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Author Topic: Is belief in free will compatible with atheism?  (Read 10632 times)
yowhound
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« Reply #20 on: November 09, 2013, 04:37 am »

If the teachings of religion are inconsistent with and hold no practical purpose in your observable reality, it makes no sense to have faith in it.


Thank you. I'd dispute that they hold no practical purpose, but that might be for another thread.
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« Reply #21 on: November 09, 2013, 05:01 am »

In the spirit of the original question, I'll write this as if you and I and everyone in the world are scientific materialists.

Free will is an abstraction of more fundamental processes. That, I think we all agree on. Whether it's an illusion, some people argue endlessly. I think that whether or not it's an illusion depends on your expectations. If you believe that your free will ought to be absolutely free, or absolutely willy, or immortal (absolute in the time dimension), or absolute in any dimension, then when confronted with the reality that it's not, you would rightly call your belief an illusion. I think this feeling, that it should be absolute, comes naturally to everyone, just because of mental economics. Absolutes are easier to comprehend than the detailed, specific, comparative, limited, phenomena of our real universe.

So free will is an abstraction. And for most people it's also an illusion, because they can't shake those absolutist expectations, despite the fact that everyone in the world is a wise and proud materialist.

Some examples serve to put this question in perspective, and shame us out of our ideological shackles. Solid matter is another illusion, an abstraction of atoms. Every kid in America gets to go through that disillusionment, and most grown ups still struggle with it. We still feel uneasy when reminded of the atomic reality of our lives, the mostly empty space in our apparently solid matter. It's not as disturbing as the illusion of fee will, though, because our very minds are more valuable to us than the stuff around us.

Another example is a Java virtual machine. Or any higher-level programming language. These are abstractions of machine-specific code, which is abstraction of electronics. But we don't call those things illusions.

Why is one kind of abstraction considered an illusion, and the other not? It comes down to differing perspectives. When you encounter a phenomenon, and you have different perceptions telling you different things about it, you must decide which perception is the true one. The other is considered an illusion. We grow up experiencing our own will (and solid matter). Our scientific analysis of it comes much later. And so we have the experience, and the analysis–two very different perspectives. And we feel that one of them must be an illusion. This could work both ways (hypothetically). The scientific truth of free will makes our experience seem like an illusion. Also, it's possible that a person's experience of free will would drive them to reject the scientific analysis as illusory. These people only exist hypothetically.

On the other hand, we learn about programming languages with a kind of scientific analysis from the outset. We don't grow up with a familiarity with abstract code, and then suddenly learn about processors and electronics. And that's why we don't see code as an illusion.

The real, non-absolute phenomenon of free will is abstract thought. We have a sense of self that's quite separate from our bodies and the outside world, moreso than other animals. It's one of our special human adaptations. We can think about objects that don't exist. We can think about thoughts. We can think about others thinking about thoughts. That's what we're doing with this exercise here. This recursion can reliably go six layers deep, psychologists have found. Another little disturbing reminder of materialism.

Anyway, our ability to separate our minds from the world is this great ability we have as humans. But we tend to feel that this separation is absolute, because absolutism is a strong temptation when we encounter complexity, or things that are important to us. Free will is both.

So I believe in free will, the same way that I believe in programming code, justice, and grammar. And matter, for that matter. To some people, free will is an illusion. To me it's not, because I have wisely and proudly reconciled my experience with science. I've also reconciled the atomic theory of matter. I think of things as atoms all the time. And sometimes I think of people as skeletons and cars as engines.

Free will, like everything about a person, is not absolute nor perfect. But it does exist and it does have meaning. I think its detractors believe that to be a contradiction, and that detraction is what I'm really against. I can call free will an illusion, I don't really care. But a non-absolute, imperfect thing can have meaning. That's what I believe, and that's why I care about this.
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« Reply #22 on: November 09, 2013, 07:03 am »

Well then this is not about atheism. Nice baiting title homie

The prompting thought for this came up on the basis of someone arguing that god fills the role of explaining the gaps in science.  This person describes themselves as an atheist.  I certainly accept that one class of atheists classify themselves as atheists simply as people who soundly reject all traditional forms of religious belief.  I have no gripe with that.  If you have an explicit, unique term that everyone will understand for an individual who does believe in "deus ex academia" as HyperGlavin called it, feel free to modify the title so you don't feel so baited.
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« Reply #23 on: November 09, 2013, 07:10 am »

To expand upon that though, I do think there's still relevance even for the other atheists.  From reduction to the pure scientific, certain aspects of neuroscience seem to suggest that human control of the will doesn't exist.  If you believe in free will anyway, does that necessitate belief in something "above the meat" as it were, even if if there's no need to assign traditional religious implication or terminology to it?
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yowhound
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« Reply #24 on: November 09, 2013, 07:26 am »

If you believe in free will anyway, does that necessitate belief in something "above the meat" as it were, even if if there's no need to assign traditional religious implication or terminology to it?

To go Devils advocate for a second:

Why not? In theory I could strip you down to your individual cells. As long as they are given nutrients and the correct water levels, those cells would continue to survive and thrive. It wouldn't be you though.

The whole is often greater than the sum of it's parts. You are greater than the sum of the cells that make up your body. Is it a reach to assume that a complex organism can add something more to the total? Like a soul, for want of a better word?
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« Reply #25 on: November 09, 2013, 08:28 am »

I don't know, that's what I'm asking.  I have my opinion on the matter, which is that it's simply a matter of an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  Unless there's something external, the chemistry does what it was set in motion to do.

We can argue about quantum behavior and whether the entire behavior is determined by the initial state, or whether the probability distribution function is determined by the initial state.  But either way, as far as I'm aware, only external forces can alter the initial state.
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yowhound
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« Reply #26 on: November 09, 2013, 08:52 am »

Let's try a different angle.

in general, the more complex the brain, the more likely self awareness becomes, right?

A cat certainly exhibits self awareness (or selfishness) - a mouse less - fish even less.

Will you agree that self awareness is a requirement for making none immediate decisions? That is the start of free will. The ability to look ahead and choose an option based on a mix of experience, gut instinct, what is in it for me and will the neighbors get out the pitchforks.

Yet what is it good for? Drop you and a cat in the middle of a vast forest, naked - the cat will be just fine. You, not so much. Free will (or thinking) is a handicap in certain cases. Yet it must exist for a reason, if everything can be explained by science.
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norumaru
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« Reply #27 on: November 10, 2013, 07:07 pm »

Let's go with a simple analogy. If I have an RC car and you ask me, "what do you have there?", an answer of "a bunch of wires and some bits of plastic" would be both accurate and missing the point, no? The RC-car-ness of the object is an emergent property of the bity and pieces assembled in the right ways and quantities.

Or, if the maker is too present in that one for your taste, take a continent, complete with mountain ranges and streams and forests. Technically, it's just some dirt and plants and water, but that's not a fitting description of the actual thing at all.
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« Reply #28 on: November 10, 2013, 09:21 pm »

I agree completely but that's not really the question.
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« Reply #29 on: November 11, 2013, 04:00 am »

I agree completely but that's not really the question.

The question is rapidly becoming "What is the question?"

Free will vs. predestination?
Does free will exist?
Does some God exist?
Can everything be explained in a mechanistic fashion?
Is belief in something you can't see stupid?
What is an atheist?
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« Reply #30 on: November 11, 2013, 04:27 am »

Is your question does free will as a concept invalidate atheism because you're using the outside force = God as proof within your model of if there's nothing influencing the system from the outside then it is set in its way and therefore free will does not exist?

Is that your question?

Edit: I didn't actually edit anything, but I was going to!
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« Reply #31 on: November 11, 2013, 04:30 am »

I still take it as the opposite, like our choices may be "predetermined" but only in a world with an all knowing being are our choices known to something before they happen

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yowhound
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« Reply #32 on: November 11, 2013, 05:18 am »

I still take it as the opposite, like our choices may be "predetermined" but only in a world with an all knowing being are our choices known to something before they happen

That made me brain grind to a stop. Nice point indeed!

What if there is some predestination? After all, we know of one case - you are born, you die.
Or if you want to be less grim, imagine I ask you to shift a few tons of loose hay from one place to another. You'd do it, but the path you take to do it is entirely up to you. One might load a wagon by hand. Another, screw the hand shit, lets use a pitchfork. A third, let's fire up the baler and compress this stuff. A fourth, screw it, I'd rather be fired. That would seem to me to be exercising free will to get to a predestined conclusion.
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« Reply #33 on: November 11, 2013, 07:32 am »

As I said before, it's pretty hard to extend this discussion into religious thought as well.  Any discussion featuring god necessarily features moving goal posts.  It's easy to answer any objection with "but we don't really understand the nature of god."  The nice thing about atheism is that you can't move the goal posts, because they're limited by the falsifiable.  Religion in general is not.
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« Reply #34 on: November 11, 2013, 07:40 am »

I agree completely but that's not really the question.

The question is rapidly becoming "What is the question?"

Free will vs. predestination?
Does free will exist?
Does some God exist?
Can everything be explained in a mechanistic fashion?
Is belief in something you can't see stupid?
What is an atheist?

Look, I can see why this is challenging to understand.  You and norumaru seem to be saying that it's stupid to argue about the literal definition of a pile of plastic and wires because the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  It's not.  The sum of the parts has properties that none of the individual components have alone, but all of those properties are still bound by the laws of physics.  Yes, 4 wheels, a battery pack and an antenna can roll and steer.  But it still can't think for itself.  If the question can be interpreted in the context of your question, it's "what are the possible properties of a human even allowing for our imperfect knowledge, remembering that we're binding ourselves within the laws of physics as they are observable in the universe."  The sum being more than the whole of the parts doesn't allow new physics to be created.
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yowhound
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« Reply #35 on: November 11, 2013, 07:45 am »

As I said before, it's pretty hard to extend this discussion into religious thought as well.  Any discussion featuring god necessarily features moving goal posts.  It's easy to answer any objection with "but we don't really understand the nature of god."  The nice thing about atheism is that you can't move the goal posts, because they're limited by the falsifiable.  Religion in general is not.

At the risk of another digression - promise it is the last one - You got two user manuals for God. One is internal. That teeny voice that keeps you awake at 4 AM, kicking your shins and calling you a shitbag.

The other is the book.

No - not the bible, though that is one of them. The Torah, the Qur'an, the Bodhisattva. All got pretty much the same ideas. If you want to take it purely on physical and observational aspects - they all have long observational baselines of human behavior.

I agree completely but that's not really the question.

The question is rapidly becoming "What is the question?"

Free will vs. predestination?
Does free will exist?
Does some God exist?
Can everything be explained in a mechanistic fashion?
Is belief in something you can't see stupid?
What is an atheist?

Look, I can see why this is challenging to understand.  You and norumaru seem to be saying that it's stupid to argue about the literal definition of a pile of plastic and wires because the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  It's not.  The sum of the parts has properties that none of the individual components have alone, but all of those properties are still bound by the laws of physics.  Yes, 4 wheels, a battery pack and an antenna can roll and steer.  But it still can't think for itself.  If the question can be interpreted in the context of your question, it's "what are the possible properties of a human even allowing for our imperfect knowledge, remembering that we're binding ourselves within the laws of physics as they are observable in the universe."  The sum being more than the whole of the parts doesn't allow new physics to be created.

Do me a favor - a gruesome one. Go to any news site - totally your call. Look for pictures of the aftermath of a bombing. Any country, don't care. Tell me if you can see the difference between the living and the dead. I can guarantee you will be able to.

The rest - got to think about - fair enough?
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« Reply #36 on: November 11, 2013, 08:12 am »

Since you seem so insistent on this point, explain it then yow. There's no god, there's no such thing as a soul. Human beings are made up of what you see alone. What's the difference between the living and the dead?
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« Reply #37 on: November 11, 2013, 09:41 am »

living things grow, respond to stimuli, metabolize, and can reproduce

dead things can't

more appropriate to the question (I have no idea what the fuck this topic is about anymore): the visual differences that one might associate with a body seeming "empty" or "soulless" are probably a combination of algor and rigor mortis, and also more generally the loss of things we're used to seeing in an alive person (i.e. breath, eye movements, tiny movements/reflexes). plus, even in a still photo, a dead body's limbs will slump weird, or the eyes or parts of the face will go still or stiff in an unnatural fashion, because the muscles are nonfunctional and blood is pooling and nothing works anymore. some of these visual features may be tiny things we don't even register at a conscious level, but a dead body pretty immediately drifts into the uncanny valley by virtue of no longer doing any of the things our brains would expect every body to do or be doing
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« Reply #38 on: November 11, 2013, 11:30 am »

Look, I can see why this is challenging to understand.

Come on! But this is my fault. Five years ago, I kindly invited you to explain a certain position, and then I jumped on you. I created a monster, and now you're back for revenge.

Quote
You and norumaru seem to be saying that it's stupid to argue about the literal definition of a pile of plastic and wires because the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.  It's not.

I wrote the following paragraphs, and then realized that I don't know what you're referring to by "It's not." If you're saying that the sum of the parts is not greater than the whole, then, you dumb motherfucker! But if you're saying it's not stupid to argue about it, then, you're right. It's endlessly interesting. (I'm not sure they were saying that though.)

The difference between the pile of parts and the assembled car is, and the difference between a dead body and a living one, is its configuration. Configuration is a kind of information, which is a mysterious but real physical quantity. Of all the possible configurations of parts, the working RC car is one infinitesimal possibility. An information processor, like a human, can enhance the probability of that configuration.

A person is an extremely unlikely configuration of atoms. The probability of ending up with one was pumped up by natural selection. And in the short term, the difference between a living and dead person is metabolism.

These configurations take time and energy to accumulate and utilize, just like energy. To say there's no difference between one and the other is like saying there's no difference between charged and dead batteries.

One configuration may not be "greater" than the other, but that doesn't bother materialists because undefined measures of "greatness" don't bother us. Free will still matters.
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« Reply #39 on: November 11, 2013, 11:53 am »

Except I'm saying the exact opposite. You are arguing as if, to run with the analogy, a bunch of wires and plastic can only ever be that, and we can discard the possibility of them being capable of merrily rolling through a park, upsetting the pigeons and bringing five seconds of quiet to a spoiled brat's parents.

To bring that back around, you were the one who argued that if all a person's consciousness is is a bundle of cells, that consciousness can not be more than a predetermined biological automaton whose own will is nothing but an illusion, and therefore a greater figure that transcends the matter of a brain is needed to explain the experience of conscious thought and will. I disagree and say that does not follow at all, since literally everything you see is something bigger than its parts that arises from the configuration of said parts. Emergent properties are not some freak occurrence, they are the rule. We have no reason to assume that our brain and consciousness are the exception.

And what are you on about with that last thing? Where have "new physics" ever "[been] created"? In fact, what does that sequence of words even mean?
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