Posts Tagged ‘Sam Harris’

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.

Defending God’s existence and wanting God to exist

July 31, 2012

Philosopher and Christian apologist Jeff Cook argues that the way most Christians do apologetics is wrong. He watched a recent debate between apologist William Lane Craig and new atheist Sam Harris. According to Cook, Craig won on points—hands down—but Harris won on style. Craig’s God seemed perfectly reasonable to believe in, but Harris wondered aloud why anyone would want to.

According to Cook, this wanting, this desire to believe in God, should be the focus of apologetics going forward. He’s even written a book about it. I look forward to Cook’s writing more about this over at Scot McKnight’s blog. He had a new post about it yesterday.

I’m sure I agree with Cook’s main thesis. This is a line of thought that our era’s best (although unofficial) apologist, N.T. Wright, uses in the first chapter (or so) of his book Simply Christian. Why is it that we have such a strong desire to see justice done? Why do love, relationships, and beauty seem so meaningful? Why do we seem programmed to crave a spiritual life?

Of course, evolutionary biologists have their creative and speculative just-so explanations, which are, to say the least, simplistic. Evolution, after all, implies no ought. It doesn’t describe what ought to be; it merely describes what is. There’s no moral content to it whatsoever. Anyone who’s tasted deeply of life can’t be satisfied for very long with scientific explanations—even if he believes that these are the only explanations possible. At best, he resigns himself to them: “I wish things were different, but they are what they are. What you see is quite literally what you get.”

But what if there were a God? That would solve the problem of the ought-ness of human life. Suddenly, justice, goodness, love, and beauty actually possess deep meaning, as our intuition already screams loudly that they do.

By all means, wishing doesn’t make it so. But start with the wish… start with the desire. I’m all for that.

But don’t abandon reason, either. I have great respect for William Lane Craig. There is no argument against God that he isn’t equipped to handle. No one is going to out-argue him or surprise him with an argument he hasn’t already considered. If it’s reason you want, it’s reason you get from Craig. I’m very glad that he’s out there making the case, unafraid to take on all comers. I have benefitted greatly from his website on several occasions. But he’s never going to win on style. He’s a bit of a stiff. He seems humor-impaired. But he is also kind, respectful, and always fights fair. Those darn Christians! Isn’t that the way they often are?