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Human Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: Atheism and Free Will

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 hanging out from the sides: a shirt sleeve here, a pant leg there, a few socks, a tie, part of a sweater.

The lady at the check-in counter says, “Sir, you need to make sure everything is in your bag before we can check it.”  

The man takes a pair of scissors from his pocket and proceeds to cut around the outside of his suitcase, trimming away everything he wasn’t able to fit inside. He looks at the attendant and says, ‘‘Okay, 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.

Common conception = biblical conception

No one denies that there exists a common-sense 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 neither. And while your choices are certainly all “influenced”—sometimes powerfully—by forces within and without, 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, neuroscientist Sam Harris, the most well-known atheist speaking and writing on this subject at the present time, 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 John Searle admits that this common notion of free will (i.e., libertarian free will) is so inescapable that even if it is an illusion we would have to live as though it were not!

It fits 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. 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 “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 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 is 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.

Psychologists Leda Comides and John Tooby are clear in describing the situation from a materialist point of view:

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.

With all this in mind (no pun intended), Harris 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 human Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot.

Materialism and moral accountability

Now 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?

Since Harris is consistent, he will not talk about accountability in moral terms. According to him, mass murderer Ted Bundy had no more choice in whether or not he would kidnap, torture, and kill young women than a rattlesnake 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.

Apologetics and free will

It’s critical that we understand the worldview of the person we want 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 argument against opposing 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.

Here we see that, for the consistent atheist-materialist, free will 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 strings. He’s not a human Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot. He’s the image and likeness of God.

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 professed beliefs.

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; that he will need to 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 lay these cards squarely on the table, you will be pinpointing the 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 be more open than he was to hearing what you have to say.


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