Free-will and determinism are concepts that religious and non-religious thinkers alike love to debate about. Unfortunately both exist largely in the realm of fantasy and any discussion of these concepts only serves to strengthen religion and mysticism. We atheists should be very careful about when and how we discuss these concepts.
First let’s consider free-will. Regardless of any non-religious discussions one might like to engage in about free-will, this term has become inextricably synonymous with religion. It was popularized largely by theologians to counter the problem of evil in the world. How can a good god allow evil? Well he gave us free-will of course! Since the universe cares not, God alone can define good and evil and give us the magical ability to choose between them. Free-will unavoidably suggests something outside of science, something divine, bestowed by god to humans only. Any discussion about free-will is to enter into a logical discussion about an illogical construction.
In direct opposition to free-will is determinism. Although it comes in many varieties, determinism is essentially the idea that we actually have no free-will at all. Everything in the universe is determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. You could predict every feeling and thought you are experiencing right now if you calculated forward correctly from the Big Bang. You may think you have a choice about what you do next, but that’s an illusion. Your every movement, thought, and choice was predetermined when the cosmic cue ball broke the table and the universe was set into motion.
Such discussions about determinism, while stimulating, only ultimately encourage religious thinking. If the universe is deterministic then there can be no good or evil, right or wrong. Most people refuse to accept such a universe or the idea that we have no choice. After all, we all feel something we perceive as choices between right and wrong. So any discussion of determinism quickly sends most people flocking in droves to the religious side. Their reasoning and their emotional reaction to determinism may be arguably flawed, but that is the result nevertheless. Secular philosophers may think they can logic our way out of this recoil into the arms of religion, but their logic is insufficient for most people.
Part of the problem here is that free-will and determinism are both extreme conceptual constructs, like positive and negative infinity. On one extreme, there is no right or wrong or choice. On the other extreme, right and wrong are defined by god and choice is bestowed by him and everyone is wholly responsible for everything they do. If good and evil and defined clearly by god, there can be no room for “situationalism.”
But reality is the continuum between these theoretical extremes. We live in the grey regions of choice and responsibility. We certainly perceive that we have choices and that we make choices. So choice is real to us at least. And regardless of whether those choices are ultimately predetermined in some sense, we as individuals and collectively as a society have no alternative but to judge and to respond to the choices we make.
To resolve the apparent contradiction between living in a “clockwork” universe that can only operate according to the mechanics of its particular gears and coils, and our perception of choice, consider randomness. One might argue that in a predetermined universe there is no such thing as a truly random number. You could in theory predict every random number in advance if you knew the state of the universe at any point in time and understood all the rules of physics sufficiently. However, according to every practical test we could perform and every objective purpose to which we could apply them, random numbers are demonstrably random to us. It would be silly to base our technology on the idea that there are actually no random numbers. And it is equally silly to base our beliefs or our society on the notion that choice does not exist.
But we should also recognize that in the grey area we live in, choice and responsibility are mitigated by a large number of deterministic factors. We recognize that if you look far enough back everyone is a victim of deterministic influences. At the same time, we must acknowledge that everything is to some extent a choice as well. We have to draw a line somewhere to decide when and how to hold people accountable for their actions. The extent to which people actually have a choice and the extent to which we hold them accountable for their choices is a judgment mitigated by many factors. These factors include age, state of mind, delusion or drug influence, intentions, ignorance, upbringing, circumstance, coercion, whether this behavior is treatable, how dangerous it is, and whether it is likely to repeat.
Clearly it’s not practical to consider everyone an innocent victim of the big bang and hold no one accountable for their actions. We have to hold people accountable for their choices. But it’s just as impractical to fail to consider the many physiological and social factors that determine behavior and effectively give people little or no choice in their choices. As individuals we have to draw our own lines and as a society we have to draw a collective line with treatment and help on one side and prevention and punishment on the other. Understanding, however, can span the entire spectrum. It is not inconsistent to understand the determinants of choice and still punish those who make those choices.
For example, even a suicide bomber may ultimately have no real choice given the horrific situation that we have created in their country. If we had not bombed their home into the stone age and taken away every other course of action, they likely would never have strapped a bomb to their chest. We may actually be more responsible then them, and yet still we must prevent and punish their behavior. We can understand the causal factors that forced that behavior and to the extent that we can and change those conditions we should. Understanding that every decision is neither completely a choice nor completely excusable, is to live in the very messy real world lying somewhere between the theoretical extremes of free-will and determinism.