Does Free Will Prove God?

A large portion of articles from the conservative Town Hall attempt to prove the existence of God or slam atheism. (This is yet another example of how the conservative movement is captured by the religious right.) A recent example is Ben Shapiro’s “Why Atheism Is Morally Bankrupt.”

Here is Shapiro’s argument:

[W]ithout God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will.

Thats because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions — the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power — a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, Although I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it. [A direct quote?]

Gilbert Pyle, the atheistic philosopher, derogatorily labeled the idea of soul/body dualism, the ghost in the machine. Nonetheless, our entire legal and moral system is based on the ghost in the machine — the presupposition that we can choose to do otherwise. …

According to atheists, human beings are intensely complex machines. Our actions are determined by our genetics and our environment.

Shapiro’s claim about atheists is obviously false. Many atheists reject determinism.

But notice the basic form of Shapiro’s argument: “I cannot explain X as part of the natural world, therefore God exists.” This argument has been repeated in many forms over the centuries. “I cannot explain [lightning, weather, causal laws, gravity, the origin of species, morality, free will] as part of the natural word, therefore God exists.”

But an inability to explain something does not justify the move to Making Stuff Up. Lack of knowledge about the natural world does not demonstrate the existence of a supernatural world.

I do not pretend to have the final answer to free will. (I don’t pretend to have the final answer to gravity or many other things, either.) Yet it is obviously the case that an account of free will need not invoke God, because two major theories of free will avoid doing so. Objectivists such as Leonard Peikoff argue that mechanistic causation does not exhaust the nature of causation, and that certain things in the universe — people with rational consciousness — are capable of self-causation in important ways. Others, including Daniel Dennett, make a case for compatibilism, the view that free will operates within a deterministic world. I hope to return to this issue squarely within the next couple years.

The unassailable fundamental is that we do have free will. We obviously can “choose to do otherwise.” We can observe the phenomenon of choice within ourselves. The fact that science cannot explain free will with finality does not disprove free will any more than a lack of understanding about gravity allows us to float freely above the earth with no upward force. The point of science is to explain aspects of the natural world, not rationalize away their existence.

Shapiro claims that atheists cannot explain free will in the context of natural law. His solution? Conjure a God not bound by natural law. He counts his ignorance as his proof: we don’t understand something, therefore, God. Yet even within that rationalistic framework Christians have struggled to explain free will. Many influential Christians were determinists. Indeed, Christianity is driven to its own form of compatibilism: God must simultaneously have perfect knowledge — including a perfect awareness of the future — and grant humans free will. Neat trick. The upshot is that Christians reject compatibilism based on a competing theory of compatibilism. But the absurdities of the supernaturalist framework are secondary: the main point is that there’s no reason to accept a supernaturalist framework, and the attempt inherently defies reason.

4 thoughts on “Does Free Will Prove God?”

  1. The Zeilinger interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (“A Foundational Principle for Quantum Mechanics” by Anton Zeilinger, Foundations of Physics, vol 29, p 631, April 1999) in terms of non-deterministic information-constrained entity-causation, is completely compatible with everything known about the neural substrates of human decision-making, and also completely compatible with Leonard Peikoff’s elaboration of Ayn Rand’s theory of free will.

  2. Ari, I’m pretty sure that TownHall doesn’t define “conservatism.” The folks there are pretty heavily Human Events style theistic conservatives, who by definition will be pretty theistic.

  3. Adam,

    I hope that you blog on Zelinger one day in layman’s language. This approach to free will sounds fascinating.

    Kevin Clark


    TownHall perfectly captures social Conservative thought which is the dominant strain of Conservatism.

  4. Kevin,

    In about two weeks from now. I’ve just had major surgery and it will take about another two weeks before I can sit down (I can type shorter messages standing up, but not an adequate explanation of the most important development in theoretical physics since Einstein.)

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