In Defence of Militant Atheism: A Response to ‘The Delusion of Free Will’

The Delusion of Free Will

This article is a reply to Danny Broderick’s ‘The Delusion of Free Will’, which you can find here.

What Mr Broderick says in his article (or rather, allows Madeleine Bunting to say in hers without any cross-examination) is that free will is an illusion, and that humans are collective beings acting in a cosmos — that this justifies spiritual enquiry, and that Hitchens/Dawkins et al. are nasty for attacking ‘god’ as the vicious god of the Old Testament when ‘god’ is just a word used to describe the “infinite and transcendent merging of the individualised sense of awareness with the wider dimension”.
With regard to the first point, that free will is an illusion, I will go so far as to agree that universal free will is an illusion. My ability to make choices in the future is determined by the choices I already have made. For instance, I could choose to leave the room at this point, get a taxi to the airport and fly to Istanbul. Unfortunately, I chose earlier to a) spend the money I had on a chocolate bar, and at the start of term, b) to leave my passport at home in Bourne. As such, my free will has been restricted by my exercising of that free will in the past, so I do not have the ability to do anything I please. However, Mr Broderick does not make this case—rather, he asserts that because human beings are social creatures, who have a tendency to interact, influence and be influenced by and with other such mammals, we do not make choices because we have a rational mind but due to a ‘herd mentality’. This seems to blur the lines between influence and coercion, where the former is an affect on free will, and the latter the violation or removal of it.
It is self-evident that every choice we make is influenced by our peer group—we may well choose to go to the cinema if a group of friends were going when we would not go alone, for example. What this shows is not a herd mentality, but rather that we hold social interaction quite highly in our desires, and that its presence (or not) will change our decisions accordingly. This does not demonstrate a lack of free will or rationality, rather, it demonstrates its full presence.
Coercion, on the other hand, is the removal of free will. To take the previous example, if one were to decide not to attend the cinema, and then be physically forced to, one has been coerced into that action. Our free will has been violated/removed, because our process of rational choice (as demonstrated above) has been completely bypassed.
On then to the ‘secular rationalists’, and the first thing we hear is that, rather than being a revolt against overpowerful religion which seeks to exert influence greater than that which it is due, these arguments are ‘personal’ battles of the writers against their own insecurity in belief. (As an aside, surely this would mean that suicide bombers and the likes of Jerry Falwell are also battling against their own crisis of faith? But never mind.)
Dawkins and Hitchens then come under fire for “attacking anyone who does not agree with their own rationalist dogma, accusing all those who deny the absolute authority of scientific method as being stupid”. Aside from ‘rationalist dogma’ being an oxymoron—as the basis of rationalism is a theory ‘in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive’, and the fact that much of the atheist argument is derived from empiricism and the subsequent lovechild of rationalism and empiricism, pragmatism; the most pertinent response is to question would method other than the scientific should we use to gain knowledge if rationalism’s authority is false?
The whole basis of the scientific method, and its founding stone, is its absolute authority. We know gravity exists through daily observation; the scientific method on every level of scale demonstrates it exists, and explains why. The basis of empirical methodology is that any theory must have empirical proof to support its validity. Absence of proof means the theory cannot be verified, and as such is treated as non-verified (rather than disproven, which is different). There is no room in this method for any alternative explanation or validation. So if scientific method must have absolute authority to work, and if that authority if false, where does that leave the human race’s pursuit of knowledge?
Broderick argues that human beings are not special above any other type of mammal, and that our perception of reality is entirely down to how our body is configured. In essence, he repeats one of Christopher Hitchens’ main arguments. And then attempts to attribute it to religion, amazingly, asserting that “awareness is not decisive to the way humans act”. This is a staggeringly large assertion to make, and with no previous analysis to back up such a claim.
We then hear more of the basic biological truth (or should that be ‘theory’?) that humans aren’t special, followed by a further assertion that awareness is “endemic to the world itself”. This (alas, scientifically) would seem to be false: though humans are not biologically special, brains scans do show that we are one of a minority of animals that exhibit higher brain functions, which could (or do) indicate self-awareness. Current scientific theory would suggest that a cockroach, say, exists on little more than advanced instinct.
Finally we get a further attempt to link this to religion, with the claim that “religions have always said this”. Far from it. It has always been religion that has maintained mankind’s special position in the universe—the story of Adam and Eve being one of the foremost examples of the idea that mankind is ‘higher’ than other organisms. Broderick then states that our ‘awareness’ (which he has, until now, been arguing does not exist) connects us to “the greater awareness that exists as an underlying basis of the cosmos”. Seeing as there is absolutely no scientific (sorry, but all quiet on the new method front) proof, or any other kind of empirical evidence for this ‘awareness’, it is completely contradictory to invoke its authority having questioned that of empirical fact-gathering by experiment.
The last three paragraphs complain about the misuse of the word ‘god’, attack Madeleine Bunting for being a socialist, and big-up buddhism. Leaving Ms Bunting aside, the word ‘god’ is so used by Dawkins/Hitchens for two reasons: first, to highlight that scripture is not the basis for belief (cue the ‘but we don’t believe that’ response when Sodom & Gommorah is brought up to most christians); and second, because it is the theistic god that theism proposes. Yes, ‘god’ can and has been used as a deistic or pantheistic descriptor, but as these positions are very much in the minority in discussions of religion, it would be stupid to act on these and downgrade the majority. (As an aside, if we do accept the authority of scientific enquiry, a theistic god can be tested for—seeing as the interventions in the corporeal world of such an entity should manifest themselves around the devout.)
Briefly, and finally, Buddhism. This is a religion which, while not strictly theistic, asserts that complete truth can only be found in its teaching—the carrot with which it exerts power over the uneducated and faux bohemian educated, and sets up the Dalai Lama as the manifestation of a god present on earth, who is infallible, and by divine right exerts political power over the people of Tibet. Like most religions, it is sexist (as the position of Dalai Lama can only be held by a male), and its material is borrowed/stolen from other, now extinct, faiths (neatly displaying Dawkins’ analogy of religion to a genome). Add to this that Western Buddhism (which I would assume Broderick refers to, as opposed to Tibetan Buddhism) is ‘hardly any more than New Age mysticism with a more respectable name’ [Ken H Jones], while its leader exerts political influence on the world stage as well as at home. In short, Buddhism, despite its hippy appeal, is no more moral than other more frequent targets of the militant atheists, such as the Catholic Church.
In short, this whole article is a mish-mash of contradictions, atheist-bashing and buddhism, with a few staggering assertions thrown in without the evidence to back them up. Now, off to exercise my awareness…

__________________________________________________________________________

What Mr Broderick says in his article (or rather, allows Madeleine Bunting to say in hers without any cross-examination) is that free will is an illusion, and that humans are collective beings acting in a cosmos — that this justifies spiritual enquiry, and that Hitchens/Dawkins et al. are nasty for attacking ‘god’ as the vicious god of the Old Testament when ‘god’ is just a word used to describe the “infinite and transcendent merging of the individualised sense of awareness with the wider dimension”.

With regard to the first point, that free will is an illusion, I will go so far as to agree that universal free will is an illusion. My ability to make choices in the future is determined by the choices I already have made. For instance, I could choose to leave the room at this point, get a taxi to the airport and fly to Istanbul. Unfortunately, I chose earlier to a) spend the money I had on a chocolate bar, and at the start of term, b) to leave my passport at home in Bourne. As such, my free will has been restricted by my exercising of that free will in the past, so I do not have the ability to do anything I please. However, Mr Broderick does not make this case—rather, he asserts that because human beings are social creatures, who have a tendency to interact, influence and be influenced by and with other such mammals, we do not make choices because we have a rational mind but due to a ‘herd mentality’. This seems to blur the lines between influence and coercion, where the former is an affect on free will, and the latter the violation or removal of it.

It is self-evident that every choice we make is influenced by our peer group—we may well choose to go to the cinema if a group of friends were going when we would not go alone, for example. What this shows is not a herd mentality, but rather that we hold social interaction quite highly in our desires, and that its presence (or not) will change our decisions accordingly. This does not demonstrate a lack of free will or rationality, rather, it demonstrates its full presence.

Coercion, on the other hand, is the removal of free will. To take the previous example, if one were to decide not to attend the cinema, and then be physically forced to, one has been coerced into that action. Our free will has been violated/removed, because our process of rational choice (as demonstrated above) has been completely bypassed.

On then to the ‘secular rationalists’, and the first thing we hear is that, rather than being a revolt against overpowerful religion which seeks to exert influence greater than that which it is due, these arguments are ‘personal’ battles of the writers against their own insecurity in belief. (As an aside, surely this would mean that suicide bombers and the likes of Jerry Falwell are also battling against their own crisis of faith? But never mind.)

Dawkins and Hitchens then come under fire for “attacking anyone who does not agree with their own rationalist dogma, accusing all those who deny the absolute authority of scientific method as being stupid”. Aside from ‘rationalist dogma’ being an oxymoron—as the basis of rationalism is a theory ‘in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive’, and the fact that much of the atheist argument is derived from empiricism and the subsequent lovechild of rationalism and empiricism, pragmatism; the most pertinent response is to question would method other than the scientific should we use to gain knowledge if rationalism’s authority is false?

The whole basis of the scientific method, and its founding stone, is its absolute authority. We know gravity exists through daily observation; the scientific method on every level of scale demonstrates it exists, and explains why. The basis of empirical methodology is that any theory must have empirical proof to support its validity. Absence of proof means the theory cannot be verified, and as such is treated as non-verified (rather than disproven, which is different). There is no room in this method for any alternative explanation or validation. So if scientific method must have absolute authority to work, and if that authority if false, where does that leave the human race’s pursuit of knowledge?

Broderick argues that human beings are not special above any other type of mammal, and that our perception of reality is entirely down to how our body is configured. In essence, he repeats one of Christopher Hitchens’ main arguments. And then attempts to attribute it to religion, amazingly, asserting that “awareness is not decisive to the way humans act”. This is a staggeringly large assertion to make, and with no previous analysis to back up such a claim.

We then hear more of the basic biological truth (or should that be ‘theory’?) that humans aren’t special, followed by a further assertion that awareness is “endemic to the world itself”. This (alas, scientifically) would seem to be false: though humans are not biologically special, brains scans do show that we are one of a minority of animals that exhibit higher brain functions, which could (or do) indicate self-awareness. Current scientific theory would suggest that a cockroach, say, exists on little more than advanced instinct.

Finally we get a further attempt to link this to religion, with the claim that “religions have always said this”. Far from it. It has always been religion that has maintained mankind’s special position in the universe—the story of Adam and Eve being one of the foremost examples of the idea that mankind is ‘higher’ than other organisms. Broderick then states that our ‘awareness’ (which he has, until now, been arguing does not exist) connects us to “the greater awareness that exists as an underlying basis of the cosmos”. Seeing as there is absolutely no scientific (sorry, but all quiet on the new method front) proof, or any other kind of empirical evidence for this ‘awareness’, it is completely contradictory to invoke its authority having questioned that of empirical fact-gathering by experiment.

The last three paragraphs complain about the misuse of the word ‘god’, attack Madeleine Bunting for being a socialist, and big-up buddhism. Leaving Ms Bunting aside, the word ‘god’ is so used by Dawkins/Hitchens for two reasons: first, to highlight that scripture is not the basis for belief (cue the ‘but we don’t believe that’ response when Sodom & Gommorah is brought up to most christians); and second, because it is the theistic god that theism proposes. Yes, ‘god’ can and has been used as a deistic or pantheistic descriptor, but as these positions are very much in the minority in discussions of religion, it would be stupid to act on these and downgrade the majority. (As an aside, if we do accept the authority of scientific enquiry, a theistic god can be tested for—seeing as the interventions in the corporeal world of such an entity should manifest themselves around the devout.)

Briefly, and finally, Buddhism. This is a religion which, while not strictly theistic, asserts that complete truth can only be found in its teaching—the carrot with which it exerts power over the uneducated and faux bohemian educated, and sets up the Dalai Lama as the manifestation of a god present on earth, who is infallible, and by divine right exerts political power over the people of Tibet. Like most religions, it is sexist (as the position of Dalai Lama can only be held by a male), and its material is borrowed/stolen from other, now extinct, faiths (neatly displaying Dawkins’ analogy of religion to a genome). Add to this that Western Buddhism (which I would assume Broderick refers to, as opposed to Tibetan Buddhism) is ‘hardly any more than New Age mysticism with a more respectable name’ [Ken H Jones], while its leader exerts political influence on the world stage as well as at home. In short, Buddhism, despite its hippy appeal, is no more moral than other more frequent targets of the militant atheists, such as the Catholic Church.

In short, this whole article is a mish-mash of contradictions, atheist-bashing and buddhism, with a few staggering assertions thrown in without the evidence to back them up. Now, off to exercise my awareness…

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James Wood

About James Wood

James Wood is a student at the University of Leeds, and a member of Liberty@Leeds and the Leeds University Union Debating Society.