One of the most compelling debates of the present day is the one between determinism and free will. Questions of this issue reach back for centuries. But the current controversy has been sparked by new theories in physics and science that question whether or not the universe is determined and what freedoms humans have as part of that natural system. There have been many advances in learning how the human brain functions that have put the concept of free will into question. Atheists remain divided on the question of free will. Many secular thinkers do not find the idea of human free will a robust one. Others are convinced of the will’s free agency. Many atheists now maintain a compatibilist stance that intention and choice are possible within a determinist system. The issue is complicated for atheists by their mistrust of theistic concepts, particularly the notion of an immortal soul, which is somehow transposed on the body in a supernatural manner, and makes choices independent of the material working of the brain. Atheists generally believe that the mind is the function of the instantiated brain and the idea of a “little man” making decisions somewhere in the brain is not a salient one. They do not accept the explanations from prominent Christian theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, who maintains that free will is so necessary that it justifies the existence of moral evil. Plantinga states that it was not within god’s power to create a world containing moral good and no moral evil. Such theological arguments, combined with the mythical fall from paradise when Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey divine command, make some atheists desire to dissociate themselves from any libertarian stance concerning the will.
It is important for secular thinkers to keep in mind that the free will concept was not the only current running through theological thinking. The theologian and church father, Augustine, was not a believer in free will, although he mitigated his position somewhat with ideas of choice. Calvin, the 16th Century Protestant reformer and founder of Calvinism, was what is called a hard determinist, stating definitely that man had no free will. The 16th Century theologian, Martin Luther, did not believe in free will, but rather predestination, although his stance was somewhat softer than Calvin’s. Many Christian theologians found the idea of free will was an antipathetic idea, as it placed too much of a limit on god’s omnipotence. However, theist philosophy did not reject the idea of the immortal soul, a concept secular thinkers do not consider coherent. It is important to keep the two strands of Christian thinking concerning free will and predestination in mind. Quite often, secular discussions of free will and determinism focus on the Christian idea of free will and ignore the determinist stance of many Christian religions.
Moving beyond theology, the question of whether man’s nature is at one with the material, causal world, or whether a person can make decisions and choices of his own volition remains a pressing one for secular thinkers in the present day. Professor Roy Weatherford states that the problem is really two difficulties: one metaphysical and the other ethical and in many ways attitudinal in kind. Newton’s discovery of laws of gravity seemed to confirm that not only was the universe causal but determined. This concept was what is termed the “clockwork theory of the universe,” all matter in motion in space, obeying a set of causal laws. Since humans were part of nature, there was an assumption that they, too, were determined, that not only their past, but their future was fixed. They were as determined in their movements as the particles of matter moving in the space of the predetermined universe.
The 20th Century began to move beyond the earlier view of a determined universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity (1915/1916) began to make scientists focus on the concept that their...
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