Hello. I’m Jeffrey Williams. Welcome to another installment of Too Late for the Gods.
Today we will look at a video on the apologist Mike Winger’s channel, which is linked below, titled: How Free Will Conflicts with Atheism, which is a presentation of an argument set forth by his guest, a Dr. Tim Stratton.
The intent of Stratton’s argument is to demonstrate that humans have free will, that this free will can only be explained by way of the supernatural, and therefore free will proves the existence of god, and specifically the Christian God.
The Winger video is long, repetitious, and rambling, but we can get a sufficient understanding of the argument by focusing on two shorter sections. At the beginning, Stratton gives a somewhat meandering outline of the assumptions and elements of his argument, so we will begin there as an overview. He then moves on to a detailed presentation of his argument, which we will more closely examine.
Here is his introductory statement, which I will pause a few times to comment:
He starts with the constrained dichotomy of naturalism vs. supernaturalism, with naturalism defined as only those things that science can test and discover. It is a bifurcation fallacy in that it omits other non-metaphysical and non-supernatural approaches, such as the Heideggerian questioning of Being and non-reductive physicalism which accepts that physical reality cannot be completely known through scientific method due to our epistemological limits. In doing so he obscures the real question at hand: the conflicting views of a deterministically causal universe vs. indeterminacy. If the universe is causally deterministic, then there could be no free will. Indeterminacy, on the other hand, frees us from determinism at the most fundamental level allowing for the possibility of free will. At its core, free will is not a question of substances, souls, or the supernatural, but merely the degrees of freedom inherent in the universe and the quantum nature of the mind. Through this move Stratton replaces indeterminacy with supernaturalism to set up the false dichotomy of material nature vs. an immaterial soul. From the assumption that free will cannot be explained within physical nature he argues that free will has a supernatural origin which proves the existence of god, and specifically, the Christian god.
In doing so he claims that if naturalism is true then everything is causally determined by “physics and chemistry”, seemingly unaware that chemistry is in fact a branch of physics. I may seem to be needlessly picky here, but it is an early indication of much more serious naivety to come.
From this blurred misrepresentation of the core issue of determinism vs. indeterminacy he moves to the claim that if nature forces upon us a false belief we have no way under naturalism to reach a better belief. Perhaps, however I see no reason why nature experienced from another perspective might not produce more accuracy, but this misses the real point. It might still be that deterministic causality is true and our inability to discern truth is just the consequence we have to accept. His dismissal of this possibility as crazy is not a criticism to be taken seriously.
But that leaves another problem in his presentation. It isn’t clear why having a true belief is necessarily connected to free will. He seems to imply that our ability to reason is itself an act of free will and that reason fully explains our choosing what to believe and decision making. His confusion of epistemology with practical choice will become more problematic as we examine his argument in detail.
He next addresses the problem of truth by merely claiming we can have true beliefs. This evades two very difficult issues. The first is that it would also be possible to have true beliefs forced on us through determinacy. More importantly, this is an early example of his confusion of what we can know with what we can choose that carries throughout his argument.
Instead of pondering those more fundamental issues, he resorts to the old and tired claim of self-refutation of science. How could naturalism claim there are no true beliefs if that claim is itself a claim of a true belief. First, it isn’t accurate to say naturalism precludes true belief, which I will explain in detail later on. For the question of free will, this is an irrelevant question anyway, but his real goal is to discredit naturalism to insert a god of the gaps solution. He intends to reduce the refutation of free will to naturalism and then discredit naturalism with its supposed inability to claim true belief. The self-refutation claim, however, is simply wrong. It is possible for a rational system to notice its inability to adequately describe observations that defy reason, such as quantum nonlocality and superposition, or the fundamental contradictions among Newtonian physics, Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics. But this false claim of self-refutation is almost a reflex among apologists to evade addressing the problems involved.
He moves from false premises to the false conclusion that since you can reach true beliefs you are capable of beliefs that are not deterministically derived, and therefore a free thinker. And since that isn’t possible within mere nature, we have a supernatural element of free will derived from a supernatural soul.
He then pretends to address the conflation of naturalist with atheist:
Here he merely preserves his concealment of the false choice of naturalism vs. the supernatural by claiming that there are a few atheists who believe in the supernatural, concealing the large number of atheist physicists and philosophers who would fall under non-reductive physicalist: that is, those who reject both the notion of anything beyond physical reality and the notion that reality can be fully understood within science, not because of anything supernatural, but due to our limited cognitive structure.
Winger then moves to blur the picture even more:
He claims that naturalists derive their views from the presupposition that there is no god. The inverse is actually the case: they reject god because of their view of a deterministic universe, ascendant since Bacon, which removes the explanatory need for god. In other words, as the gaps narrow, god loses explanatory power.
Stratton now completes his sleight of hand:
He states that when he says “atheist”, he means naturalist, thus allowing himself to slide into the false appearance that free will implies the supernatural god. His actual argument, however, centers on a question that can only be understood as determinism vs. indeterminacy, and the only correct term in his argument would be “naturalist”, not atheist. In short, he is confusing the term, or equivocating.
Now let’s turn to his formal argument:
He starts with a preliminary argument to set up a premise to the main argument:
First, I need to point out that anybody who thinks they have resolved the question of free will either doesn’t really understand the question, as I suspect is the case here, or is simply lying. And not only is this not one of the most powerful arguments, metaphysical or otherwise, I’ve ever seen. It isn’t even a good argument.
Premise one assumes that rational inference is the mode of free will as the ability to choose. This is a highly questionable assumption that has been increasingly refuted the past couple centuries. We could, in fact, view rational decision-making as the opposite of freedom. Reason works mechanistically. A syllogism is a sort of machine that dictates a conclusion, thus eliminating choice. If we submit ourselves to reason we surrender our free will to the dictates of this machine. Again, I’m not arguing we don’t have free will – we might. But it would never be demonstrated as our ability to reason. It was in fact the Enlightenment promotion of reason applied to sense data as the true path to knowledge that brought about the view of a causally deterministic universe to begin with.
Premise 2 suffers from vagueness intended to cover up some confusion. That we as humans have an innate capacity for reason in no way implies that reason necessarily affirms knowledge claims, if by affirming knowledge claims Stratton means demonstration of a true correspondence between the thought and reality. Later he will make clear that is his meaning, which again is a naive assumption. I’ll expand on this later in the video.
The point here is his claim that these premises prove his conclusion of libertarian freedom simply is not valid. Reason is neither a simple matter of free choice, nor is it necessarily applicable to fundamental reality.
He then moves on to his main argument, where he intends to demonstrate that free will is supernatural and that the god of the Bible is the best explanation for its existence.
As should be obvious, this argument rests on the prior preliminary argument which argued that the ability to reason necessarily proved libertarian freedom. Without that conclusion, there is no force to his argument, but that isn’t the only problem. His additional premises are also naive and unpersuasive. As he went on to state in the video, the argument is structurally sound in that it follows the rules for a valid syllogism, but equally important are the truth of the premises in order for the argument to be sound. We will now follow his defense of these premises one at a time:
It is true that naturalism precludes an immaterial soul, but if he had succeeded in refuting naturalism, that would in no way support the existence of a soul. We have alternate possibilities, as I stated earlier that could explain consciousness within physical reality. In the 21st Century, it is well established that the fundamental state of nature defies rational explanation and deterministic causality – a realization that will undermine his argument and add one more example of his naivety earlier foreshadowed by his “physics and chemistry”. He simply has no grasp of physics, which underlies the whole deterministic vs. indeterminacy issue at the base of the question of free will.
He repeats this same error in Premise 2:
He adds needless and obfuscatory confusion by modifying soul with immaterial. Again, a basic knowledge of physics might have been useful here. First, at the fundamental level of reality there is no material, only energy. In fact what we perceive as matter is really just an incredibly complex interplay of quantum fields, one of which must be the Higgs field. In reality, the universe itself is immaterial, but physical as wave energy.
This is where quantum reality comes into play. Some leading physicists and neuroscientists, such as Penrose and Hameroff, are engaged in a serious exploration of Quantum Mind Theory, which is the first plausible fully physical explanation of consciousness. It eliminates the misleading metaphysical supposition of substances and suggests the possibility of free will. It starts from the fact that we are quantum beings entangled in a quantum universe. Being such, our entanglement could be the first step of consciousness, and operating at the indeterminate quantum level, escapes the problem of determinacy, thus enabling free will. While this theory is in its infancy, it has the advantage of not relying on unknowable metaphysical assertions.
The important point is his assertion that without an immaterial soul we cannot have free will is groundless and contradicted by quantum physics. Quantum entanglement could fill the gap which will eliminate immaterial soul as an explanation.
And in premise 3 we find that Stratton is equally unaware of contemporary neuroscience. This will be an extended clip of his presentation because this premise really centers on the crux of the matter:
He seems to assume that our choices and decisions are either conscious internal acts if we have free will and thus driven by our own agency, or externally driven. Neuroscientific evidence suggests neither scenario. It is with this premise that the most important issues arise.
Much modern research stems from the experiments of Benjamin Libet in the 1980’s where he used external electrodes to measure the time between brain activity and the moment the subject became aware of making a decision to move a finger. The result showed about a half of a second lag between the brain activity and the perceived conscious decision. The experiment was criticized on several fronts, most importantly the lack of timing accuracy provided by external electrodes and little understanding of what took place in that half of a second. These experiments, however, were greatly refined with the advent of fMRI, which not only gave immediate results, but mapped the parts of the brain involved. The lag between decision and consciousness of making a decision has persisted in the refined experiments, and some recent experiments have even shown the apparent ability to predict a subject’s decision before the subject is aware of his choice and acts.
Some have seen this as evidence of determinism, but the question is not so easily resolved. What does become apparent is that Stratton’s simplistic concept of free will does not correspond with the actual processes. What we find is that most decision making is pre-conscious and emergent from many factors. The simplistic dichotomy of external causation vs. individual agency is false, and as is usually the case with metaphysical issues that never resolve, it asks the wrong questions. Purely internal causation can also be deterministic. It turns out there is actually a continuum of action, stretching from neural reflex to sophisticated analysis that involves more involvement of the cerebral cortex, but all of the actions have a preconscious component. If we put aside the question of external determination to focus on internal agency, we still see nothing like a purely logical decision process or one even under conscious control. Rather, we preconsciously undergo a confluence and conflict of emotions and desires, including libido, conscience, empathy, etc through which some process not yet understood, an action results. Only after the decision is made do we become conscious of the decision, if we can even call it that, and experience the illusion of choice at that moment. But really the decision existed before it entered the conscious mind. In everyday life we feel our way through the world, which we sometimes later rationalize to justify. But reason is not the way we primarily respond.
This is not a new insight, as philosophers as divergent as Hume and Burke theorized this a couple centuries ago.
This does not answer the question of free will, a question that depends on whether the mind is quantum, and a rethinking of what free will would even be. Again, that question rests on whether determinacy or indeterminacy hold sway. But it resolutely precludes the assumption of premise 3 that we rationally infer and rationally affirm knowledge claims in decision making. Scientific reasoning and future planning are further along the spectrum toward cerebral cortex involvement, but are not the usual mode of decision-making and are still largely influenced preconsciously. Everyday decisions, including moral judgments, are much further toward the preconscious workings of conflicting sensibilities and less cerebral determination.
In the video, Winger and Stratton derisively dismiss the possibility of free will being an illusion, but the preponderance of scientific study suggests it is. They have often carelessly dismissed the suggestion that their experience is an illusion. Certainly the earth doesn’t orbit the sun since I can’t feel it move under my feet and I obviously see the night sky move. It turns out that very basic certainties, such as space, time, and causality are to a great extent illusory. Simple derisive dismissal is only a sign of ignorance.
Stratton then takes a turn toward justification for our beliefs, which is a bit removed from the question of free will. It is really a continuation of his confusion in premise 3 between an epistemological question of inferring truth and the practical question of decision making:
Here Stratton fails in making any point at all. He claims the view that reason produces illusion is self-evidently false, ignoring the large body of contemporary neuroscience and epistemology that suggests it just might illusory, or at best an extreme reduction. Stratton and Winger merely repeat here the same error they made when justifying free will as self-evident. They once again resort to the tired and false argument that if we claim science based on reason is an illusion, then there is no justification for naturalist claims, while also again tacitly conflating atheism with naturalism. Of course, it just could turn out to be illusion.
He then goes into a confused examination of the epistemology involved and makes an unfortunate inclusion of Plantinga’s redefinition of properly basic beliefs, which only further blurs the picture:
Here he comes perilously close to the fallacy of appeal to authority by exaggerating the status of epistemologists, first by claiming them “professional”, whatever that might mean, and then simultaneously misstating the principles of some epistemologists and presenting the field as if unified through widespread agreement.
To clarify a bit, there is a school of epistemology called Foundationalist Epistemology, against which Plantinga argued because its foundation ruled out any possibility to prove the existence of god. The intention was to avoid infinite regress in justifying assumptions by positing conditions under which an assumption can be presumed basic and true, It in fact did have three criteria of which at least one must be satisfied to become a properly basic belief – and they were definitely not as Stratton claimed “justified”, “true”, and “belief”.
The three criterion are actually
1. Evident to the senses
2. A priori axiomatic (1+1=2)
In other words, to be a properly basic belief it must be observable or a condition of thought itself. This had the effect, unfortunate for theists, of eliminating all purely metaphysical assertions of being, such as god. Plantinga attempted to weaken these conditions through his insistence of including traditional beliefs and personal testimony. I mention this only because Stratton will only confuse this issue further with his introduction of Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. I should also add that foundationalism is far from the only, or even dominant view in epistemology.
This is a distortion of the epistemology in a couple ways. First, the comparison of properly basic belief is to contingent belief, not knowledge. Knowledge stems both from observation, i.e. primary basic belief, and arguments contingent on these beliefs. They do not come into conflict, and Stratton set up a false contradiction. Second, as we have already seen, it is very debatable that knowledge can be grounded in reason, and much of contemporary philosophy grounds knowledge instead in experience. Foundational Epistemology, for example, grounds it in observed events (experience) or our a priori conditions of experience.
He next alludes to Plantinga’s Evolutionary argument against naturalism:
Here he centers on the unsound argument that if evolution was guided by survival rather than truth, then naturalism lacks the tools to know that. First, that in no way supports his claim that reason did evolve to find truth. Second, the aim of reason to be other than truth in fact can be demonstrated through experience, such as awareness of where reason breaks down in the face of recalcitrant experienced reality, and observance of the mechanism of reason within neuroscience. Anil Sith and Donald Hoffman, among other leading philosophers and neuroscientists, show how reason reduces incomprehensibly complex reality to grossly simplified icons which we could then manipulate. Rather than Plantinga’s claim that a true grasp of reality through reason would aid our survival, it becomes apparent that the complexity would overwhelm and freeze us into inaction. Hoffman compares this to icons on a computer graphic interface, only through which the incomprehensible stream of 1’s and 0’s becomes usable, but are not in themselves anything real. As our forbears evolved reason while fighting for survival on the savanna, they were able to manipulate their environment to escape predators and catch prey through simplifying the world down to only those representations which were necessary to plan and act. True grasp of nature was not the purpose, but mere practicality. But this also does not imply the understanding is completely false, or it would have had no adaptive value. The point is it reduces and approximates the environment for practical purposes, not revelation of underlying truth. It should come as no surprise that rational systems of understanding always break down when more complexity is introduced, as we see in both relativity and quantum physics.Science itself is an outgrowth of this gross simplification into icons as shown in its current struggle to explain complexity beyond our grasp.
Now it’s Wingers turn to make an invalid point:
He he merely attempts to affirm the Plantinga/Stratton argument through empty assertion: that the claimed jump from reason aimed at reproduction was then somehow stretched to forming rational philosophical beliefs is too big a leap to make. Once the idea that the earth orbited the sun because it’s evident I can’t feel the earth move under my feet and I can see the sun move across the sky was also too big of a leap. But in the end, the evidence supports those stretches and Winger’s facile dismissal only exposes his own shallow grasp of the issue.
And this brings us finally to Stratton’s last premise that humans do possess the ability to infer and affirm knowledge:
Again, it is another repetition of the false argument that we are not able to recognize the limitation of reason from within reason. In fact, science never claims reason is totally false – it does have approximate correspondence to reality, but only as a gross simplification within limited parameters for practical purpose. It’s also necessary to point out that the only impetus to his claim would be to discredit naturalism, not to establish free will. To bring us back to the central point I made at the beginning, the question of free will is not one of naturalism vs. theism or the supernatural, but total causal determinism vs. some degree of indeterminacy. The issue of naturalism is a red herring which, and, despite his earlier disclaimer, he is using it to imply that free will disproves atheism. Of course it does no such thing.
Stratton next takes us on a journey back to high school math class to give us an analogy that actually undermines the point he tries to sell us:
This is where Stratton’s confusion of knowledge with free practical reason, that is epistemology with decision making, will becomes a serious problem. First of all, this analogy focuses on what constitutes knowledge, not on what enables free will, although he will try to fudge that gap later. More importantly, it doesn’t even support his claim of “knowledge of reality”.
If we compare students 2 and 3 we will see their actions and knowledge were not essentially different as concerns reality. Student 2 received his information for the correct answer from an external source. It didn’t tell him the reality of the correct answer or the world at large – the answer could have been wrong. The point here is his action was externally derived from his internal inclination to trust the source. But what about student 3? Her decision to choose C was also externally derived, presumably by the words of her teacher and math textbook, and internally from her inclination to trust those sources. Her working of the problem was only a more intricate performance of the same type as student 2. As for knowledge of reality, what if this class was on Euclidean geometry which posits that parallel lines can never meet? Did it tell her anything true of the world? We know that if we expand the frame of reference to the scale of relativity, then parallel lines will necessarily meet and her externally derived answer does not tell us about reality. It is based on too small a frame of reference as assumed in the narrow band of reality described by Newtonian physics, within which reason evolved and to which it adapted. To come closer to reality we would need Riemannian geometry.
In both 2 and 3 no free will is demonstrated, but rather two examples of decisions caused by external forces, neither of them having anything to do with “knowledge of reality”.
As Stratton clearly stated at the beginning, his argument is structurally correct but unsound if the premises are false. As I have shown, the premises are naively false, relieving us of the burden of examining his unsupported conclusions.
Again, I have not tried to disprove free will. On the contrary, I lean toward the view that quantum mind theory, along with a rethinking of what free would be, just might establish free will. Rather, I have shown that the typical theist attempt to establish god on the basis of free will fails due to false premises based on obsolete medieval metaphysical assumptions, and are not to be taken seriously.
I necessarily reduced a long, rambling, and repetitious video to these few clips which I feel sufficed to fairly present their argument. If either Winger or Stratton disagree, I would welcome them to come on to discuss and make their case – This invitation also extends to any other competent respondent.