The problem of free will (not related to Calvinism this time)

swedish_atheistI recently read a new book by Randal Rauser called The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. Its intention is to help believers think through and respond to major philosophical and scientific challenges to Christianity.

The book’s conceit is that it narrates one long, hypothetical conversation in a college-town coffee shop between a theologian (the author himself) and a scornful atheist student named Sheridan. One criticism of the book that I encountered online is that it’s hardly a fair fight: Sheridan, who uses the word “dude” and “sky daddy” a lot, knows his New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and, ahem, Bill Maher. Unlike the author, however, he isn’t well-acquainted with the heavyweights of philosophy. Why not set up a conversation between a theologian and a “real” philosopher?

Fair enough. But since the New Atheists have hogged the media spotlight over the past ten years, responding first to their objections seems practical. Sheridan represents their point of view nicely. The author certainly couldn’t have made Sheridan less sympathetic to Christianity.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the book, while the author gains some ground with Sheridan and at least gives him a reason to be less certain of his convictions, Sheridan remains unconverted. That seems realistic, too.

One idea I hadn’t considered before reading this book is the problem that free will poses, not to the Calvinist this time, but to the philosophical materialist: Why do we seem to possess a non-material substance called a mind, which transcends the three-pound lump of gray matter called the brain?

That’s easy, says Sheridan: the brain—the result of physical processes only—gives rise to the mind and consciousness. Philosophically, this idea is known as epiphenomenalism.

Rauser directs Sheridan to consider a professor, Dr. Ferry, who’s currently tapping on the glass of the pastry case, ordering a cinnamon bun. Why does he order this cinnamon bun and not a rhubarb muffin? There is no materialist account of this action, Rauser argues, that doesn’t compromise our belief in free will.

“Sheridan, you suggested that mental events—sensations, desires, intentions and the like—are mere byproducts of the firing of neurons like smoke rising from fire. If that’s the case then they have no role to play in the story of Dr. Ferry’s ordering a cinnamon bun. All of Dr. Ferry’s actions are determined and thus explained by the firing of neurons in his brain while his mind does nothing. But this doesn’t seem to match reality at all, does it? Surely Dr. Ferry’s intention to order a cinnamon bun is causally basic in the story of how one ends up on his plate. It’s because he wanted a cinnamon bun that a particular pattern of neurons fired, causing his finger to tap the glass. And it’s because he wanted to express this intention that more neurons fired, thereby causing him to vocalize the desire to have one to the barista.[1]

In other words, if Sheridan is right then there’s no “mind” superintending the ordering of this man’s cinnamon bun that isn’t itself the consequence of blind, physical processes of cause-and-effect. Desire and choice are illusions. By contrast, a theistic account of reality provides an alternative that better explains our experience.

Hauser continues:

“This means we have at least one example of a non-physical substance—a mind or soul—that interacts with the physical world. And if souls can exist and interact with the world, then why not think that God could be another non-physical substance that interacts with the world?”[2]

1. Randal Rauser, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 102-3.

2. Ibid., 103.

11 thoughts on “The problem of free will (not related to Calvinism this time)”

  1. Brent, this statement, “”This means we have at least one example of a non-physical substance—a mind or soul—that interacts with the physical world. And if souls can exist and interact with the world, then why not think that God could be another non-physical substance that interacts with the world?”, is very close to verbatim what I argue in my never-to-be published OPPOSITIONS TO EVOLUTION treatise from some years ago (a copy of which I believe I emailed to you some months back). Although a determined atheist will reject almost any argument any Christian may advance, as a point of logic it seems to me to be close to irrefutable.

    1. Tom, I never read your essay, but I promise I will do so! I want to think through this argument more deeply.

      1. If you don’t locate it, let me know and I will email another copy.

  2. I might be able to shed some light on this matter. We atheists do indeed generally subscribe to determinism. We interpret the mind as an expression of physical processes (another topic in itself), rather than a causal agent or arbiter.

    I would be interested in how Christians interpret agency in nature. Under what principle would you say a virus, or an insect, or a fish, or a dog trying to steal a cinnamon bun, is or isn’t an exercising “will”?

    1. Morbert, I don’t know what others would say, but I believe that (a) some animals may act merely on instinct from the circumstances encountered (a roach fleeing for cover when you switch on a light), but (b) undoubtedly at least some animals “make decisions” which are not “determined” (the dog you mention). I don’t think the ability to “choose” necessitates, however, any “morality” on the part of the choosing animal–I don’t think the animal thinks in terms of “right or wrong” or “good or evil” behavior. Whereas, people do have a sense of “right or wrong” and, in fact, feel enobled or chagrined based on their behaviors. I agree with Brent that it is silly to say that the decision to respond to Brent’s post is somehow a result of physical causation, as opposed to a conscious decision instead leading to the “mentally” caused “physical” responses of typing keys.

      1. Morbert, aren’t you just repeating the point the author is making about atheists? Most people believe strongly that they have some measure of free will. They would be greatly surprised to find out that they don’t. In my view, this is another taken-for-granted aspect of the reality that nearly everyone experiences (“I have a free will.”) that a purely materialist viewpoint can’t explain well.

        As for agency in nature, I’m not sure what’s at stake in the question (from a Christian point of view, I mean)—whether or to what extent non-humans exercise “will” is irrelevant to what we uniquely self-conscious homo sapiens do. Arrogant or not, we Christians do believe that God made us human beings extra special.

  3. It is certainly true that determinism does seem to contradict our observations of will and agency in people, but only on a superficial level. It would seem absurd if we looked at Dr. Ferry ordering a bun, and conclude that no inherent will was involved. But if we could glimpse into Dr. Ferry’s brain and see the motions of ions as they move through an unfathomably complex, deep neurological structure, carrying information from the eyes and nose to various parts of the brain, influencing neural pathways in very slight manners, and activating a response mechanism (taking the bun), then we would see physical processes that are much more sophisticated than, but not fundamentally different from, a plant bending towards the light.

    The point of the question about agency in nature is not to argue about whether or not humans are special. In fact, I find the question relevant precisely because Christians make the distinction. While Christians find the notion of our decisions being naturally determined absurd, they would presumably find no such absurdity in concluding the decisions taken by animals are natural, and not free will. You don’t have to agree with atheism to at least see the consistency in claiming the behaviour of humans is just a sophisticated example of the behaviour of animals.

    1. I disagree that Christians would have any problem with granting some agency to other parts of the natural world. Who cares? But Christians are like atheists: there are all kinds, and I can’t speak for all of them!

    2. Morbert, you take a too simplistic example to make your point. It is easy to say that seeking a bun to eat is like a dog trying to scrounge up scraps. But what about your desire to debate Brent on this blog? Or coming up with the ideas to do so? That’s miles above seeking dinner! And miles above dogs.

      1. It is miles above seeking dinner, but we see that as a more sophisticated example of the same thing, rather than a categorically different thing.

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