Having a Pop at Modern Compatibilist Atheists

Having a Pop at Modern Compatibilist Atheists December 3, 2018

A friend of mine is presently running an “ad” in the Free Enquiry magazine. There are a few ideas I would like to look at here, and I will do so in two posts; this is the second post after looking at “Christian free will” here. The questions to look at in the ad are as follows.

First of all: is the term “Christian free will” meaningfully different to mere “(libertarian) free will”?

Secondly, are modern atheist compatibilists, who claim that free will and determinism are in some way harmonisable, being counter-productive in not openly accepting hard determinism and taking the free will route of attack against Christians and Christian thinkers?

Let’s go to the ad, or at least the second part, for the source material:

If Christian free will is wrong, that indispensable foundation of Christianity collapses — as St. Paul said of the resurrection: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

So, how sad it is to see some of our great atheist-heroes dancing on pin-heads trying to find ways to “harmonize” what they know and proclaim: “we will as we do for reasons beyond our control” with its polar opposite: “yet there are ways of stating the case which validates free will”.

Here are depressing quotations from four of those brilliant atheists:

1.       Yes, the brain tumor (or whatever) is one of the causes of the action, but the individual human being is the actual perpetrator. It is irrelevant to ask whether the person was ultimately free or not. We only assume the person was immediately free.

2.      We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes ‘autonomous agents with free will’ as crucial ingredients.

3.  Even if my choices are entirely determined in advance, I still make decisions, and my decisions are still caused by who I am – my thoughts and desires and personality – just as they must be if I am to be “free” in any sense that matters. And because I am the cause I can still be praised or blamed for them.

4.  If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

It is ironic that these eminences aggressively teach and are champions of iron determinism which says that all choices are caused by all the conditions in the universe, down to the last molecule, as they existed just before the decision. If time could be rewound, and all conditions in the universe were exactly the same as before, the decision would always be the same – with no freedom for it to have been otherwise.

Meanwhile, as they confuse us with their fine distinctions, in the world of people the Roman Catholic Church and protestant denominations with the overwhelming number of adherents, teach and are believed, that unless everyone uses their God-given free will correctly before they die, “many”, as Jesus promised, will go to a ‘lake of fire to sufferforever’, while only a ‘few’ will be saved!  And that is so good, right and justified, that the believer in heavenly ecstasy will be wholly content knowing a beloved wife, child or parent is suffering in hell!

These harmonizers fail to consider the real-world implications of their foolish compatibilism. It only serves to deceive, obfuscate, and divert fellow atheists from the supreme moral issue – eternal suffering for anyone — and gives aid and comfort to the religionist free willers. 

No.1 looks to hint at free will illusionism. I absolutely do not think it is irrelevant to seek causal understanding of agency and particularly whether an agent is ultimately free. I think this is hugely important in terms of whether a judgemental god exists or what we think about prisons and criminal justice.

No.2 hints at semantic pragmatism in relation to definitions of free will; the quote seems rather circular, but then it is difficult to parse out accurate meaning without the context in which it was written. What is “an autonomous agent with free will” in a materialist paradigm? This could all be about how we define free will. This is generally the problem between atheist philosophers who fight over the position of soft determinist/compatibilist and hard determinist. As William James once said of compatibilism – it is a quagmire of evasion.

No.3 talks about the authorship of an action or decision, which I can grant to a degree. However, to claim an agent is the cause of an action is to arbitrarily cut off causality at given point. (See my podcast segment from 52:20 here).

The whole problem is that such notions are built upon the Sorites Paradox and where you draw an arbitrary line to cut off causality where you want it. Here is a simple example. What killed Jim when Harry shot him with a shotgun? Who was responsible for this? In legal terms, Harry; but we shall see that this is problematic.

Let’s take this back step by step (though I am missing almost infinite steps out for simplicity’s sake):

The lack of neural stimuli to the organs
The lack of oxygen to the brain
The pellets hitting vital areas of the brain
The impact of the pellets on the skin
The pellets flying through the air
The explosion from the gun’s mechanism
The pulling of the trigger by Harry’s finger
The neural stimuli from H’s brain
The decision to pull the trigger
The triggering angry outburst from Jim just previous to this
Jim having an affair with H’s wifeH’s wife deciding NOT to phone to ask him to calm down and come back
H having some gene variants predisposing his to angry outbursts
H’s wife being promiscuous
Etc. etc.
H’s parents and grandparents and ancestors getting together to eventually produce H, and his genetic makeup and existence
Homo sapiens evolving
The Big Bang

Etc. etc. – I could have padded this out with thousands of other factors back and forward.

Each of these are necessary, contributing factors to the eventual outcome. Remove just one, it doesn’t happen. So what is responsible for the death? Well, you would seem, I guess, to want to cut that whole list not off proximally, at the nearest cause, but back a little at the first agent: the pulling of that trigger, perhaps. But this is arbitrary, since all those events conspired to bring the final event about (see JL Mackie’s INUS conditions for causality here).

What most people have is an arbitrary approach to causality and thus responsibility. This is how we cope with lawmaking (see age demarcations), species (see the Species Problem that even Darwin was aware of), and anything that sits on a continuum. Sorites has a lot to answer for as a thought experiment!

This all causes serious headaches for those seeking to neatly attribute praise and blame.

No.4 is a much more interesting and real-world application of this problem. What do we do with crime and punishment? Well, there is not the scope for answering that here. Perhaps start with this piece on the quarantine approach.

So, is my friend right in having a go at atheist thinkers who seek the route of compatibilism? Is the fact that both compatibilists and hard determinists argue for the falsity of libertarian free will (LFW) not enough?

I think there is merit in this potentially quite harsh broadside, and here’s for why.

For a long time, when thinking about debating Christian thinkers like William Lane Craig or similar, I think atheists have missed a trick in not tackling free will in debate. If I was to debate William Lane Craig in public, I would put libertarian free will front and centre of the debate. Because no philosopher…ever…has provided sound metaphysical explanation for causality with regard to libertarian free will, let alone scientific allowance for such. It simply can’t be done.

For my friend, here, to get atheist thinkers to face up to the reality of hard determinism is potentially a good route to take if they are to properly challenge theists. Without LFW, a judgemental god fails; Christianity fails. There is no surprise that the 14% of philosophers who believe in free will also believe in God. There is a necessity for LFW to exist for Christians. It is why commenters like See Noevo or Fsck here at ATP argue strongly for LFW without being able to propose any mechanism or metaphysical allowance for it. They need it but can’t account for it.

In this way, I personally think free will should be the argument to use against Christians. As I say in my free will talks, God depends on LFW in order to exist, so let’s stop arguing about God, and argue about LFW. If you can’t establish LFW, you can’t establish God (as all non-Calvinists know it). I think being upfront about causal determinism is potentially crucial in decrying contra-casual free will in the context of fighting theism.


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