Sunday, October 26, 2008

Freethinkers and Free Will

I recently stumbled upon an opinion in the Des Moines register that I found interesting. The author believes that atheists and agnostics cannot call themselves freethinkers. He has two arguments. The first relies on the fact that the first freethinkers were deists and unitarians. Um, so? Freethought is a manner of belief formation - which beliefs get formed are irrelevant to whether or not you are practicing freethinking. But this plea to history is not the author's main argument. His main argument is the following:

If everything transcendent is mere superstition, then your every thought is determined in minutest detail by a chain of natural cause and effect stretching back to (and beyond) the Big Bang. You can't be an atheist and call yourself a freethinker.

You are obliged to believe that you are nothing more than a machine, freewill is illusion, and your mind is a mere epiphenomenon, a dead-end byproduct of the chain of cause and effect.

Before I get started on this, two side notes - first, being an atheist, even one who embraces philosophical materialism, does not commit you to the claim that your mind is "a mere epiphenomenon". I wonder if the author even knows what an epiphenomenon is. Most (philosophically educated) philosophical materialists believe that "mind" is a description of certain functional system and that in our case this functional system just happens to be instantiated in a physical substrate - the brain. An epiphenomenon is a causally inert emanation of a system. Totally different.

Second, the causal chain does not extend beyond the big bang. Cause and effect are temporally bound - you can't have cause and effect absent of time. Time was a product of the big bang. So, no cause and effect "beyond" the big bang. (I understand that it is difficult to talk about the big bang using a language that is laced with temporal and causal connotations. My use of "product" with respect to the relation between time and the big bang is suspect. But at least get the facts straight)

Side notes aside, in a way, the author is correct that atheists and agnostics cannot be freethinkers, but not in the way he thinks. The thinking of most atheists and agnostics is not free - it is bound by the contraints of reason. This is obviously a constraint the author has not placed on his own thoughts, since his arguments are frought with fallacies (as was the one I just made. But that was for rhetorical force.) First, "freethinker" does not mean "possessed of libertarian free will". It means "one who forms beliefs on the basis of science and reason as opposed to dogma". Since the two terms are not synonymous, the author is equivocating. Even if he were correct that atheists cannot believe in libertarian free will, that doesn't mean that they can't be freethinkers.

Despite the fact that his argument as a whole falls flat on its fallacious face, I'd like to address his claims about atheists and free will. It is a common misconception about atheism that it automatically commits you to "hard determinism" - the idea that the author describes as our being "a dead end by-product of the chain of cause and effect" (although he's wrong about the dead end bit. Your thoughts, etc, are links in the chain). This is false for two reasons.

First, an atheist need not be a philosophical materialist. Since atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in a deity, it is entirely possible for an individual to be an atheist and still hold that there is something above the physical where libertarian free will resides.

Second, even for those of us who are philosophical materialists, it is possible to believe in libertarian free will. Developments in quantum physics have demonstrated that there is causal indeterminacy at the quantum level. If you believe that the causal indeterminacy at the quantum level translates to indeterminacy at the macro level (say, indeterminacy in which way the neurons in your head move), then you've got yourself some libertarian free will.

So, the author is wrong on two counts. Even if you don't believe in free will, you can still be a freethinker, and it is also entirely possible to be an atheist and believe that we have libertarian free will. I personally don't believe in libertarian free will, but that's just me. Other atheists are free to accept it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

while atheists, agnostics, and other sorts may indeed call themselves free thinkers, they probably cannot call themselves
Freethinkers, which was actually a branding given to Deists and Quakers. Just like many can be called republicans without being called Republicans, or libertarians without being called Libertarians, or catholic without being called Catholic.