Atheism, Free Will,
And Material Determinism
Wayland Dong

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Wayland Dong"
Subject: Re: Free will, determinism, and atheism
Date: Friday, April 13, 2001 6:33 PM

To me, deterministic materialism would exist were it not for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle shaking things up a little. Theistic determinism, to me, is where God determines everything (which would not be true determinism, but determinism would exist within the universe). Since I have no reason to think that my life's script is already written out, I choose to continue to act as if we have choices.
 

This seems backwards from how I see it: the cells in my zygote may have divided according to a certain recipe, given the nutrition available and considering random radiation's interplay, but the result was an extremely complex nervous system that, I think, has free will in a limited sense -- limited, of course, by its nature, the availability of resources, and the constraints placed upon it by its environment. In other words, I don't think we are marionettes, either with God holding the strings or with Nature running the script. As mechanical as much of our thinking and behavior is, at times (as was initially shown by Pavlov), I don't think we are pre-programmed robots or computers.

While I think the notion of an all-powerful and all-knowing deity is an impossible concept (much like a square circle), I think it is conceptually possible for a very powerful deity to manufacture organisms so that they have free will in the sense that I see us as having free will. I also think it conceptually possible for a deity to have written a script (down to the last nose pick), but I cannot fathom any deity, however barbarous, having written this existence down in script form.

My conscious, aware "Self" is the result of the complex structures and processes in my brain and nervous system. Nature saw fit to give animals a conscious sense of self, probably because being able to move around and make decisions enhances survival. It is in this, most of all, that I see evidence in nature that organisms are not marionettes for the laws of physics, but have been designed by natural selection to have the ability to make choices within their environment and according to their resources and abilities.

I could be entirely wrong on this, and if I find myself to be in error, I will adjust my outlook accordingly. However, I will admit that this is as close as I come to taking a sides on a difficult question for aesthetic reasons -- because that's how I'd like things to be.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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Added: April 19, 2001

"This is a nonreductive naturalism, for although nature is physical-chemical at root, we need to deal with natural processes on various levels of observation and complexity: electrons and molecules, cells and organisms, flowers and trees, psychological cognition and perception, social institutions, and culture. We cannot at this time reduce the concepts and explanations of psychology, economic politics, sociology, or anthropology to physics and chemistry, but need to leave room for naturalistic explanations on various levels of complexity."

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Wayland Dong"
Subject: Re: Free will, determinism, and atheism
Date: Wednesday, April 18, 2001 10:47 PM

Sometimes you get lucky. Yesterday, for example, I didn't download any e-mail at all because I spent the first part of the day typesetting and doing research for the now-late April issue of the print edition, and then spent another several hours updating my karaoke song list and organizing my collection to make it more manageable. Yours is probably the only letter of length I'll have time to work on today, and I have another lengthy, involved letter, requiring some in-depth research, that's been in progress since early yesterday. A third letter was a rather simple matter and was quite fun, and that one is slated to go directly into the print edition, as is the one from yesterday. I don't intend to even read any of the others today. I don't even know if I'll have time to finish yours today, and may finish it up tomorrow.
 

This is part of the reason I do this: part of my personal philosophical study involves comparing notes with others, and part of my activism involves making these ponderings available for others to consider. Yours is a classic example of my tendency to want to test my current understanding, in the style of the Liberal Scientific Method, in the hope of reducing the problems with my personal outlook.
 

Yes. Anybody can see that some things cannot be changed by any amount of effort on our part. Gora's point was that many things will change if and only if we apply ourselves toward effecting those changes.

The big practical question is, Where do we draw the line? What was Bertrand Russell really saying when he noted that,

Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity."
-- "Is There a God?" (1952)

From our vantage point, it appears to us that we have choices. This could be a hallucination, just as conscious awareness itself appears to some (e.g., Pinker) to be a hallucination. And the main point Russell and Gora were making was to distinguish between "going with the flow" and buckling down and getting something done. Practical determinism (fatalism) can be just as destructive to an individual as solipsism, so we do well to at least pretend that we have choices (in the practical sense) even if we can make a solid case that philosophical determinism is valid. Like I said, this is as close as I come to believing something simply out of expedience.

The big philosophical question is difficult for me to express: We all know that once everything is said and done, events ended up taking a specific course. Thus, we can say that what will happen will happen and we just don't know what will happen. To me, determinism implies before-the-fact causality, not an after-the-fact historical account. I also ask, Are some occurrences a genuine toss-up, or are all occurrences inevitable?

My question is, After we've drawn that line, is it still proper to apply determinism in describing the human mind? or is it still possible to describe the human mind as being in a state of free will?

Victor Stenger points out that Heisenberg's principle played a role in the fact that, during the initial stages of the Big Bang, there was a precisely equal balance of matter and antimatter, but some fluctuation along the way produced more matter than antimatter -- and it is the matter that we can detect with our senses and our instruments. Antimatter, he says, can only be shown through our equations.

The point is that a small fluctuation way back when had profound consequences regarding the current state of our universe. I don't know if we can show that some of these processes were a random toss-up or were inevitable, or whether this is even a proper distinction. You raised another question that I had not previously considered when you appeared to suggest that only "a supernatural force, a soul, an uncaused cause deep within our brain" could bring about "free will." (This is what you appear to be saying in the initial paragraphs of your first letter.) I have not encountered any reasons for believing anything that anything herein described exists, so I cannot speak as to whether supernatural forces or entities could bring about genuine free will, even were we to show that the physical universe is deterministic.

According to generic monotheism, though, God has unlimited and unconditional free will, and could conceivably impart a limited form of this ability onto His creatures (even though that ability would, itself, be caused directly by God). As a Christian, I used this very line of reasoning several times: On one front, opposed the modern Evangelical and Charismatic concept of "surrender" on one front (similar to what Gora was fighting in India). On the other front, I questioned the Calvinistic concept of predestination. I suggested that (1) God had created us in His image, and (2) God has free will and creative power, so therefore (from 1 and 2) we have, in a limited sense, free will and creative power. If we don't, then either we were not created precisely in God's image, or God Himself is without free will and creative power.

(At least, this is how I saw things at the time, and were I to somehow convert to Christianity today, I have not, since then, learned or encountered anything that would alter my viewpoint on this: I have become an atheist, since then, but I still believe strongly in human free-will despite having struggled with that question for decades and from several different perspectives.)

However, some passages of Christian and Hebrew Scripture qualify even God's unconditional free will. Judges 1:19 says that "the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron." Here it is admitted that the Bible god was unable to accomplish a goal. In Genesis 6:6, the Bible god is said to have "repented ... that he had made man on the earth" and allegedly sent the Noachian flood. The New Testament appears even more clear on this matter, because Hebrews 6:18 mentions that "it was impossible for God to lie." I haven't seen this passage used in any discussion of the "Euthyphro Problem" discussed in the Rebecca Donnarumma letter, probably because the "Euthyphro Problem" is somewhat discomforting from a Christian perspective, but were I a fundamentalist Christian, I'd probably take this passage into consideration. The "Euthyphro Problem" asks whether right and wrong is because that's what God says it is, or whether God Himself is subject to a sense of right and wrong that is higher than Himself. In the former sense, morality is not morality but obedience to God; in the latter, God is not Supreme in all senses, being subject to (or subjecting Himself to) a sense of right and wrong that is greater than Himself, he having the choice either to submit to it or to ignore it.

Although I can ponder these matters, I cannot speak to them, because I am not a theist, and don't have any reason to believe the basic claims of theism regarding gods and souls and the supernatural. My big problem, at this point, is whether the supernatural is the only alternative to the causal determinism you describe. And, as I mentioned earlier, if this is what looks to be the case, I will go along with it in the interest of following truth wherever it may lead. If that leads me to solipsism-like fatalism, perhaps I do have the ability to abandon my commitment to truth.

Perhaps you'd be willing to expound more deeply on how fatalism is not a logical response to the absence of free will, and how one can go about taking the appearance of free will at fact value and think of oneself as being self-consistent.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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Added: April 26, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Wayland Dong"
Subject: Re: Free will, determinism, and atheism
Date: Thursday, April 26, 2001 4:23 AM

Wish I could get the transcript for the HBO article. Islam is Islam, and I stopped laughing a long time ago. Pokemon is Japanese for "There is no God in the universe." Right! Reminds me of Jerry Falwell and the others. This is the big problem with both monotheism and fundamentalism. Monotheism is extremely exclusivistic, always being The One True Faith. Though monotheistic religions are always headed by an all-powerful deity, an Oriental Despot, Only Bigger, and Invisible. These deities (for some reason) must always be jealously protected from the likes of Barbie, Simba the White Lion, Coca-Cola, Elvis Presley, Barney the Insipid Dinosaur, Ernie the Atheist Camel, Sylvester Stallone, a pair of Air Jordans, Bert and Ernie, Disney's Aladdin, and even the United States Marines.
 

I see your point. I have pondered along these lines off and on since late childhood.

Religious fatalism tends to say that all events have been decided by a conscious, aware being, and nothing we do will change the outcome of those events because a "person" has determined que será será, actively thwarting any attempts at change.

What you are suggesting is that since nobody knows the eventual (inevitable) outcome, we are free to try to change the course of history in any way we choose -- and free to still think we are actually making changes. This goes along with my understanding of natural selection as a form of intelligent design, which is "intelligent" in all but one crucial aspect: it has no foresight, but designs only through hindsight, keeping anything that improves an organism's prospect for surviving long enough to bring its offspring to the point of self-sufficiency.

But if you could, in actuality, predict the chain of causality, could you not intervene and alter its otherwise inevitable outcome? And if you could partially predict outcome on a limited basis (and we humans can do just that), then what role does humankind's ability to make abstractions (and thus make rudimentary predictions) play in the causal chain itself? This ability to make predictions just might be the "random factor" we're looking for.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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Added: April 29, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Wayland Dong"
Subject: Re: Free will, determinism, and atheism
Date: Sunday, April 29, 2001 12:53 AM
 

I never saw Trinity Broadcasting, but always thought Jim Bakker looked like a fish. And how could Peter Popoff not know how his name could be taken -- a double double entendre!
 

I'll admit that it makes much more sense to me from a theistic perspective than it does from a materialistic perspective. Just what prevents us from considering ourselves unfeeling automatons? the fact that it's all a neurological hallucination anyway?
 

I cannot answer, but it sure seems like it would. And if I can show that it's predetermined, based upon the laws of physics, then I can see how this could profoundly affect how I feel about myself. I don't see how the emotional impact of thinking this way can differ much from that of being a solipsist; though I can easily refute solipsism, I cannot so easily put away the notion of determinism.

Also, many theists have accused us, as materialists, of saying that the human is merely an unthinking automaton. How this differs from how it would be had we been created by a deity escapes me, though. But the emotional impact of their argument is very forceful, even though the logic behind their concluding that we see humans as unthinking automatons is a straw man of the false dichotomy and reductio ad absurdum variety.
 

This goes without saying. To say otherwise is a straw man. The more sophisticated variety of Calvinists (Westminster West, et al) teach this, and even the myth of the Turkish cabbie who drives like a maniac and says, "Unless Allah wills that we crash, we will not crash" is, to me, a straw-man myth against that variety of Islam.
 

I'm not thinking this complexly. I'm saying that if I know that a certain course of action will change things, but through my inaction, things will remain the same, doesn't this ability of a conscious, aware agent to foresee possibilities throw a wrench into the very idea of determinism?

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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