Atheism and Free Will

PhoenixGray says:

Hi, I was wondering if there is an atheistic explanation for the phenomenon of free will?

To try and put the question into specific terms so that there is no confusion:

1. We have the experience of being able to choose. This may be manifested in a course of action or merely a belief to be held.

2. If our choices are merely a reflection of the particular brain chemistry involved, or of any other physical process, we cannot be said to have a true choice in any sense, as there is nothing outside the physical realm to be influencing the action of the brain and body, which are physical things. Therefore, it seems that any physical explanation for free will is by definition faulty, including any potential future knowledge we may uncover.

3. The standard way out of this, and the way that I took as an atheist, is that there really is no such thing as free will and we merely experience the illusion of choice. This begs the question of who is experiencing this illusion, but apart from that, if we have no choices that are not determined by physical law, then how did we arrive at that conclusion? In order to exercise rational thought, you must be able to make a free will choice between two alternatives according to which you believe is more weighty. If there is no free will, on some level you have no choice but to believe this and it is not rational in any sense.

A1. Now of course, the argument made in point 3 does not mean that the hard determinism theory is false, merely that if it were true we would have no way of knowing that, since the belief itself invalidates the process which led to the belief.

A2. Randomness is not the same as choice. Demonstrating that not everything can be predicted in its behavior, even with a hypothetical infinite body of knowledge about the original state, does not mean that this randomness is an explanation for choice, any more than a roulette wheel chooses the number the ball falls into.


3 Responses to Atheism and Free Will

  1. Caroline says:

    Did you ever get any answers to this? I’ve been wondering the same thing. You stated my thoughts and questions exactly.

  2. The Atheist says:

    My personal take is that if there is free will, it would feel to us like we have free will (like it does right now). If there is no free will, it would still feel to us like free will since our thoughts even if predetermined are still our thoughts, and it is our thoughts that give us the impression of free will.

    The universe appears to be deterministic with a certain amount of randomness. Randomness is not free will since a thought caused by a random event is no more free from the physical event than a thought caused by a predetermined event. Our thoughts are the product of a deterministic universe (with a certain amount of randomness). If by “free will” you mean “non-deterministic”, then we do not have free will.

  3. Gram says:

    I’m a few years late addressing this question- but here goes!

    1) Belief in free will isn’t something that’s demarcated by theism and atheism. Religions disagree about free will- and so do atheists.

    2) There is a total amount of available power in all of creation. The individual is entitled to claim a portion of this and call it choice.

    3) Awareness would be unnecessary if there was no freedom to choose. We’re aware, and therefore there is freedom of will.

    4) It may be so that earlier on in life our thoughts are more susceptible to the external suggestion, but this changes with age.

    5) It’s extremely impractical and thoroughly immoral to think one is a hostage to one’s actions; watching what one can’t control.

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