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: 37

Comment by Atheist Exile on August 24, 2009 at 1:32am
Hey Ninja,

So THAT is Plinko? LoL, I never knew :-)

I wrote an essay . . . you wrote pot shots. Where am I to find something I can sink MY teeth into?
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 24, 2009 at 1:50am
Serotonin Wraith,

I've already clarified the point that humans are unique within nature. As I recall, I said, "There's human nature, then there's the rest of nature". If you didn't read that in one of my replies, then now you know.

The same could be said for anything? Interesting. I was replying to YOU and what YOU said.

I can see that our discussion is hopeless. It's more than a matter of understanding or misunderstanding. That's too bad.
Comment by Reggie on September 14, 2009 at 8:21pm
You two slay me.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 14, 2009 at 11:51pm
Argumentative (not in good faith) posts here will always be deleted. Not worth responding to.
Comment by Wesley on September 15, 2009 at 1:56am
actually in my experience.. atheists are more skeptical in general than others. They are generally well aware of the scientific method and realize that all knowledge is tentative at best.

No mind. Its as simple as that. Like someone proposing Zeus or Yahweh to me...I ask to see proof of 'mind' without a brain.

I believe we have a 'limited' free will. It is limited by the social and cultural 'grid' that it is both molded by and forced to work within. Because we have both short and long term memory our free will is also changed and molded by experience. The more experience it gains the tighter the grip on its 'free exercise' becomes. It changes from being a limited conditioned 'free' will to a limited conditioned 'calculating from experience' 'free' will.
Some argue that a calculating will isn't free.. but I think thats bogus.. its freedom is just surrounded by a lot of crap.

Becoming aware of all these entanglements is the first step towards 'loosening' the binding on that freedom.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 15, 2009 at 2:21am
Nobody said (or would say) anything about having a mind WITHOUT a brain. Don't need skepticism or the scientific method for that! I do, however, think that the mind is MORE than the brain. The mind is the synthesis of the brain/nervous system and our environment. The brain gathers information (stimuli) from our bodies (5 senses) via the nervous system. The stimuli comes from our immediate, ambient, environment.

I have wondered what it would be like if one were born completely paralyzed, with a normal brain but without a nervous system to deliver sensory stimuli to the brain. Would it be possible to think or to have memories? In what ways could such a person be considered human or alive?
Comment by Reggie on September 15, 2009 at 9:56am
I have wondered what it would be like if one were born completely paralyzed, with a normal brain but without a nervous system to deliver sensory stimuli to the brain. Would it be possible to think or to have memories? In what ways could such a person be considered human or alive?

Is a blind person less human because they are missing a sense? Or take for example that people that are blind from birth have vivid dreams with no visuals, yet blind people who once could see have visual dreams. If the brain is functioning, I imagine the person would be considered human even if they were blocked from all outside stimuli. What their internal world would be like, I can not imagine.
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 15, 2009 at 10:17pm
Hey Reggie,

I am going to turn this into a new blog entry. I think I'll name it, "The Brain, the Whole Brain, and Nothing but the Brain".

If you were born completely paralyzed, you would not have motility. If you had no nervous system, you would not only be blind but you would also be 100% insensate: unable to detect the world in any way. No hearing; no speech; no olfactory, gustational (taste) or tactile feedback: absolutely nothing -- except an otherwise functioning brain. This is the scenario I was hoping to portray: a brain without any possible form of interaction with the external world (or even with your own body, for that matter).

Another scenario (though very sci-fi) with a similar result would be a fully human brain cloned in the laboratory. Using sci-fi technology, it is kept functioning and healthy in a high-tech container. However, it has no nervous system or artificial means to receive stimuli of any kind. The only difference between this scenario and the original one is that the brain is not housed in the skull of a paralyzed and insensate human body.

My purpose in raising this prospect was to drive home the point that the mind is MORE than the brain. The mind relies on the nervous system, sensory organs and environment as much as it does on the brain.
  1. Without stimuli from the environment, there would be nothing for our sense organs to detect.
  2. If there were stimuli but no sense organs, there would be no way to detect the stimuli.
  3. If there were both stimuli and sense organs but no nervous system, there would be no way for stimuli to reach our brains.
  4. If there were no brain, there would be no way to process the stimuli from the environment that was detected by our sense organs and passed along by our nervous system.
So . . . what exactly would a brain be capable of without these other elements of the mind? I say it would be capable of absolutely nothing. There has been research and findings that support my position. For instance, it is thought that ideas can't form without symbols. Also, feral children have consistently shown that the brain's ability to learn language is severely constrained after childhood. Obviously, without experiences, there would be no memories or learning. Creativity requires ideas. Where would ideas come from without contact with the external world?

Anyway . . . my question, based on this scenario, is: can there be "mind" (cognizant consciousness) with just a brain and without external interaction of any kind?
Comment by Reggie on September 15, 2009 at 10:18pm
Good question. I don't rightly know. My above questions were rushed while I was at work and I didn't have time to flesh them out. My point was that if someone is missing a sense, they are not any less human. If they are missing all senses, then I don't know. I imagine that they will not have a human experience, but the potential is there. Would a person even be considered conscious? It's an interesting question I have not pondered before.

But my other point about the blind and dreaming was in pointing out the ways the brain compensates for missing stimuli. Of course, it is borrowing from other stimuli to do the compensating. If it had nothing to borrow from, what then?

Is there a nueroscientist in the house?
Comment by Atheist Exile on September 17, 2009 at 9:15pm
Because this thread has branched off onto a new tangent, I've created a new blog post titled, "The Brain, the Whole Brain and Nothing but the Brain".


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