I have had an interest in the question of free will ever since a long and friendly email discussion with an atheist and determinist almost a decade ago. He was a researcher in artificial intelligence, and strongly believed that human beings had no free will, and that the only way we could have it was if dualism was true – which he rejected.
Recently I have had several more discussions, and they have left me with some clear conclusions about atheism and free will.
Science and philosophy
It might seem that the logic is clear: for naturalists who believe that the natural world (which is the realm of science) is all there is, the laws of physics and chemistry would seem to control our brains, and we would have no free will. But it turns out neither the philosophers nor the scientists are unanimous. There are scientific studies and philosophical arguments that point to free will being true, and others that do not.
I have examined the various arguments in Free will and have concluded there are four main viewpoints:
- Free will is not possible, because all events are either determined or random, and these leaves no opportunity for genuine choice (incompatibilism). This provides an explanation that fits with science but does not accord with life and choice as most of us experience it.
- Free will is possible provided we re-define it to simply mean we are no under external coercion (one form of compatibilism). This effectively becomes the same as #1, but using different definitions.
- Free will is possible even though the world is determined or sometimes random (another form of compatibilism). This accords with human experience, but how it occurs is not easy to explain and cannot be verified by science. It thus seems to be very much a statement of faith.
- Free will is possible because the world consists of more than the physical, and the non-material mind is free to choose (dualism). This accords with how we experience life and choice, and can be explained conceptually, but cannot be verified by current science (although some experiments point this way), and is thus to some degree a statement of faith.
Atheists and free will
Many atheist neuroscientists, and philosophers are incompatibilists, and simply say our everyday experience of free will is an illusion. While I don’t agree with it, I find this view consistent with their atheism. But a large number of atheist academics are compatibilists. For example, most of the attendees at the recent Moving Naturalism Forwards workshop expressed compatibilist views, and one of them, philosopher Daniel Dennett, has written two books on the topic which appear to support a form of compatibilism like #2.
But in several discussion recently, I have found atheists who believe something like my #3 – they believe in free will even though they believe everything in the world is either determined or random, i.e. they are compatibilists.
Explaining how it can happen
In the natural world, we look for explanations, especially if we are scientists. For example, if there is a very high incidence of cancer in a certain location, we then seek explanations of how it turned out that way. So it seems reasonable to expect that compatibilists would be trying to explain how free choice can occur in a naturalist world – where in the process of our brains reacting to some input and acting in some way that the choice occurs, and how a material brain is able to make that choice in any sense freely.
But I have never seen any such explanation. Compatibilists seem to either redefine words so something they call free will can possibly occur, or try to discredit arguments for determinism or incompatibilism. I am coming to the conclusion that they are unable to provide an explanation.
The elephant in the room?
One of the main bases of atheism is behaving rationally and taking heed of the evidence. And one of the main criticisms atheists have of believers is the allegation that they are not concerned for evidence and rationalism. Yet in this case, it seems the compatibilist atheists are unable to provide an explanation, yet they still believe in free will.
I think that free will is one of several areas where naturalism is under pressure, because it seems to go against our common human experience, and yet offers no satisfactory explanation I can see.