The Atheist’s Dilemma: Logical Conclusions to the Lack of Free Will


I have a number of friends that are religious fundamentalists. We enjoy debating the important issues of our respective belief systems: skepticism for me, and Christianity or Judaism for them. The latest of these has been free will. I’ve touched on the topic a number of times before, but would like to revisit it again.Upon being presented the moral mechanics of Christianity’s Fall of Man I again put forth my argument regarding free will in that situation:

My fundamentalist friend’s reply was focused on the logical conclusions that I must reach were I to embrace a lack of free will in a practical sense. While I find the approach to be almost unrelated, it still has merit that’s worth exploring. He says:

This may seem to some like an absurd argument to some, but upon closer inspection there is something to it. It doesn’t speak to whether or not we have free will, but rather to the consequences of believing that we don’t. Quite simply, it says that if one is to embrace the idea of no-free-will to its logical conclusion then we must accept a whole package of uncomfortable truths along with it.

A World Without Free Will

Just for the sake of tidiness allow me to restate the no-free-will proposition that I’m offering. The basic idea is that however we got here, we are little more than highly complex machines. We process input through a finite and knowable system and arrive at a decision. That decision looks random to us because we neither have full knowledge of the decision system itself (our biology), nor the seemingly incalculable number of variables that influence it (every single event that’s ever influenced us).

The unpleasant conclusion that we must reach when accepting the proposition above is that we have nothing to do with our fate. Happy people are lucky. Suffering people are unlucky. Murder cannot be held accountable for their actions, and no credit can be given to heroes for their bravery.

Just thinking about it almost throws me into a panic. Cognitive dissonance nearly overwhelms me. The idea instantly nullifies everything our civilization is built upon — most notably the very notion of personal responsibility. The criminal justice system becomes akin to a perverse child care system where babies are tortured for crying or asking for food.

Defining the Variables

Perhaps free will is the necessary delusion after all. But if it’s necessary to ignore free will in order to function in this world, let’s at least define the truth before proceeding to turn our backs to it for practical reasons. Below I’ll attempt to present a universal theory of human action according to a world in which we lack free will. Here are the variables:

  1. Where We StartWere you born in Etheopia or the Hamptons? Did you go to a private school or have you never seen a book? Were you starved of nutrition during while in the womb, or did you have the world’s best formulas while listening to Baby Motzart? Nothing determines where one will end up more than where one started.

  2. Our Genetic GiftednessIntelligence, beauty, athleticism, artistic talent, motivation — all these help a person regardless of where they came from or what they are exposed to. This is why some people rise from the ghetto and others falter despite a legion of opportunities.I place intelligence at the top of this list because I think it offers the largest adaptive advantage. If you have one or more of these things you tend to do well. If you don’t, you tend not to. This is true regardless of where you started or what you experience in life.

  3. What Happens to UsLife is random. It doesn’t matter if you went to Harvard and eat dinner with Bill Gates every Sunday; if you get a rare disease and die at age 30 you can’t do much about that. Some people get in the wrong relationship and end up on heroin. Others randomly bump into someone on the street and get handed a career they never could have achieved in school.Who we meet and what happens to us defines who we are. Forrest Gump was lucky to have been in the right places at the right time; a child who saw his family murdered in front of him was not. Both situations deeply effect the outcome of their lives, and neither person had any input into the situation.

The one thing stands out about these three variables is that we don’t have any control over any of them. It looks like we do, and it feels like we should, but we don’t. We fall prey to the common delusion that it’s not what we were handed that matters, but what we do with it.

What people fail to realize is that our ability to capitalize on what were given is in fact something we were given.

Read that again. There aren’t two different things — 1) genetic abilities and 2) motivation to make use of genetic abilities. No. In fact those are arguably one in the same. The only thing that determines one’s ability to make use of their own gifts and talents is #1 Where they came from, #2 How much motivation they have inherently, and #3 how they were raised and the experiences they had in life.

In other words, we’re just responding to stimuli. The doctor who makes great financial decisions and looks down on those who doesn’t is a pompous ass. He had at least two out of the three variables go strongly in his direction. He’s basically a lucky bastard.

The crack whore down the street, however, was born prematurely with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a less than average IQ. She ends committing an armed robbery and going to jail for life. Did she make a poor choice or was there simply no choice at all? What part of the equation was she in control of?

The decision to “break out” of a set of negative conditions improve oneself is NOT independent of the three variables. It’s part of them. As is the decision to rebel against the world and start carjacking and raping people.

Quite simply, if you accept the fact that we have no control over the three universal variables then we forfeit the ability to heap praise on the virtuous or scorn on the wicked. Is this the world we live in?

Related posts: