WHY I’M NOT AN ATHEIST, pt. 2

(on determinism and free will, and thus also on moral responsibility)

Before I even begin this post, let me take the time to define some terms. This part of my Why I’m Not an Atheist series is about determinism and free will, so it behooves us to make sure we all know what I mean by those terms. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines “causal determinism” as “…roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” I like this definition. Later in this post, I am going to use what has been called the Basic Argument of determinism to attempt to show why I adhere to this idea. However, given that this post is at least in part about theology – I mean only that we’re discussing the God question and thus our terms are going to need to relate directly to this God question – I’m going to use the word “determinism” to mean “theological fatalism” when discussing the idea from a theist’s perspective (don’t worry, I think you’ll be able to follow…). The SEP defines theological fatalism as “the thesis that infallible foreknowledge of a human act makes the act necessary and hence unfree.” Basically, determinism itself is the analog of theological fatalism in a world in which God does not exist, and theological fatalism is the analog of pure determinism in a world in which God does exist. To put it more simply, we’re discussing the idea that the future is determined by something (nature and the state of the universe on one hand, God on the other), and so I choose to use the same term to emphasize what I see as the sameness of the issue. If you don’t follow that, it’s fine – that is basically what I’m going to try to argue in this post anyway. Okay, on to the next definition: free will. When I discuss free will in this post, I am not referring to the notion that human actions are completely undetermined by anything other than that person’s will. Thus, I’m not talking about a completely autonomous will. Most of us would reject that wording anyway, because most of us realize that our situations in fact do determine our choices to at least some extent. For instance, I cannot choose to be three feet taller, or to spread my arms and fly to Thailand. There are laws to this universe. Some people (Buddhists, maybe? or New Agers?) believe in the idea of “mind over matter,” but this is not the idea I’m talking about when I am referring to free will. For the duration of this post, think of free will as simply the ability of rational agents (humans) to choose between various alternative options that do not go against the physical laws of the universe. Free will is the idea that you can make a choice and thus influence the flow of time. Determinism is the idea that the things which happen necessarily happen – that they happen out of necessity, because they have been determined.

(I won’t get into much detail, but suffice it to say that as a Calvinist I believe that determinism/ theological fatalism is true. Some of my fellow Christians will balk at that – maybe even some Calvinists will balk at the usage of the word “fatalism,” since it has the connotation of meaninglessness. However, I personally believe that we have real wills that we exercise but which are ultimately under the sovereign will of God. There is no other possible way, in my opinion, for God to be said to be sovereign – because if everyone has free choices to make and thus can freely influence the flow of history, then history is at the mercy of people and not God. Okay. Just wanted to make that clear. Let’s get on with the actual post, since this isn’t supposed to be about me defending my own particular brand of theism).

Now that we have those terms defined, I can begin my main argument (if it can be called that). Some atheists I have met have posed to me a charge against theism which they find very strong indeed. The charge is that, if God exists, then we do not have a free, effectual will. Our choices are merely the illusions of choices, since a deity that exists outside of time and knows all the events of the future and that can interact within human history would be in control. The criticism can be seen in pop culture all over the place. For instance, think back to the movie The Matrix (yes, yes, I know this is an easy target, since virtually no other movie in popular culture has been so blatantly about philosophy). When asked if he believes in “fate” – the idea that the future is destined to happen – Neo replies “No… because I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life.” This is a particular criticism of Christianity, since one of the attributes of the Christian God is sovereignty – the idea that this God is in complete and utter control at all times and in all places. This conception of God negates, in these atheists’ minds, the common sense notion that we have the ability to choose freely between alternative decisions. Note that this criticism, and indeed the whole determinism vs. free will debate, is very closely tied up with discussions of moral responsibility. I will get to issues of morality in the next two posts, but the main gist of this criticism of theism is that it seems to preclude real moral responsibility. After all, how can we be said to be morally responsible for an action if that action happened necessarily – if, in effect, we did not have any real control in the matter at all and the action was foreordained and predestined? I don’t shy away from the fact that this is a serious charge. However, what I want to prove here is that a move away from theism does not solve this issue. It merely moves the sovereignty from this deity to something else.

Brace yourselves, because this is where it’s going to get really dense and possibly hard to follow. I’m going to try to keep it as simple as possible (partly because going into depth on every term and theory would take a lifetime, and partly because the whole point of this thing is to be readable). To my knowledge, atheists tend to be materialists – that is, they reject the notion of the supernatural and hold that everything “supervenes on” the physical world. This is consistent with the usual reasons they pose for rejecting theism and supernaturalism in the first place, so you can’t fault them for that. However, let’s run with that scenario. The material, physical world is the only thing that can be said to exist in reality. Even mental processes such as love, pain, reason itself, happiness, depression, etc. can be said to supervene on or be based upon the physical realities. Consciousness is the result of the physical world behaving in a certain way. Okay? Now, here’s where the Basic Argument I talked about earlier comes into play. If this is the way that reality is, the atheist has not escaped determinism. Let me show you. I first heard of this argument in Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” which can be found in the 2007 edition of Ethical Theory (edited by Russ Shafer-Landau… the forthcoming quote is on page 347). It is he who termed it the Basic Argument and it can be stated thusly:

“(1) You do what you do because of the way you are. So,

(2) To be truly morally responsible for what you do you must be truly responsible for the way you are – at least in certain crucial mental respects. But,

(3) You cannot be truly responsible for the way you are, so you cannot be truly responsible for what you do.”

This is tough to parse on some levels – especially as it relates to the a/theism debate. So let me try to simplify it by connecting it directly with what we have been talking about. To the atheistic materialist, the world is entirely made up of physical things. In fact, even seemingly non-physical things supervene on the physical processes. So, our mental faculties are merely the result of the workings of physical processes in our brains. But, these physical processes behave according to strict physical laws that have been working on your physical makeup since literally before you were born. This is evidenced by the fact that alcoholism, for example, has a genetic basis. Therefore, since you cannot be said to have been responsible for your original physical makeup (after all, you didn’t exist yet and certainly did not pick out the physical properties you would have upon birth), and since you cannot be said to be responsible for the physical laws that have been acting on those original physical properties over time (since those laws existed before you did and are not mutable, or at least certainly not mutable by you), and since your physical makeup dictates your mental processes (this is materialism, the mental supervening on the physical), you cannot be said to have free will, nor to be morally responsible for the choices you make.

Let that sink in a bit. It is very difficult to object to this Basic Argument (in fact, I think it to be impossible if it is approached from an atheistic, materialistic perspective). If the atheist denies premise (1), she is denying the very materialism that she has claimed to espouse. If she denies premise (2), she must then try to figure out what it means to be morally responsible for something that she can’t be said to be responsible for in a nonmoral sense. That is, negating premise (2) is to say that, paradoxically, one is responsible for something one did without being responsible for one’s physical makeup, even though materialism would have to hold to the idea that what we do is predicated upon our physical makeup, according to premise (1). This seems illogical. It is basically like saying that I, Mike, should be held accountable for things I did even though those actions were the result of material processes over which I have no control. Where does this sudden responsibility come into play? Note: I am not saying the theist has it any better. I am simply showing that the atheist has not escaped the problem by a simple move to atheism. What would be required is a radical restructuring of the very common-sense notions of free will and agency that caused the atheist to object to theism in the first place. (Just to make sure I cover this, the only answer given to this problem in the Bible is a rather unsatisfying one. In Romans, Paul argues basically this same idea, but applied to God. He says that none can resist the will of God, that if God has made some to be vessels of wrath for the day of destruction and some to be vessels of mercy no one can resist those purposes. He anticipates the objection “Why does (God) still find fault? For who can resist his will?” and answers the objection by saying “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Check it out in Romans 9:19-20. My point is that I sympathize with the atheist at this point, because I do not have an answer for this problem. More on that later).

Really quickly, let me summarize the point of this long post. The reason I find it worthwhile to discuss is that some atheists I have talked to share the opinion of Neo in The Matrix: they do not like the idea of not being in control of their lives. Seeing within theism a determinism that goes against their notions of free will, they attempt to solve the problem by a move to atheism (I’m not saying this is the only reason, nor that all atheists even have a problem in this area, but simply that some do). However, what I have hopefully shown here is that making that philosophical move does not solve the issue. What it does is merely push the control down from a deity to Nature itself. If you go back and re-read the Basic Argument, you will realize that in a materialistic universe punishing someone for their actions is much the same as punishing someone for their hair color, or for their skin color. It is the same because in a materialistic universe all things necessarily supervene on the physical, and we do not have control over the physical. Any attempt to assert that we do have control over the physical properties of our bodies will lead to the inevitable fallacy of the causa sui (the notion that we are the cause of ourselves, which is obviously untrue as evidenced by the fact that we did not pick out our parents’ genes, etc.).

Finally, I want to point out a few things. There are many philosophers nowadays who are compatibilists. That is, they hold that free will and determinism are compatible. In fact, there are some who hold, seemingly paradoxically, that moral responsibility is only possible in a deterministic universe. One example of an atheist compatibilist is Daniel Dennett , and the link I just provided is a video of him discussing his views on this dispute. However, I would argue that any move that an atheist makes to solve this problem can equally be made by the theist. For instance, I hold that we are morally responsible for our choices. In fact, adhering to the doctrine of the Bible, I would hold that the problem is that our will is always and only in the opposite direction of God’s will – and that therefore the only way to repent (or, in other words, to turn toward God and from one’s immorality) is to be made to do so by God who is sovereign. Or, other theists (in the sense of including all forms of theism) reject the notion of moral responsibility or else reject the notion of determinism altogether, just like other atheists reject these notions in order to get out of the predicament. My point is that moving to a position of atheism does not help the problem. And if the problem is cited as a reason for the move away from theism, and the move to atheism does not solve the problem, then the reason for moving to atheism was invalid in the first place.
So that’s it. It’s a long one, I know. But I hope it was not too difficult to follow and that it can generate some discussion. My next two posts are going to deal with the issue that this one leads into: namely, morality itself and the supposed problems from which theistic morality is said to suffer. I am excited about these next two posts because, personally, I find morality to be the biggest indicator of a deity’s existence. Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to suddenly switch my purpose here and start trying to convert everyone to Christianity. I merely plan on refuting the problems that atheists have with theistic morality.

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13 thoughts on “WHY I’M NOT AN ATHEIST, pt. 2

  1. what? says:

    I stopped reading at ‘ we are not truely responsible of how we are ‘. I get what the aurthor says, but it condradicts with the rational agent the author put in place earlier. The author says that because “free-will ” requires a natural prodded, in wich all of reality exists, free-will isn’t free at all because it has physical restrictions. But the accepted definition of free-will is that “our choices are not predetermined by an outside force”, witch doesn’t condradict the prosses of internal natural prodded but does condradict an allknowing supernatural god.

    • Actually, that definition of free will is absolutely contradicted by internal natural physical processes, because (as the Basic Argument explains) we did not will those physical processes in the first place. Also, because those processes act on our original physical makeup, which we are not responsible for willing. This means that we are at the mercy of genetics and nature (and for a materialist, our very wills necessarily supervene on these physical attributes, so how can we be responsible for those wills if they come from physical attributes for which we are not responsible?).

    • Also, for the record, I’m not saying at all that free will having restrictions means that it isn’t free. In fact, I reject this definition when defining the term “free will.”

  2. I’m glad you provided this little piece of prolegomena before tackling the subject of morality. (I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on morality since it seems to be a large motivator for your belief in a deity; whereas, when I was a Christian, I put very little weight in moral arguments for my faith or moral objections to it.)

    I’ve been a fan of compatibilism (or, at least, a version of Frankfurt-compatibilism) for a while now. (In fact, you might enjoy reading John Martin Fischer’s “The Metaphysics of Free Will: An Essay on Control.” He proposes at the onset that his position may be beneficial to, specifically, Christians of a Calvinist persuasion.) In other words, I’m on of those atheist’s that doesn’t have much of an issue with the problem posed by free will.

    However, just to be a bit of a devil’s advocate here, there seems to be at least two intuitively different cases between theism and atheism (assuming determinism). For one, I think it is intuitively the case that people find a greater objection to someone determining their actions than, say, a purely naturalistic determination (say, for example, it is seen that our genetics completely determine our actions). Secondly, I would suggest that people find it intuitively less objectionable that (assuming determinism) a purely naturalistic phenomenon has determined them without moral implication as opposed to a personal being that determines everyone and that determination is severely fraught with moral implications.

    • I think that “someone” determining rather than simply “something” determining is more objectionable to most people. However, I disagree that it has more moral implications than simply naturalistic determination. In both cases, the events that happen (and thus the “choices” we appear to make) happen necessarily. Therefore, one has not escaped the idea that our actions are not freely chosen–and thus one has not escaped the implications of moral responsibility or a lack thereof. Just as you could say “God made me do it this way,” I could say to you “but my brain’s chemical makeup has determined my actions.” Actually, I think that any attempt to get out of saying that is a move away from materialism.

      Also, it should be noted that in our justice system we currently allow for cases where it appears that someone’s actions have been determined without their control. For instance, we lessen or alter the penalty (and certainly lessen the moral repudiation) when a murderer is found to be legitimately insane. This is because we sense that the person’s brain make-up (for instance, if the person has problems in the frontal lobe, which is linked to moral understanding I believe) has “made them do it.” However, if we hold to materialism there then ceases to be any way to hold anyone accountable for anything, since we can use that same argument (the brain’s state made them do it) for any action the person had–good or bad. Praise and punishment seem to be unwarranted.

      However, I don’t think Calvinism escapes this fully. For the record, I don’t think any system of thought escapes this (because of the Basic Argument, and because determinism seems to me to be a basic fact of the universe, especially given the Theory of Relativity). Currently, I hold that we have “effectual wills” that enable us to make decisions, but that those wills are themselves subservient to God’s. In other words, the only way for us to want to follow God is for him to make us follow him. And if we find that we don’t, it’s because we don’t want to AND because we were not made to. Some would disagree with me, and there does seem to be an inherent contradiction there. However, I think that every single possible view that people have is ultimately irrational–that is, it ultimately rests on things that require faith and which are not logically warranted. Presuppositions, if you will.

      Anyway, I’m getting off track. I’d be lying if I said that Calvinism always “sits well” with me. However, my goal in this post was to show that a simple move away from theism does not solve the issue, as we are left with determinism from a material perspective. That might sit better for some people, but it still signals to me that our actions happen out of necessity and are not fully under our control. Thus, the very push for moral responsibility that made Calvinism sit unwell with me remains, and therefore the move away from it was unjustified. I’m making a mess of this, however, so I’ll just stop here.

  3. Also, I’ll go ahead and just tell you that the next two posts are going to focus on refuting the criticisms of the Euthyphro dilemma and the Problem of Evil, respectively. Specifically, I’m going to attempt to show that I don’t think atheistic conceptions of morality are any better off than my own modified Divine Command Theory of morality. So, kind of a refutation (or in some places, me saying that I just don’t mind the critics’ point, which I’ll explain) and kind of a “your theories suffer from the same problems, so you can’t use that as a reason for disliking my theory” type thing.

  4. Good thoughts. Two things: by means of clarification on the gravity of the moral implications of one theory over the other, I think the case with theism is a bit different insofar as on a “naturally determined” view one isn’t condemned to eternal torment at the closure of your existence; whereas there is a possibility of eternal torment by the determiner (i.e., God) within theism.

    Secondly, the use of the justice system analogy is a sword that swings both ways. While the court does take into consideration impersonal determining factors when evaluating punishment, if that determiner is personal the determined gets a lesser sentence (if a sentence at all) and the determiner is also punished (usually to a weightier degree).

    That said, I don’t think there is a way to avoid the fact that, if God is sovereign, he is also (in some sense) responsible for the acts of his creation. I was unable to avoid this as a Christian (but I also wasn’t alone in thinking so: see Johnathan Edwards The Freedom of the Will> and, more recently, Paul Helm The Providence of God).

    • While I agree with that, there is in my mind an answer to this from the standpoint of divine command theory. In that case, the notion of moral responsibility is itself defined and accordingly punished by God, and therefore if he does not hold himself responsible then he is in fact not responsible (since it is this God that determines the fact of the matter). However, I admit that this doesn’t sit well. And I don’t think many Christians would really try to claim that god is effectually amoral as determiner of morality. I also admit that there are probably similar ways that atheists can answer the problem by denying or reworking some instinctual notions about morality and responsibility, etc.

  5. I don’t think that would be a wise move for the divine command theorist who, by doing so, would readily open them self to the objection that God’s ethical code is arbitrary. Neither would is be wise for a modified divine command theorist since they tie between morality and God is essential. In other words he would be contradicting his very nature. And sure, a Christian might respond that God, being as he is God, relates differently to morality. This is probably an even more dangerous move epistemologically: if God’s sense of morality is of a different kind than his creation, then there is no univocal layer in our statements about him providing (or justifying) a unity of concept between who God is and our thoughts about who he is.

    • I don’t mind the objection that God’s ethical code is arbitrary precisely because I am a divine command theorist. But I think a better way to phrase the point is to say that I we find any sort of fault in God, the flaw actually exists in our own thinking. So if we feel that God is in some sense morally responsible for the actions of his creation, the problem is in how we define moral responsibility and not in God contradicting himself. I think this is a view that any consistent Christian must hold, since after all at the end of the day no matter the protests or justifications, the concept of god in the bible is of a being who sends people to hell or saves them according to his own will. I don’t think there is a way to escape this without proclaiming heresy.

  6. That’s a fine line to walk. Sure you don’t want to join the dark side, give up on all morality, band together with a bunch of us murderous, pithy, medieval, atheist bastards, and decry modern man, meaning and existence?

    • But, if I give up morality in the end anyway, then what has motivated the move away from the theistic morality? Trust me, I’ll get into some specifics later. Next week, probably.

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