Do Neurological Studies Prove Free Agency Is An Illusion?

Can atheists explain the existence of “free will” from “inside the room” of the natural universe? I don’t think so, and in my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I illustrate the problem naturalism has trying to account for human free agency. Many consistent atheists, like neurological philosopher Sam Harris, do not believe free agency exists in a deterministic, material universe. Harris denies any of us have the ability to choose freely: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have… You are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts. You can do what you decide to do—but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” (Sam Harris, Free Will, page 5 and pp. 37-38).

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Are Atheists Right? Is “Free Will” An Unnecessary, Unimportant Illusion?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I describe eight pieces of evidence “in the room” of the natural universe and ask a simple question: Can this evidence be explained by staying “inside the room” or is a better explanation “outside the room” of naturalism? One important piece of evidence I consider in this effort is the existence of “free will”. Strict atheistic determinists like Sam Harris don’t even make an effort to explain how free will could exist “inside the room” of the natural, physical universe. Instead, they describe free will as completely illusory and challenge the rest of us to explain why we find it necessary to possess (or account for) it in the first place. Harris sees no need for free will to effectively prosecute law breakers: “We need not have any illusions that a causal agent lives within the human mind to recognize that certain people are dangerous.” Criminals still need to be isolated from potential victims, even if their actions are not the result of free will. In the end, according to determinists like Harris, we need not acknowledge nor accept the existence of free will to explain our need for a criminal justice system. In fact, Harris argues our world would be a far better place if we accepted the non-existence of free will: “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.” Harris believes our inclinations toward hatred would be reduced if we came to accept free will as an illusion. But is Harris’ optimism justified, and does this attitude toward free will do anything to explain our own experiences of free agency?
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Evil Is Evidence God Exists

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I describe the difference between inculpatory and exculpatory evidence. Facts or circumstances pointing toward the involvement of a particular suspect are said to be inculpatory. Evidence that might clear a suspect from suspicion is said to be exculpatory. While my book outlines a comprehensive, cumulative case inculpating a Divine Creator (based on the origin and fine tuning of the universe, the origin of life and appearance of design in biology, the existence of consciousness and free will, and the presence of objective moral truths), we must weigh these inculpating evidences against the one potentially exculpating piece of evidence: the presence of evil and injustice.
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Are Moral Truths Simply Brute Facts About the Universe?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I describe eight pieces of evidence “in the room” of the natural universe and ask a simple question: Can this evidence be explained by staying “inside the room” or is a better explanation “outside the room” of naturalism? One important piece of evidence I consider in this effort is the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths. Many atheistic philosophers, while they recognize the existence of such truths, attempt to explain them from “inside the room” by describing moral truths as “brute facts” of the cosmos. Like mathematical truths and the laws of logic, moral truths are described as “fixed features” of the universe. According to these naturalistic philosophers, humans don’t create such truths; we simply become aware of them after careful reflection. Moral laws, under this view, are every bit as binding on us as the laws of logic or math. By claiming moral truths are simply brute facts, atheists are able to explain their existence from “inside the room,” but this explanation, while it recognizes and affirms the existence of objective moral truth, fails to adequately explain its origin:

This Approach Fails to Account for Moral “Obligations”
It’s one thing to acknowledge a particular fact, but another to be obligated to submit to such a fact. Describing moral truth as a brute fact of the universe serves to identify and affirm moral truths without explaining why there are moral obligations. Philosophers David Baggett and Jerry Walls put it this way: “Naturalism can make good sense of why we might feel or believe that we have moral obligations, but it has a much harder time explaining moral obligations themselves, and its deterministic framework means that vital moral categories, to survive, have to be watered down and replaced.” The laws of mathematics and logic describe “what is,” but moral laws describe “what ought to be,” and moral claims and legal statutes represent obligations between persons.

This Approach Fails to Explain Why There Are Brute Facts
Those who describe the existence of objective moral truth claims as brute facts of the universe have only taken the first step in explaining their existence. When I discover a piece of evidence in a crime scene, it’s not enough for me to simply identify its existence. I’ve got to figure out how the evidence got in the scene in the first place. Why is it there? If moral truth is a brute fact of the universe, we should reasonably ask why this is the case and begin to examine what kind of universe would necessarily possess moral obligations in the first place.

This Approach Disconnects Morality from Mind
As philosopher John Rist observes, moral ideals are “objects of thoughts, not mere constructs or concepts.” This poses a problem for those who think transcendent moral truths are a brute fact of the universe. The notion of a transcendent, eternal “object of thought” without a transcendent, eternal “thinker of thoughts” is incomprehensible. Baggett and Walls put it this way: “The need for Platonic forms ultimately to be grounded in a mind that recognizes them is once again keenly felt. ‘Free floating metaphysical items’ do not have the ontological strength and stability that we think morality must have. Even if we discern these moral truths before we identify their deeper foundations, this only reminds us again that the order of knowing is distinct from the order of being.”

This Approach Suppresses Further Investigation
As with similar efforts to explain the reason for the universe’s existence (I also describe these in Chapter Two of God’s Crime Scene), explanations such as “that’s just the way it is,” or “that’s a pointless question” are largely unsatisfying and serve to suppress further investigation rather than lead us to the truth. Detectives who take this approach typically don’t solve many murders. If reasonable explanations are available, we ought not to ignore them in favor of “that’s just the way it is.”

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Are Moral Truths a Product of Culture?

In my new book, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for A Divinely Created Universe, I examine eight pieces of evidence in the universe by asking a simple investigative question: “Can I explain the evidence ‘in the room’ (of the natural universe) by staying ‘in the room’?” This is a question I ask at every death scene to determine if I actually have a crime scene. When evidence “in the room” can’t be explained by staying “in the room”, I’ve got to consider the involvement of an intruder. If the evidence inside the universe can’t be explained by staying “inside” the natural realm of the universe, we must similarly consider the involvement of a cosmic intruder. One critical piece of the evidence in the universe is the existence of transcendent moral truths. Can we explain these truths by staying “inside the room”?
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About
J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective, Christian case maker and author of Cold-Case Christianity and God's Crime Scene


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