New atheists’ remarkably candid denial of free will

December 22, 2015

On their Reasonable Faith podcast for the past several weeks, William Lane Craig and Kevin Harris have been discussing a recent dialogue between “new atheists” Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris. In this fifth installment, Craig and Kevin Harris tackle the new atheists’ discussion of free will—specifically their denial of free will. Free will is an illusion, they say, and moral responsibility doesn’t exist.

Not only do Coyne and Sam Harris deny free will, they express frustration with fellow “free thinkers” (there’s an oxymoron!) who try to salvage free will through “compatibilism.” From what I know of compatibilism, I actually agree with Coyne that it’s a “semantic game.”

To understand why they and many other atheists deny something which is obviously true to all human beings—that we have minds capable of making choices—let’s consider the following: From a materialistic perspective, what we experience as our “mind” is merely the projection of unthinking, unguided physical processes of cause-and-effect, which take place within the brain. At every moment the brain is “creating” the mind—including the inescapable sense that we are free agents making choices. The created thing (the mind) can’t, in turn, “create” its creator. That would be like asking a movie actor to act independently of the film that is projecting his image on a theater screen.

If a mind had the power to exert such an influence back onto the brain—and thereby control one’s thoughts and actions—then we would be conceding that there is at least one purely non-physical substance in the universe. And if you concede that, you may as well concede that there’s a God, too!

Regardless, if you listen to this Reasonable Faith podcast, you’ll notice how Coyne and Harris repeatedly contradict their assertion that free will is an illusion. They say that while no criminal is morally responsible for his actions, we can still have prisons and punishments for criminals because these things influence and deter bad behavior.

Fine, but whether we have prisons and punishments or not isn’t up to us: it’s up to unthinking, unguided processes over which “I,” along with Coyne and Harris, have no control. The very idea, “We should have prisons and punishments for criminals,” for example, isn’t something I’ve chosen to believe; it’s merely happened to me, along with all my other beliefs, thoughts, and choices.

Near the end of the podcast, we hear Coyne and Harris talk about understanding the reasons that they have certain desires (“I want a steak.”) and not others. Harris says that he can’t ultimately say why he wants a steak. Coyne disagrees: he says we can analyze the stimuli that have influenced our desire for a steak—for example, I saw a commercial for a steak, and that produced the desire within me. Harris then seems to agree.

But if they’re right about our ability to “analyze,” then they’re wrong about free will: because whether or not we perform such analysis isn’t something we do; it’s something that’s done to us.

As Craig says, “There does seem to be that so-called transcendental ego that is never fully objectified, that stands above the train of experiences and surveys them and judges them.”

Of course!

And in my view this is a serious problem with atheistic materialism. The atheist says, “We can account for all of reality without resorting to anything beyond the physical” (which is itself metaphysical claim but never mind that for now). But the atheist obviously can’t. Because he can’t account for something that, as I suggested earlier, literally every person of sound mind who’s ever lived experiences: that we have a mind that stands over and above our bodies, which directs it to some extent.

One Response to “New atheists’ remarkably candid denial of free will”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree with what you are saying here. In fact, contrary to these atheists, it is obvious that sometimes our minds direct our bodies, even if at other times our minds may be driven by physical stimuli. Thus, these atheists determined to type the words of denial of the mind or free will because they had thoughts on those issues–not because of pizza for lunch before beginning to type! As you say, everybody really knows this–they just won’t admit it because it gets into a “spiritual” realm, which could lead to thoughts of God, and–perish that latter thought! Deny anything and everything, no matter how bizarre it is to do so, so as to be able to deny God, and his demands on us as his creatures. That’s the ultimate agenda.


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