It has become quite popular to doubt the reality of free will. The famous atheist Sam Harris has a book about this, and the claim that free will is nothing more than an illusion can be found throughout modern atheist screeds. The idea is that we don’t have free will, because everything that happens is a direct or indirect consequence of a long chain of previous causes (strong determinism). We cannot possibly be aware of all of these causes – some are subtle and don’t reach our conscious minds; others are simply beyond our knowledge. According to this view, even though it doesn’t “feel” that way, my decision to write this post was not actually due to my free will, but to an enormous variety of pre-existing conditions and events that inevitably led to me sitting here and typing away.
Aside from the fact that such an idea is far from provable (despite the absurd data that Harris presents about the timing of actions vs. thoughts, which are not even relevant to the issue), there is another problem with this concept. It is in direct contradiction to another very important premise of modern atheism.
This is the atheistic idea that biological evolution is undirected, purposeless, and totally accidental. Gould put it into words by saying that if we started from the beginning and played the tape of evolution again, we would get totally different results and probably no humans. So you can see the problem. If there is no free will, because everything is pre-ordained from the beginning, or from any point in the history of the universe, then why is evolution not included as something that could only have taken the path that it did? Is evolution actually capable of free will, but humans are not? Or is evolution a result of the power of accident to overcome previously existing conditions – but, for some reason, active decision making does not have the same power? How can there even be such a thing as an “accident” anyway, in a purely deterministic universe?
In other words, if free will cannot exist, then the tape of evolution would have to play exactly the same way, including me typing these exact same words, the second (or billionth) time around. So one of these contradictory ideas is clearly wrong. Which one?
I think the answer is both of them. Free will clearly exists, and many animals have it as well as people. And while evolution is somewhat dependent on accident, we now know that the idea that “anything goes in evolution” is false. The number of constraints and examples of convergence that have been seen on both the organismal structural level and the molecular biological level tell us that if we replayed the tape, we would get something pretty close to what we have. I might be a bit shorter than I am, and maybe a bit smarter (the same for you, of course), and maybe there wouldn’t be any horses, but otherwise, some kind of animal looking a lot like me would be doing something pretty similar to typing words on a screen – and doing it with 10 fingers, in fact.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the folks who think that all religious people are illogical, irrational, uneducated fools actually spent a bit more time thinking logically themselves? Well, I suppose it isn’t their fault – after all, they have to think the way they do. They have no choice about it, right?
Note: For an earlier discussion on free will and atheism and science see this post