Free will is an interesting topic that you don't see many atheists talking about when arguing against the validity of the god of the Bible. However, I personally, used it as a springboard into atheism and think that others should learn a little bit about the lack of existence of free will. Let me explain.


Free will does not exist if people cannot act and could not have acted any other way than they do. However, free will appears to exist because there is an illusion that we could realistically make different choices when in the same situation under the same circumstances. For example, if I say don't think about a "purple polka-dotted elephant" you will inevitably have to think about it, if only to acknowledge that you are not thinking about it. In this case, you do have a "choice" to think about the elephant or not, but I have caused you to think about it.


Surely, you wouldn't think it was your will to think about the elephant, so let's look at a separate example. You are craving an ice cream cone, so you head down to your local baskin robins. Here there ought to be 31 things to choose from, yet what you choose is still determined. How so? Well, because you like the taste of one flavor over that of the other flavors. You buy your favorite because it gives you the most pleasure, but the fact that it is your favorite is not your choice. Your taste buds and brain have already determined that for you. In this case you are acting how you "want" to act, but the desire you have for, let's say chocolate, was not selected by you.


Well, what about choices not determined by our physical configurations? Think about why people in the Middle East are more likely to be Muslim than people in the US. Do you agree that we are a product of our experiences? None of us have chosen where we were born, to what parents, and what experiences we had thrust upon us. (Just skimming the surface on this one.)


I believe that people will ALWAYS act as they 'want' which is the way that provides the most pleasure/benefit and the least pain/suffering. Choosing physical pain for the benefit of others, such as giving blood, fits into this explanation. It does so because the person experiences emotional pleasure, among other things, that outweighs the temporary pain. Because there is always a specific choice that will be made in a given set of circumstances, a person never truly has an option to act differently.


I know this probably isn't all encompassing, and I didn't use the words cause and effect, but I'd rather discuss questions than try to cover everything I can think of. Looking forward to the discussion!

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Comment by Greg on June 10, 2011 at 4:51pm

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discuss free will in this video at around 50 minutes and 50 seconds. 

Specifically, Harris says "And we know, just as a matter of scientific fact, everything you're consciously intending to do, and wanting to do, and judging to be good or bad is preceded by neural events of which you're not conscious..."

Was actually watching this video to see what he had to say about science and morality, but thought I should share this part here since it is relevant to this post.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on January 12, 2011 at 3:51pm

See Freud

Comment by Greg on January 12, 2011 at 2:51pm

Glen, I don't know how motivation can be any different. I know this is not "proof" and would be considered an "argument from ignorance," but I have been searching for examples of how people can be motivated any other way. Unfortunately, most of my friends aren't interested in thinking philosophically and have not been able to come up with an example that does not fit that framework.

Now, I have thought about a situation where neither choice (in a hypothetical situation where two choices are possible) is more desirable, meaning they are not motivated to do one thing over another as a result of trying to maximize benefit(pleasure)/minimize pain. In that case though it seems a person is forced to choose randomly, which again, is not a free choice.

Thank you for your responses!

Comment by Greg on January 12, 2011 at 1:17pm

James, you bring up an interesting question. Are emotions the result of natural processes just as physical needs are? I would say yes. The idea is, where did those emotional needs come from? Are they a product of an animal's nature or did the animal "choose" to need stimulation?


That is what I've been thinking about. Did I sit down and say to myself, today I am going to desire companionship, or did this feeling happen to me? In other words, I do not think we have any control over the emotions and desires that drive us to act a certain way. I'm not saying we cannot ignore an emotion given substantial counteracting forces, but the fact that this emotion springs up in us is not of our choice.


As for the rat, why did it feel boredom? And why is this an un-pleasurable feeling? Certainly you would agree that it was not the rat's choice to be bored or for a lack of stimulation to be emotionally "painful". So what choice is the rat actually making on its own? These things that are beyond the control of the rat are "forcing" it to act the way it does.



Comment by Glen Rosenberg on January 11, 2011 at 7:12pm

Greg, I think motivation is greater or more complex than that.

You are correct that the preordained unfolding of events can result in evolution. At least I think so.

I thought that was your meaning with free will. You can still come to atheism by acknowledging divine plan as it relates to free will and sin; god's omniscience regarding Adam and Eve, propensities of humanity even in the knowledge of sin and hundreds of different thoughts.

I used mechanistic in the same way you used determined.

John, my sense is that you have, if only slightly, altered your equanimity inspite of your world view. Certain issues such as consciousness and ultimate causes are likely outside of our purview. My view is based on my intuition. I have not been convinved by either camp but a blend like nature/nurture seems much more reasonable than free will or absolute determinism.

Human constructs like thesis, antithesis, synthesis will not describe reality. In other words it is futile to attempt to understand the subject matter you are tackling. I am not totally sure there is a definable reality.

In some spaces you describe uncertainty and in others determinism. I dont get it. Are you using models to describe your positions and are unconcerned that those models are contradictory. You can do that when pleading a claim or a defense in law. It does not make sense otherwise.

Comment by John Camilli on January 11, 2011 at 5:38pm

Glen, I am not trying to be close-minded. Of course, I don't think a human can actually help how opened or closed their mind is, but I am willing to examine theories from all sides here. In fact, I already have examined many theories, from many sides; from ancient to modern; from east to west, I have looked everywhere I can think to look, and examined all ideas that have presented themselves to me.


There have been people, like you, who posit that we are not in a deterministic reality, nor an entirely acausal one. There have been people who posited that we are all in a dream, or a virtual reality, and tried to come up with ways one could prove or disprove such ideas. There have been people convinced that we are all automata; or that we are all golems; people that have positted that we are gods, or the creations of gods, and every one of them worth their salt has done their damned-est to prove their point; to prove that they were right. I've read a damn large portion of their efforts, and I have always thought very intensely about such subjects, so "closed-minded" is not really a word I would use to describe myself.


I am happy to hear and discuss your assertions. You have said that you think there must be some mix of causal and acausal that allows for choice to be made in a universe where, otherwise, things happen according to predictable laws. Can you elaborate any further than that? Can you describe how you think that might happen? Because if it's true, and we ARE able to make choices, then we have to try to construct a rational value system by which to weigh our decisions, or we will be making the WRONG decisions, see? If we are responsible for our actions, then it is also our responsibility to explore the consequences of our actions, but how can we know how our actions impact reality unless we know how it is that we are effecting reality? If we don't understand the process, then we can't understand the results of our actions, and we can't claim that we are acting responsibly or rightly. THAT is the same result as saying we are not responsible for our actions, which is what I have asserted, so right now you are agreeing with me......

Comment by Greg on January 11, 2011 at 2:39pm

I AM referring to a subjective view of something being pleasurable or painful. I'm sure you already know, but I'm saying that someone who enjoys painis not going to have the impulse to avoid it like a person who does not. Yet, it is not their "choice" to enjoy pain so the way they react to it is not of their own free will.

What I meant as far as evolution came from something you had mentioned:

"A complete lack of unpredicability would result in stasis. How could we possibly evolve if our individual books were written and the script had already unfolded before the great unfolding?"

It is entirely possible I did not understand what you meant, but my response involved stating that we could still evolve if everything was determined.


A lack of free will led me to believe that the whole idea of sin was an utter crock and it was more of a stepping stone to atheism than the entire road. How is god just or loving if he punishes people for doing something that they couldn't help but do? Why would god set-up adam and eve to fall and why did he create the talking snake? Why does Jesus need to come down and die for our sins if they don't exist? Blah, blah, blah.

I wonder if you could explain what you mean when you say "mechanistic." If you don't believe in free will, then what are you saying?

Without free will, we are determined to act only one way in a given situation. With my limited knowledge of physics, I'm fairly certain there are defined rules of cause and effect on the macro level (things that we actually interact with). If we act only one way, and the world reacts in a singular defined way, than we will respond to that reaction in another specific way. So, I believe at least, everything is determined.
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on January 10, 2011 at 11:02pm

I do not believe that humans have free will. Nor are all of our actions and behaviors completely mechanistic. There is likely a blend.  I think we are far from understanding consciousness and I would not be so close minded as to posit absolute determinism based on our understanding of physics and biology. The burden is on you to limit our existence to matter in motion automotons

Your construct involving causal and acausal is not likely to capture reality or be a means of arriving at truth. Thus my quotable truth falls anywhere. It is not aesthetic unlike the designed lie. (religion equals designed lie. Science seeks truth.) Feel free to use my quote.

Comment by John Camilli on January 10, 2011 at 10:07pm

Glen, it's fine to blurt out that 'free will is a consequence of our nuerobiology,' and it sounds convincing when you use big words like that, but you'd be a better nuerobiologist than any before you, if you could actually elaborate as to HOW? See that's the problem with looking at a complex system and just assuming this additional complexity could result from it, you have to actually prove it afterword. People have been trying to show how free will could result from our biology for hundreds of years. No has succeded, Glen.


I believe I have succeded at illustrating how humans could be under the mistaken impression of free will, yet you have not elaborated any counter-claim for the feasibility of your argument, except to state that it is so. If you would but present an assertion as to how we have free will, I could perhaps deconstruct it.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on January 10, 2011 at 8:01pm

Greg, unless you are making the claim that benefit/least harm is utterly subjective I think you know that your position is indefensible. I wont elaborate unless you request it.

I am unsure what you are getting at regarding evolution and or predestination. Calvinists are famous for having sought confirmation of their prefered status in the face of a basic belief in predestination.

How did the idea of free will or its falsehoodwill lead you to atheism?

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