Atheism and freewill – the elephant in the room?


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.

Possible conclusions

I have examined the various arguments in Free will and have concluded there are four main viewpoints:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Photo Credit: moonux via Compfight cc


  1. ‘Random’ is an interesting word. The two essential elements are (1) Unpredictability and (2) Without purpose.

    From our perspective God is certainly ‘unpredictable’ (though he is reliable, at least for a Christian). And purpose only exists for naturalists in the sense of ‘making our own meaning’ – hence people like Andre Comte-Sponville say that there is no option for the lucid atheist but to feel despair.

    So I think that when the universe appears ‘random’ to us it is still compatible with a God who we don’t fully know and who has purposes beyond our simple minds.

  2. My stance is that the concept of “free will” isn’t coherent and isn’t testable, so it’s not a useful term.

    As a way to illustrate this, if “free will” is a coherent term, people ought to agree which of the following things possess free will:
    An adult human
    A 1-month old baby
    A 3-month old fetus
    An adult chimpanzee
    A 1-month old chimpanzee
    An adult human in a coma
    An adult dolphin
    An adult dog
    An adult frog
    An adult trout
    An adult cricket
    An amoeba
    A computer program with only non-stochastic sources for random number generation
    A computer program with stochastic sources for random number generation
    A computer program with radioactive sources for random number generation

  3. “isn’t coherent and isn’t testable, so it’s not a useful term.”

    I would imagine its very useful if you’re in court, or getting married, or winning a medal.

  4. My stance is that the concept of “free will” isn’t coherent and isn’t testable, so it’s not a useful term

    Do you think there is a related concept and word that is useful, or do you think we shouldn’t spend time on any of it? Do you think all concepts that are not testable are useless? And do you not think the Penfield and Libet etc experiments show the concept is indeed testable?

    people ought to agree which of the following things possess free will

    I’ll go with the adult human and the baby only, and in the baby the ability is hardly at all developed. I think this list shows the opposite of what you think, for I think the concept is quite coherent. Why do you think it is incoherent?

    Thanks for your comment, and the ideas it raises.

  5. Ah yes, name one scientist with a doctorate in a relevant subject holding down a professorship at a prestigious university who supports the idea of free will in humans at least partly independent of the deterministic nature of reality.

  6. Hi Gordon,

    I would have expected that there were few, as you infer, but I think there may be more than we both thought.

    Mario Beauregard has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Montreal and is currently Associate Research Professor at the University of Montreal (Departments of Psychology and Radiology). I referenced him in the webpage referenced in the blog, and he definitely believes in an immaterial mind, and I presume he believes in free will. So there’s one.

    He says he has a growing number of colleagues who are not reductionist materialists (or whatever description we want to give), so I presume that would be others.

  7. Gordon. I don’t collect names, but I happen to know of Bill Newsome who is professor of Neurosciences at Stanford.

  8. Thanks for your several comments MGB. I hadn’t heard of Bill Newsome before, but I looked him up and he is an interesting man. So your comment has helpful in that way too, thanks.

  9. Oh, and there’s Peter Clarke at Lausanne. He’s written several excellent reviews on Amazon – eg. In response to the Sam Harris book on Free Will.

  10. Thank you unkleE & MyGoatyBeard for you efforts.

    Mario Beauregard certainly has the necessary qualifications and does seem to hold views similar to dualism although of course he can show no evidence and seems to content himself with picking holes in the other chaps argument. There are some things materialism can’t yet explain. Surprise, Surprise.

    Bill Newsome is also well qualified but this quote:

    This is why I don’t like the term “free will” and I tried to emphasise that in the talk today because for so many people “free” means “uncaused”, as though somehow our mental space is unhinged from the underlying neurons, and that decisions made in the mental space (where we really live) give commands which the neurons then follow. That’s exactly what I hope to avoid.

    from this piece seem to mark him as some sort of compatibilist.

    Peter Clarke is also well qualified but in this piece in the daily telegraph he discusses the options without committing himself although he too seems to favour compatibilism.

    Thanks again for uneathing these guys.

  11. Gordon. I’m no expert. But although labels are jolly handy (compatibilist…) we can’t stop there.

    These approaches are merely models of reality. So determinism is a model which suggests no room for personal choice. But actually even the determinist will live as though determinism isn’t true. We could argue that such a person has incoherent beliefs and practice. Or (I think more realistically) we could see that his models of reality are sketchy and inadequate and so he lives with uncertainty, but in his everyday life is driven by the fundamental values he holds. I think this is what we all do (and, incidentally, why belief is so vital in defining humanity).

    We would never say of a modern physicist that he must either fall under the QM label or the Relativity label, or even the GUT label. The uncertainty we have about reality is always infinite. So for example I find Bill Newsome’s open-minded comment so valuable because he is grappling beyond a current paradigm to better tune a model. I love that.

  12. @MyGoatyBeard
    Some determinists are fully reconciled to determinism and don’t think of themselves as being in any way independent of causality. I don’t agree that determinism is inadequate or fails in any way to fit scientific observations about the nature of reality. The fact that people are sometimes driven by their fundamental values is a sure sign of determinism at work.

    You might note that if we were all emotionally resigned to the deterministic nature of reality there would be a lot less hatred in the world. Why hate a person or group when their actions are the result of causality?

    Determinists, at least when not affected by strong emotion, are more likely to see things thus:

    with apologies to Joan Baez.

  13. Gordon. Yes I agree that a deterministic model is good in some scenarios and that song was a thoughtful example. It may even be true that all scientific data points to strictly deterministic mechanisms (though that might be expected of a methodology that is founded on the exploration of deterministic mechanisms).

    Maybe I need to get out more because I’ve never met any determinists who are ‘fully reconciled to determinism’.

    In the limited exposure I’ve had to people who think this way (they are very rare) I’ve found them to be unable to think of their personal values as arbitrary. A prime example is Richard Dawkins who is a committed determinist yet lectures people about what is good and evil, even though he admits his model of reality can only describe morality as arbitrary.

    As I say, I don’t dismiss determinism outright as a model, but I am not committed to it as fully descriptive of truth. For example, I don’t see science as necessarily the sole arbiter of truth about reality.

  14. @MyGoatyBeard

    Probably the two most famous committed determinists were Einstein and Spinoza. Einstein’s famous saying “God does not play dice” is rooted in his opposition to quantum theory explanations which postulate random non-deterministic events.

    It is reported that Einstein’s determinism gave him a certain sang-froid.

    Not all scientific data does point to strict determinism. As mentioned it is thought that certain events at the quantum level, such as quantum fluctuations, may be without cause. However, quantum level random events can’t throw a lifeline to free will believers.

    It is not necessary to think of one’s personal values as arbitrary to be a determinist, quite the contrary. Each believes that his personal values are “good” in the sense that they have utility for operating successfully in society. If we thought other values would have more utility in dealing with our fellows we would change to these new values.

    The fact that our personal values are set by causality is expected because the causes of change to values are influences that convince us there are values with more utility.

    Moreover, I doubt that Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, describes morality as arbitrary. At the very least he will note that one moral code of conduct will be better than another at promoting the survival of the shared genes of the group operating the code.

    Perhaps he was referring to some moral tenets present in some codes of conduct.

    I note you didn’t comment on my observation that general acceptance of determinism would lead to less hatred in the world.

  15. Gordon. Well I never managed to meet Einstein or Spinoza.

    I thought I’d made it clear that deterministic thinking is great for some things and I suppose that may include reducing hatred. Though you haven’t said why hating ‘a person or group when their actions are the result of causality’ is incompatible with ‘utility for operating successfully in society’ which you appear to equate with moral ‘good’. I often find that ‘good’ gets flipped around between meaning ‘morality’ and ‘utility’ in discussions like this by the way.

    I assume you think that general acceptance of determinism would lead to less hatred in the world simply because the lack of ‘actor’ would be argued to remove the sense of ‘personal’? Or maybe not?

    Whatever, I wonder, might it not also be viewed that determinism would lead to less love in the world, less beneficence, less magnanimity, for the same reasons?

    I didn’t say that Dawkins thinks moral behaviours are functionally arbitrary. Specifically, he was saying that anybody’s value judgement concerning the morality of rape is arbitrary. If you can be bothered you could Google it.

    You use the word ‘random’ a couple of times. I reflected on this word at the top of this thread. What do you think? I got it from a man on the telly (David Spiegelhalter – which means Mirror Holder) though he didn’t add the bit about God.

    As I say, I’m no expert. Feel free to correct my foolish errors.

    Time for bed.

  16. Hi Gordon, I’ve found your discussion with MGB quite illuminating. But I don’t feel you’ve explained this:

    Words like “should” and “ought” indicate choice among several available alternatives, things that determinism doesn’t allow (the availability of alternatives is illusory in determinism). Yet determinists use these words all the time – i.e. they may be determinists in theory, but in their lives they are not.

    Take your statement: “Why hate a person or group when their actions are the result of causality?”. Why ask the question if the person had no choice about their response?

    How would you respond to this?

  17. @MyGoatyBeard
    Hate within a society is anti-survival because it will reduce the level of co-operation among individuals. This will reduce the chances of the survival of their genes. If the hate is caused by an erroneous view of the nature of reality this makes it more likely to be anti-survival.

    I have tried to avoid the words “good” and “bad” because for me they strictly relate to the moral code of conduct of the group under consideration or they relate to the survival of shared genes within a group – the original, unconscious purpose of moral behaviour. I know this is unlikely to correspond with ideas you have about good and bad.

    I haven’t considered whether there are circumstances where determinism could lead to less co-operation, (less love?), amongst individuals. If you can make such a case, as I have for a reduction of unreasonable hatred, by all means do so.
    I can’t see that the realisation of the fact that your wife loves you because she is the sum of all the events that brought her into being as she is should make you love her any the less.

    Richard Dawkins admission. —

    While I am surprised that Richard Dawkins should make the admission that whether rape is moral is arbitrary, considering the the use his enemies would make of such an admission, he is in fact right.

    The argument goes like this:
    There are several species in the world where forcing the female of the species to have sex against their will is common. Given that these species are extant this trait has presumably got survival value for them.
    Given that mutations are random it is a matter of luck, (that is it is arbitrary), that such a trait is not commonly displayed in the phenotype of human beings. We know from the existence of this trait in other species that it might have survived in human beings had the mutation or mutations occurred. Had it been a common trait it would have been included in acceptable moral behaviour.

    Now whether Dawkins’ thinking was along these lines I don’t know. I only know that it should have been.

    Once you realise that morality is an evolved trait such unfortunate, (from our point of view), postulations inevitably result however heinous they may appear to those who harbour a different view of how moral behaviour came into the world.

    Use of the word “random”:

    I have used the word “random” to mean uncaused which is how I believe the OP used the word. While one won’t find that in a dictionary it does tie up with the unpredictable characteristic you have noted.

  18. @unkleE.
    While a persons choices are determined they will make different choices if their life experience had been different. For instance if their life experience had include the idea that the human brain, like everything else, is deterministic they would have been less likely to hate someone on account of their behaviour.

    If that’s note clear let me know. By the way I fully accept the idea that their are many people who say they are determinists and argue intellectually on that basis but who seem unable to accept the position emotionally.

  19. “While a persons choices are determined they will make different choices if their life experience had been different.”

    Yes, that is true, I see that. But you put the point as a question, which seemed to me to imply that you were seeking an explanation based on choice. I think there you slipped into non-deterministic thinking. Now I’m not saying this just to be pedantic, but because I think our perceptions may give us a truer picture than your theory.

    “For instance if their life experience had include the idea that the human brain, like everything else, is deterministic they would have been less likely to hate someone on account of their behaviour.”

    I think the opposite is true. If we think people have no choice, and therefore no moral responsibility, we will be more inclined to act without morality and to treat others as of lesser value. The views of Peter Singer on infanticide, and the actions of the Communist atheists Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao seem to support this view.

  20. @unkleE.
    In what way did I put my point as a question? For what do you believe I was seeking an explanation?

    In a deterministic world responsibility means something slightly different. I, a determinist, would still hold you morally responsible for your actions. After all, they are your actions and not somebody else’s.

    No determinist believes you should be able to dodge responsibility because you acted according to causality.

    I think no less of anybody because I realise that we are all just very complicated biological self programming robots.

    The characters you quote may be atheists but I see no evidence they were or are determinists.

    I could also point out that four out of the top five philanthropists in the US are atheists. This doesn’t stop them wanting to do right by their fellow man.

    Then there are the largely atheist countries of Scandinavia. They are the only ones in the world who live up to an international agreement to donate at least .7% of GDP to the third world.

  21. Gordon:”No determinist believes you should be able to dodge responsibility because you acted according to causality.”

    Why not? What do you mean by ‘should’ in this context?

  22. I use the word “should” in this case because having to take responsibility for one’s own actions is common to most moral codes of conduct. We note that “I was only following orders” was not a valid defence at Nuremberg.

    The deterministic idea of responsibility is having to live with the personal consequences of your actions. This is best explained by an explanation of the purposes of punishment.

    Most of the world operates retributive justice systems. That is the main purpose of punishment is to “even the score” in some way. Victims and society, who believe in free will, get some form of closure by the realisation that the perpetrator is also suffering. Their sense of unfairness is assuaged.

    In a world where everybody accepts the truth of determinism this looks like causing another human being to suffer for no good reason. Neither society nor victims believe that the perpetrator could have done anything other than what they did at the point that they did it. They thus have no desire for retribution or revenge.

    However there are some other important reasons to use punishment and we have found no alternatives that achieve the same thing. These reasons are:
    To deter the perpetrator from repeating the crime.
    To deter others from copying the perpetrator.
    If the punishment is death or incarceration, the protection of the public.

    The determinist would see punishment and perhaps rehabilitation as vital steps in altering the life experience of the perpetrator so that he is motivated not to repeat his crime. This is why it’s so vital in a deterministic world to hold the individual responsible for his actions. That way his future behaviour may be corrected, (or reinforced), by changing his future life experiences.

  23. So your ‘should’ is merely a reflection of the moral rule that evolved. But why follow it? Why would it ‘matter’ to overrule the hand that we’ve been dealt? In fact isn’t it a laudable thing to overrule the natural consequences of evolution in many instances?

  24. In what way did I put my point as a question? For what do you believe I was seeking an explanation?

    Back a few posts you wrote: “Why hate a person or group when their actions are the result of causality?” That seems to me to infer that the person faced a choice and might choose to hate or to not hate.

    No determinist believes you should be able to dodge responsibility because you acted according to causality.

    This is perhaps widening the discussion, but how do you think a person can be morally responsible if they had no real choice? The law accepts that compulsion (e.g. because of mental illness) reduces responsibility. Is a rock morally responsible if I use it to bash someone?

    I should add that I am not suggesting atheists/determinists don’t have ethics – in fact my argument is based on the fact that they do, but I would ask on what logical basis they do. But your stats are selective – it may be true that the richest and most generous people are atheists or agnostics (BTW, who are you referring to? Gates, Buffet & Zuckerberg??), but studies show that at the normal level, theists are way more generous than atheists – for whatever that’s worth.

  25. @MyGoatyBeard
    My “should” is a reflection of the frequency personal responsibility occurs in moral codes of conduct. Exactly why that particular tenet occurs in so many codes I wouldn’t like to say. I guess it must have good survival value.

    Your question really boils down to: “Why do we follow the moral code of conduct of our group at all?”. Well here are some good reasons:
    We are genetically programmed to co-operate as social animals.
    The advantages we get from being a member of a well ordered group far outweigh the reduction in our personal freedom involved in obeying the rules – basically the co-operating whole can be so much greater than the sum of the parts.
    We are genetically programmed to feel guilt if we break the rules.
    If our infractions are discovered the group will take action against us depending on the severity of the infractions.
    If we behave as good citizens it improves our sense of wellbeing and our self image.

  26. “Then there are the largely atheist countries of Scandinavia. They are the only ones in the world who live up to an international agreement to donate at least .7% of GDP to the third world.”

    Scandinavian countries aren’t largely atheist, in none of these countries is there an overall majority for any religious category. They aren’t even the most atheist countries in Europe.

  27. @unkleE

    Re. your assumption of choice:

    Rather it indicates that the person’s choice would be not to hate because the influences operating on him would not include the idea that a criminal had made a free choice to do evil.

    Re. Moral responsibility in a deterministic world:

    Read my post of Apr 15, 2013 @ 17:47:40

    Re Generosity

    Please link to your sources for Christian generosity. I note that the US is only fifth on the world private charity giving index. Three of the four countries which beat it have considerably higher proportions of atheists.

  28. Gordon. Many thanks for your interesting response. You’ve rephrased my question away from ethics to one of socio-biological mechanism when you say, ‘Your question really boils down to: “Why do we follow the moral code of conduct of our group at all?” ‘

    Your answers to your revised question suggest that so-called ‘moral’ rules are followed simply because of, ultimately, genetic coding and personal wellbeing (though I imagine that you think the latter is, at root, genetically driven). You use words like ‘advantage’, ‘greater’ and ‘improve’ which from everything you’ve said previously relates to survival of particular combinations of molecules within human nuclei. It reminds me of arguments that suggest religious feelings in man form some mechanism which can likewise assist in behaviours that preserve gene pools (which I don’t necessarily disagree with).

    Because you treat the question in this way I presume you believe that ‘morality’ bears no intrinsic truth: it has no ontological reality of its own. It’s a bit like ‘fashion sense’ – something that has value because of its social ordering, but we would never talk of a universal, objective good fashion! Would you?

  29. Oh, and you guys arguing about atheism might like this piece. There is no such thing as atheism (yeah I know there’s a label but who gives a shit about labelling people?!?!) try scrolling to the bottom and read the last 3 paragraphs starting, “Because here’s something else that’s true.” It’s the best thing I’ve read by an atheist!!

  30. @IgnorantiaNescia

    “The table about Europe proves my point; atheism doesn’t rank particularly high in Scandinavia, unless you’d include spirituality.”

    No the table doesn’t prove your point it shows some of the highest rates of disbelief in gods in the world in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The only people I count as atheist are those who admit to not believing in gods.

  31. @MyGoatyBeard

    By the way there are also perhaps-not-so-good reasons for following the moral code of conduct of your group. Many people behave as they do because their behaviour is culturally or religiously impressed. If the culture was imported by conquerors from a different environment the imported behaviour will not necessarily be appropriate.

    The original purpose of morality in the world is the same as every other social animal trait. That is the survival of the shared genes of the group.

    Now one can postulate that it has developed other purposes but I think these are difficult to demonstrate. You should note, for instance, that not all groups face the same challenges. The degree and type of co-operation best suited for survival should be expected to vary between groups, (see above). So it’s logical that morality is a question of horses for courses. It’s not likely that there is a set of “one size fits all” moral truths ideal for everybody in all places and times.

  32. Gordon. Actually I think that since humanity is conscious of itself and its environment then the purpose of moral feelings need no longer be to preserve genes. Why should it be?

    I mean, who is really interested in conserving the particular combination of Nucleic Acids? I’m certainly not. As a conscious act it is ludicrous. And I certainly have no interest in consciously preserving the genes of my community!

    So actually, from a purely materialistic perspective there is nothing ‘wrong ‘ with murder providing you get away with it and you don’t feel bad about it. Don’t you agree?

  33. Rather it indicates that the person’s choice would be not to hate because …..

    Yes, I understand what you believe. I was just commenting that it sounded like it was based on non-deterministic assumptions. My point was that it is hard to keep non-deterministic thinking out of our minds, but of course once it is drawn to your attention, your conscious beliefs will take over. But I think this may not be a matter worth pursuing further.

    Please link to your sources for Christian generosity.

    I was already preparing a blog post on it – Believers vs unbelievers – who are more generous?. It is primarily based on the US, and the answers are pretty clear. But I will try to find info from other countries for another post.

  34. No the table doesn’t prove your point it shows some of the highest rates of disbelief in gods in the world in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The only people I count as atheist are those who admit to not believing in gods.

    50 years ago I did an introductory course in philosophy at university, and atheism was then defined as disbelief in God, while agnosticism was defined as lack of belief either way. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy still tends to use similar definitions.

    But since then, many atheists have chosen to define themselves as lacking belief in God or gods, which is close to combining the two categories. In some people (I do not suggest this is true of you) I find this is a convenient arguing point. They can argue quite vehemently against the existence of God, but then when asked to justify their views they say they don’t have any burden of proof, they simply lack belief. But soon they are back making assertions against the existence of God.

    When I have suggested that they were moving the goalposts to suit themselves, I have been told that it is not up to a christian like me to define their belief, it is up to them. So while I think this way of stating atheist belief is confusing and inconsistent, I recognise it and accept it. I accept how people self-identify.

    Now to get the conclusions you draw about Scandinavia, you have to include those who believe in a life force or spirit in “atheist”, which may suit your definition, but I hardly think anyone who said that would self-identify as an atheist. In support of this conclusion, I offer the following:

    1. I note that in question D44, the survey distinguished atheist from Non believer/Agnostic.

    2. Wikipedia reports that Encyclopedia Britannica distinguishes the number of atheists worldwide from the number of “Non-religious”.

    3. The same Wikipedia page references a Times/Harris poll where the percentages for atheist roughly agree with the percentages for “Don’t believe in any spirit, God or life force” in the Eurobarometer poll, and atheist is distinguished from agnostic.

    4. On a popular level, I found this site which distinguished atheists from those who believe in spirits. Though I recognise there would be other sites that would define as you do, I think this shows the question isn’t as clearcut as you suggest.

    So it seems the polls, and most people who self-dentify as atheists, do not use your definition. And so IgnorantiaNescia is correct. Of course it is a matter of definition, but while you are free to use your own definition, it isn’t correct to impose your definition where another has been used. I suggest if you used the phrase “disbelief in the christian God”, you may be more correct.

  35. @MyGoatyBeard
    Re. David Foster Wallace
    I read the piece you directed us to and I’m sorry to say I was rather underwhelmed. He’s wrong about everybody being self-centred, (but then if you’re prone to generalisations like that you’re almost bound to be wrong). A look around at the number of people who give up their lives for things they regard as more important than themselves should make that obvious. And if that’s not enough, evolutionary theory tells us that we are endowed with altruism. Some of us, at least, will be so affected as to assist others for selfless reasons.

    Also he seems to have come very late in life to the conclusion that if your life goals are self-centred you will not be happy or fulfilled.

  36. @MyGoatyBeard
    I don’t think you get the point of the purpose of morality. Nobody makes moral decisions on the basis of preserving the shared genes of the members of their group. This is an unconscious evolutionary process. The social emotions and instincts gifted to you by the evolutionary process ensures that on balance society will in general make moral decisions consistent with this objective.

    Many societies will not succeed in surviving and this will be in no small part due to their failing to adopt a moral code of conduct as effective at ensuring their survival as their more effective neighbours who do survive.

    There is always something wrong with murder. It is illegal killing. That means your society has already decided it is wrong according to their moral code of conduct.

    As far a shared gene survival is concerned murder doesn’t seem like a terribly good idea to me. Does it to you?

  37. @unkleE

    I was just commenting that it sounded like it was based on non-deterministic assumptions.

    Well now you know it was a very deterministic point of view based on the expectation of a different decision due to different life experience.

    I will study your evidence re. Christian giving and if I have time and can summon the necessary lack of apathy I will respond.

  38. @unkleE
    Thank you for your lengthy post on atheism, agnosticism and belief in (something supernatural but not a god?).

  39. “I don’t think you get the point of the purpose of morality.”

    Well I think I understand the mechanisms you’re expressing quite well. I studied medicine. But I come at it with a very different worldview and it is hard to get my head around how you integrate deterministic views with the rest of life. Not a criticism, but it is very interesting to converse. Thanks and bye.

  40. @unkleE
    Thank you for your lengthy post on atheism, agnosticism and belief in (something supernatural but not a god?).

    The definition I use for atheist is having a lack of belief in gods. I accept that there are other definitions out there. All definitions which include the word “god” are problematic as the term is so poorly defined.

    Where atheism is a statement about belief agnosticism is a statement about knowledge. That is an agnostic believes that it is impossible to know whether gods exist or not. So the two are not mutually exclusive. Most self identified atheists are also agnostic because they cannot prove the non existence of gods.

    In general most American atheists, despite not believing in gods, prefer to identify as agnostic because atheist is a pejorative term in the US.

    And in fact most atheists all over the world prefer to identify as something else. After all, atheist doesn’t say very much about what you do believe in. Because you are the type Buddhist who doesn’t believe in gods this doesn’t prevent you from identifying as a Buddhist or an atheist if you prefer.

    Now what you are objecting to here is the inclusion of those who believe in a “spirit” or “life force” as atheists. Well some of them will identify as atheists and some of them won’t. None of them believe in gods. What can I say?

  41. Hi Gordon,

    I think this discussion is now heading for the exits, and I don’t want to get in its way. But I will just make one point.

    None of them believe in gods.

    This is an important and illustrative point. How can you say this? The survey questions did not use the term “gods” – the only terms used were “God” “spirit” and “life force” – this is your take on it based on your own assumptions, which appear to be different assumptions to those involved in the survey. You offer no evidence for this statement.

    I would very much doubt that it is true, and I at least can offer the following evidence. Two surveys were taken at similar times, the Eurobarometer and the Times/Harris poll which I referenced. Here are result for France, the most atheist country in Europe:

    Belief in God: 34%
    No belief in God, spirit or life force: 33%
    Some sort of spirit or life force: 27%
    Don’t know: 5%

    Believer in God or supreme being: 27%
    Atheist (denies the existence of God): 32%
    Agnostic (sceptical about God but not an atheist): 32%
    No opinion: 10%

    In both polls there are 3 main positions, and opinions are spread fairly evenly between the three. It seems fairly clear that “Belief in God” equates well with “Believer in God or supreme being”, and “No belief in God, spirit or life force” equates well with “Atheist”. This leaves “Some sort of spirit or life force” roughly equating with “Agnostic about God”, which is specifically not an atheist position in this poll.

    Note also the use of the phrase “some sort of” in the middle category of Eurobarometer, indicating a range of not very specific beliefs. This, combined with the simple comparison of stats above, suggests that those who believe in a spirit of life force may well consider them as “gods”.

    This middle section is clearly the remainder after the more definite opinions of the theist and atheist groups. You may choose to define atheist anyhow you choose, and I wouldn’t argue with you, but when considering these studies you cannot impose your definition on the studies when they quite explicitly use different definitions.

  42. I have come to the same (or a similar) conclusion.

    It simply does not follow that any part of an accident can be on purpose. If we evolved without purpose then any rational definition of purpose we apply is based on delusion (not belief, as this would contradict the assertion of the ultimate purposelessness of existence). If we are without purpose then our morals are arbitrary aspects of accidental processes and we must rely on a commonality of belief in order for them to even seem to be righteous or of objective worth.

    As there appears to be no empirical evidence of a god force their also appears to be no empirical evidence of a freewill (there actually seems to be evidence of determinism in that we can demonstrate how chemicals actions we have no control over precede the actions we believe we have control over). But people, however intelligent and rational we believe ourselves to be, are irrational animals and we sometimes feel the need to judge one another so we become selectively intellectual and rational.

    There seems to be no theoretical difference between atheism (rejection of the belief that a universal consciousness created human animals with purpose) and nihilism (rejection of meaning and value in existence) but this does not stop atheistic thinkers from moralizing and judging the actions of others any more than a belief in determinism will stop one from wanting to judge others. This why I find the condemnation of religious minded people by outspoken atheistic minded people (irrationally of course) upsetting and rationally absurd. How can you claim to be superior in your ability to rationalize while appealing to the irrational in your assessment of the actions and beliefs of others? Only a universal creator could give validity to the idea of one kind of thinking being superior to any other. Outside of this idea we are firmly in the realm of subjective belief. Even the health and functionality of our species is irrelevant from a rational standpoint if health and functionality are arbitrary evolutionary aspects of accidental animals. But still we are called to judge others for not living up to the standards we value…a paradox? Do we need a sense of purpose because we have been afflicted with a naturally dysfunctional sense of awareness?

    At any rate I cannot see a logical argument for rational atheistic morality nor a belief in freewill from a strictly scientific perspective.

    Cheers and Godspeed,

    Christopher V.

  43. Thanks for your comment Christopher. We are certainly agreed about your conclusion: “I cannot see a logical argument for rational atheistic morality nor a belief in freewill from a strictly scientific perspective.”

  44. @Christopher V
    Existential nihilism is indeed functionally equivalent to a belief that existence was not created by a conscious being. However nihilism has come to have overtones of depression or despair. It is apparent that some of those raised in religion cannot cope with the realisation that existence has no purpose when they realise there is no God.
    On the other hand those of us who were never under the impression that we are all slaves of a super puppet master can feel nothing but relief that we have discovered no evidence for his existence.

    When it comes to morality some atheists have more convincing arguments for the purpose of morality in the world and I find nothing irrational in their pointing out that much religious morality is not fit for purpose. I’m sure that some atheists do believe themselves to be more rational than your average theist but a moments thought should make anyone realise that the almost uniformly theist great philosophers and mathematicians of the far past had much greater facility with logic than most people alive today whether theist or atheist.

  45. Gordon
    Are you saying that the only people who think atheism is nihilistic, depressing and despairing are ex-theists?

  46. @MyGoatyBeard

    Are you saying that the only people who think atheism is nihilistic, depressing and despairing are ex-theists?

    No I’m saying that when atheists are afflicted with the despondency and despair that existential nihilism sometimes brings they are much more likely to be ex-theists.

  47. Gordon
    That implies that their concept of God is still very different to a slave-driving super puppet master.

  48. @MyGoatyBeard

    That implies that their concept of God is still very different to a slave-driving super puppet master.

    It matters not what their or my concept of God is. As atheists, to us it is only one possibility that imagination presents.

    It is the realisation that no benign force with purpose made the universe, (that existential nihilism is true), that may lead to depression in someone used to thinking otherwise.

  49. You seem to be saying that nihilism is not intrinsically despairing? (Without hope). I would think nihilism is objectively without hope, and I’ve heard nihilists despise the concept of hope.

    Interestingly, the atheist philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville describes his own state of mind as ‘cheerful despair’. He doesn’t think he’s depressed just because his existence is purposeless and there is no hope.

  50. @MyGoatyBeard
    Specifically existential nihilism is often associated with despair, despondency or depression but I don’t think these are a necessary part of the definition.
    Moral nihilism stems from ignorance about the source of morality and its purpose in the world.
    There are also other forms of nihilism. Various forms of nihilism often stem from a perceived view that, for instance, human values should be objective. In fact life can proceed quite happily from a position which regards human values as mere preferences, albeit common preferences.

    As for hope. If we define it as unjustified optimistic expectation then we all ought to be wary of its downside.

  51. Definitions are always a sticking point in internet discussions.

    Have you ever read the Abolition of Man by CS Lewis? It is a forceful challenge to the idea that life proceeds happily in the absence of objective values.

  52. I don’t think defining hope as “unjustified optimistic expectation” is very helpful, though, as it’s a highly idiosyncratic definition. Hope generally has a much broader meaning, also including optimistic expectations most people would consider justified. It rather much depends on how strict your standards are for justification. If one is a sceptic, of course, then these standards are impossibly high to the point of being meaningless.

  53. @MyGoatyBeard

    Have you ever read the Abolition of Man by CS Lewis? It is a forceful challenge to the idea that life proceeds happily in the absence of objective values.

    No I haven’t read any CS Lewis. But I’m sure that if he had any unarguable propositions about the objectivity of human values they would be being quoted by every moral absolutist across the internet.

  54. @IgnorantiaNescia
    If an expectation is justified by the best mathematical odds calculable it is neither optimistic nor hopeful but merely realistic. The whole point of hope is it flies in the face of the odds.

    You can be hopeful about an outcome where the odds are known to be good but it still means your expectations exceed the odds.

  55. Gordon. Are you saying you’re happy to pick up your ideas from anonymous internet sources but not from reputable intellects?

    IgnorantiaNescia. The most common graveyard of internet disagreements is etymological.

  56. @MyGoatyBeard
    I’m saying that if Lewis’ arguments had the force you claim for them he would be quoted or plagiarised all over the internet in support of objective values.

  57. Well I suppose that depends whether you think the best ideas are reconnoitred by the average internet dialectic. If you’re happy to go with consensus of the global populace then the supernatural, objective morals, and the progress of the human race all definitely exist. Take your choice: chase the best ideas yourself or capitulate to ‘common sense’.

    But of course Lewis is a dead Christian. Have you read any Mary Midgley or John Gray? They aren’t believers, are contemporary, and may challenge your idea.

  58. IgnorantiaNescia. The most common graveyard of internet disagreements is etymological.

    Guiltless here, my point is lexical.

  59. @MyGoatyBeard
    If a good idea or argument is written down somewhere it will eventually end up on the internet. It’s utility in debate will ensure its common usage.

    For myself I am very poorly read on these sorts of subject. I have never read a book by a Christian or an atheist apologist. Nevertheless I can spot a strong argument when I see it and Lewis’ arguments appear to present no difficulties for persons with contrary views.

    I’ve never met anyone who is happy to go with the global consensus even assuming they could determine what that was. Everybody likes to think that they form their opinions based on evidence.

  60. In that case I shall leave you in your happy position that feels neither need for ‘despair’ (a verb originating from the French negation of ‘espoir’, to hope) nor ‘despondency’ (a 17th century synonym of despair, also meaning a loss of hope) whilst you simultaneously decry the idea of ‘hope’. May you remain hopeless yet never despairing. Whatever that means.

  61. @MyGoatyBeard
    I don’t decry the idea of “hope”. I merely point out that it’s not the unadulterated good thing commonly portrayed by the religious.

  62. Godron, I can agree with that. We may disagree about the meaning of “hope” (and I think lexicography is on my side), but if that is your aim, there’s no use for us to quibble about it any further.

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