On free will.

Last week, when asked about the problem of suffering, Frank Turek did as so many apologists do and responded with free will.  God doesn’t want us to suffer, you see, but he values our free will so much that he’ll let us make bad choices that result in suffering like the starvation of children.

This argument sucks harder than a black hole.

First, as others have rightly pointed out, that does nothing to absolve god of suffering that has zero to do with the choices we make.  Hurricanes, for instance, appear to be a creation of god’s that just kill whoever the hell happens to be in their way.  Ditto the earthquakes he made.  Ditto the wide assortment of animals with sharp teeth that are both faster and stronger than we, and that also think we’re delicious.

But also, it’s clear that we don’t need every option in order to have free will.  Go outside and try to jump over your house.  You can’t do it, you simply do not have that option.  But you can kick it, hug it, hang things on the walls, etc., so you still have free will.  Free will doesn’t mean having every option (otherwise you would be able to leap over your house).  In fact, god could take away your ability to kick your house and you would still have free will.  So, if free will doesn’t mean having every option, why do we need the option to harm one another in order to have free will?

What’s more, nothing is sinful until god declares it so.  It’s not like gay sex is against some cosmic law that god had nothing to do with (otherwise you could hardly call him the author of the universe pre-existing laws bind him).  The only reason gay sex could be a “sin” and punishable by an eternity of torment is if god, for whatever reason, decided it to be so.  And then he made it appealing to some people.  And then he left them with the option to do it, when he could’ve removed it without negating our free will.  These are the actions of a being who wants to see some people in hell, not of someone who laments our suffering slightly less than he values our free will.

The free will argument, as presented by Frank Turek, does nothing to excuse god for suffering or his unwillingness to stop it.  In fact, if that god does exist, the free will argument confirms only that he’s an asshole.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • SteveC

    Free will seems to be an incoherent concept, at least as it is commonly thought of. I fail to see how free will can be anything other than an illusion. Everything we know about how the brain works seems to indicate that there could not possibly be any such thing as free will, so the free will argument also fails because there is no free will.

    • http://songe.me asonge

      The only people who believe in the “contra-causal” free will are some religious believers, some theologians, and some libertarians. Other concepts of free will, when viewed as a practical concept that does political/ethical/social work instead of a soul-based theory of mind/choice, are more plausible and don’t try to claim large amounts of freedom. The physical account of this has to do with emergent properties, so you would not find free will in the brain, but it could nevertheless exist, even if you are a physicalist, as long as you believe that emergent properties exist.

      • invivoMark

        The “free will” you’re talking about is not the same “free will” that philosophers, theologians, or anyone else discussing the (non)existence of it, are talking about. The point is that the decisions you will make are inevitable before the fact, and redefining “free will” so that it still applies is missing the whole point of the discussion.

        • http://songe.me asonge

          And causation disappears at the level of fundamental physics. Or how about when we started splitting atoms, they’re no longer atoms because Atom Theory always defined atoms as indivisible.

          The concept of free will does “philosophical work” in ethics and politics that can be saved without having to pay attention to contra-causal free will, which has been known to be silly by serious philosophers for almost as long as atomic theory’s claim of indivisibility was around (since at least the 1920′s, from what I can tell).

          So, let’s take a quick look at how a concept of free will or consciousness would look like in a naturalistic universe. Basically, you’ve got fundamental fields that give rise to fundamental particles and then atoms, molecules, and cells. There’s no “thought” on the cell level, and we can now measure brain activity. At this macro-level, we’ve got soft-determinism ruling the day…quantum effects seem to be inconsequential. At the nerve-tracing level we can track down how the “laws of nerves” seem to work in some robotic fashion. This is about where our understanding ends. Now, consciousness is not found in a specific segment of the brain…a few areas are responsible for parts of consciousness, but they can’t find what is conscious. Now, we can say that consciousness is the result of a bunch of fundamental lower brain functions which we barely understand. Free will could be a small subsystem that doesn’t use any particular part of the brain. Here’s Daniel Dennett giving this kind of account: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKLAbWFCh1E

          If I, as a naturalist and soft-reductionist, believe in free will, it’s not going to be a segment of the brain. It won’t be involved in all decision-making. It won’t be contra-causal. It’s going to be made up of deterministic robots in a way that is effectively unknowable because we will not have the fidelity to read that much brain-state for a long time. When you prove that wrong, then you’ve successfully undermined all logic for our current legal/ethical systems as well.

          • invivoMark

            First of all, it’s a lie that “serious philosophers” universally reject contra-causal free will. Alvin Plantinga, as horrid as his works and views are, is still considered a serious philosopher, and his now-famous explanation for evil in the world basically depends on contra-causal free will. There are certainly others out there who also align with this view, and who would still be considered serious philosophers.

            And I submit again that you are redefining free will to mean something that it doesn’t. If free will can indeed be boiled down to a deterministic (or quantumly-random, it makes no difference) robotic system of inputs and outputs, that is NOT free will. Not in any way that any religious apologist could ever mean. Not in any way that matters to anyone. I could just as meaningfully say that a child’s programmed LEGO robot has free will, as long as we don’t look too closely at the programming.

            Furthermore, your comment about the logic of legal/ethical systems is a red herring. You know very well that legal systems affect the behavior of those under their jurisdiction, with or without any sort of free will.

          • machintelligence

            @ invivoMark
            If you want the magical/miraculous form of free will, then I fear you are out of luck. It is possible to have a form of free will in a completely deterministic universe and indeterminacy does not really help make it more magical. I know it’s long, but see Dan Dennett’s lecture “Free Will as Moral Competence”.
            You can skip the first 8 minutes and get straight to the lecture.

          • http://songe.me asonge

            I’m going to go with Massimo Pigliucci here and say that Plantinga’s project is that of a theologian. He may do philosophy on other subjects, but there are many more naturalistic dualists in the philosophical world than supernatural dualists.

            My argument about legal/ethical systems are reasons why not to abandon free will until we have more information. We may be too hasty at misunderstanding both free will and soft-determinism and its consequences.

            And while yes, my argument could be used as saying that a sufficiently-programmed LEGO robot could have “free will”, it is a matter of degrees. It doesn’t have free will in the sense that it’s a responsible moral agent (and free will is all about moral agency in the philosophical debates) with consequences for its actions. Dennett’s conception of free will, for instance, requires that moral agents live in a world where they are aware of some things about their environment, but they are not sure which future/possible “world” they are actually in. In one of Dennett’s examples, if I throw a brick at your head, your reflexes might kick in and you’ll duck and avoid the brick. Or, if you wanted to sue me for assault, you could “choose” to let the brick hit you in the head. This is the “context” where free will takes place. If we wanted to play with Descartes’ Demon and rewind/fast forward all atoms in the same locations, etc…not much would change. But I don’t see anything about determinism that should make us change our language about your free choice to override your reflexes and duck (or take the brick).

            There’s a long history of terms that have been “redefined” in the technical sense, but kept around because they were functionally equivalent. You can define things by function as well as by mechanism, among other kinds of definitions. Anyway, atomic theory is one of those things. Causality itself is another. At the bottom of fundamental physics, the theories all work fine (and account for all known phenomenon) without taking into account a theory of causality itself. It’s just unnecessary. Causality is only a macro process…an illusion, if you will. Somehow, I don’t think you’ll want to criticize mechanical physicists for relying on something so unproven as causation.

            So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that you are committing the composite fallacy by saying that because all the parts of a system are deterministic, that the system itself can’t contain free will. My position is that there is such a thing as emergent phenomenon (weak emergence), and that free will and consciousness are this kind of thing. They hold explanatory power in the ethical/moral/political sphere, so even if our physical accounts for certain theories were wrong, something has to provide the same function…and sometimes, it’s the function itself that’s the definition and not the mechanism.

          • invivoMark

            Your position is that there is such a thing as free will, as long as we don’t define it as “free” and as long as robots get to have it (in degrees, my foot – it’s either got free will or it hasn’t).

            And my response to that is to say that your definition of free will is useless. Your definition basically *defines* free will as something that people have, and that makes the whole discussion moot.

            Perhaps your definition is useful in some other context, but for the life of me, I can’t see it.

  • http://reasonableconversation.wordpress.com Kaoru Negisa

    “Ditto the wide assortment of animals with sharp teeth that are both faster and stronger than we, and that also think we’re delicious.”

    But doesn’t that then leave us vulnerable to the Argument from Tigers? %)

  • http://mid-west-atheist.blogspot.com/ Volizden

    GAH!!! Black Holes DON’T Suck. They just have a gravitational pull when within range of it. They are NOT the cosmos’ Vacuums.

    Just Sayin’

    • http://yetanotheratheist.com TerranRich

      Vacuums don’t suck either. They create a partial vacuum through mechanical means that draws in objects from the floor. By the mere definition of “suck”, black holes count as much as vacuums do. It draws things in through some force.

  • Anonymous

    The things an omnipotent god wants happens. Wanting them and being omnipotent is sufficient, with no further explanation of action needed. A good god would want everyone to be good, and so everyone would be good. A good god who wanted people to have free will would have people choose freely from a variety of ways to be good.
    Instead, we have a universe where evil is vastly easier to perpetrate than good, there helping people it a difficult undertaking requiring a lot of study and effort and personal loss. This is not a universe a good god could make. Any omnipotent gods are evil, and fortunately apathetic.
    Free will can mean two different things. The first sense means the ability to do something other than what you’re going to do, and no you don’t have that. The second sense means the ability to act in a way others can’t predict, and you do have that. And that’s all there is to free will.

  • Rowan

    And of course theres the whole ‘free will in heaven’ argument. (where they say, somehow, you get free will in heaven, but also are sinless…so why couldn’t god just do that here?)

    Basically, they just use free-will, like they do ‘faith’, just as a way to try and rationalize still believing in crap without thinking about it. Why is there evil? Free will. Why isn’t there evidence for God? Well, he loves free will so much that he doesnt want to force people to believe in him. Why did God harden “Pharaoh’s” heart, thereby taking away his free will?…because Gods free will to murder babies might have been impacted otherwise…

    • eric

      Yep. Along with the ‘free will in heaven’ you can add the ‘free will like a Quaker or Gandhi’ argument. Each of us has unique personality traits. Some humans are profoundly nonviolent, others not so much. There’s no reason why God couldn’t have supplied each of us with the character traits of the profoundly nonviolent individuals amongst us. Its very hard to claim that making us all Gandhi-like would’ve violated our free will if you also claim that Gandhi had free will.

  • JHendrix

    The best part is whether or not god has free will or not. If god can’t sin, then he doesn’t have free will with respect to morality. He could have free will in that, if he existed and created everything, he could have made it so roses were blue instead of red, etc. But as Christians define god, he cannot sin, yet he can still “love” us and (apparently) himself in a Trinitarian circle jerk.

    So why must we have free will with respect to morality in order to love? Further, even if it could be shown that we needed free will, if the cost is hell, why create anything at all in the first place? Especially if the vast majority of people will suffer in hell so only a few can make it into heaven (Matthew 7:13-14; 21-23).