Dr. Stenger and the Folly of Free-Thinking

Are we to believe the New Atheist free-thinkers see themselves as reasonable as rocks?

I was hesitant to write this because I don’t like picking battles with atheists. At first I didn’t see how anyone would take this idea about free will and our judicial system seriously, but it seems some people are. So I offer the following with the hope that if more people know about this discussion, more people can see it for the nonsense that it is. 

Victor Stenger, Ph.D. particle physicist and best-selling author of God and the Folly of Faith has written an essay at Huffington Post “Free Will is an Illusion“ and it took an unexpected turn. Certainly, the atheistic consideration of free will is nothing new, but Dr. Stenger also makes a connection between free will, or the lack thereof, and our judicial system in the United States. This position has disturbing societal implications.

Keep in mind, this is the man who popularized the phrase: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” He has also published such titles as God: The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. Victor Stenger has made it known that he thinks science can prove there is no god, and that he considers religion dangerous to society.

In this Huffington Post essay he references a book by another physicist, Leonard Mlodinow, who says that the unconscious plays a dominant role in human behavior. As Dr. Stenger puts it, “before we become aware of making a decision, our brains have already laid the groundwork for it.” He goes on to say (read carefully), “This recognition challenges fundamental assumptions about free will and the associated religious teachings about sin and redemption, as well as our judicial concepts of responsibility and punishment. If our brains are making our decisions for us subconsciously, how can we be responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals or God punish sinners who aren’t in full control of their decision-making processes?”

He also references the book Free Will by neuroscientist Sam Harris and title-quotes him in stating that “free will is an illusion.” Dr. Stenger writes, “We don’t exist as immaterial conscious controllers, but are instead entirely physical beings whose decisions and behaviors are the fully caused products of the brain and body.”

So, essentially having established that humans are determinant blobs of matter with no free will, he then makes the case to the Huffington Post readers that “our largely retributive moral and justice systems need to be re-evaluated, and maybe even drastically revamped” if the people in society are going to be able to protect themselves from “people who are dangerous to others because of whatever it is inside their brains and nervous systems that makes them dangerous.”

That is, he is calling for a new system of morality and justice based on the the presumption that no one is ultimately responsible for his actions, and remember, he’s made it clear who he thinks the “dangerous” people are. This is eerily like the argument used to justify abortion, only we’re all blobs of tissue now.

If you’ve ever been called a bigot for defending the definition of matrimony, a terrorist for openly opposing the slaying of children in the womb by medical professionals and mothers, or a threat to society because you are a Christian, this scientist’s turn towards the political should trouble you because he’s playing into the hands of those who want to violate religious liberty. If someone buys his argument they will conclude, “Religious people are just wired that way, but they are dangerous and need to be controlled for the good of society.” Well, isn’t that what’s beginning?

Fortunately, it’s pretty simple to understand the (almost humorous) flaw in his premise. Atheists are fond of calling themselves free-thinkers, but how does a person conduct “free-thinking” if he has no free will to chose what to think? Did Mr. Stenger even consider that monumental contradiction? The logical conclusion of his position is that there really is no such thing as freedom, and it’s hard to imagine that he really believes that deep down. Surely, if his freedom were threatened, he’d want the opportunity to defend his rights and he’d want his thoughts and decisions to be taken seriously.

But if he does believe it, then poor Dr. Stenger’s got a problem — for it is pure folly for a truly free-thinking intelligent person to think blobs of matter can reason in matters of justice. If humans are (as he calls them) Newtonian machines comprised of matter that calculates the data in the brain according to decision making algorithms, then Mr. Stenger’s own arguments and all his thoughts and actions have no more sincerity to them than the thoughts and actions of a rock that decides to roll down a hill when the forces of nature pull it that way.

Are we to believe the New Atheist free-thinkers see themselves as reasonable as rocks? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had an intelligent chat with a rock, and the only thing rocks have ever convinced me to do is to get out of their way, not because I respected them for their intelligence, but because I am intelligent and, of my own volition, will act to protect myself in all kinds of creative ways. Even the free-thinkers who don’t think they can think freely because they are desperately trying make sense of their purpose in life to prove there is no purpose, should concede this much and rethink this silliness before it leads to more confusion in our judicial system.

Seriously, when I try to imagine justice dealt out by people who are so determined to deny God that they will deny their own minds, I am not amused. I am horrified.

28 Responses to Dr. Stenger and the Folly of Free-Thinking

  • When a person believes that he is evolved from an ape and is therefore just an ape – an animal subject to the instinct of the wild – then that person debases himself to become an animal and nothing more, hence what Stacy has written above.

    Good post, Stacy!

  • anzlyne says:

    Fascinating.
    Our lunch time conversation with our own family apostate was not too appetizing, and a bit similar to the thrust of this post, in that it denies real choice in behavior, albeit in rats.
    A virus that lives in a cat’s gut, when it gets into a rat, affects the rat’s brain, making the rat not only lose it’s fear of cats, thus more likely to be caught by a cat; but also makes rats more likely to have sex/propagate, providing more meals for cats.
    None of this is quite the same as your atheist’s idea, but it does lay the same groundwork for not being in control of what goes on in our brains or behavior. A virus can influence brain activity that makes the rats ( or the person?) hapless. Extended to humans it can make us not responsible; not really having an intellect to call our own, much less a free will.
    Dr. Stenger’s ideas are such a denial of Truth and Beauty and Freedom. I’m hoping it is heartbreaking enough to bring the atheists and heretics back to the table of Fides et Ratio.

  • Jason says:

    If our brains are making our decisions for us subconsciously, how can we be responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals or God punish sinners who aren’t in full control of their decision-making processes?”

    I am curious as to how a legal system (i.e., the individuals operating therein) punishing criminals is any more in control of the action of punishing and thus responsible for it.

    Of course, one shouldn’t be too hard on this sort of thinking, since it is subconsciously compelled. But then again, being too hard on this sort of thinking is likewise subconsciously compelled, and so on and so forth.

  • If atheists believe that they are just animals operating on hardwired instinct in their brains and all this stuff about free will and intellect is self-delusion, then why not treat them like wild animals and lock them up behind cages where they can’t do any harm? After all, that’s what is done with other dangerous animals and none is more dangerous than the human one.

    But who would be the zoo keepers?

  • Mary De Voe says:

    “In this Huffington Post essay he references a book by another physicist, Leonard Mlodinow, who says that the unconscious plays a dominant role in human behavior. As Dr. Stenger puts it, “before we become aware of making a decision, our brains have already laid the groundwork for it.” He goes on to say (read carefully), “This recognition challenges fundamental assumptions about free will and the associated religious teachings about sin and redemption, as well as our judicial concepts of responsibility and punishment. If our brains are making our decisions for us subconsciously, how can we be responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals or God punish sinners who aren’t in full control of their decision-making processes?”
    This is the heresy of predestination.
    God gives man sovereign personhood, the sovereignty with which to override our inclinations, also called concupiscence. God gives and creates man, the species Homo sapiens, man of wisdom, a rational, immortal soul, the virtues and grace and Wisdom. To repudiate God, the way the atheist repudiates God, leaves the atheist piecemeal, a consciousness here, a free will there, a subconscious anywhere. Religion is a relationship with almighty God, our Creator and Endower of unalienable rights, Who constantly, in Divine Providence, steers us clear of buildings and brings us success and safety. The atheist, servant to the devil, is jealous of God and the people of God, who enjoy the blessings of Liberty . Remember, the atheist is only one opinion, a badly formed and thoughtless opinion. Jesus Christ said: I testify to myself and my Father in heaven testifies to me.” (Two witnesses establish a judicial fact) The TRUTH of God stands up in a court of law. The atheist does not have any legal standing in a court of law as he has repudiated his unalienable rights.

  • Mary De Voe says:

    Everybody here, I enjoyed your thinking. Does your subconscious brain know that you are thinking? Great shades of Dr. Strangelove, the real title for: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason.

  • Anzlyne says:

    here’s an excerpt from a nifty article at National Affairs:

    “This concept of choice is articulated near the beginning of ‘The Long Winter’, when Pa gets his first sense that a difficult season is coming as he and Laura observe the thickness of the muskrats’ lodges. Laura wants to know how the muskrats anticipate a hard winter; Pa replies, “God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”

    “Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.

    “Because,” said Pa, “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”

    Laura said faintly, “I thought God takes care of us.”

    “He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

    “Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

    “No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”

    http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/lessons-in-liberty-from-laura-ingalls-wilder

  • This guy would have failed a first year philosophy course. The theory self destructs. If there is no free will because our subconscious mind makes us do things, then there can be no real knowledge because it’s our subconscious mind framing the input of our senses and how we think about it. Because there’s no real knowledge, Stenger can’t know that there is no free will. So we have no need to listen to him. The theory is only an artifact of the complex interaction of particles, and so it itself is uninformative and we can disregard it in favor of the workings of our own subconscious minds.

    But in reality, the advocate for this sort of theory is unconcerned about its actual truth, falsehood, or incoherency. It’s only a rationalization for the use of power against Christians. Nothing more, nothing less. The true believer will be unconcerned about whether it is true or false, but how it can be used to bludgeon those he doesn’t like.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour says:

    It never ceases to astonish me how atheists will trot out some remark that they expect to confound believers, blissfully unaware that it is a commonplace of theology.

    “before we become aware of making a decision, our brains have already laid the groundwork for it.”

    The eminently orthodox Dominican theologian, Michael Bañez (1528-1604) argued “Inasmuch as the Divine influence precedes all acts of the creature, not in the order of time, but in that of causality, the motion emanating from God and seconded by free intelligent agents takes on the character of a physical premotion (proemotio physica) of the free acts, which may also be called a physical predetermination (proedeterminatio physica), because the free determination of the will is accomplished only by virtue of the divine predetermination.”

    In Bañez’s view, since God is the primal cause (causa prima) and the prime mover (motor primus), it is concluded that every act and every movement of the thoroughly contingent secondary causes (causae secundae) or creatures must emanate from the first cause, and that by the application of their potentiality to the act.

    Neither Bañez nor anyone else thought that this undermined the doctrine of free will, or, more properly,“free choice,” [liberum arbitrium) as and his opinion (for it is a theological opinion, not dogma) was staunchly defended by the Dominicans against the Jesuits. It was thrashed out threadbare during the Jansenist controversies of the 17th century and was still being ably defended by Père Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange OP until the middle of the last century.

    If Dr Stenger is going to write about free will, is it too much to expect him to have a nodding acquaintance with the literature?

  • Micha Elyi says:

    Stenger, Mlodinow, and Harris all illustrate that the concepts “will”, “unconscious”, and “making a decision” are imperfectly understood. Like Zeno whose understanding of the concept “infinite” came up short, their misunderstandings lead them into constructing apparent paradoxes that they cannot solve except through a resort to the bizzare and obviously impossible. In Zeno’s case, he denied the possibility of motion despite all common sense and experience. Stenger, Mlodinow, and Harris are also headed down the path of denying common sense and experience.

  • JC says:

    All of which reminds me of Mike Flynn’s line about the new atheists being essentially Calvinists. They end up by refuting themselves, but I guess a part of free-thinking means overlooking contradictions if they are your own.

  • Jaha Arnot says:

    I wonder if the article made anyone else think about Les Miserables. It’s ironic that atheists, who consider themselves to be “humanists,” would seriously revert to a deterministic model in which a person is a perceived threat because they are “defective,” rather than because of their actions. This also brings to mind CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength – a police state that replaces retributive justice with “rehabilitation,” which, conveniently, is a standard determined not in proportion to the crime, but according to the whim of the State. Only those in power can determine “normal,” “healthy,” and “rehabilitated.” When we deny free will, we create a society based on the Will to Power.

  • Mark Noonan says:

    Michael,

    Amazing quote – I’m always astounded at how thoroughly all this has, indeed, been thrashed out by great Christian thinkers many centuries ago. Aside from allowing one the fun of tweaking liberals by saying we intellectually peaked with Aquinas and its all been downhill since then, it shows that the pursuit of truth has been relentless among Christians and the half-baked philosophies of the critics are nothing more than a sophomoric attempt to confound the Teacher.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour says:

    Mark

    I sometimes wonder if intense specialisation in one field unfits people for another. Descartes was one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived, but a disaster as a philosopher. Then again, we have the pantheism of physicists like Einstein, Sir James Jeans and Schrödinger, who managed to combine Hindu mysticism with a form of Neo-Kantianism. A rather different example would be Freud’s venture into linguistics. Great composers have had a tin ear, when it comes to their librettos and, dare I say, theologians have not always distinguished themselves in their ventures into politics or economics.

  • “Sir, we know our will is free, and there’s an end on it.”
    Boswell: Life
    With greater elaboration:

    Boswell: “The argument for the moral necessity of human actions is always, I observe, fortified by supposing universal prescience to be one of the attributes of the Deity.” Johnson: “You are surer that you are free, than you are of prescience; you are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any conclusion from a deduction of reasoning. But let us consider a little the objection from prescience. It is certain I am either to go home tonight or not; that does not prevent my freedom.” Boswell: “That it is certain you are either to go home or not, does not prevent your freedom; because the liberty of choice between the two is compatible with that certainty. But if one of these events be certain now, you have no future power of volition. If it be certain you are to go home to-night, you must go home.” Johnson: “If I am well acquainted with a man, I can judge with great probability how he will act in any case, without his being restrained by my judging. God may have this probability increased to certainty.” Boswell: When it is increased to certainty, freedom ceases, because that cannot be certainly foreknown, which is not certain at the time; but if it be certain at the time, it is a contradiction in terms to maintain that there can be afterwards any contingency dependent on the exercise of will or anything else.” Johnson: “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.”
    Boswell: Life

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour says:

    Boswell falls into a fallacy long ago exposes by Aristotle. He is confusing a logical relationship with a causal one

    What is going to happen tomorrow will certainly happen and nothing I do today can possibly change that. But what I do today can certainly change what would have happened on Monday.

    “For although it be true that a man who is freely sitting cannot at the same time be standing (sensus compositus), nevertheless his freedom in sitting is maintained by the fact that he might be standing instead of sitting (sensus divisus)” as Laurentius Berti, (1696–1766) one of the “later Augustinians” points out. Of course, such arguments were central to the great question of grace and free will, which is why so much ink has been spilt over it. Pascal gives a satirical account of such debates in the first of his Provincial Letters; do not read it for the first time in a library, as I did and was turned out for laughing uncontrollably. Works of theology rarely have that effect, more’s the pity. But do read it in French, if you can.

  • In case anyone is interested, there’s a discussion on my blog about this article too and it’s quite different because there are several atheists and agnostics who comment there. One atheist already admitted that there “is no freedom.” :-(

    It’s fascinating to see their reasoning, but a lot of it is just sniping too. Some are asking questions though.

    The discussion here has gotten deeper.

    Michael, There is definitely something to that thought that people should know the limits of their knowledge of a field. Descartes was a disaster as a philosopher. I’ve read before that Newton dedicated more ink to theology than physics, but his theology was so messed up.

    It seems there is a general misunderstanding today for many people about what philosophy and theology even are, or science for that matter. And I think that’s where Dr. Stenger really goes awry. He’s jumping around from science to religion to philosophy to politics kind of like a kid with a new box of crayons who hasn’t learned to stay in the lines yet, scribbling all over the page and calling it a work of art.

    I would love for him to answer the question, “If there’s no free will, then how can there be free-thinking?” That kind of talk so reminds me of my toddler who wouldn’t confess to coloring on the wall. “My crayon did it, not me.” Um, no. Won’t work.

    Anyway…thanks all for the discussion. I am loving reading all the input and really benefit from it. THANK YOU!!!

  • Mark Noonan says:

    Michael,

    Indeed – each must keep to his own. I don’t go to theologians to build a better power plant and I don’t go to scientists to explain the nature of God. The problem with a lot of our intellectuals over the past few centuries has been attempts to willy-nilly transfer a skill in one area to a totally different area. This is compounded by the fact that over the ages scientists have ceased to be educated sufficiently in non-scientific areas.

  • Ace says:

    “Stenger, Mlodinow, and Harris all illustrate that the concepts “will”, “unconscious”, and “making a decision” are imperfectly understood.”

    I feel I am going the way of Zeno and the others on this point. What is the proper understanding of these terms?

    Also, what is so bad about Descartes?

    Finally, if everything is determined, then nothing changes. People still believe in free will (and have to), and the same discussions go on. I do not see how, even if somehow there is no free will, anything will change, in terms of ethics or politics.

    —–

    Finally, a strange Pascal’s wager for determinism:

    If determinism is the case and I believe that determinism is the case, then what I believe is true, and I have a more realistic view of the world than I would otherwise have, if I denied determinism. My acceptance of determinism at this time could not have been otherwise.

    If determinism is the case, and I deny determinism, then what I believe is false, and my view of the world is less accurate than it would otherwise be. My refusing determinism at this time could not have been otherwise.

    If determinism is not the case, and I deny determinism, then what I believe is false, but I could chose to change my mind, and come to a deeper understanding of reality.

    It seems then that the default position most likely to align with reality is to accept determinism, because if you are right, it could not be otherwise, but if you are wrong, there is the hope of changing your mind.

  • myth buster says:

    The truth is that the only real free-thinkers are Christians. When atheists claim to be free-thinkers, they’re speaking out of pride, not truth. In reality, they aren’t free-thinkers at all, but slaves to their passions and egos.

  • RK, Ph.D. says:

    From a purely scientific point of view, atoms which make up molecules which make up our physical world, including our physical bodies, are not living things. So no matter how you arrange the molecules, they in and of themselves do not give life. This means God has to exist and we have to have souls given to us by God in order to have life.

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