include God’s essence. Atheism is Calvinism without God, I suppose. Atheism is the revenge of the intellect, but it too runs up against paradoxes as intellect is pushed ever deeper into the nature of matter, space, and time. (Theology too is the revenge of the intellect. Once you’ve reasoned your way to one God, you’re one step removed from reasoning your way to no God. The same intellectual pattern in the West repeated itself in the East with Hinduism and Buddhism: one arrived at the Atman doctrine; the other at the anatman–no Atman–doctrine. It’s why Buddhism is so sympatico with Western secularism–both have reached the same basic conclusions about essence and flux.)

      But why, if we don’t have free will and are not spiritual beings, do we have so powerful a sense of our own power to choose things? Why do we feel as if we have ghostly selves inhabiting our bodies, and that these can choose, for example, to write a sentence (or not)? Have our storytelling minds deceived us?

      It seems to me that until the problem of consciousness has been solved–why is Earth haunted with 7 billion human ghosts seemingly moving around 7 billion pieces of human meat?–it is premature to get rid of free will.


  2. J. A. Le Fevre says:

    Eeew. Step away from your religion for a moment if you could, and by all means close those essences in a closet for a spell. Free will, should it exist, is a feature evolved into our minds. Noticed, perchance by Believers and philosophers, heralded in some theologies – but if it is there, it is wholly independent of anything we believe, think or feel about it. It was there before we invented religion, before there were philosophers or theologians to postulate about it. It requires no essence, and surly smells better without. We have perhaps a billion jelly fish moving about the oceans and I would not attribute will to any of them, nor attribute them as ghosts – spooky as they may be. I do not see ‘moving about’ as a productive starting point for this quest (though it surly was the starting point for will – it’s just harder to find there. Perhaps to this we will come back later.)
    Surly will is a question science can answer without special pleading or agents of essence. Rather than a paradox, let us start with a pair of definitions provided by JC (that’s Jerry Coyne) himself: ‘At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise.’ Followed by: ‘To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.’
    Who else, pray tell, is slapped across the face with the irony here? Jerry demonstrates his will by rephrasing his description. By making alternate choices, Jerry demonstrates his ability to choose. He also has a near infinity of choices for venues to air his ideas on will. He chooses but a few venues for expressing, however he chooses a wide diversity of prose in his expression to support his argument.
    Any and every use of language requires will with each syllable spoken or keyed.
    Even the smallest choice is a choice, the least consequential decision is still a decision. Determinism works for plants, not animals with eyes and brains. Should it be that our will is a gift of God, it was architected through the mechanisms of evolution. Language being the simplest and most obvious demonstration as every human from the dawn of language has recognized intuitively the choice that every sentence embraces.

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