Imagine a man who arrives at the airport for his flight. His suitcase is stuffed full, closed and firmly latched, and yet there are all sorts of items still hanging out from the sides — a shirt sleeve here, a pant leg there, a few socks, a tie, part of what looks like a sweater.
The lady at the check-in counter says, “Sir, you will need to make sure everything is in your bag before we can check it.”
Hearing this, the man takes a pair of scissors from his pocket and proceeds to carefully cut around the outside of his suitcase, trimming away everything that he wasn’t able to fit inside. He soon finishes, looks at the attendant and says, ”OK, now everything is in my suitcase.”
The consistent atheist is like this man. He insists he can explain everything in terms of his naturalist-materialist worldview. He insists that everything can be accounted for, that everything “fits”. And lo and behold, it turns out everything does fit. Because whatever doesn’t fit, he simply trims away. If it doesn’t fit into his philosophical suitcase, it doesn’t exist. It’s illusion.
For instance, free will.
The Common Conception is the Biblical Conception
No one denies that there exists a common sense and virtually universal understanding of “free will.” Simply put, it’s that a person acts “freely” only if his or her choices are not “determined” by forces outside the person’s own will. Philosophers refer to this as “libertarian free will.”
This is our common understanding and it’s rooted in our common experience. Each of us is simply aware—immediately and intuitively—that we are agents with the power to choose. You can choose to eat an apple or an orange, to walk around the block or up and down the street, to watch a movie or a TV show or (most often, best) neither. And while your choices are certainly “influenced” by forces within and without — sometimes powerfully influenced — they are not “determined.” This is how we experience our freedom of will.
And it’s important to point out that atheists admit this.
In fact, Sam Harris complains that “people find the idea of libertarian free will so intuitively compelling” that it’s hard to even get them to “think clearly about determinism.”
Atheist philosopher of mind John Searle admits that this common notion of free will (libertarian free will) is so inescapable that even if it is an illusion we would have to live as though it were not!
It also happens to fit the biblical worldview.
As with so many other fundamental aspects of human experience — morality, human value and dignity, human rights, consciousness — the biblical worldview accounts for what we seem to intuitively know to be true. It makes sense of our experience.
The existence of God and our creation in the image and likeness of God provides a metaphysical foundation for free will.
Indeed, the biblical worldview requires such a view of free will. After all, a belief in moral responsibility and accountability are central to the biblical worldview. And as even little children understand, moral responsibility and accountability presuppose free will. It’s simply not reasonable to hold someone morally accountable for an act they had no freedom to avoid committing, an act they were literally “made” to do.
Free Will and Naturalism
So what happens to free will if the universe is what the naturalist says it is?
Let’s back up a step and think about this. Everyone agrees that purely physical systems are deterministic. There’s simply no way to get around this simple fact. Fire a rocket into the sky and it will go precisely where it must given all the various physical conditions in play. Drop a pin on the floor and it will wind up exactly where it must and for the same reasons.
Systems that are entirely physical are entirely deterministic.
And since the naturalist worldview holds that our entire universe represents one, massive, entirely physical system, where everything that happens happens in accordance with the unbending laws of chemistry and physics, the naturalist worldview is inescapably deterministic.
But then, what are we, according to the naturalist worldview?
You and I, we’re merely a part of this massive, mechanical, deterministic, entirely physical system. According to the atheist-materialist this ‘machine’ we call the universe includes you and me and everything about us — including our brains which produce our thoughts, intentions and choices. Because of this, free will is simply not possible. It cannot be accounted for within a naturalist worldview. The conditions don’t exist.
This is something atheists admit readily. For instance, John Searle:
[W]e are inclined to say that since nature consists of particles and their relations with each other, and since everything can be accounted for in terms of those particles and their relations, there is simply no room for freedom of will…. It really does look as if everything we know about physics forces us to some form of denial of human freedom.
Comides and Tooby are clear in describing the situation from a materialist point of view. They accept this.
The brain is a physical system whose operation is governed solely by the laws of chemistry and physics. What does this mean? It means that all of your thoughts and hopes and dreams and feelings are produced by chemical reactions going on in your head.
But if what goes on in our brains is “governed solely [i.e. completely, entirely, from first to last] by the laws of chemistry and physics,” such that even our “thoughts” are “produced by chemical reactions” in our brains, then the same would apply to our reasoning processes and no doubt our choices.
So much for “free will.”
No wonder Darwin could describe thoughts as “excretions of brain.”
With all this ‘in mind’ (no pun intended) Sam Harris, the most well-known atheist speaking and writing on this subject at the present time, has no problem declaring that free will is “an illusion.”
Human thought and behavior are determined by prior states of the universe and its laws…. We are driven by chance and necessity, just as a marionette is set dancing on its strings.
Yes, what you have just read are words and phrases and sentences that have been produced by chemical reactions taking place in the brain of a biochemical machine called Sam Harris. One wonders exactly why they are even worth speaking if they have been “determined by prior states of the universe and its laws” and are essentially being spoken by a marionette “set dancing on its strings.” But even puppets need to eat, I suppose.
So there you have it: powerful, jaw-busting words from a best-selling author who turns out to be nothing but a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em human robot.
Materialism and Moral Accountability
And notice the massive implication of Harris’s view in the realm of morals.
How can we hold a person morally accountable for anything he does — if everything, including our choices, can be accounted for in terms of particles and their relations? If everything we do is determined by chemical reactions taking place in our brains? If each of us is nothing but a puppet bouncing around on the strings of ironclad physical laws?
Now Harris is consistent. And because of this he will not talk about accountability in moral terms.
According to Sam Harris, Ted Bundy had no more choice in whether or not he would kidnap, torture and murder young women than a rattle snake has in whether or not he will bite someone who crosses his path. Like the snake, Bundy did only what he had to do given his nature.
If we understood this, Harris explains, we wouldn’t throw around words like “evil” and “guilty” and all the rest. We would simply lock him away to protect the innocent and that’s that.
I can just hear Sam Harris making his closing argument as Ted Bundy’s defense attorney:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. As you move now from this courtroom to deliberations, I ask you to keep a few things in mind. Remember first of all that my client is nothing more than a marionette dancing on his strings. Given the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature, he did only what chemical reactions in his brain determined he must do. Remember also that the way each of you votes will be determined by chemical reactions inside your individual brains. And finally, when the judge passes sentence, keep in mind that his sentence will be entirely determined by chemical reactions inside his brain. Everything here is accounted for in terms of particles and their relations.In the light of this, I ask you, good citizens, how is my client possibly to obtain an impartial verdict?
Apologetics and Free Will
It’s critical that we understand the worldview of the person we’re wanting to evangelize — and to understand the implications of that worldview. After all, apologetics is not just a matter of presenting arguments for God’s existence and the truth of the Christian worldview. It’s also a matter of presenting arguments against opposing worldviews.
And when it comes to talking to those who doubt or deny the existence of God, apologetics will include demonstrating just where a consistent materialism leads, and how badly it fails to make sense of even the most basic and fundamental aspects of human experience.
In a previous post we saw that a consistent materialist worldview leads inescapably to the conclusion that even our sense of personal identity is an illusion, a trick our brains are playing on us.
Here we see that for the consistent atheist-materialist, free will as well turns out to be one of those items he will need to trim away and discard as ‘illusion.’ It simply doesn’t fit into his philosophical suitcase.
Apologetics isn’t easy, but here’s something you’ve got in your favor: The person you’re talking to is not a biochemical machine. He’s not a marionette dancing on his strings. He’s not a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Human Robot. He’s the image and likeness of God.
And because of this, even though he may say there is no God and that materialism is true, one thing you can be sure of is that he cannot live with the logical implications of his worldview. Not at all.
He may have never thought through to the bitter end the implications of his mechanistic worldview. He may have never thought about the fact that to be truly consistent he will need to abandon all belief in human freedom and moral responsibility and henceforth look at every person, including himself, as being a machine that has no ability to think or say or do anything other than what physical forces inside his brain are determining that he think and say and do.
He may have never thought about all this and when you deal these cards and lay them squarely on the table, you will be placing your finger on a point of tension that exists between his stated worldview and who he really is as the image and likeness of God.
Hopefully he will wish he could be dealt a fresh hand. At minimum, there’s a good chance he will have become more open than he was to hearing what you have to say.