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 IAmAnAtheist » Determinism and Free Will

Determinism and Free Will

The below item is part of my "Conversations" series.

An atheist and a theist in a ship’s galley

Ray: You’re not making that same stew again, are you?

Sara: What do you mean "again"? It’s been a week since I last made it.

Ray: It seems like less. Nothing against your cooking, but I get tired of the same things over and over. I wish they’d let us have some leave in Cabo or at least give us some of what we make for the passengers, at least sometimes.

Sara: I’d have thought you’d be used to it by now. You have to get it into your head that your not your own person so long as you’re working on a cruise ship. Or are you fatalistic about it because you atheists don’t believe in free will?

Ray: What do you mean by free will?

Sara: You know, the ability to make decisions.

Ray: Don’t be dumb. Of course I think people can make decisions.

Sara: What I mean is, if you think everything’s ruled by the laws of science, then you don’t believe we’re free to make choices. It’s all determined by physics.

Ray: We still have free will, though. Science doesn’t rule that out.

Sara: But it has to, doesn’t it? If it’s all predictable, then there’s no free will.

Ray: When we were playing hold ’em last night, I knew you were going to raise after Tanya did. Does that mean you don’t have free will.

Sara: I don’t mean predictable like that. I mean, there was nothing stopping me from not raising. I could have folded, or called, or turned the table over — which, come to think of it, probably would have worked out better.

Ray: That all fits with science. All science does is set limits on what choices you could make. You could fold, but you couldn’t burst into flames or fly out the porthole.

Sara: You’re not understanding me at all. I’m saying that atheists believe that if you had enough information people would be completely predictable.

Ray: If we knew how minds worked, sure. At least in principle.

Sara: Then there you have it — no free will. If it’s all cause and effect due to the natural laws there can only be one outcome, so there’s no way to make choices.

Ray: Oh, I get what you’re saying. Here, is that stove solid?

Sara: Obviously. What’s that got to do with anything?

Ray: If you could look at that stove closely enough, you’d see that it’s a bunch of molecules with tons of space around them, and that the molecules are made of atoms, which themselves are mostly empty space.

Sara: So?

Ray: So people have free will in the same sense that the stove is solid. We treat the stove as solid because for all practical purposes it is. We treat people like they are free to make choices because for all practical purposes they are. The amount of information and knowledge that we’d need to predict what people are going to do is so huge that making the prediction might as well be impossible.

Sara: That’s not the same as really having free will, though.

Ray: Why not? I’d say that predicting people not being practicable is the definition of free will. It’s like when you play craps — we treat the dice like they’re random, even though a physicist theoretically might be able to predict exactly how they will land.

Sara: Then what happens when science is good enough that we can make machines that will read people’s minds and say what we’re going to do? Will free will go away.

Ray: I doubt that would ever happen. I’m betting that the brain is so complicated that we could never get enough information to predict exactly how it will behave, the same way we can’t get enough information to predict the weather two weeks out.

Sara: Well, maybe, but that still sounds like you’re playing word games. It doesn’t sound like real free will to me.

Ray: If it’s a real solid stove and real random dice, then it’s real free will.

Sara: And you’re real tired of this stew?

Ray: I knew you’d say that.


If you have a conversation that you’d like me to consider publishing on this blog or in an upcoming book, please see the conversation guidelines.

Posted on September 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Conversations

One Response

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  1. Written by Joakim Rosqvist
    on September 24, 2013 at 1:03 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Good work with this conversation series!
    Due to a combination of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the “butterfly effect”, people cannot be fully predictable.

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