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Greetings philosophers! I’ve always wondered if free will is a problem for

Greetings philosophers! I’ve always wondered if free will is a problem for atheism. In particular, if there was no designer (God), isn’t it unlikely that something as strange as free will would arise?

As always with questions about free will, the answer to this one depends on how one understands free will. If one defines free will as a God-given power, then yes, atheists who accept that definition would conclude that there is no free will. But that's not a very good definition of free will. If one thinks free will requires a non-physical soul, then atheists who believe there are no such souls, would also think there is no free will. Atheists could believe in such souls, however (just not that they are God-given). Some scientists who say free will is an illusion (I call them 'willusionists') seem to think that the materialist worldview that science seems to provide evidence for rules out free will, because they assume free will, by definition, requires non-physical powers.

But I don't see any good reason to define free will as God-given or instantiated only in souls (and some of my work studying folk intuitions about free will suggests that most people agree with me). Rather, free will is the capacity to make choices and control actions such that one can be responsible for one's actions. This capacity is extremely complex (and for a naturalist like me, it's no surprise that it requires something as complex as the most complexly structured thing in the universe, the human brain--indeed, it's hard to see how a soul, whatever that might be, has the right sort of complexity). But I don't think "strange" is the right word for it.

How could the capacity for free will arise without a designer God. Like everything else in the biological world--the process of evolution. Some of the capacities involved in free will, such as the ability to consciously envision various possible future situations, each of which depends on what one chooses to do, were likely selected for directly because of their contribution to survival (and reproduction). Others, such as the ability to consider one's own mental states, such as desires, may have been a byproduct of abilities selected for other benefits, such as the ability to represent other individuals' mental states (the better to see, for instance, if they are trying to deceive you in complex cooperative ventures).

The upshot is that, once we hone in on a useful and plausible understanding of what it takes to have free will, it looks like it can be naturalized in such a way that it does not depend on God or souls.

I should add that the existence of God notoriously raises problems for free will that atheists don't face. If God knows everything we will choose before we choose it--or worse, if God is the cause of everything, including what we choose--then it is hard to understand how we can choose freely or be in control of what we choose.

As always with questions about free will, the answer to this one depends on how one understands free will. If one defines free will as a God-given power, then yes, atheists who accept that definition would conclude that there is no free will. But that's not a very good definition of free will. If one thinks free will requires a non-physical soul, then atheists who believe there are no such souls, would also think there is no free will. Atheists could believe in such souls, however (just not that they are God-given). Some scientists who say free will is an illusion (I call them 'willusionists') seem to think that the materialist worldview that science seems to provide evidence for rules out free will, because they assume free will, by definition, requires non-physical powers. But I don't see any good reason to define free will as God-given or instantiated only in souls (and some of my work studying folk intuitions about free will suggests that most people agree with me). Rather, free will is...

Hi I have a hairy one for you. Imagine if you will that you have a mystical

Hi I have a hairy one for you. Imagine if you will that you have a mystical experience and you encounter the Supreme, Ultimate Absolute i.e. God. And that you can ask this being any question you desire. But being a bit of a skeptic you ask it "what question should I ask you?" Would this constitute a good test or would I simply be acting cute and incur Gods wrath? But in all seriousness if you did encounter a being claiming to be God, what would constitute proof? I figure we would probably know anyway, because I can't envision God not installing some sort of Truth recognition factor, but then I've been influenced by a lot of New Age mumbo jumbo, so I want to know what a philosopher thinks. Cheers Pasquale

I like the ploy of asking an apparent Supreme Being (SB), "What would be the best question to ask you?" but only if you can also make sure that the SB answers that question. How frustrating would it be if SB responded, "You should ask me, 'What is the meaning of life?'" and then laughed at you as you realized you'd used up your one and only question! But I don't see how this question would help you determine if the SB was really God or whether your vision was real or a hallucination, dream, or matrix-like experience induced by a powerful but not supreme being. Heck, you could ask me what question you should ask, and I could give you a good answer. (Ask what is the meaning of life!)

So, what would constitute proof that your vision of an SB was genuine? Nothing, if your standards are set at Descartes' level of proof--you could be dreaming or in a matrix and never be able to tell, no matter what the SB said or did. But you could use a more reasonable standard, like best explanation for the observed phenomena. So, you could ask the SB to produce effects that would be best explained by your having asked such a being to produce them--e.g., "Tomorrow, allow me to fly unassisted for an hour and cure malaria and the flu." When you fly and read headlines about the diseases being eradicated, that seems like good evidence that the SB you met is pretty supreme. If SB is not willing to produce such evidence, you should taunt him/her/it: "What's the matter, you're not supreme enough to do it? Come on, show me a sign!"

I like the ploy of asking an apparent Supreme Being (SB), "What would be the best question to ask you?" but only if you can also make sure that the SB answers that question. How frustrating would it be if SB responded, "You should ask me, 'What is the meaning of life?'" and then laughed at you as you realized you'd used up your one and only question! But I don't see how this question would help you determine if the SB was really God or whether your vision was real or a hallucination, dream, or matrix-like experience induced by a powerful but not supreme being. Heck, you could ask me what question you should ask, and I could give you a good answer. (Ask what is the meaning of life!) So, what would constitute proof that your vision of an SB was genuine? Nothing, if your standards are set at Descartes' level of proof--you could be dreaming or in a matrix and never be able to tell, no matter what the SB said or did. But you could use a more reasonable standard, like best explanation for the observed...

Nazism is an anti-Semitic and therefore immoral ideology. Public officials and

Nazism is an anti-Semitic and therefore immoral ideology. Public officials and institutions in Nazi-era Germany which did not speak out against Nazism therefore can be seen as having had a moral failing. Christianity is a homophobic and therefore immoral religion. Public officials and institutions of today which don't speak out against Christianity therefore have a moral failing. Is there anything wrong with this logic?

I think the logic is fine, but I'm not sure about the content of the argument. The argument structure is:

1. X is an institution with an essential goal that is clearly immoral.

2. It is wrong for individuals and institutions not to do what they can to prevent an institution from achieving immoral goals.

3. So, it is wrong for individuals and institutions not to do what they can to prevent X from achieving its immoral goals.

If we fill in Nazism for X and wiping out Jews for their essential immoral goal, the valid argument also looks sound (i.e., the premises and therefore the conclusion are true). But if we fill in Christianity for X, that argument is less clearly sound, mainly because Christianity is a much more diverse institution than Nazism with more varied essential goals. Some Christians take their religion to require fighting against homophobic practices, just as some fought against slavery and racism, while other Christians take it as an essential implication of their religion that homosexuality is wrong, just as some fought to protect slavery and segregation.

If we focus on the latter, fundamentalist Christians, then I think the argument is sound. Public officials and institutions, as well as individuals, should speak out against the homophobia of fundamentalist Christians (and Jews and Muslims and others). All of this is based on the premise, which I believe is true, that homophobic practices (such as discrimination against gays in employment, marriage, adoptions, etc.) are immoral.

However, there is one other problem with your argument by analogy. Very very few Christians suggest that homosexuals should be treated the way Nazis treated Jews (and the way Nazis treated homosexuals!). There is a big difference between saying homosexuals cannot marry and saying homosexuals should be rounded up and systematically slaughtered. This difference suggests different reactions--e.g., violent war against Nazis vs. non-violent protests and public confrontation against homophobes. Nonetheless, as we have seen recently, homophobia can have deadly consequences, and it needs to be banished from our society along with other forms of discrimination.

I think the logic is fine, but I'm not sure about the content of the argument. The argument structure is: 1. X is an institution with an essential goal that is clearly immoral. 2. It is wrong for individuals and institutions not to do what they can to prevent an institution from achieving immoral goals. 3. So, it is wrong for individuals and institutions not to do what they can to prevent X from achieving its immoral goals. If we fill in Nazism for X and wiping out Jews for their essential immoral goal, the valid argument also looks sound (i.e., the premises and therefore the conclusion are true). But if we fill in Christianity for X, that argument is less clearly sound, mainly because Christianity is a much more diverse institution than Nazism with more varied essential goals. Some Christians take their religion to require fighting against homophobic practices, just as some fought against slavery and racism, while other Christians take it as an essential implication...

Why doesn't knowledge of the obvious causal relationship between consciousness

Why doesn't knowledge of the obvious causal relationship between consciousness and brains destroy any ideas of an afterlife?

The fact that one thing causes another does not mean than the second could not exist without the first. Consider the case of a forest fire, for example. A carelessly flung match could be the cause, and yet (a) the fire could continue even after the match is destroyed, and (b) other things, such as a bolt of lightning, could substitute for the match as cause of the fire. Similarly, one could think (a) that brain activity causes consciousness, but consciousness can continue even after the brain is destroyed, or (b) that things other than brain activity, e.g. cosmic vibrations, could also cause consciousness. Without evidence to support these possibilities, they remain mere possibilities; but they do show why the causal relation you cite does not "destroy an ideas of an afterlife".

If you think that an individual's consciousness is not just caused by the activity of her brain but is identical with it, then that consciousness must indeed cease when the activity of that brain ceases. But many who agree that there is an "obvious" causal relationship between consciousness and the brain do not think that consciousness is identical with the brain.

It doesn't. There are several possibilities here. One is that there is a causal relationship between the physical brain and a non-physical mind, which can still make sense of the idea that when alcohol is coursing through your veins into your brain it causes your conscious experiences to be funky or when a part of your brain is lesioned it causes mental disorders. This view is Descartes' dualism. If it is true, then presumably your non-physical mind (or soul) can survive after your physical body dies (though it's hard to imagine how things would be for your bodiless soul in "heaven"--e.g., how do you find grandma? and what would you do for fun?). This view becomes less plausible the stronger the correlations between brain states and mental states become (the soul seems to have nothing left to do). So, supposing such dualism is implausible and we assume this evidence of a causal relationship between brains and consciousness is evidence of a physicalist view, one that says the mind just ...

Occam's razor seems to be a devestating weapon when it comes to the atheist's

Occam's razor seems to be a devestating weapon when it comes to the atheist's argument to why God doesn't exist, or more precisely it is more likely that he doesn't exist. It seems the scientific community has the consensus that they will never rely on "God" for the answer to any problem. Will there ever be a scenario in which God might prove simpler than the scientific or mathmatical explanation, and Occam's razor can be used to justify a belief in God?

What if a burning bush appeared out of nowhere in Central Park in front of hundreds of people and said, "It is God speaking. I have come to tell you that you should believe that I exist. Also, love one another. And, by the way, the health care bill does not say anything about a 'death panel'"? Well, a scientifically minded person would want to consider various alternative explanations for this event. For instance, perhaps it's an elaborate hoax involving holograms or even mass hypnosis. But another hypothesis worth considering is that it was God, and God is able to perform miracles that cannot be explained by anything the sciences study (or could study). There might be ways to test whether this event was a hoax, but presumably a 'hoaxster' would try to cover his tracks.

So, what if an agnostic scientist in the crowd said to the burning bush, "I would like to believe in God but I need evidence that the best explanation for this event is that you really exist and that this isn't just a hoax. Please plan to appear again in a laboratory I will secure at noon tomorrow (of course, you'll know where to go, right?)." She then secures a lab that cannot be 'hoaxed' and sets up various equipment to measure everything she can, such as whether matter or energy is coming into the lab from outside, etc. God appears at noon and has a long conversation with the scientist and dozens of witnesses of various beliefs and backgrounds (brought in at the last minute so they couldn't set up a hoax). God explains some mysteries, maybe even explains how it is the he exists outside of physical space-time yet can interact with it, etc.

Well, now I think the best explanation for these events is that God exists (i.e., the entity that calls himself God and has these powers and this knowledge exists) and that God caused these events. It looks like applying Occam's razor here would suggest this explanation is superior to any scientific or mathematical explanation (at least any that we could currently offer, without ad hoc adjustments). It may be that we could eventually develop scientific explanations that would account for this God, but they'd be very different, it seems, than our current paradigm.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, none of the actual events (or interpretations of them) that people have thought are better explained by the existence of God than by potential scientific explanations are actually best explained by the existence of God. I could, of course, be mistaken.

This suggests to me that if God exists, God does not want it to be easy to believe in him based on our best evidential standards. Perhaps this is where faith is supposed to come in.

What if a burning bush appeared out of nowhere in Central Park in front of hundreds of people and said, "It is God speaking. I have come to tell you that you should believe that I exist. Also, love one another. And, by the way, the health care bill does not say anything about a 'death panel'"? Well, a scientifically minded person would want to consider various alternative explanations for this event. For instance, perhaps it's an elaborate hoax involving holograms or even mass hypnosis. But another hypothesis worth considering is that it was God, and God is able to perform miracles that cannot be explained by anything the sciences study (or could study). There might be ways to test whether this event was a hoax, but presumably a 'hoaxster' would try to cover his tracks. So, what if an agnostic scientist in the crowd said to the burning bush, "I would like to believe in God but I need evidence that the best explanation for this event is that you really exist and that this isn't just a hoax...

I know that agnostics believe truth (such as whether or not god exists) to be

I know that agnostics believe truth (such as whether or not god exists) to be unknown. But does this imply that they believe that an absolute truth exists but cannot be obtained by humans? Basically my question is if agnostics think that truth is subjective or objective? Thanks!

I think there are (at least) three ways one could be an agnostic about the existence of God, though we often use the word "agnostic" to apply to someone uncommitted about the truth of other propositions, and my categories should apply to many of these types of agnosticism as well, so I will use the general formulation "A is agnostic about X":

1) A is agnostic about X because A thinks X is either true of false (e.g., either God exists or God does not exist), but A believes no human could ever know whether X is true or false (e.g., perhaps we are built such that we simply could not discover the truth of X or never be justified in believing X or ~X). Note that some philosophers think that if X is not even in principle something we could discover to be true or false, then X is meaningless or X has no truth value or something like that, in which case this sort of agnosticism could look like a form of subjectivism. But I am interpreting A in this case to believe that there is an objective truth about X. This sort of agnostic will find both theism and atheism to be unjustified.

2) A is agnostic about X because A thinks X is either true or false, but A believes s/he does not have enough evidence to believe X or ~X. This sort of agnostic is likely to be an objectivist about X. For example, s/he believes God either exists or does not exist, but s/he just doesn't think s/he has enough evidence to know one way or the other. But unlike, type-1 agnostics, this agnostic thinks s/he could gain enough evidence to believe one way or the other. And presumably s/he thinks some other people have such evidence, such that s/he does not find their theism or atheism irrational.

3) A is agnostic about X because A thinks X has no objective truth value (e.g., there is no fact of the matter about whether God exists). This would be the subjectivist agnostic. But it's hard for me to see why this agnosticism is not really a form of atheism. If one thinks the proposition "God exists" is not even potentially objectively true, then it seems one thinks God could not really exist. But I may be making a modal mistake somewhere here. Compare: a subjectivist about all moral claims, such as "X is good," seems to be saying more than "I don't know whether X is good"; rather, s/he seems to be saying "I know that it is false that X is good, because 'X is good' is neither true nor false."

I suspect most agnostics are type-1 or type-2. But now I'm wondering if there are some type-3 agnostics and whether they should really call themselves atheists. Of course, most atheists will be objectivists, who believe "God does not exist" is objectively true.

Finally, there will be people who call themselves agnostics because they believe some sort of God exists (may exist?) but they aren't sure what sort of God exists.

I think there are (at least) three ways one could be an agnostic about the existence of God, though we often use the word "agnostic" to apply to someone uncommitted about the truth of other propositions, and my categories should apply to many of these types of agnosticism as well, so I will use the general formulation "A is agnostic about X": 1) A is agnostic about X because A thinks X is either true of false (e.g., either God exists or God does not exist), but A believes no human could ever know whether X is true or false (e.g., perhaps we are built such that we simply could not discover the truth of X or never be justified in believing X or ~X). Note that some philosophers think that if X is not even in principle something we could discover to be true or false, then X is meaningless or X has no truth value or something like that, in which case this sort of agnosticism could look like a form of subjectivism. But I am interpreting A in this case to believe that there is an objective...

Having just read Dawkins's The God Delusion I was appalled to learn how reviled

Having just read Dawkins's The God Delusion I was appalled to learn how reviled atheists are in America. In Europe a person's stance (including politician's) on religion is largely irrelevant unless they draw attention to it. What is going on in America? What should skeptics and atheist philosophers do there to point out that atheism is a reasoned and logical viewpoint that doesn't presuppose immorality, etc.? It beggars belief that all presidential aspirants have to (in some cases as Dawkins remarks) probably pretend to be Christians in order to have any chance of being elected. I know of the Atheist's Wager, acceptance of which seems braver to me than blindly accepting the religious promises of heaven as dictated by those who brought you up. And what place do 'faith-based initiatives' have in an ostensibly secular government where church and state are separate under the constitution?

The clarification is welcome, but the reason for my remark was simply that I was putting these two remarks together: (i) "I think that an avowed atheist would have absolutely no hope ofelection to President or likely to any major office in any (or almostany) state, regardless of his or her other attributes orviews..."; (ii) "Once one recognizes that atheists can and do believe these [sensible] things, itis difficult to see why choosing not to believe in a God withsupernatural powers...should count against one's ability to bean effective political leader or most anything else." Unless I'm missing something, (ii), read against (i), strongly suggests that an atheist is someone who rejects supernaturalism, etc, which rather strongly suggests that a theist is someone who endorses it. Perhaps (ii) was badly stated, and should have said simply, "...it is difficult to see why choosing not to believe in a divine being should count against...".

I take a more pessimistic view than Professor Leaman. I think that an avowed atheist would have absolutely no hope of election to President or likely to any major office in any (or almost any) state, regardless of his or her other attributes or views, and that an avowed agnostic would have no hope of election to President or most major offices in most states, and that a candidate who did not strongly avow being a Christian (or perhaps Jew) would have almost no hope of being elected President. And I think that these facts are causes for concern for a number of reasons. For instance, it indicates a specific type of intolerance, one that I think is largely based on a failure to understand what atheists do (and can) believe. Though Professor Leaman's is correct when he says atheists are "believers in nothing" if he is referring only to supernatural deities, atheists can and usually do believe (often strongly): that life has meaning and purpose that there are moral truths or at least...

I can't be sure whether the pronouns in Richard's second sentence are supposed to refer to me or to Dawkins. If he (Richard H.) is referring to me, I'm not sure why. I don't see anything in what I said that suggests I believe all religious people share the same beliefs or that I am "ignorant of the varieties of religious belief." To clarify, there are some religious people in this country--I would say, too many--who act as though atheism (or perhaps any other failure to share their own faith-based beliefs) is a sign of moral terpitude (e.g., of the sort that disqualifies you for public office). Of course, it works the other way too. I certainly hold it against a political candidate if he or she avows certain religious doctrines (e.g., intelligent design). On that note, I think another potential concern of the influence of fundamentalist religious organizations and individuals on politics in America is their ability to undermine scientific research and science education.

Most atheists presumably believe that there is insufficient evidence to justify

Most atheists presumably believe that there is insufficient evidence to justify belief in God. What I want to ask is: is there ANY evidence? Or none at all? Is there anything that the panelists might point to and say, "this counts as evidence that God exists"?

I didn't respond earlier mainly because it was that time of year when college teachers are worried about grading exams and such. But I'm with Richard on this one: I find many of the discussion of evidence around this question not altogether helpful. There is, of course, evidence for God's existence, but then there can be evidence in favor of claims that we ultimately reject. so if the only question were whether there is any evidence at all the answer would be easy. But many thoughtful believers don't to believe because they're convinced by some quasi-scientific argument. They believe because as it seems to them, belief in God makes the most sense of things entire.

There's a way of misunderstanding that. Non-believers often think of believers as offering something akin to a scientific hypothesis, meant to explain the details of the physical world, and that is one strain of traditional theological thought. But I don't think it has a lot to do with the outlook of the typical believer. As Richard points out, it's hard to capture what animates the believer in resolutely literal terms. When a believer talks of God as that in which she "lives, moves and has her being," she's not talking about the air or the electromagnetic field.

This sometimes frustrates and annoys non-believers. They accuse the believer of self-deception, or foggy thinking, or disingenuousness. The believer may feel a bit like someone who's been asked to explain why she enjoys abstract expressionist painting or why he loves his spouse. It's not as though there's nothing to say, but it doesn't really feel like a subject for argument and evidence in the ordinary sense either.

There's a good deal more to be said here and trying to say it in short compass would do violence to the subject. But another analogy may help: it would be odd to look for evidence that there is such a thing as cause and effect, understood in a way that goes beyond mere patterns of correlation among events. Philosophers who aren't satisfied with a thin account of cause and effect of the sort often called Humean can't cite scientific evidence, because the background notion of causation is part of how they understand evidence. And while they can offer reasons of various sorts, these reasons are hardly probabative. What we might call "realists" about causation are probably realists because it seems to them that overall, this way of looking at things makes the most sense of things.

By the way: you may wonder if I speak as a believer. My answer would be that I find myself without a commitment on these questions, and without any sense that I need one. You might call that agnosticism, but that doesn't seem to me to get it right either, since what many people who call themselves agnostic tend to be agnostic about doesn't exactly seem to me to be worth fighting over. Suffice it to say that I can be quite comfortable participating in religious services, and don't worry too much about what it means when I do. This puzzles and even annoys some of my fellow philosophers. Just between you and me, I've been known to get a certain good-humored pleasure from that fact.

I am an atheist, but I think that before Darwin I probably would have been convinced by the Design (teleological) argument to believe in at least a Deistic God. Without the theory of evolution by natural selection to explain the wonders of nature, a creator God may have been the best explanation for the (apparent) design of living organisms. Today, however, the best argument available for the existence of God seems to be a modern version of the Design argument (NOT intelligent design) called the 'fine tuning' argument. It claims that there are astronomically many ways that the fundamental physical constants of the universe could have been and that the vast majority of these ways would lead to a universe without the requisite materials for the evolution of life (e.g., matter, stars, planets, etc.). So, the fact that the universe has the 'right' physical constants for these materials and hence for evolution and hence for the evolution of intelligence is supposed to be evidence that a creator made...