From the series: 6 Ultimate Reasons Not To Be An Atheist?
#3 Atheists cannot believe they have free will
To put the argument another way, the essence of man is natural and therefore is a slave to natural law. So even in terms of non-causality, such as random quantum fluctuations, free will cannot be as ultimately we would be slaves to the natural process. Any sense of control we have would be merely a sense, it doesn't follow that we can have real control.
I have a water bottle next to me. It might be that I feel thirsty and consciously decide to take a drink. But in reality the brain is merely acting on causation, it was causal factors in my brain that made me feel like taking a drink and causal factors that led me to pick up the water and take a drink. While it felt I made the decision, it was merely an expression of the underlying laws.
Imagine a robot that was running a software program. The robot might be incredibly advanced, it might be self-aware and be able to self-reference. And while it is interacting in the world, it might have a series of different inputs that get processed in order to make a decision as to what to do next. But at no stage is the robot doing anything beyond what its software says to do.
So to ask the first question, is free will necessary? Again, it's an appeal to consequences and has no bearing on the truth of the matter. We might desire for there to be free will, but that doesn't mean there is free will. Just as I might desire for my water bottle to magically replenish, but I know that I'm going to have to go to the tap instead.
The challenge isn't just part of a materialist world-view, it's being increasingly confirmed by modern neuroscience. It's not enough to say it's a problem for atheism, because it is a problem for all views that aren't merely engaging in sophistry. The science is pointing very clearly towards all decision making being the product of brain activity, and atheists are in no worse position than any other.
So many experiments ranging from electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain to seeing how particular chemicals work. From measuring how stimulants such as music light up certain areas of the brain to even seeing how those with brain injuries make moral judgements; there's just so much indicating that the brain is what we have to work with.
It might be that the brain is not the whole story, that there's something beyond the material - in which case it would need to be observed just how that immaterial interacts with the material. Until it's demonstrated that it exists, it's nothing more than speculation and not worth consideration. But if like the science suggests that the brain is the whole story, then can the notion of free will be compatible with causality?
So how could a theist solve this? As stated above, the main problem of free will lies in that it seems that our decisions indeed are made by the brain. So to argue that we have free will in the contra-causal sense, one must first show that there's such thing as contra-causal decision making.
Such an idea is ultimately inconceivable, what does it mean to be in control? Say there is a dualistic element in our brain. What sensory input would be sent? Would it be raw data or processed data by the brain? And once it got there, what process would happen? How would the homunculus make such a decision? Appealing to dualism doesn't solve the problem of free will in any way we can comprehend because of the mechanisms we know underlying any decision don't give the desired outcome.
Take the example of eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Take the approach that eve truly did not know better. After all, she had no knowledge of good and evil. She ultimately had to make a choice without knowing the consequences. Such actions would be in effect random, for she did not know right from wrong. Now how was such a decision made? Does it even matter?
I would contend that it doesn't matter and that it serves as a distraction from the real issue at hand. The key is that she wasn't aware of right or wrong, and acted before being able to make a moral decision. Think of a monkey with a gun, if the monkey shoots the gun can it really be responsible in the same way that an adult who knows the consequences can?
As I said above, it could be something else. But such contra-causal decision making is inconceivable to us and serves nothing more than writing "then a miracle occurred". But it doesn't matter, for we work on the level of agents and agents who have knowledge and morality.
So how can we account for free will? It seems the best means would be to argue compatibilism, that is to say that free will is compatible with determinism. Philosophers such as Hobbes and Hume have taken this position, and in the modern day Daniel Dennett has written extensively on the subject.
Take a nut crushing machine, all the machine does is crush nuts, it checks whether there is are nuts under it and then smashes the nuts with a heavy hammer. Say the machine fails and a human face is mistaken as a pile of nuts - the machine comes down and kills the person. The machine has no responsibility in this case. Now say it was a human who pressed the button to crush the nuts. She sees another person on the machine and still decides to put the button. The person would have responsibility in this case. Why?
The person in this case is aware of the action and aware of the consequences for the action. If she pressed the button, she would crush the person. Far from acting blindly, she had knowledge as to the ramifications of the action. It's not whether she could have acted differently if the universe was replayed, but whether she would have acted differently had she no knowledge of the consequences.
We have evolved brains, it goes without saying. Our brains are capable of projecting into the future, understanding the proposed consequences for an action, making moral decisions, etc. A woman is sexually assaulted. It turned out that the assailant was mentally retarded, and didn't have a capacity beyond a two year old. So while his body pumped out testosterone, he had no ability to know whether what he was doing was wrong. Contrast that with a fully developed man who knew that it was wrong but still acted anyway.
There's a lot to say and not much space. I won't pretend to think I've solved the philosophical quandary, merely summarised what I see as the argument for compatibilism. It's not whether I can violate the laws of physics, but whether I'm able to understand the ramifications. Yet that isn't enough for some.
The eye can be evolved, the processing of the information can be evolved, but why can't the course of action be evolved too? Surely if the kitchen is on fire, we would want our brain to act accordingly to the input. It's really not a good time to make pancakes or sit down to plan next year's holiday, one could do such things but it would be best to make an appropriate choice. A fire might mean call the fire brigade and get to safety, does it really make such a difference when the potential options at any given time are ultimately decided by physics?