I am a causal determinist. What this means I don’t believe you have freewill. Don’t take that too personally; I don’t believe I have freewill either. In fact, I think all atheists (in a broader sense of the word) should reject free will.
Let me first state and explain my broader definition of atheism: one that is not convinced of any supernatural claims. I make this expansion because of beliefs that are technically atheist (like spiritualism) where it still seems wrong to refer to them as atheists because they have certain supernatural beliefs (like karma or the souls).
This definition, as far as I can see, leads to rejecting freewill on the grounds that freewill requires something supernatural to deviate from the natural mechanism of cause and effect. We are the puppets of our genetics, the microstructure of our brains and our experiences. Something determines these; we don’t pick our parents, our genetic, the structure of our brain or the experiences we have.
Some atheists think they have found a loophole in quantum mechanics, but I don’t think we are so lucky. Either quantum mechanics is what most scientists describe it as—a probabilistic and fundamentally uncaused phenomenon; else quantum mechanics is what many philosophers describe it as—fundamentally caused but so far misunderstood.
On the latter description we have gotten absolutely nowhere; nature remains within the realm of cause and effect. On the earlier description, though, the best we have is that we a puppet to an unpredictable force; it does not give us conscious control of our thoughts; there is simply a new phenomenon in the neurological weather system that is our brain.
This isn’t just a dichotomy argument: the supernatural or determinism. There is physical evidence for determinism; in fMRI and EEG scanners decisions in the mind can be pinpointed in the brain before a subject is consciously aware of it. It isn’t the lag that demonstrates determinism—although it makes a case all by itself—it is that the state of the brain (a physical organ) can exactly describe the state of the mind (the abstract thing we occasionally think houses free will).
It seems the theist doesn’t get off so easily, either. The soul is the normal answer; a supernatural force that can deviate from cause and effect (by applying whatever it is supernatural means). If we take the examples of psychopaths or sociopaths, how do we square blame when we consider that they are simply the holders of psychopathic or sociopathic souls? How do we square the blame of someone who killed a person in the recognition that they have a soul that, once it has gone through whatever material life it has gone through, will be a murderous soul?
The illusion of freewill stands out as a result of our ability to look backwards and imagine making other decisions in the past. The simple ability to perceive of different universes where you chose something different to what you did chose. We accept this illusion because we do not ask what it means to relive a moment, exactly as we lived it before, but still be able to decide something different; whatever made you decide at a given moment would make you decide it again if you ever relived a moment. How could it make you decide something different?
But what if we can go one further, and say that even the illusion of free will is an illusion? What if there is a way of observing choices in your head that can illustrate to you that you have no freedom? Play along with the following thought experiment, but while you do it I want you to observe your own thought process: think of a city, any city. Pick one city. Got one? Okay…
You picked the wrong city. Now, watch your thoughts as you pick a different city. Got one? Good…
This, as Sam Harris points out in his speech on this very topic, is as free a choice as you are ever going to make; did you notice evidence of your freewill? If there’s no evidence for freewill here the idea is in big trouble. So look at what happened in your mind as you chose a city. At first you had nothing, then slowly a few options came to your mind. You don’t know why these cities and more interestingly you don’t know why other cities—Nairobi or Rome—did not occur to you as an option; you know these cities, they just didn’t occur to you. (Another example of this is when I try to name all 50 American states, I’ve heard of all of them before but many of them simply don’t occur to me if I sit down to try to name them all. I added this example to include some originality on my part, as a lot of this is directly Sam Harris’ work.) You know why some didn’t occur to you: the British City of St Albans, for example, is a city you may never have heard of. In no reasonable sense were you free to pick that.
But you did not pick the options that occurred to you, they just occurred. And from those options you probably don’t know why you picked the one you did. Maybe you picked Tokyo, and maybe because you had Japanese food last night (although people are often wrong about the associations they have made). But why did that reason not repel you in the opposite direction; I had Japanese food last night, why not go with something new?
Did you see your consciousness doing anything other than being handed a list of options? This post doesn’t necessarily make sense because in an earlier post I implored you to choose love. How can I ask you to make a certain decision in the same blog that I tell you you are not free to choose anything? The answer is that new information is a new environmental cause in the neurological weather pattern that is your brain. You are not free to choose which decision you pick, but I hope to influence the result.