Pharyngula

We “naive” atheists

It’s bad enough everyone is using this “New Atheists” label: various critics keep inventing new ones. Some letter writer to the Independent has decided to call us “Naive Atheists” because we are unaware of the implications of atheism.

However, let’s forget about the unfortunate history of atheism for a moment and concentrate instead on its philosophical implications.

Two of the big consequences are that once you ditch belief in God you must also, logically, ditch belief in free will and in objective morality.

What a silly, silly man. If anyone is naive here, it’s someone who thinks atheists must all be amoral robots, and that unpleasant consequences mean you should reject the truth value of a claim. But now he’s going to tell us he’s got evidence for his argument, straight from the mouth of an atheist.

But don’t take my word for it, take the word of some of the most distinguished atheists of the last hundred years.

Take Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the double helix. In one of his last books, ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis’, he flatly denied the existence of free will with these words: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that you — your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules”.

Have you got that now? What Crick is saying is that nothing you do is freely chosen.

Your ‘decision’ to read this column is the result of chemical reactions in your brain.

Your love for your spouse is only a chemical reaction.

Your love for your children is only a chemical reaction.

Your beliefs, whether you are an atheist or a religious believer for example, are the result of a chemical reaction. None of these things are freely chosen.

When you ditch belief in God you are left with the idea that matter and energy are all that exist. Everything you do is the result of your genes reacting with the environment.

First of all, Crick is not quite saying what he thinks he’s saying. That our minds are the product of electrochemical activity in our brain in our brain is not the same thing as saying there is no free will. What it says is that this magnificent product of evolutionary refinement residing in our cranium is a biological machine of immense sophistication capable of making complex choices and generating complex responses. The brain, in other words, is a choice-making machine. It is also not deterministic. It takes in a multitude of inputs, including lots of noise, filters them on the basis of deep personal history, and generates interesting internal states and elaborate responses. There’s no “only” about it.

My love for my spouse is the outcome of long association. I got to respect her in third grade as the smart kid in class, and as she got older, she was the va-va-va-voom girl in high school (yes, there was all kinds of interesting internal chemistry going on), and when we started dating, I enjoyed her personality and her outlook — my rational brain, my emotional responses, and my hormones were all engaged. At every step of the way, I can say that only natural processes were involved, and that’s just beautiful to me. No ghosts required, no extraterrestrial magic, no cherubs armed with enchanted arrows, just two smart animals nuzzling each other in those intensely human ways.

When some shallow git on the internet claims that is “only a chemical reaction,” I have to say that he seems to be deeply ignorant about how powerful chemistry and biology can be … and that he seems to be overlooking the fact that if we’re right, “only” chemistry produced Shakespeare, Bach, and Baryshnikov. Does it diminish Mozart that he was made of meat, that he used a chamberpot and got sick and fueled himself with food and drink?

Secondly, if we materialists are right (and of course, I think we are), then it doesn’t matter if the writer believes he’s an ephemeral puppet whose strings are being tugged by invisible vapor — he’s made of meat, too, and all of his most cherished feelings are the result of tuggings by a chemistry he chooses to ignore. Similarly, if he were right (and no, he isn’t!) and I had some magical non-corporeal spirit diddling my synapses, my disbelief wouldn’t change that fact, either.

Remember when you were five years old, and your best friend was hysterically concerned for you because you didn’t believe in Santa Claus? “You won’t get any presents,” he cried, “and Christmas won’t happen!” But of course Christmas did happen, and you got presents, and that you had replaced an imaginary obese elf with real, live, physical parents who loved you was an improvement on the damned stupid fairy tale.

That’s what runs through my mind on traces of ions guided by miniscule pipes of lipid, triggering slight sprays of neurotransmitters in orderly patterns, when some theistic lightweight protests that I won’t feel love if I believe in the beauty and elegance of chemistry. I love my chemistry.

Comments

  1. #1 nemo ramjet
    September 24, 2007

    Beatifully said!

  2. #2 Bob L
    September 24, 2007

    Two of the big consequences are that once you ditch belief in God you must also, logically, ditch belief in free will and in objective morality.

    John Calvin would disagree with this guy about free will in Christianity.

  3. #3 llewelly
    September 24, 2007

    The brain, in other words, is a choice-making machine. It is also not deterministic.

    Why do you think the brain is not deterministic?
    The temperature argument against Penrose’s quantum microtubles works for every other biochemical process – unless it can be shown to be sufficiently well insulated. Since there’s no evidence that any structure in the brain has the insulation necessary to preserve quantum entanglement, there’s no known source of non-determinism. It’s true that unsolved problems like protein folding, the bewildering complexity of the brain’s internal structure, and the sheer number neurons (presently …) prevent mere humans from modeling the brain deterministically, but that is due to limitations in understanding and processing power, not due to any known source of non-determinism in the brain.

  4. #4 RM
    September 24, 2007

    What Crick is saying is that nothing you do is freely chosen.

    You don’t need to be an atheist to get that. Look at Calvin and Predestination. God determines your life’s outcome before you’re born. You don’t have free will, it’s all decided by God – you don’t even have a say in whether you end up in hell or not.

  5. #5 Larry Moran
    September 24, 2007

    I like the reference to “objective morality.” Apparently the Christian version of morality is “objective” while the atheist version is not. So if you deconvert from Christianity to lack of belief then you are abandoning the “objective” version of morality.

    Can someone explain this?

  6. #6 chuko
    September 24, 2007

    And what’s this “unfortunate history of atheism” nonsense? The only thing unfortunate about the history of atheism is that god belief, along with its stone-age mentality, has held on this long.

  7. #7 Marcus Ranum
    September 24, 2007

    Russel Blackford writes:
    There’a a sense in which you can’t have free will without God, and the same story applies.

    How can you have free will with god? If god “gives” you free will, then the chain of causality begins with god – an entity outside of you, and after that physical determinism and quantum randomness take over. Unfortunately, if the universe is deterministic there’s no room for free will. And if quantum randomess is what you anchor free will on, I find it hard to see how a photon going one direction or another 50% of the time gives you the ability to break out of a deterministic universe. After all, the photon isn’t you and if it’s tossing dice for you, you’re not really participating in a ‘decision’ are you?

    Here’s a fun trap: show me you have free will.

  8. #8 Curt Cameron
    September 24, 2007

    dcwp wrote:
    If one’s actions are guided by fear of punishment in an unseeable afterlife, that is not morality it is fear.

    Someone else pointed out a good analogy: imagine two children offering to help a playmate. One did it on his own, the other did it because his mom told him to. Which has the more honorable sense of right and wrong?

  9. #9 Marcus Ranum
    September 24, 2007

    Hitler was more just.

    Brilliant!! And you’re right. Simple argument: Hitler’s actions were limited to the here and now. “God”‘s cruelty and immorality is alleged to be eternal. Hitler may have killed innocent children but “God” sends some of them to eternal torment because of the “sins” of their parents. What a dick.

  10. #10 Midwestern Gent
    September 24, 2007

    PZ, may I pay you the compliment of calling you Dawkinsesque in your ability to convey the passion, wonder and beauty that an understanding of science adds to a human life.

  11. #11 dorid
    September 24, 2007

    Sorry, this all strikes me as funny this morning. I’d just finished writing (and blogging about) an article in last month’s Natural History Magazine about altruism among amoebas. Seems to me that a lot of those “moral” values Christians love to accuse atheists of lacking are not only independent of the existence or belief in a god, but are relatively simplistic and exist in organisms that they would never “lower themselves” to comparison to.

    Altruistic amoebas don’t die for the reproductive success of their local groups or ‘families’ because some long ago amoeba died on a stalk after asking them to follow Him. Rather altruistic behavior is a feature of fitness

    What is it about the religious that makes them want to think they have something special or different that makes them superior in some ways to other animals?

  12. #12 JimC
    September 24, 2007

    Arguing on the basis of simpleminded caricatures, the way most commenters on Pharyngula argue, is no way to go through life. There is a great deal of literature about free will in light of predestination

    This is typical of apologist tripe. No one and I mean no one posts more addle minded stuff than heddle and yet he insults what I see as the most consistently intelligent commentary of any blog I visit.

    As mentioned above freewill essentially has to be some form of illusion simply due to the fact we are the sum of parts guided by forces we don’t control. This was a great post PZ.

  13. #13 Shelley
    September 24, 2007

    “As mentioned above freewill essentially has to be some form of illusion simply due to the fact we are the sum of parts guided by forces we don’t control.”

    But how does this impact personal responsibility and decisions in law? I’m curious about the end result.

  14. #14 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 24, 2007

    I will exercise my free will in awaiting an observable definition of “free will”.

  15. #15 inkadu
    September 24, 2007

    Who are all you bastards claiming to feel like you free will? If I had free will, I wouldn’t have eaten that Ben and Jerry’s last night. If I had free will, I would be jogging right now. If I had free will, my hair wouldn’t be thinning, and I wouldn’t need glasses. I have no more control over my brain, and the thoughts it produces, than I do over my hair.

    The fun thing about thoughts, though, is that I can always make more of them, and I can identify with some and not others. So it’s a hall of mirrors, and I can pick which reflections of nothing I like best.

    Nobody’s picked up Shelley’s question — what about personal responsibility? — so I’ll briefly address it here, and put the fears of anarchy and gang rape to rest. WIthout free will, society still has an interest in enforcing order, and that means punishing inappropriate behavior. You don’t have free will and you couldn’t stop yourself from robbing that store? Too bad; society needs to make robbing stores less appealing, so off to jail you go.

    Secondly, enlightened socieities do look at environmental causes of things like crime (poverty, lack of education, culture, etc.) and attempt to address them. Free will freaks, like Christians, simply blame the individual and do fuck-all to prevent the problem except to make the victims/perpetrators feel like total shit. Witness the high rates of teen pregnancy in bible-belt states compared to lower rates in amoral atheists states.

    “Free-will,” or the pereception of how people make choices, is really the nub of two hugely divergent world views.

  16. #16 Andrés
    September 24, 2007

    Two of the big consequences are that once you ditch belief in God you must also, logically, ditch belief in free will and in objective morality.

    I like this game! Can I play?

    “If you ditch belief in the Muses you must also, logically, ditch belief in the value of art.”

    Yipiiiee!

    And on the morality question: if founding your actions on fear of a punishment or hope of a reward is morality, then trained dogs are moral beings.

  17. #17 Andrés
    September 24, 2007

    Two of the big consequences are that once you ditch belief in God you must also, logically, ditch belief in free will and in objective morality.

    I like this game! Can I play?

    “If you ditch belief in the Muses you must also, logically, ditch belief in the value of art.”

    Yipiiiee!

    And on the morality question: if founding your actions on fear of a punishment or hope of a reward is morality, then trained dogs are moral beings.

  18. #18 Graculus
    September 24, 2007

    Why do you think the brain is not deterministic?

    The brain itself can’t be deterministic because it is not a closed system.

    Even the universe itself, which is arguably deterministic and which our brains are a part of, is only deterministic on a crude and gross scale, comparitively speaking.

  19. #19 inkadu
    September 24, 2007

    Kseniya –

    Oh, but it is all about free will. I like to think of people in environmental context, and I sometimes flatter myself with my ballsy atheist skeptic ways, but I probably don’t have any more choice in the matter than my sister, who is an evangelical baby-machine. For whatever reason, I value different things, and that has driven my behaviors and decisions from a very young age. Maybe she felt more the presence of God during her church services, where I was just bored and restless. This led her to embrace religion, and led me to begin questioning it. My father is a skeptic Catholic hater, and I identified with him. My mother is religious, and my sister identified more with her. It’s hard to say that any of us “choose” anything in a significant way, since the ground on which we are doing the choosing is so rigged one way or the other.

    Does this mean, for instance, there’s no point in arguing with people about religion? Maybe whatever cognitive-cultural tides that allowed me to be an atheist will eventually sweep them up as well. Maybe there’ll be an undertow that drags everyone back into religiosity. Who knows. It’s still fun to argue, though.

    Chris — Thanks for explaining my “appealing,” word choice. I knew it would get me into trouble, but couldn’t think of anything conversational enough to get across the behaviorist element. Ah! Maybe “aversive.”

  20. #20 Greta Christina
    September 24, 2007

    “Does it diminish Mozart that he was made of meat, that he used a chamberpot and got sick and fueled himself with food and drink?”

    Hear, hear. Not only does it not diminish Mozart — I think it makes him, and all of us, more spectacular. To me, the idea that, out of atoms and molecules, we can somehow generate consciousness and meaning, love and joy… how fucking awesome is that?

  21. #21 Marcus Ranum
    September 24, 2007

    Those people who say they’re not made of meat?
    They’re Made of Meat.

    Aren’t they making vegan people out of tofu and texturized soybeans and sawdust nowadays? I’ve met a few woo-heads from California who couldn’t possibly be made of good old meat. There’s gotta be tofu in there, someplace, for them to be so dopey.

  22. #22 CalGeorge
    September 24, 2007

    Aren’t they making vegan people out of tofu and texturized soybeans and sawdust nowadays? I’ve met a few woo-heads from California who couldn’t possibly be made of good old meat. There’s gotta be tofu in there, someplace, for them to be so dopey.

    Someone needs to apply meat tenderizer to you, Marcus.

  23. #23 Ginger Yellow
    September 24, 2007

    “But how does this impact personal responsibility and decisions in law? I’m curious about the end result.”

    Not at all, at least for everyday rather than philosophical purposes. There is still a self to which one can attach moral responsibility for actions. It’s just not a self that sits outside the cause-effect chain, nor is the possessor of the self conscious of all the inputs and processes involved in deciding to perform a moral act. The latter point is surely evident even for theists, and raises just the same questions about morality and law that determinism does. As for decisions in law, I’m struggling to see what the problem is. The whole reason we have laws in the first place is to maintain order in society and (these days) to protect rights. What changes about that in a non-free-will-in-the-old-sense world?

    “But, but, but, isn’t making it less appealing based on the notion that people will then be less likely to *gasp* choose?… Oh never mind. Let’s stick with Cognitive Dissonance for $2000, Alex.”

    Denying free will in the traditional sense does not mean denying that humans make choices, some “rational” and some not. You’d know this if you’d read any of the literature on the subject. See Dennett’s books or more recently Hofstadter’s I Am A Strange Loop for some examples. It just means that those choices are not uncaused but result from the past experiences of the person, current circumstances, the nature of the stimulus and the wiring/neurochemistry of their brain.

  24. #24 arensb
    September 24, 2007

    There’s no “only” about it.

    I’ve been saying that for years (except that I usually use “mere” instead of “only”).

    Daniel Dennett addresses this in “Elbow Room: the Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting” (already recommended above). The problem arises when you try to understand a big complex system, so you come up with a small, simple analogy to help wrap your mind around it. Then someone points out a problem caused by the smallness or simplicity of the model, and thinks that the big complex system must have the same problem.

    The classic example is the mind:
    - There is nothing magical about the mind: it’s just the operation of the brain, in which molecules simply follow the laws of physics, much as the interlocking parts in a wind-up robot.
    - Ah, but wind-up toy robot is utterly predictable! It will keep walking in a straight line until its spring runs down or until it hits a wall. I don’t want to be that predictable; therefore, I don’t want my mind to be just a bunch of chemicals.

    This could be parodied as follows:
    - I think I know how Wal-Mart’s warehouses are organized: imagine a row of breadboxes…
    - Ah, but Wal-Mart sells bicycles, and a bicycle can’t fit in a breadbox, so you’re obviously wrong.

  25. #25 Shelley
    September 24, 2007

    Seems I didn’t make myself clear. I wasn’t concerned about religious implications, but legal implications. Some defendants have argued, successfully or not, that because of abuse, deprivation, etc. that they either should not be held responsible at all or receive reduced sentences.

    I.E. if there is no free will and we are driven to do based on the sum of our experiences, it might imply that these defendants were correct in their arguments.

    But, I accept the argument that society can dictate undesirable behavior and deal with it appropriately.

  26. #26 windy
    September 24, 2007

    How do Calvinists train their dogs?

    -The puppy keeps stealing my shoes, I think we should make it less appealing to him by not chasing him when he does it.

    -But, but, but, isn’t making it less appealing based on the notion that he will then be less likely to *gasp* choose to take your shoes?…

    -Oh right, silly me, behaving like the dog has free will! I’m such a heretic sometimes!

  27. #27 Shane
    September 24, 2007

    “Two of the big consequences are that once you ditch belief in God you must also, logically, ditch belief in free will and in objective morality.”

    This statement suggests that God’s command is what determines something as moral or immoral, rather than God commanding something because it is already inherently moral. (It also suggests his ignorance surpasses his so-called logic). If this were the case, then how could you justify God’s authority? How can you call God good, or moral, if its His own arbitrary designation?

    This ridiculous argument has been negated by simple logic since the time of Plato, and was cast aside by Catholicism over a thousand years ago. It’s called the naive Divine Command Theory. Search for it on Google sometime.

  28. #28 Chris
    September 24, 2007

    In one sense he is right. “Two of the big consequences are that once you ditch belief in God you must also, logically, ditch belief in free will and in objective morality.”

    There is no free will (although I certainly act as if there is) and morality is subjective and relative. But so what? that has nothing to do with whether we are good or bad. These facts are true for Christians as well as atheists.

  29. #29 uncle frogy
    September 25, 2007

    “I’m not sure what your point is. Seems to me if society wants to prevent stolen cars, locking up people who steal cars is perfectly logical. If you have a point to make, make it.”

    though punishing people for “wrong doing” does not seem to work all that well. while imprisoned they seldom steal as many cars they seem to revert to “life of crime” once released
    nor does it seem to work that well for the gods and churches either. still a lot of sinning going on

    “free will and moral choice” can they be traced back to “the meat”? are they related to other animals behavior?
    the more you look the less distinct is the difference between animal intelligence and human intelligence.
    are moral choices about the survival of the individual and the group? all operating in the environment of nature, personal history, personal need, desire, group need, probability and “chaos”
    Most religious do not want to have to make so many decisions.
    religious thinking tries to make the mystery and complexity of life simple. they have used metaphors and poetic images to make it understandable but over time people forget that they are symbols and think they are facts. just do what it says in “the book” even when “the book” is so contradictory as to be impossible to understand. it is fear that drives them to try to silence all other ideas they really do not want to think they want a soft easy way to live (which is impossible).
    they do not want to think about the fact that death is coming to each alone in their own skin. they want to remain asleep in their dream and will make all kinds of frantic fantastic incomprehensible arguments and do almost anything so as to protect their dream
    so why do we so easily fall for the bait and try to argue on their terms about their terms. why do we let the religious frame the argument? it is just a boring negative exercise in which we can not hope to convince nor even pin down the argument.

  30. #30 James
    September 25, 2007

    Damn, thats well put. I was thinking of writing something like that myself, about how we are but chemistry but that itself is something amazing, and if we can stop trying to deceive ourselves we can truly appreciate how special we really are.

  31. #31 James
    September 25, 2007

    Also, I’ll add that I initially thought that having a purely chemical brain meant we had no free will because everything can be decided by classical physics. But then I discovered quantum ideas and realised that was bollocks too.

  32. #32 Chris
    September 25, 2007

    (Note: CPU clock cycles are tied to the local AC power source, which varies on the MHz scale; and as chaos theory tells us, small disturbances can give rise to large changes in sensitive processes.)

    True, but a Von Neumann architecture (what I meant by “ordinary hardware”, basically) isn’t that kind of sensitive process. It’s specifically designed to work according to its design logic and ignore those minute fluctuations. That’s what makes it a *digital* computer.

    Of course you can make it much harder to predict the output if you’re using some chaotic analog process for input. (Then you’d have to be able to simulate that process in sufficiently precise detail, which might require observational detail forbidden by the Uncertainty Principle and other implementation difficulties.) But ordinary computers can’t do that, because they’re specifically designed to kill the chaotic noise and produce results that precisely follow the digital logic designed into them. If analog noise did flip some bits in a digital computer it could quite easily crash the program.

  33. #33 David Marjanovi?
    September 26, 2007

    In the case of a brain (which is capable of sensing a single photon impinging on a retina)

    That means Heisenberg is back.

  34. #34 David Marjanovi?
    September 26, 2007

    In the case of a brain (which is capable of sensing a single photon impinging on a retina)

    That means Heisenberg is back.

  35. #35 Keith Douglas
    September 28, 2007

    David Marjanovi?: Not necessarily, as Pat Churchland/Rick Grush and Vic Stenger have pointed out. (Besides, I think that figure is something of an exaggeration anyway.) Yes, perhaps one molecule of rodopsin (?) can change confirmation, but …

    Nescio: There are a lot of “compatibilist” positions these days. It isn’t so surprising. Whether they are correct, who knows? (I don’t find Fischer and Ravizza’s very convincing, but that’s the only one I have studied in any depth.)

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.