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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