I have already addressed the more extreme and bizarre versions of associating determinism with fatalism, the versions where determinism is some kind of external force that you can trick or fight against. But there are more subtle versions of this confusion as well, which are not as clearly wrong or bizarre, and therefore are worth addressing.
I want to address two specific sort of arguments here. The first is that determinism is incompatible with knowledge, and is similar to an argument used by Christian apologists about the incompatibility of evolution with knowledge. The apologist argument is that we should not expect evolution to have brought about a brain which generates truths, and that the human brain would be fundamentally unreliable if evolution was true. There are many things we can reply to this, but the main objection is that the brain is not a proposition-generating machine but rather a versatile tool which, like other parts of our body, can be used for many different purposes. One of these purposes happens to be finding rationally justified propositions.
The anti-determinist argument is somewhat similar to this, but basically replaces evolution with determinism. If determinism is true, then our thoughts are the result of predetermined processes in the brain, therefore we cannot assume that our beliefs are correctly justified. This is usually accompanied by a fallacious argument from incredulity: how can we assume that any proposition that is the result of random natural processes will be properly justified?
The main fallacy with this argument is the assumption that natural processes are random or unguided. Everything humans do is determined and regulated by natural law, and yet we don’t say that buildings or computer chips are random, came into existence unguided, or necessarily unreliable. If it would be laughable to assume this in the case of buildings or computer chips, then why should we assume it in the case of human reasoning? When I construct an argument and justify it rationally, am I not acting in a determined manner and in accordance with natural law? The main difference is that a building is an entirely physical product while an argument is a conceptual product, but both require the careful use of our minds in constructing justified beliefs (about construction or about concepts).
Saying that a thought was determined instead of volitional does not change the nature of the thought, or its justification or absence thereof. The only way we can tell whether a proposition is justified remains to look at arguments or lines of reasoning in favor of, or against, it. What I believe about, say, the sky being blue still hangs upon observations of the sky and the facts about light passing through air, regardless of how my brain arrived at the proposition. For that matter, a Markov chain algorithm could theoretically compose an entire argument (with premises, logic, and conclusion) on some subject: the argument would still be true or false on its merits, regardless of the fact that it was the result of an unthinking algorithm (note that I am not arguing that we are anything like a Markov chain algorithm!).
This argument also begs the question of how a volitional brain could use evidence to formulate reasoning. After all, we are told that volition is not affected by physical processes, since anything caused by a physical process is determined. Perceiving evidence is a physical process. So how can a volitional brain process evidence?
The second argument I wanted to discuss is one which attacks the ethical consequences of determinism. In its simplest version, the argument is simply that determinism cannot explain why people change their minds, or how people can consider arguments and “choose” one side over the other. Sometimes this takes the ironic form that determinists are self-contradictory because they are trying to change people’s minds about agency, when that is impossible according to determinism.
This argument always puzzles me because there is no logical connection between determinism and being unable to be convinced by an argument. All that determinism says is that the processes in our brain are the result of natural processes. It does not indicate anything about the kind of thoughts we can or cannot have. Of course we can change our minds, as is demonstrated every day. Indeed, most or all determinists arrived at their position because some argument or discussion changed their minds on the subject. It would be very silly for a determinist to deny that we can change our minds, but we don’t need to, since there is no logical argument going from “determinism is true” to “we cannot change our minds.”
Sometimes the argument is actually backed by a kind of fatalism: people cannot help being what they are. But this is not a position about whether natural law applies to the brain, this is a psychological position. Whether human beings have some “true nature” which is always reflected in their thoughts or actions or not, this has nothing to do with determinism. You can believe in “fixed personalities” (to give a name to this belief) and be a determinist or an anti-determinist, and you can believe that there are no “fixed personalities” and be a determinist or an anti-determinist.
I think the idea that there are “fixed personalities” is silly because people do change their minds. Nothing about this fact has anything to do with determinism, except the obvious conclusion that such changes take place within the realm of natural law, i.e. are a psychological result of some prior psychological cause. Some people are more set in their ways and less likely to change, while others are more tolerant of new attitudes or ideas. This is a very interesting subject, but, again, it has nothing to do with determinism.
Jewish religious writer Dennis Prager is interested in “understand[ing] the atheist as a person and as a thinker.” Because of this, he wants to ask us two questions:
1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?
2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?
He has some… weird opinions about what these questions imply. Here is his analysis of question 1:
I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.
Most of that is just plain wrong. Atheism in itself does not imply that existence is random, that there is no ultimate meaning to life, no objective morality, or that there’s nothing after death. Prager is confusing the atheistic culture, which is areligious and pro-science, with atheism, which is just a lack of belief in gods. You can lack belief in gods and belong to some denominations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Satanism, be a Subgenius, or be a follower of certain secular cults, which all do impart an ultimate meaning to live, an objective morality, and so on. So this is simply sloppy reasoning.
All that being an atheist implies is that any conclusion based on the existence of God is incorrect. This does imply no divine creation, no divine judgment, and no divinely appointed afterlife. However, I don’t see this as a “terrible consequence of atheism.” First of all, it’s not a consequence of atheism: the fact that I don’t believe in a god does not cause the non-existence of an afterlife. The only consequences of atheism are changes to the person who lacks belief, and the people who care about that person’s belief or lack thereof (such as religious family or clergy).
Our thoughts do not cause external things to exist or not exist. To say otherwise is magical thinking. There already is no ultimate justice and no afterlife. The number of atheists in the world, no matter how small or large it is, does not change that.
That being said, I personally do agree that there is no meaning to life, that there is no afterlife, and no ultimate justice (I have no idea what “existence is random” is supposed to mean, and it seems meaningless to me). Do I wish I was wrong about those things? No, because a god would need to exist for these things to exist. The idea of a supreme dictator which created all the evils in the world and who is the supreme arbiter of morality is a horrific one. Such a profoundly evil being is not worthy of admiration, let alone worship, and it is so unreliable that it makes the supposed upsides questionable: what kind of ultimate justice or afterlife would such an immoral being devise, and do we really want it? I sure as Hell don’t (pun intended).
Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life. A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.
I know what being a cold person means, but I don’t know much about cold souls. Either way, I can’t blame anyone who wants there to be objective morality, but there already is, so that’s not a problem. As for ultimate meaning, an afterlife, or ultimate justice, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone who doesn’t want any of those things. I also don’t blame people who do want those things, especially if they are coming off of religious indoctrination.
Within the Christian or Jewish worldview, for example, these things are taught as being extremely good, but they are also taught as extremely simplified concepts and with the (false) belief that God is infinitely good. Ultimate justice is not so attractive when you consider that the judge also created a world with profound evils. The afterlife is not so attractive when you consider the length of eternity and who you get to spend it with. Ultimate meaning is not so attractive when you consider that it means that every life can be judged on its basis, and could be found wanting.
Someone who rejects these things, in my opinion, is not a “cold soul,” but rather a realistic person who’s able to see through the ultra-simplifications of the religious believer.
That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism. This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God. If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God? Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?
This is a nonsensical argument, and I don’t understand why he thinks it makes any sense. Why would I hope that all the suffering in the world was caused by a god which has control over mankind? That would make things much, much worse, in the same way that human hierarchies, and the power they enable some people to wield, magnify and concentrate the evil qualities of humans.
The formulation here invites another question: what does it mean for a god who creates evil to be a “just God”? Where is the justice in this world? God didn’t create justice, it is apparent nowhere in his creation. It can only be created by human beings and other beings who have evolved as social animals. God did not evolve, and therefore has no justice in its heart.
As for question 2:
…I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God. When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?
This is such an old argument that it has to make you smile that a religionist seriously believes we’ve never heard such a thing before. The emotions a person gets when they listen to music, grasp something extremely complex, or see a childbirth, are strong emotions, but emotions, like beliefs, do not cause any external thing (like a god) to exist. The fact that the feelings a religious believer like Prager gets when he goes to temple and when he listens to classical music are similar does not mean that the two objects are similar as well. A sunset is nothing like a piece of music, and a piece of music is nothing like a human brain. The similarity of feelings tells us something about us, about the way our brains process stimuli, but nothing about the objects themselves.
I have no doubts about my atheism, because atheism is not an ideological position. I have doubts about actual positions that I hold, sure. It’s necessary to keep watch for possible errors in your beliefs, if you want to keep being rational. But what does it mean to doubt a lack of belief? It is a fact that I lack a belief in gods. There is nothing to doubt about that. The very idea of this is nonsensical and proves that Praeger doesn’t have the experience of communicating with atheists that he claims to have, because I think an atheist would have pointed that flaw out pretty quickly.
Now, I do also believe that there are no gods, and that is an ideological position. I don’t really doubt that, either, because gods are mythical creatures and that’s the extent of the evidence we have. I assume that Praeger does not believe in, say, leprechauns or Santa Claus, based on them being mythical. Does Praeger doubt his position that leprechauns do not exist? Does Praeger experience doubts on the issue of whether Santa Claus exists?
It is not surprising that people who believe in God experience doubts. Their belief is so irrational, so immoral, so inhumane, so disconnected from reality, that I would be surprised if someone believed in such a thing and never doubted the validity of their belief. I don’t recommend believing in things that are insane. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with having doubts, but this method has limits. Doubting everything all the time would just leave us paralyzed with indecision and confusion. I am willing to bet that Praeger, like all of us, is selective in his doubting abilities. So there really is no issue here.