Here’s a thought experiment: imagine a video of a leaf trickling down some
rapids. We know it moves because of the force of wind above it and the force of water below it. Depending on the current, the interceding rocks and other things, that leaf will go this way and then that. But if you somehow could make the water, the wind, and the rocks disappear from the video, the leaf would appear to move by itself. It would be the same for a kite in the wind, or the swaying of a tree in a strong gust. They would all appear to be moving—acting—on their own.
Free will is the notion that we independently undertake our actions and choices, and therefore are responsible for them. But at some point during our stay on the planet, we come upon the question of whether we are the true authors
of our own actions. Is free will only an illusion? Are we unwitting pawns in a world of “determinism”—a world where we take action not because of our own volition but because of all of the circumstances that led to that moment?
In short, are we just like the leaf floating down the river? Do we perceive ourselves to act independently or are our actions (where we go, so to speak) merely the product of thousands of different forces that push us this way and then that?
One bottom line in philosophy classes is that true free will can only come
from some outside force, a force that “gives” free will to its recipient. Another bottom line is that prior actions and statements “determine” our present actions, like the balls of a billiard table. For those who reject free will, nothing we do comes really from our own volition. Free will is merely an illusion. Further, it would mean we are not responsible for our actions, and of course, we have no
need for a God—certainly not a God who judges.
After all, if we are not responsible for our actions and words, then why should we be accountable to God, or any higher being for that matter? In fact, it would be downright illogical and unfair. You might as well be angry at a tree when a branch breaks and falls on your car.
But this is where I started questioning my atheism. Eventually, it struck me
that determinism failed to explain our humanness, that we are not like the leaf floating down the river. No doubt we undertake certain actions because of outside forces, such as when I look for water when I am thirsty. But I still feel that I have a sense of morality—a simple sense of what is right and what is wrong and that those should be guiding forces in life.
It also struck me as implausible that I did not have free will. I just could not
accept this. I don’t think anyone can meaningfully deny he has free will,
assuming the alternative is that we have no real volition in our day to day matters. People can disagree philosophically, but the way each of us actually live our lives says otherwise.
I’ll prove my point: suppose you’re with a friend at a movie. You ask your
friend to buy popcorn. But when he comes back with the bag, the popcorn is too salty. You don’t like salt.
So, you punch him really hard in the face. And then you spit on him.
“What the—?” He moans out to you, reeling from pain and the blood that’s
now oozing out of his nose and mouth. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“I don’t like salt,” you explain, as you turn your attention back to the movie.
A reasonable response? After all, if there is no free will, and I can explain
everything as merely the result of all the complicated and nuanced events in my life before that moment, then punching my friend is something I couldn’t help myself from doing. So why should he be upset?
Free will and determinism are mutually exclusive. Either you have free will, or you don’t. You don’t have to believe in free will, but you must acknowledge that the alternative is determinism, one where every action and decision is merely a reaction to something else. It can be very sophisticated, like those elaborate mousetrap mazes, where each event creates a chain reaction leading to
another. It’s as if we live in a movie, where the beginning, middle, and end are all set in chapters. The movie characters appear to act as though they’re making their own choices, but the screenwriter, the director, and just about everyone else involved in the making of the movie know better. There’s a script here, after all.
But I sense that I have free will. I sense I am ultimately responsible for my actions. I sense that somehow I will face judgement for my actions, and that the ultimate arbiter of my actions will not be a man but something above man. I believe even the atheist has this sense in him, although he often fights it.
I like to think about stories, and why we even tell them. There’s almost
always a bad guy in every story, an antagonist. And if the story is worth
anything, we truly dislike the bad guy, right? When we are angry at Darth Vader from Star Wars, we are not angry at him because he is mentally ill or because he had a poor upbringing. We are angry at him because he has chosen to do
something we consider wrong or evil. We resent him for his choices. He has
defied a norm that we expect all decent individuals in our society to live by.
But if they can’t help themselves, isn’t any punishment unfair? Without free
will, we would need no prisons. We send people to prison not just because they might be dangerous to society (and that would apply only to some convicts, anyway), but because we are holding them accountable for the wrong they have committed.
The atheist’s response to all this is: Don’t fool yourself. The only reason
you decide to choose what you consider “right” is that it is logical to do so. After all, would you want to live in a world where everyone can kill everyone else, rape everyone else, steal from everyone else, and so on? To them, we live in a world where everyone is in a perpetual “Mexican standoff” with one another, and that’s what keeps us from killing, raping, and stealing from each other.
This argument fails because it assumes the individual first thinks on behalf of some “collective whole” whenever he does anything. But individuals act with very little regard to how their actions might affect the society at large. Most thieves and even murderers believe there should be laws against stealing and murder, yet they still steal and murder. History is replete with stories of how
people act with no concern for anyone else at all, let alone a “collective.”
And we know why we do not murder or steal. It is not only because we
worry that other people might do it to us. We don’t because we have a sense that doing such things violates a code. We learned from our parents, our clergy, and hopefully our schools, that there is a higher standard out there by which we must all live.
Ironically, the “logic” argument is illogical. If anything, logic suggests that we choose the most ungodly of actions. What do I mean by this? If we live in a truly deterministic world, and there is no one “watching” over me, then why not kill anyone that gets in my way?
Example: Say I fear that my boss might promote my co-worker, Mr. Brown, instead of me. But passing me over for promotion at my age means not only an end to my career advancement, but the end to the big raise that I expected—or at least that I was counting on. I also really need that raise to pay off my enormous
gambling losses and to make sure Guido doesn’t break my legs.
If logic is the basis for everything, why not kill Mr. Brown? Assuming I
could get away with it, wouldn’t this be exactly the “logical” thing to do?
Remember, Guido will maim me if I don’t pay him back with money from that raise. My family will all be out on the streets. By contrast, Mr. Brown is a younger, single man, with no kids. Don’t the lives of my family members outweigh Mr. Brown’s? Why should my kids and I suffer because of Mr. Brown?
Let’s say I don’t go the murder route. Why not instead go on a smear campaign about Mr. Brown? Perhaps I can digitally alter a photograph and show Mr. Brown in compromising photos with young boys. That would do the trick and get the boss to fire Brown. And, by the way, Mr. Brown probably was doing just fine financially. At least that’s what I assume. Either way, I’m sure he’ll land on his feet just fine. Why wouldn’t that be logical?
There are many other examples: why not cheat on your spouse, so long as
he or she doesn’t know about it. Why not lie about your background to get a job? Why not lie about your racial minority status to benefit from affirmative action preferential treatment? Why not secure a handicap placard for better parking
everywhere, even if you’re not handicapped?
Why say anything when you know your boss—say a movie mogul—
routinely abuses and even rapes women? After all, he’s helping you advance in the business. Why rock that boat?
As a lawyer, I have seen countless parties try to justify illicit behavior. This one was a caretaker of an old lady, but she didn’t leave anything for him in her will as she promised, so it’s okay if he forges the old lady’s will to reflect a “reasonable” payment to him. An employee didn’t yet receive the raise he thinks he should get, so he’ll just pad his overtime or fake expenses.
One of the best illustrations of this was from the old English film, Kind Hearts and Coronets, where the protagonist has fallen on hard times, a victim of many misfortunes. But he is thirteenth in line to become a duke. Desperate, he embarks upon a plan to kill everyone ahead of him. What emboldens him is that he feels that the royal line has snubbed and mistreated him. In his mind, he
deserves this dukedom, and it is reasonable for him to kill those in his way.
As wrong as these scenarios seem, people engage in them. And it happens on a larger level, too: slave owners used “logic” to justify slavery. The eugenics movement premised its sterilization programs on logic: why should the government drain its resources for the feeble-minded and criminally deranged among us? Wasn’t it logical to rid society of such burdens? The United States Supreme Court approved the forced sterilizations of the mentally inferior on the supposedly logical grounds that “three generations of idiots are enough.”6 People have used logic to say it’s okay to kill children up to the age of two if you regret having that child.7 The Nazis took this logic to the next level to justify killing all those it considered undesirable. Stalin and other communist and fascist leaders despots killed anyone who opposed them. Sure, they’d rather not, but the Utopia of world socialism was waiting. So you gotta do what you gotta do.
This is where logic alone gets you. Logic alone is subjective. One man’s logic is another man’s madness. Do not fool yourself into thinking that morality is the same as logic. And do not think that logic will lead to morality. Just like a car you can use for good or bad, you can use logic for any purpose you like. Logic alone leads to nothing—or anything you like.
But murder is inherently wrong, atheists will counter. That may seem so now, but only after centuries of Christianity and Judaism made it part of our collective mother’s milk. The Germanic tribes in the earlier part of the second millennium believed that murder was perfectly fine. There was no inherent punishment for it—no more than there would be for a crow who killed a small rodent for food. Even before then, the Greek Spartans (those lovable heroes of the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C.) killed their children, particularly their boys, at infancy, if they deemed them too sickly or too small to be of value to the defense of the city. It was all very reasonable and logical to them.
And then we can look at much of history as quite illogical, yet very “right” to do: It wasn’t logical that the Americans entered into World War I, and then into World War II. America might have been just fine without getting involved. Why risk our boys’ lives? For that matter, why do we bother retrieving our wounded from the battlefield? Doesn’t that increase the odds of the remaining soldiers being killed or wounded? Why help the Muslims in Kosovo, or fight in any of their places in the world? Why devote and risk our money, resources, and manpower to respond to catastrophes in Thailand, Haiti, or otherwise? Between 1941 and 1944, the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon village, a Protestant village in southern France, helped five thousand refugees—including several thousand Jews—escape Nazi persecution. The village’s pastor, André Trocmé, and his wife, Magda Trocmé, led the rescue effort. Villagers hid the refugees in private homes, farms, and boarding houses. They hid many Jewish youngsters in the local school, at which Andre Trocmé’s cousin, Daniel Trocmé, taught. Nearby Roman Catholic convents and monasteries also
provided shelter. Beginning in 1943, the villagers helped smuggle refugees to safety across the Swiss border. German police arrested Daniel, who died later in a concentration camp in April 1944.8
Despite the grave danger, the villagers of Le Chambon never hesitated. Years later, the villagers of Le Chambon refused praise for their deeds. One villager asked, “How can you call us ‘good’? We did what had to be done.”
During Hitler’s reign, there were many such stories. There was nothing logical about them. The logical thing for these rescuers would have been not to hide these Jews, not insert themselves, and just cooperate with the Nazis. Who could blame them? After all, world events had placed them in a position of tremendous risk. But these Christians saved the Jews anyway.
Similarly, during the days of slavery, Harriet Tubman risked her life and freedom to rescue hundreds of slaves. Was that logical? She had escaped slavery; why would she go back?
Most of us like to think we would also have helped the Jews and the slaves, had we lived during those times. But would we? Without a core belief in God and an appreciation of the existence of good and evil, it’s difficult to resist real evil. It’s even harder when you think that evil doesn’t even exist, or that everything is a matter of “nuance” or morally relative.
Many will argue that “in the long run,” society will think in a collective sense. That’s where good for the overall community will ultimately come together. First, let’s put aside the obvious response that different people have a different view of what might work best for the larger community. We will always have disagreements about socialized medicine, regulations, tax rates, and whether we need bullet trains or bike lanes. Come to think of it, people seem to disagree on everything. That alone means we will rarely reach the same logic about anything.
Second, we humans are, and always will be, a collection of individuals all living together. We will never be individuals only working for, or even thinking of, some “collective.” It is naive to think that any individual will ever completely toss away his own individual and logical self-interest in favor of the collective’s “greater” interest. It is difficult to see where individuals completely disavow their personal interests for the good of a community. People tend not to give up most of their property willingly to their neighbors. People tend not to willingly drain most of their own bank accounts to alleviate others’ poverty. Businesses tend not to like competition, even though competition is good for society.
Here’s a thought experiment: A large bag with a big dollar sign drops from a helicopter into a densely populated urban area—or for that matter any area in the world. Many people see it fall from the sky, and it’s clear there’s a lot of money in it. Someone with a megaphone in the helicopter yells, “Enjoy!” and the helicopter flies away.
Do all the people calmly walk toward the big bag of money, make a big circle around it, and appoint a trusted individual among them to then say: “All right. Let’s do what’s fair here and divvy up the money among us equally”?
No, we know what will occur: the person who gets to the bag first will “win” the bag. And then everyone else will fight him for it. The day that people can think like the first scenario and not the second is the day we are (1) no longer humans and have become robots, or (2) well, I can’t think of anything else.
The atheist places far too much faith in logic. Logic cannot alone be the answer to morality or making good decisions. The only place logic—by itself—gets you is self-preservation and self-interest. That kind of logic can always change depending on who is in power and what your needs are for any given moment. That is hardly a recipe for any consistent and reliable code of conduct for ourselves.
Logic is a tool that can lead to great geopolitical, business, and military decisions and even to great discoveries and innovations. But, like nuclear power, its use only makes sense if we also understand its potential for great harm.
God has imbued us with this very logic—in large part so that we can find Him. It is a gift that is wildly beyond the abilities of any other living creature on the planet. However, if we do not appreciate the moral limitations on logic, we risk the destruction of civilization.
Finally, here’s a strange conundrum for the atheist: he believes in survival of the fittest as the source of morality. It may be logical or predictable that the strongest survive, but that has nothing to do with morality. After all, there is no “murder,” “rape,” or “theft” in the jungle.
On the other hand, the atheist is against murder, rape and theft—somehow on logical grounds. But we’ve shown above that logic alone won’t prevent murder, rape or theft. Using just logic alone can even lead to them.
So pick your poison. Because you don’t want to live under either theory. The inherent flaw in the atheist’s argument is that he must ultimately acknowledge that without God—or some other creator who judges us—morality must be relative. But the atheist rejects this and instead believes that logic is universal and that there is only one logical answer to every circumstance. But we know that is not so. Logic without anything guiding will always bend relative to culture, time, and situation.
By contrast, mortality from God provides consistent standards of behaviour under all circumstances. We should use logic only with those standards of behaviour in mind, and to reach those standards.