In atheist forum discussions about free will, determinists overwhelmingly outnumber compatibilists (those who say free will is compatible with determinism).
As I'll explain below, what always strikes me as curious is how dogma, denial and simplistic faith seem to be shared by both religious folks and atheist determinists. I mean, give me a break . . . to claim absolute determinism is to claim that the Apollo or Voyager missions (or any other great human achievement) -- and all the man-hours, brain power, resources and ingenuity involved -- was scripted since the beginning of time. With a script so specific and precise, you might as well say God wrote it. Yeah right . . . may the force be with you.
Free will is actually a doctrine that didn't fully develop until about 70 years after the Roman Catholic Church was established by Emperor Constantine. St. Augustine fleshed out the ramifications of free will (circa 400 A.D.) in order to overcome the pitfalls of the deterministic Bible with more socially redeeming benefits like: good works, repentance, and responsibility for our own actions.
Determinism is intimately tied to ancient belief in God(s). The whole world (East and West), with rare exception, was deterministic, believing that God(s) controlled every facet of every event; past, present and future. Even their prevailing "science" (astrology), took determinism for granted.
Today, most Christians accept free will, despite the Bible. This represents the success of secondary authority (doctrine) over primary authority (the Bible). After the Reformation, even the majority of Protestants accepted the doctrine of free will.
Free will, accordingly, gets a bad rap from atheists . . . after all, it was developed and advocated by the Roman Catholic Church. However, they weren't the ones who "invented" the idea. We have the pagan, Epicurus, to thank for that. He departed from the Atomists of his day by claiming the motion of atoms is random -- breaking the cascading causal chain reaction kick-started by the Prime Mover -- and that this break was enough to allow for free will. His contrarian assertion of randomness at the atomic level foreshadowed Quantum Theory by thousands of years.
Today, free will is a well-known, established, concept. Whether or not you believe in free will, you know (roughly) what it is. More importantly, you live your life as if you have free will. You work, play and plan as if you have free will. Free will is taken for granted. Do you take credit for your own actions? Do your officemates recognize your work and ideas? Do you weigh consequences before instructing your children? Of course you do. Because you have free will . . . or at least, because you think you have free will. What you don't do is trip through life aghast to find that you keep performing actions you don't intend; like a hapless puppet dancing on strings of causality.
So which is true? Free will or determinism? Every conscious moment, every action of your life is empirical evidence for free will. The determinist's claim that your entire experience is an illusion is an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence. What evidence is there? None. Zero. Zilch.
So why is it that the majority of atheists appear to be determinists? The biggest reason is causality. Cause and effect. It's a binary concept: it doesn't get much simpler. By and large, determinists deny the reality of their experience in favor of simple causality. They insist causality applies to absolutely everything.
But I say they're mistaken. More precisely, I say they're dogmatic. Dogma is usually behind fundamental denials and opinions asserted as facts. What's more fundamental than experience? After all, as Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." (Cogito ergo sum). When the validity of just about anything might be challenged, we find bedrock in the reality of experience. As with religion, the denial of experience really needs dogma.
So what's the dogma? It’s "Causality is absolute." or "Everything is predetermined." I disagree. I say there's an obvious difference between inanimate matter and animate beings. Inanimate matter reacts to causality with mathematical precision and predictability. It has no choice. Animate beings, on the other hand, react to causality in unpredictable ways.
Consider this . . .
. . . A worm finds itself exposed to too much sunlight. What does it do? Does it continue forward or retreat back where it came from? Maybe it makes a lateral move, left or right. Who knows? Unlike a comet or meteor, it might do ANY of these things. Life introduces an entirely different mode of response to causality. Living things react differently than the rest of the universe. It seems too obvious to state but for the sake of determinists I'll state it: animate beings are radically different from inanimate matter and should not be treated the same.
This brings up my main point: causality is 100% predictable (outside the quantum realm) with inanimate matter but not with animate beings. Assuming Earth is the only place with life, then after 10 billion years of cosmic clockwork, life introduced an entirely new kind of object to the universe. After 3.5 billion more years, the most unpredictable objects of all -- humans -- are solving the mysteries of the universe.
You can claim that our experience of free will is an illusion or you can explain how the free will of our experience might exist. The former is without evidence: the latter is backed up by the empirical evidence of every (sane) person on this planet.
One last thing. Free will doesn't mean immunity from causality. It means that causality is not absolute with us humans. It need not take much independence to empower free agency. One theory (Johnjoe McFadden's CEMI theory) postulates mental feedback as the source of free will. Anyway, if a meteor crashes through my roof and obliterates me, that's causality. If we send a spacecraft to intercept the meteor and deflect it from Earth, that's free will.
We are subjects to -- and masters of -- causality. How do I know? Because we can understand, anticipate and use causality to do our bidding in every facet of our lives. Isn't that what free will is?
Seems pretty clear to me. If you want to deny it, give me some evidence. I mean, we ARE atheists, right?