Is Atheism Incompatible with Free Will and Moral Choice?

When you search google with ‘free will atheism,’ the first article to come up is entitled, “Myth: Atheism is Incompatible with Free Will and Moral Choice.” It is written by Austin Cline, who is promoted as an “Atheism Expert.”

Cline writes:

Myth: Without God and a soul, there can be no free will and your brain is just a collection of chemical reactions that are determined by the laws of physics. Without free will there can be no real choices, including moral choices.

This is a myth? This only happens to be the position of New Atheist leaders Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris (and their fans). Cline should at least acknowledge that this argument is being made by popular atheists instead of spinning it as a “myth.”

Speaking of free will, today is the day New Atheist Craig Hicks will have a death penalty hearing for his murder of the three Muslim students. For some odd reason, neither Coyne nor Harris seem willing to make the argument that Hicks should not be held morally responsible for his actions.

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7 Responses to Is Atheism Incompatible with Free Will and Moral Choice?

  1. Allallt says:

    Sam Harris does think people should be held accountable for their actions.

  2. Kevin says:

    Why should someone with no free will be held accountable for his actions? He has no more freedom to choose otherwise than I have of choosing to never get hungry.

    It makes logical sense to remove a harmful person from society, but accountability and choice go hand in hand.

  3. TFBW says:

    It makes logical sense to remove a harmful person from society …

    Meh — only if you hold to certain premises regarding the existence of intrinsic “goods”, and it’s not clear that there’s any objective basis for such in the worldview of Sam Harris. I’m prepared to be corrected on that point, though, since I’m not terribly well-versed in his work. It seems like a dilemma of sorts, though: either assert the objective existence of intrinsic “goods”, or deny that it makes logical sense to remove a harmful person from society.

    As to why someone with no free will should be held accountable — you make it sound as though we have a choice in the matter, and if we did, then someone would have free will, wouldn’t they? I don’t think anyone’s arguing for “some people have free will and some don’t” — it’s all or nothing all ’round. A true denier never needs any rational justification: anything which actually happens was inevitable, so if the crime was inevitable, why should the punishment reaction be any less so?

  4. @joesw0rld says:

    “it’s not clear that there’s any objective basis for such in the worldview of Sam Harris.”

    I can’t speak for Sam Harris but in my country this basis takes the form of a body of law. While mutable it’s certainly objective.

  5. Allallt says:

    Kevin – I’m not going to speak for Sam Harris on that level. I have read a lot of his work and do recall the Moral Landscape and Freewill both talking about responding to crimes, including rehabilitation. If you want Harris’ explanation you can either email him or (for a faster turn around) read his works.
    For my answer see here (wp.me/p1l6Sq-4T) and be careful not to miss the forest for the trees.

  6. TFBW says:

    @joesw0rld said:

    … in my country this basis takes the form of a body of law. While mutable it’s certainly objective.

    The law, as written, has a certain objective quality to it, but that’s not sufficient in and of itself. If you’re taking on the first horn of my dilemma, then you need to assert the objective existence of intrinsic “goods”, and it’s not clear that you’re doing that. Are you saying that intrinsic goods exist, and that the law is an objective description of the same? When you say that the law is mutable, are you also saying that “goods” are mutable — that the nature of “good” changes with time?

    It seems to me that our attempts to write laws stem, in part at least, from a belief that good and evil have some kind of objective reality — that we can discover these truths analogously to how we discover the laws of physics. In this model, the law attempts to be descriptive of reality in the same way that laws of physics do. But there is a competing view in which human law is not derived from objective truth, but is an artificial construct based on conflicting desires and compromise. The law, as written, is “objective” in either case, but only in the former case does it acknowledge the objective existence of intrinsic “goods” — things which are good not because of our disposition towards them, but simply because they are good.

    So, to repeat my question, is the body of law to which you refer an attempt to describe an objective reality regarding what is good, or is it simply a compromise agreement between conflicting parties regarding acceptable behaviour? If it’s the latter, then you haven’t really admitted to the objective existence of intrinsic goods, and the dilemma stands.

  7. Kevin says:

    Using law as a basis for morality simply doesn’t work. I was sparring with a liberal atheist friend of mine on one of his Facebook posts where he was angry at a high school football coach leading prayers with players (I didn’t mean to rhyme but I do it every time). The thing he kept going back to as the reason it made him angry was that it broke the LAW and it was ILLEGAL so of course he was mad.

    So, I simply asked if I were to invent a time machine and transport the two of us back to the early 1800s, would I suddenly see him perfectly okay with slavery, because after all, slavery was the LAW and was LEGAL. That ended the conversation pretty quickly, because we both knew that a liberal atheist does not get mad at football coaches praying simply because a court somewhere ruled it went against a piece of paper written a couple hundred years ago. That was merely the excuse, much like the way New Atheists whine about evangelicals denying evolution while at the same time whining about Christians who reconcile the two. Anyone with a functioning brain stem knows that evolution is an excuse for what they really hate.

    Point being, where the law and morality coincide is simply that – coincidence. And seems to me that under a no-free-will philosophy, a person’s value system is an unconscious characteristic that drives their actions, and any legal system that differs from that person’s immutable value system is going to cause strife and likely an inevitable breaking of said law, but we can hardly argue that the person breaking the law acted in an immoral fashion.

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