Atheism, Free Will and Scientific Paradigms

Atheism, free will and scientific paradigms

To me, free will is not absolute or limitless. Free will is constrained by physical laws, ethics, and circumstances.

There is evidence that thoughts arise from diverse modules within the brain. These diverse sources of thought, within the brain, are integrated somehow (i.e. in the brain’s electromagnetic field) and passed back for a decision. It’s the decision – yes, no, maybe, I don’t know, not yet, if conditions warrant, keep in mind, that’s interesting, etc. – that constitutes choice and, thus, free will.

Of the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, human intelligence has only existed for one or two hundred thousand years. That's just the blink of an eye in cosmological time.

Until we discover extraterrestrial life, our best understanding says that the universe was over 10 billion years old before the first single-cell life forms arose. Until that point in time, THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE WAS TOTALLY INANIMATE. Then life introduced motility: the ability of animate beings to move about on their own. Life was a major milestone in the history of the universe because, instead of inanimate matter, the universe now had animate beings too. Life is intrinsically and intimately shaped by evolution; an entirely new process in the universe. Pretty major stuff, this life force!

It would be another 3.5 billion years before humans evolved. Human intelligence is the next major milestone in the history of the universe. Instead of living at the mercy of nature (like all other animals), humans had the intelligence to harness nature: which is to say, humans had the ability to understand, anticipate and use causality for their own purposes . . . clothing, shelter, weapons, tools and fire. This expertise with causality is a prerequisite for intelligence and is also demonstrable evidence of free will.

Without free will, nature would be the only source of causation on Earth. But free will rises (modestly) above causality and harnesses it to do our bidding. Nature didn't cause man's achievements . . . man did. The only way that could happen is if man has free will. There's nature; and then there's human nature.

From the empirical point of view, free will is taken for granted: we live, work, play and plan as if we have free will. We don’t experience the horror of watching helplessly as we do things we don’t want to do (unless you suffer from a compulsive disorder).

I’m aware of the usual objections to the notion of free will. Many very educated people – even those in the fields of physics and neuroscience – believe that everything is physical: matter or energy. There are far too many people who treat the current scientific paradigm just like a religion: they actually put their faith in reductionistic physicalism and conclude that EVERYTHING is determined and that free will is an illusion. They believe it absolutely – despite the experience of their everyday existence.

The fact is, science is still maturing. Its history is one of successive paradigm shifts. What was once seen as obvious, develops nagging problems, inconsistencies and contradictions. The problems beget new understandings that usher in a new paradigm that becomes the new obvious answer.

We already know that the existing paradigms are flawed. Relativity doesn’t get along with the quantum world. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle points to a mystical side of quantum physics that stretches credulity and suggests "mind" as a component of the material universe.

Matter emerges from nowhere and disappears again. Subatomic particles can’t both be and be known to be. Matter shifts from existing to only having the potential to exist.

Our human acts affect what is true at the quantum level. The act of measurement distorts what’s being measured. Human consciousness itself seeps into the discussion of quantum physics. Consciousness, mind, data, or whatever you want to call it, is beginning to factor into quantum physics and even black holes. These curious developments are the dissonances that precede paradigm shifts. It appears that the next paradigm will need to accommodate "consciousness, mind, data, or whatever you want to call it".

The question of human consciousness has been relegated to philosophers until fairly recently. As of late, neuroscience has made some amazing inroads to understanding this “emergent property of the brain”. The more they learn, the more it seems that consciousness defies the reductionistic physicalism of science’s true believers. Consciousness (and life and intelligence) is one of the incongruencies revealing the gaps in the physicalism of our current paradigm.

Life itself is a (relatively) new phenomenon in the universe. Life, in turn, has spawned amazing phenomena that never existed before: motility, evolution, instinct, procreation, consciousness, intelligence and, I assert, free will.

Perhaps the next scientific paradigm will pay more attention to the distinct differences between inanimate matter and animate beings (especially human beings). Complex systems also deserve more attention. If you look at the trends in the history of the universe, it appears almost as if everything has been leading up to a universe that acknowledges itself via life: human life. Until the mysteries are resolved, I’ll try to keep an open mind and remember that opinions are a dime a dozen until facts decide the issue.


Science is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, human endeavor. However, atheists who substitute science for religion are still guilty of faith. Science is the question, NOT the answer. Atheists, to my experience, seem likely to forget that, unlike religion, science has never claimied to be the final word – and, in fact, is not.

© Atheist Exile,

Views: 44

Comment by Serotonin Wraith on August 21, 2009 at 8:44am
Without free will, nature would be the only source of causation on Earth. But free will rises (modestly) above causality and harnesses it to do our bidding. Nature didn't cause man's achievements . . . man did. The only way that could happen is if man has free will. There's nature; and then there's human nature.

I would say human nature is still nature.

There are far too many people who treat the current scientific paradigm just like a religion: they actually put their faith in reductionistic physicalism and conclude that EVERYTHING is determined and that free will is an illusion. They believe it absolutely – despite the experience of their everyday existence.

Our everyday experiences also suggest we don't have a blind spot in the eye. We have to experiment with illusions to discover that our brain is in fact deceiving itself.

We can run experiments to find out if free will is an illusion too.

I recommend reading pages 185 - 190 here.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 21, 2009 at 9:02am
Hi Serotonin Wraith,

I would respectfully disagree about human nature being nature. Nature is the present. It knows nothing of the causality that unfolds within it. Nature has no intention or memory. Human nature, thanks to our intelligence, knows all about causality and how to use it to our own purposes.

Also, there are LOTS of theories of mind and lots of controversy. In neuroscience, a prevalent component of most theories is the feedback mechanism. There are all kinds of mental feedback mechanisms. One theory, the CEMI theory, asserts that the brain's electromagnetic field integrates disparate process within the brain in a sort of overarching feedback loop that enable our free agency.

The topic is difficult to discuss because people have different ideas of what free will is. I, personally, am a compatibilist. I don't deny a deterministic universe but I believe free will is nonetheless compatible with determinism. I'm working on an essay to explain myself and am almost done. I'll be posting it soon.
Comment by Dave G on August 21, 2009 at 10:14am
"I would respectfully disagree about human nature being nature."

And I'm going to have to respectfully disagree on this, unless your definition of nature is significantly at odds with my own.

Human nature is definitely a part of the natural world, unless you are claiming a supernatural origin for it. The natural forces of the universe (physics, chemistry, etc) may not have intention or memory or will, but that does not mean that humans, by having such things, are outside of nature. My cat has memory and intention (particularly when she is hungry) but I would not claim that my cat is not a part of nature. Likewise, when it comes to harnessing nature, beavers build dams, are they outside of nature as well?

Neuroscience is still in its infancy, as a science. So far, however, it has not discovered any evidence to suggest that consciousness is a supernatural, mystical, 'magic' force. The fact that we do not yet know what constitutes consciousness, nor the details of how it operates, is not a reason to assume supernatural properties for it.

If you have not done so already, I recommend that you listen to the Point of Inquiry podcast, the episode where they were interviewing Tom Clark on scientific naturalism and free will. He makes an interesting point about how many of the 'pure determinists' make the mistake of forgetting that, among the agents that can affect your behavior, is yourself.
Comment by Reggie on August 21, 2009 at 1:02pm
What Dave G said.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 21, 2009 at 1:02pm
I'm obviously not making my point cogently enough. I don't believe in ANYTHING supernatural. Everything is natural but humans are unique within nature. The rest of nature, as far as we know, extending to the edge of the universe, has no other object or entity with the abilities we have. Most of these abilities come from human intelligence. Nothing else in the natural universe understands metallurgy, art, trajectory, anatomy, math, chemistry, etc. Nothing else uses nature like we do. There is human nature and then there's the rest of nature.
Comment by Serotonin Wraith on August 21, 2009 at 3:22pm
Isn't every natural thing part of a unique group? As far as we know, there's nothing else in the universe that does what leaves do. A leaf isn't a star, a frog isn't a black hole. Yes, there are differences within nature, but it's still all classed as nature.

I'm unique. Just like everything else.
Comment by Reggie on August 21, 2009 at 3:58pm
What SW said.

But also, with billions and billions of stars that most likely host an astronomical number of planetary bodies and moons combined with growing evidence that the precursors of life are not unique to Earth, it is almost (maybe it is?) mathematically certain that life exists even by using the most conservative of estimates. The prospect of intelligent life is much smaller than even that, but using yet more conservative numbers, it is most likely that intelligence has arose several times over so far in other parts of the universe. Time after time, our uniqueness and vanity has been battered and bruised by emerging science. To say that we are unique to the universe in a time when we are discovering for the first time exo-planets is naive and premature. At best you could make claims with the qualifier "as far as we know", but we have proven time after time that we don't know nearly as much as we thought.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 22, 2009 at 1:51am
Serotonin Wraith,

Life is categorized by similarities. Uniqueness is about differences. Surely you can see that human intelligence sets us apart from any other THING in the universe. Those THINGS isn't limited to other lifeforms -- it's ANYTHING animate (as far as we know) or inanimate. You're missing the point if you classify human art, invention, culture, science and philosophy as similar to any other traits of any other known THING in the universe. Yes, humans, animals and plants are all carbon based lifeforms that respirate and need an energy source. The point is not the similarites: the point is the differences. Specifically the degree of differences between humans and anything else we know of is starkly unique. We possess an entire range -- an entire class -- of characteristics that is not approximated by anything else. Most significantly, humans posses the power to understand, anticipate and use causality in all areas of our lives. This kind of intelligence sets us apart.

Millennia ago, man thought everything in the universe revolved around the Earth. As the highest lifeform on Earth, man concluded that he was special to God: that God made everything for us. We now know how wrong that notion is. We aren't as special as we thought we were. But we're still the highest lifeform on Earth and, in fact, don't even have a competing species in our category.

Other apes might look like us and even have shared characteristics (social structure, certainly, and maybe even emotions) but these similarities are not my point. Until we find alien intelligence, all we know for sure is that humans have a presence and exert an influence unlike anything else in the universe.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 22, 2009 at 2:07am
Hi Reggie,

SW was missing my point (see previous post) entirely. As for your additional comments, they are all true, of course. Which is why I was careful to use the qualifier, "Until we discover extraterrestrial life". I don't disagree with anything you've added. Intelligent life is mathematically bound to be out there somewhere and might even be common across the universe. I've never said otherwise. I've confined myself to only what we know for sure thus far. And I stated so, up front, in plain English. I've expressed some things poorly, but that qualifier isn't one of them.

The bottom line, to me, is that it really doesn't matter how much intelligent life might be out there if we never find them. Given the astronomical distances and physical constraints on interstellar travel involved, it's entirely possible (even probable) that we will never know anything about them.
Comment by Reggie on August 22, 2009 at 9:56am
@ Atheist Exile - Qualifiers are great, aren't they? I think I see your point and the confusion may be in they way you expressed it as coming across as mystical or a divined talent. Personally, I think it is great that we have the ability to ponder where we came from. Art, music, literature are all wonderful and, on planet Earth as far as we know, unique to the human species. Of course, they could be nothing more than strange byproducts of our particular intelligence that agriculture gave us the time to indulge in, but nonetheless they are quite enjoyable and valuable to culture.

I think it is interesting to think that we (and possibly other intelligent life) are the Universe's way of becoming aware of itself. However, I think when it is framed that way, it betrays our conceit of hindsight in a way that lends itself to misinterpretation. It is suggestive of intent where no intent exists.


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