Sunday, December 16, 2012

Materialism, Atheism, and the Denial of Freewill

If we start with an impoverished worldview – one that can’t embrace all of the nuances of reality – it means that we have a faulty worldview and that our conclusions will be skewed.

The atheist starts out with the presupposition or worldview that there is no spiritual reality, just matter and energy – what you see is what you get. Accordingly, thinking and choosing must also exclusively be a matter of chemical-electrical activity.

This understanding leaves little or no room for freewill. Consequently, there is no basis for any thought, choice or decision somewhat independent of our steady stream of chemical reactions. Every thought and decision is therefore the result of prior brain chemistry.

Even as far back as 1871, Thomas Huxley, a zealous advocate of Charles Darwin, advocated for this position:

  • Mind is a function of matter [and nothing beyond that], when that matter has attained a certain degree of organization.
Similarly, in his new book, “Free Will,” atheist Sam Harris writes, “Free will is an illusion.” What feels like freewill is nothing more than chemical processes.

With such an impoverished worldview, counter-factual and counter-intuitive conclusions quickly multiply. Here are several:

A denial of freewill goes against everything we intuitively know about ourselves and our lives. When I make any decision, like flipping through the TV channels, it seems that I am freely choosing one station over another. Of course, like anyone else, I am subject to powerful biological-genetic forces. Admittedly, I am biologically predisposed to not like loud and glitzy programming. Therefore, some will say, “Well, this proves you’re pre-programmed to make certain choices.”

Although there is truth in this claim, it falls far short of proving that pre-programming is the only factor involved in my choices.

Of course, Harris and the other atheists will respond, “Your experience of free choice is just an illusion.” However, if something that I experience with such clarity is illusory, perhaps my own existence and the existence of this world are also illusory. Perhaps I’m just someone else’s consciousness. Perhaps, as some Buddhists claim, we are just part of one universal consciousness and lack any individual existence.

However, if our intuitions and perceptions are simply part of this great delusion, then science and all reason are also part of this same delusion, along with Harris’ thinking. If our thinking and perceiving are illusory, so too are Harris’ challenge and the entirety of his book.

The extent of freewill differs among people. The heroin addict is more constrained in his free choices than before he became addicted. Christians report that, in Christ, they have come to enjoy a greater measure of freedom. They are not as constrained by their psychological needs for approval and success as they had been. If these observations of relative freedom are true, then the narrow, unvarying materialistic view of the atheists is invalidated. From their view, everyone is equally and completely controlled by brain chemistry. Consequently, there can be no room for varying degrees of freewill – the very thing we find!

We can perceive a distinction between purely chemical determination of our behavior and our relatively free responses. Wilder Penfield, the father of modern neurosurgery performed experiments demonstrating that brain activity doesn’t seem to account for all of our mental experience. Lee Edward Travis sums up his findings this way:

  • Penfield would stimulate electrically the proper motor cortex of conscious patients and challenge them to keep one hand from moving when the current was applied. The patient would seize this hand with the other hand and struggle to hold it still. Thus one hand under the control of the electrical current and the other hand under the control of the patient’s mind fought against each other. Penfield risked the explanation that the patient had not only a physical brain that was stimulated to action but also a nonphysical reality that interacted with the brain. (The Mysterious Matter of the Mind, 95-96)
There appears to be a distinction between brain chemistry and a nonphysical reality – the home of freewill. J.P. Moreland commented on another interesting aspect of Penfield’s findings:

  • No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, “There is no place…where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.” (The Case for the Creator, Lee Strobel, 258)
If our mind is no more than a physical brain, then we should expect that electrical charges could stimulate every kind of response. However, this isn’t the case. It seems that our choices and beliefs cannot be entirely accounted for by the physical brain. Meanwhile,
atheism bases its non-freewill claim on the “observations” that everything is material. However, this does not seem to be the complete story.

There seems to be a nonphysical basis for thinking. Strobel writes:

  • In their journal article, Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, describe their study of sixty-three heart attack victims who were declared clinically dead but were later revived and interviewed. About ten percent reported having well-structured, lucid thought processes, with memory formation and reasoning, during the time that their brains were not functioning. The effects of oxygen starvation or drugs – objections commonly offered by skeptics – were ruled out as factors. (Strobel, 251)
This contradicts the atheistic narrative that thinking and choosing depend exclusively upon brain activity. In order to maintain their narrow materialistic worldview, the atheist is forced to discount this kind of study along with the many accounts of extra-body experiences.

If our brain chemistry compels all of our choices, then we cannot truly be culpable and responsible moral agents. This idea is humanly demeaning. This is very significant because it will affect how we view ourselves, our fellow humans and also how we treat them. If humans are no more than sophisticated chemical machines, there is a greater likelihood that we will use them like machines.

The atheist might agree that their view of freewill seriously compromises our estimation of humanity. However, he often retorts, “I’m more interested in truth than in what feels good.”

However, the denial of freewill goes far beyond the question of a lower estimation of humanity. This denial undermines everything upon which civilization is based – justice, right and wrong, reward and punishment.

If biology alone made the rapist rape, then it is not just to punish him. After all, he could make no other choice. Consequently, no punishment is just and no reward is deserved. It’s just a matter of chemistry not morality.

These ideas mean the destruction of civilization, and the atheists recognize this. Consequently, they are scrambling to resurrect the concept of moral responsibility, which they have undermined. Professor of Philosophy, Chad Meister, writes about Harris’s muddled scrambling:

  • While in Harris’s view we lack free will and moral culpability for our actions, he nonetheless believes that we can still be “blameworthy” for our actions. How so? “Because,” he says, “what we do subsequent to conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of the our minds” (Christian Research Journal, Volume 35, Number 4, 59)
Oddly, Harris claims that we can be “blameworthy” without being morally culpable. This is a blatant contradiction. If our “conscious planning” and what we do subsequently are strictly the products of brain chemistry, then there still can be no basis for either “blameworthiness” or moral culpability. They die a common death with the denial of freewill.

Some atheists are candid enough to admit that this is a real problem for their worldview. However, they continue to bring charges against the burglar who tore up their apartment. In this, their actions contradict their worldview. While they seek justice, they admit that they lack any possible basis for this concept in their pre-determined chemical world.

The denial of freewill seems to also constitute a denial of any meaningful thought. All brain chemistry is subject to the laws of nature. Consequently, all thinking and choosing are the result of formulas. However, formulas and laws produce repeated and predictable patterns, not information, not the nuances of thought. Clearly, the books that we write and the discoveries that we make don’t reflect repeated, formulaic. Instead, these creations reflect something greater – reasoning, the weighing of evidence for and against various paradigms. All of this requires something beyond what chemistry can offer. It requires the subtle and gloriously nuanced ability to freely choose among various thoughts and ideas.

Why are people atheists? Why do we trap ourselves in narrow boxes, which effectively obstruct our vision? One atheist friend explained to me the great relief he had experienced once he adopted the no-freewill position. He was no longer responsible for his behavior, and his sense of guilt became greatly diminished. He is what he is. Who can blame him!

While I can sympathize with this, Christ offers another way – a way to not only diminish guilt but to obliterate it. Besides, Christ obliterates our guilt in a way that doesn’t infringe upon moral responsibility. He replaces gratitude for guilt, gladness in service for gutless, going-with-the-flow biological determinism.

When a worldview fails to work, when it can’t be coherently lived out, we should be free to discard or modify it. This represents sanity, but sanity has no place within biological determinism.

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