Do we have free choice?

Freeing inconsistency

According to philosopher, Douglas Groothuis, one of the foundational aspects of a worldview is coherency. A worldview needs to internally make sense before it can hope to stand up to external scrutiny and be considered worthy of adherence.

In an article in The Atlantic, a philosopher called Stephen Cave revealed a glaring inconsistency in the naturalistic worldview that dominates Western civilisation. In There’s No Such Thing as Free Will (But we’re better off believing in it anyway), Cave describes a logical conclusion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Executive summary – your brain is hardwired in a certain way which you inherited from your ancestors. Your thoughts, desires, dreams, and the actions they precede, are all the creations of firing neurons dictated by your inherited genetic structure. This, combined with the impact your surroundings have, determines you. Nature and nurture shape you and you have no more control over the inner workings of your brain (and therefore, your actions) than you can will your heart to beat. Therefore, there really is no such thing as free will.

This form of scientific determinism is gaining popularity among scientists and skeptics alike, where human responsibility is significantly reduced, even removed. When caught red-handed, they can simply point to their skull and say, “My brain made me do it”. According to Cave, “when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions”. No wonder, when all my bad habits and predispositions have been programmed by my ancestors and environment. But this isn’t even the shocking part of the article from a worldview perspective.


Despite appealing to science and reason to conclude that free will is indeed an illusion, Cave then turns around to defend the very thing he has tried to bring down. Through various experiments, it became clear to Cave that denying free will may not be a good idea:

“…Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”

If denying in thought and deed that free will exists can have such a negative impact on society, should we perhaps think harder about this? Saul Smilanksy, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, apparently has:

“Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”


Freeing inconsistency

I admire Cave’s integrity in acknowledging the logical conclusion of Darwinist materialism. At the same time, I am dumbfounded that he then holds back and clings to free will. He knows that abandoning free will would lead to societal chaos but he can’t bring himself to declare this. Instead, he whispers and recommends these facts, too truthy for the masses, remain in the brave world of academia.

Perhaps there is a better way. Tim Keller, author of The Reason for God, may have found it. If we believe we all make choices we are responsible for then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If we insist on a secular view of the world and yet we continue to live as though free will is a reality, then we begin to see the disharmony between the world our intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that our heart knows exists. This leads us to a crucial question. If a premise (“There is no God”) leads to a conclusion that we know isn’t true (“I don’t have free will”) then why not change the premise?

Who knows – perhaps in the near future, people will click that they are living on borrowed capital and acknowledge the God who makes them responsible. Or maybe history will turn once again into a dark corridor where any semblance of guilt and culpability are forsaken.

For now, thank God for this inconsistency.

Morality needs God

Ron Smith vs Matthew Flannagan | “Morality Does Not Need God” | Waikato University

Hello readers, today we have uploaded the the debate with Dr Ron Smith and Dr Matthew Flannagan to YouTube, though some of you may have noticed it floating around Facebook. It was a well-attended debate, in total 200 people came along and participated.

This sort of event is what we like to see at Thinking Matters, people from both sides of the “God” debate coming together and engaging in a civil and intelligent conversation. You will be able to tell that Matthew and Ron disagreed with each other, yet they disagreed with “reverence and respect”, showing that disagreements over religion do not necessarily divide. In addition, the questions that were asked of the interlocutors, were penetrating but at the same time, cordial. No one got offended and everyone was calm.

In his opening remarks Dr Frank Scrimgeour, the moderator commented:

“It is an important occasion, and an important topic that befits a university, particularly a contemporary university that seeks to place more moral claims on its students, more than was the case when I was an undergraduate student … I trust that it will be a fun evening and I look forward to crowd response, but I request that it will be done with dignity and good nature. I am sure that enhances the quality of the conversation … I am not interested in moderating a debate where people cannot hear the participants. So I guess the more you disagree with someone, I challenge you to listen harder and be ready to ask the insightful question at the appropriate time … Think hard and enjoy yourselves.”

Ron echoed this sentiment saying:

“I was an easy target for the invitation to speak in this because I have become increasingly concerned, to be frank, about the extent to which the university has attached itself, and areas within it, to particular ideological views, and really shutdown discussion in a variety of areas … where discussion is inhibited. Now if there is anywhere in the community where discussion ought to proceed without persons needing to be protected against the possibility that arguments don’t sit well, it’s a university. The university has failed to live up to its obligation, so this is the test of the principle.”

Both of these men understand how important debates on the existence and nature of God are, and have identified that a university ought be a perfect place for such a discussion to go ahead. One of the key reasons why the debate was a true victory, was because it showed that people can disagree about the most important things in life and still part on good terms. Matthew defended the Christian conception of God and Morality in the true spirit of 1 Peter 3:15-16, where St Peter commands:

but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

May this also be something we never forget.

Can we do good without being Christians?

These are the notes from our latest worldview study. This is a fairly simple question, but at the same time a very important one for understanding the importance of the gospel; and the depths of sin and grace. Given that most unbelievers think they’re basically good people, we need a clear view of why they actually aren’t.

Can we do good without being Christians?

The Atheist Morality Bait-and-Switch

I’m reposting a reply to a non-theist friend on Facebook, where he tried to defend a view of morality without God:

What grounds my morality is the human condition, and that is all that is required to ground it.

But that’s just an assertion that flies in the face of what we know morality is. If moral values have no ontological status [ie no independent existence outside of us], if they are just expressions of our preferences, then to say that it is WRONG to torture children for fun is really just to say that we evolved to have a NEGATIVE REACTION to torturing babies for fun. But that is not morality. A biological impulse is not a moral moral impulse.

Put another way, if that IS what morality actually is, then terms like right and wrong, good and evil don’t have the meanings we ascribe to them. They have no force whatsoever. To say that X is wrong is merely to describe how we feel about it—not to prescribe an obligation regarding it. So you emasculate morality, replacing prescriptive moral terms with descriptive scientific ones, but pretending nothing has happened because you’re still using the same terms. It’s a bait and switch.

Because the human condition is one way, and not another, morals constructed in light of it are not arbitrary.

That only holds if the human condition is not arbitrary. But clearly it is. We can imagine a species evolving to have a positive reaction to torturing babies for fun. In that world, morality is the opposite to ours. So your morality is COMPLETELY arbitrary.

In fact, one of the DEFINING things about morality is that it is teleological. X is wrong because it deviates from the way things are MEANT to be, the way things were DESIGNED to be. But in your view, there is no design. There is no plan. Our evolution was a chance affair, guided by non-rational forces, in a universe where those forces just happen to be the way they are. That’s the very definition of arbitrariness!

They gain their force from the way people are.

Since the way people are is as arbitrary as the way the universe is under a non-theistic view, your morality has no force whatsoever.

Ethics: What Does God have to do with it?

This July, those of us in Auckland will have the opportunity to hear some of the worlds leading Christian thinkers discuss the relationship between religion and morality.

This issue is one that has long been the subject of debate in western culture. Some philosophers and social commentators argue that morality is entirely independent of religion and that faith is in fact responsible for much evil and immorality in the world. Other theologians contend the opposite: without God, we cannot explain the existence and nature of moral obligations or ground motivation to live a moral life. Other questions have been raised as to whether secularism can account for ideas such as atonement, forgiveness and grace, or whether we need religion to provide these concepts in morality.

The forum will be discussing these issues and others, including:

– Why do we have to do what is right?
– Can someone be a ‘good’ person without belief in God?
– What role do grace and forgiveness play in morality?

On the panel will be Prof John Hare from Yale Divinity School, Prof Mark Murphy from Georgetown University, and Dr Glenn Pettigrove from the University of Auckland. The panel will be moderated by Dr Matthew Flannagan.

Here are the full details:

Ethics: What Does God have to do with it?
A Conversation with Three Christian Philosophers
WHEN: 7pm Tuesday 26 July
WHERE: Room OGGB4/260-073 (Owen Glenn Building, University of Auckland)
A free event.

This event is brought to you by the University of Auckland Philosophy Department and Thinking Matters.

The Facebook page is here.

New Atheist Scientists: “Lane Craig is a fool, you can get an ought from an is, up is down, arguments be damned”

New Atheist pitbull PZ Myers recently described William Lane Craig as a “dogmatic fool”, in reference to Craig’s debate with Sam Harris on the foundations of morality.

I can’t help feeling like that’s setting the bar unreasonably high. If Craig is only a dogmatic fool, Harris must be a bigoted half-wit by comparison, and Myers himself an unreasoning idiot. Even I don’t think Myers is an idiot.

Read more

Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel

There’s been some backslapping and cheerleading in the scientific community lately about morality, and particularly about Sam Harris’s view as opposed to William Lane Craig’s. At SciBlogs, Ken Perrott ruminates on the foundations of human morality and draws some strikingly entertaining conclusions, again indicating that these sorts of questions are well above the paygrade of the average scientist.

Read more

Further Commentary on the Craig vs Harris Debate

There has been some good analysis of the recent debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris and I thought it might be useful to collect some of that commentary here into one post. Read more

Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? Watch Craig v Harris Live

Just a reminder that today’s debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris at the University of Notre Dame will be streamed live at 7pm local time (11am for those of us in New Zealand).

You will be able to watch the feed here.

UPDATE: Brian Auten at Apologetics315 has posted the audio from the debate.

UPDATE: The video of debate is up on YouTube. Read more

Ten Reasons for Pro-Life Optimism

Trevin Wax offers ten reasons why those of us who believe unborn children deserve human rights can be encouraged:

10. Recent Polls
9. Abortion’s Treatment on Television and in Movies
8. The Revulsion to Sex-Selection Abortion
7. The Exposing of Planned Parenthood’s Corruption
6. Planned Parenthood’s Recent Talking Points
5. Abortion as a “Tragic Choice”
4. Young People
3. Ultrasound Technology and Pregnancy Support Centers
2. The Third Wave
1. God Hears

Read the whole post and his explanation of each point here.

“Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people”—why this argument fails against Christianity

Continuing a discussion with ‘Upandatom’ in a previous thread, I’d like to address his argument that:

Bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. And it would not be hard at all for god to create a world where everyone gets what they deserve.

Upandatom: I think I can accept your statement that “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people” at face value. That seems intuitively obvious. But there are a few problems with trying to use this as a reason to think God doesn’t exist.

1. Maximum good seems logically impossible without evil

Do you think there’s a corresponding principle that “good things should happen to good people”? If so, we can easily imagine a situation where God wants something exceptionally good to happen to a good person, but where it’s logically impossible for that good thing to happen (or happen “properly”) without something bad happening first.

For example, imagine God wanted to give you unending happiness. Do you think you’d appreciate that more if you knew first-hand what it was like to be miserable? I know I would. We tend to take things for granted if we don’t know what life is like without them. It’s a basic truth about human beings that we value things far more highly, and enjoy them far more, when to get them in the first place we have to work hard, make sacrifices, experience loss. Marriage seems much better if you’ve been lonely before; a good meal tastes better when you’re ravenous.

It seems clear that without suffering, joy is diluted. So on this principle alone, isn’t it pretty plausible that God would allow bad things to happen to good people, precisely because he wants them to experience good things afterwards in the fullest way possible?

Remember also: God is capable of taking away any residual suffering we may experience as a result of evil. People with post-traumatic stress disorder in this life won’t have PTSD in heaven. So it’s not as if the evil we experience has a lasting effect. It’s just a temporary means for us to experience a greater good.

2. People are not good

It’s a core supposition of your argument that people are good—but the Bible is exceptionally clear that people are actually evil. See, for example, Romans 3:9 and onward. Christianity holds that people are naturally inclined to do evil, rather than good—that’s what it means to be a sinner. So although I agree, in a general sense, that “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people”, it’s not a relevant consideration in this case.

After all, you seem to be trying to show that God wouldn’t do something that Christianity says he would, to prove that therefore Christianity is false. But to do that, you have to stick to what Christianity says. You can’t say “the God of Christianity wouldn’t allow evil to happen to good people; bad things do happen to good people; therefore Christianity is false”…if in fact Christianity holds that people are not good. That would be a strawman, because under Christianity, bad things don’t happen to good people.

3. The statement “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people” either presupposes that God exists, or it’s just an opinion with no force

On the other hand, maybe you’re not trying to make the argument I think you’re making. Maybe you’re just saying that you believe people are good, that you believe bad things shouldn’t happen to them, and you believe God wouldn’t allow it.

But in that case, your argument doesn’t have any force. Your own opinion about what the Christian God would or wouldn’t do, etc, has no necessary bearing on what he’d actually do, right? Just like your opinion about what I would or wouldn’t do might not necessarily be accurate. It’s not like your opinion about God trumps his opinion about himself!

If you’re just trying to convince us that God allowing evil would be immoral of him, without using Christian morality to prove it, then you’re just begging the question: relying on the assumption that God doesn’t exist in order to supposedly prove he doesn’t exist. Because obviously if he did exist, it wouldn’t be immoral for him to cause suffering!

The problem here is: you apparently do believe that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. You seem to think this is a universal law; something that is true regardless of what other people believe (even God!) But where would such a truth come from, if not from God himself? So your argument, while seeming on the face of it to offer evidence against God’s existence, on closer examination seems to support it.

I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments below.