Home > Determinism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Theology > Atheists and Determinism: A Reply

Atheists and Determinism: A Reply

February 11, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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I have previously written on some common misconceptions regarding determinism and its implications, spurred by a post over at what is now Reasons for God, a Christian apologist blog. While updating a redirected hyperlink, I noticed a post that had previously escaped my attention. Entitled, “Atheism and the Denial of Freedom” which posits that atheists, due to the nature of their beliefs, cannot in good faith (no pun intended) believe in free will.  In this post I would like to once again correct a specious argument that unfairly saddles atheists with a belief in determinism.

I should first like to take to task the manner in which the author stacks his conclusions. I will ignore the particular definition of atheism the author utilizes, as it does not truly matter in this instance, and instead highlight the problematic nature of the assumptions he makes. This argument demonstrates not only the sophomoric approach applied, but also a failure to understand the robust discussion concerning the metaphysics of the universe that continues to this day in professional philosophy.

The argument, pulled directly from the post, is as follows:

To summarize, there are three reasons why atheists argue that atheism logically eliminates the possibility of human free will:
1. Atheism denies that human beings have souls.
2. Atheism understands human beings as mere physical objects, which are thoroughly subject to deterministic laws of nature.
3. Human beings lack the ability to change previous states of the universe or the laws of nature, and these two components are sufficient, by themselves, to determine the future states of the universe.

Therefore, the inevitable conclusion is:

4. If atheism is true, the perception of free will is an illusion.

Therefore, we are forced to choose between the following two statements: a)    There is no god. b)   I have free will.

These are competing, mutually exclusive claims. If (a) is true, then (b) is false. And if (b) is true, then (a) is false. But it is not logically possible for both to be true.

Leaving aside for the moment that I am clearly sympathetic to determinism, as well as naturalistic worldviews, this argument casts very large assumptions over large swaths of science and philosophy, conflates naturalism with atheism, and offers up a false dichotomy.

(1) Atheism denies the existence of souls.

First, the denial of a soul in no way necessitates disbelief in free will. Any number of old and new theories of agency get rid of the idea of a soul but maintain freedom of the will by positing the existence of an immaterial ‘mind’ in the way Taylor and others have tried. Further, (1) cannot be modified to replace “souls” with “immaterial substances” to avoid this criticism because, as Timothy O’Connor and others argue, an “agent causal power” can be posited to constitute a an emergent physical macroproperty. [1] More on this below.

(2) Human beings are purely material objects in the universe which are entirely at the mercy of deterministic laws.

There exist philosophical theories that allow for human beings, and further human agents, to be comprised entirely of physical components and yet maintain their agency in a manner that allows for freedom of the will in some sense. One such possibility is Timothy O’Connor’s emergent agent causal theory. In it, O’Connor posits the existence of an emergent macroproperty which is purely physical, exerts a downward causal power, and is not subject to upward causation due to a supervenient relationship with the microproperties responsible for its instantiation. Though O’Connor’s theory certainly has lacunae, it nevertheless represents a possible position which an atheist could accept that not only affirms the physicalism implied by (1) but also maintains the freedom of the agent.

(3) Human beings lack the ability to change laws of the universe and past states of the universe, and therefore determinism must be true.

While it is true that human beings appear unable to alter the laws of the universe or previous states of the universe, this results in a lack of free will only in a deterministic worldview, not necessarily in a probabilistic or even an indeterministic one. We can see that an atheist can in good faith affirm a probabilistic worldview that also affirms the primacy of scientific knowledge. A person can simultaneously eschew naturalism in favor of a probabilistic view of the universe and also affirm the determinacy of past states of the universe, such as Randolph Clarke advocates in “Toward a Credible Agent-Causal Account.” In this article, Clarke argues for what he calls reconciliationism, which attempts to reconcile “being an undetermined determinant of one’s actions” with Universal Event Causation (not Universal Causal Determinism.) Clarke suggests that a probabilistic worldview leaves room for robust human agency while still acknowledging event causation

Concluding Remarks
The author fails to demonstrate in any meaningful way how atheism necessitates a disbelief in free will or a belief in determinism, and so (4) is false. Further, the author posits a false dichotomy: either you believe in God or you do not have free will. But, as I have shown, there are numerous ways in which an atheist can believe in free will but also deny the existence of a soul, affirm physicalism, and believe in the determinacy of past events and the set nature of universal laws, whether probabilistic or indeterministic.
It is an ancillary point, and one that has little bearing on the conversation, that many atheists may affirm determinism for any of the reasons cited by the author. For, what statements such as this truly mean is that some naturalists are atheists, and so their naturalism and disbelief in free will is in accordance with their atheism. The fact remains, atheism itself may be incompatible with certain religious conceptions of freedom of the will, but it does not itself necessitate a belief in determinism.

[1] I should note here that I do not believe current agency theory or emergentism to resolve the traditional problems of free will or the problem of interaction. However, I need not endorse either type of theory to argue that the author makes sweeping assumptions that belie significant diversity in the area of metaphysics and free will.

  1. February 12, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    Hi Jared,

    The argument you highlight is ridiculously bad. First, atheism does not entail the denial of the existence of souls or ‘immaterial substances’. Second, that the universe at base operates according to deterministic laws is (1) not at all clear and (2) really immaterial to the issue of human free will; indeterminacy does not grant free agency. Third, again, as you point out, one “can simultaneously eschew naturalism in favor of a probabilistic view of the universe and also affirm the determinacy of past states of the universe.”

    There are more problems with the argument, but it really does not warrant too much thought.

    • February 17, 2012 at 8:55 PM

      Hey Aaron,

      You caught me fishing in the barrel rather than in the river, to be sure. A few things, though:

      I agree, the argument the other author sets forth is poorly constructed in a number of ways, some of which are highlighted in my post, others you make note of, and still more unaddressed. While I may joke about arguments like these being easy intellectual pickings, an aspect of my post which I toned down before publishing was that these types of arguments are part and parcel to the contemporary Christian response to the relative prominence of atheist literature and thought as of late. These are the types of pseudo-arguments that are often thrown at atheists, naturalists, determinists et al in the attempt to discredit rational ideas and theories.

      While people like you and me are obviously not swayed, there are many, particularly in the Christian community, who take these arguments seriously. They are just as ignorant as the author is of what I consider to be fairly ubiquitous philosophical arguments, and are equally ignorant of their own theology. Calvinism is the best example of how modern conceptions of the Judeo-Christian God and ideas concerning freedom of the will and moral responsibility are simply fundamentally incompatible. To that end, though it sometimes feels tedious (or in this case too easy) I believe arguments of this caliber ought to be singled out and hammered flat so as not to catch the minds of the obtuse and uninformed.

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