One thing I am sure of is that if you think there is order in the universe which was divinely sparked by some type of deity, then you will have less trouble making sense of the happenings of the world around you.
Whenever you run into a dead end that has no solution, it is fine to find refuge in the god-of-the-gaps. We don’t know, so, therefore, we’ll say that God did that. It’s a mystery, it’s metaphysical, it’s beyond what we can know, it’s mystical. I think this is a cop-out. When there is absolutely zero empirical evidence for any type of deity existing, why insist that the opposite must be the case?
Because one has faith. That’s why.
A disingenuous false equivocation is the retort that we also have “faith” in science. So both ends of the science-religion spectrum are equal in their credulity. No. They’re not.
We do not have faith in what a scientist is showing us. We do not withhold and suspend all judgement, blindly accepting what we know about the world through the sciences because we are unwilling to criticise the scientist. Do we also have “faith” that if I see one hand and I look at my other hand that this is an act of “faith” as well? Certainly not. Unless we are mistaken about the ultimate reality of the world and we are not privvy to information about a reality that transcends this one. There is any evidence to think this is the case, however.
We have knowledge of the empirical world. Whether there is anything beyond that is simply unknowable. There could be an infinite number of things that we can’t know or perceive. This does not mean that we should waste our time speculating on them if you are serious at all about trying to understand the actual universe we can know.
Ridding yourself of outdated religious terminology is the hardest part. We accept traditional notions of “evil”, and “sin” is synonymous with “badness” or “wrongness”. Believers have never thought accepted that their conceptualisations of “good” or “bad” may not be attributable to a higher power. It makes more sense to them to think that God knows what is “good” or “bad”.
There is no soul or “ghost in the machine”, there is nothing that is suspending the laws of physics to make us act in a certain way.
This is a very confronting thing to most people, especially to a theist. If our actions are not ultimately caused by a spiritual soul then does that mean I have a “self”? No, it doesn’t. If you reject a soul or a spirit then you quickly see that you have no sense of self. There are traditional notions of “ego” which we can still use in everyday discourse but if you break the entire structure of any given human down into its component parts, you’ll see that we are nothing but a collection of atoms and molecules; formed together in certain ways to be the objects that we are. Arguably we, as humans, aren’t even “objects” if you accept a nihilistic mereology (where the only true objects are sub-atomic particles).
Why would any human be so conceited to think that the way 99.99999999 … % of the matter in the universe is organised does not apply to us? Deterministic. Chaotic but utterly deterministic.
If we knew all of the initial conditions of the universe from the Big Bang, we could, in theory, predict all of human behaviour. Whether this will ever occur is highly dubitable. I imagine that this is beyond human comprehension.
Since we know through cognitive science what you will do up to six seconds before you even act, where is your free spirit or free will in the choices you make?
Try to think about whether you had the choice of not choosing what you chose after you make a choice. I chose to have x instead of y. Were you free not to have chosen p,q,s, and so on, ad infinitum?
Our brain states cause us to make the choices we do. Nothing more. To me, it shows a weakness of mind to say that there is no value in life or meaning if we reject a creator or reject a spiritual realm where our souls get transported to after this life. As if an atheist doesn’t already know that there is no objective meaning in this world as it stands without the ignorant statement that an atheist cannot have or find any true value in life.
The worst atrocities that have ever occurred in history have no more objective meaning than the kindest acts of altruism that have ever occurred. To argue to the contrary is ultimately a reductio ad absurdum that you have no way of clawing yourself out of once you have consigned yourself to such a prison.
Much of what we think we are free to value is driven by impulse, emotion, and instinct. In fact, everything we think we freely come to choose is.
Can this be proven? Why should it need to be proven? We have no evidence beyond the subjective feeling that we are free to act freely. If all of the empirical evidence —subjective religious experience contributes precisely zero to our empirical understanding of the world as this is not verifiable — points to there being nothing beyond our biological machinery guiding our behaviour. So, why doubt this is the case?
Okay, yes we are free, but in the same sense that a starving African boy born into destitution without hope of saviour from this plight is free to free himself from abject poverty. We are as free as the drug abuser to stop abusing drugs after being born into an early life couched in abuse, drugs, poverty, and chaos. I will admit, we have degrees of control within the deterministic lives we lead. But this doesn’t mean we are ever truly free. As this is the definition of libertarian free will. To be so free, that you can achieve anything we put our minds to.
Society and economic pressures bear down with their weights on us. What has caused societal and economic pressures? Of course, we humans are just part of an ecological complex. A complex system. Deterministic in nature. But chaotic also. A little tweak here-or-there could change the course of events dramatically.
It is infinitely easier to shut yourself off from needing to accept this uncomfortable conclusion. For it is counterintuitive to many things we have thought to be the case. The case being that there is a plan for us all, we are the architects of our fates and destinies, and that we are ultimately responsible for every single interaction we put ourselves in.
We are not.
I mean I could be wrong about that. There could be a soul, a God, an intervener, a tinkerer, a divinity, a spiritual realm, a noumenon realm beyond what we can know, “things-in-itself” that are not revealed through our sense perception.
But, as has always been the case for me when I think about these types of questions if you are shown no evidence for something, why should you believe it is true? This is always going to be an insult to rational thinking. But others would say, rational thinking cannot grasp the totality of the metaphysical and the physical. I would say that makes no sense within the bounds of what we can know. This is the realm of fiction. We can imagine a great many things through our cognitive capacity. Does this mean that any of these abstractions exist in reality? No, it doesn’t. Only abstractions that are coherent and consistent with the empirical world are said to be a representation of reality. If an abstraction is shown to be nothing but folk psychology, superstition, mysticism, or something else beyond refutation, we reject it. Tautologous truths are not found in such areas, they are not self-evident, they are not necessarily true. These types of truths are not attributable to things that have zero bearing or coherence with physical reality.
If this mechanistic world is the real world, what does that mean for automatas such as us? Yes, we are automatas, yet we still can act in ways that have moral consequences. Just the same as if you push a physical object down a hill it will fall. Or a ball down an inclined plane. It will traverse this distance with exactitude every time if all variables are held constant. Just the same as there are natural phenomena such as photosynthesis, cell-division, evolution by natural selection, emotional states in the brain, and so on.
We are hardly unique in comparison other animals with respect to the majority of our properties and traits. 98% of our DNA is the same as it is in a chimpanzee. Our acts of morality are just as deterministic as acts of altruism are in chimpanzees. We, of course, can question the act of being altruistic but does this make the act any less deterministic? Of course not. An animal can still choose between taking path A or B to kill its prey. To say animals have zero rationality or reasoning capability is erroneous and fallacious, attributable to the medieval dogmas of the once all powerful and undeniably unchallenged religious order. In the West where most of the scientific progress has been, this is obviously Christianity.
So, yes, we can be moral, we should punish those that are immoral. But we should think about it in the same way as this metaphor which is often used (or a similar variant): The evil doer is just as guilty for doing evil as a car with faulty breaks is evil for killing or maiming somebody. Of course, the judicial system is not well-equipped to accommodate these types of radical notions of morality. But these notions of morality are not so radical in the context of modern science — neuroscience and cognitive science. We want the car off the streets for good until it is safe to drive but do we call the car evil? Why is this so radical to think that this notion could apply to human behaviour also? I know the fears, based on what people think this would entail. We start emptying out the jails because every wrong doer or criminal is innocent. Of course not.
Back to the case of the cause and effect of any interaction we can experience and understand. We want to execute the most desirable outcomes in society based on rational inquiry. We want to improve society to fit into our value systems. Every time we make any type of value judgement, this means that we ultimately can be arbiters over the course of events within the domain we can causally determine. Even if that course of events is ultimately deterministic.
Since both definitions of free will and determinism are quite inconsistent. It’s perhaps only useful to use the terms “free will” and “determinism” in the everyday or loose sense only. The problem of making both concepts consistent is not dissolvable. We have the appearance of free will but at the same time we know, from a scientific standpoint, that there is no “ghost in the machine”, so we deny any spiritual force that can supervene and suspend the laws of physics to endow us with free will. Since this a paradox. Continuing to try to get to the bottom of the issue with any finality is going to be futile. At least at this stage in our understanding of the way the brain and the universe works. Only with a complete understanding of the universe could we know a completely deterministic outcome, which is never going to happen.
I think the pragmatic way forward is to use the knowledge we know about self control, how the brain’s executive function is affected by its composition and use this knowledge to better inform our understanding of morality.
Whether free will, determinism, and morality are compatible is not the right question as there is no definitive answer to such a question.
We have degrees of control over our actions, and degrees of responsibility. Just the same as we are accountable for any other action we choose to do. Does this make anything about these actions objectively right or wrong? Of course, it does not. As value judgements have, and never can have, any objectivity. Nothing about our actions and course of action really does matter in any existential sense. Whether that makes us feel good or bad is completely irrelevant.
However, the fact is that we can feel emotions and empathy for others (the majority of us can do) so even if it is our instincts doing the driving, this is how society is. We are just as much the architects of our morality as we are the architects of the fact that salt crystals form from salt when it is heated up.
We are moral, yes, but this is a result of the physical system that has given rise to our sense of morality. If we possess morality, we could not rid ourselves of our sense of morality. It is impossible. We could revise our morals but we would still be acting as if we have a moral code. Only a person with a brain completely devoid of the neurons required to be moral can feel as if they have no sense of morality even if they could think logically about it.
We use our reason within the limits that it can operate. We do not need to have a “ghost in the machine” to act instinctively.
The presence of emotions does not prove we have complete control over our actions. This is a fallacy. Feeling something is true never will make it so.
There are many other questions similar to these that are much easier to be left to be answered by a deity. This is why it is more difficult fully rejecting the intervention of a theistic power than it is to embrace it. Because you are left with the jarring insight that we, and we alone, must make sense of what there is. I realise that what makes something “difficult” is a value judgement. Precisely why I have made points that I have.