For some of you, this may seem like a pretty easy question but for others (including virtually everyone who took Philosophy 101 in college), it’s a bit more complicated than it first appears. As usual, let’s start with some definitions.
Libertarian Free Will: (This has nothing to do with politics.) The idea that if it were possible to rewind time and every circumstance down to the unknowable positions and momenta of fundamental particles was exactly the same you could choose something different than you did the first time.
Determinism: The idea that (in a universe with time) every effect has a cause and any given effect is the sum of all of its cumulative causes from the beginning of time until now. Note: “Hard Determinism” is used to describe a universe where absolutely everything is determined from the moment time began; while “Soft Determinism” is used to describe a universe where everything physical is determined but anything non-physical isn’t necessarily determined.
You probably see where this is headed, right? If you accept Hard Determinism, then it’s impossible for Libertarian Free Will to exist since all of what we perceive as decisions are just the sum of an astronomical series of cumulative causes. Even with Soft Determinism, it’s hard to see decisions as anything other than the inevitable product of your experiences. Of course, this brings up a couple of obvious concerns too.
If there’s no such thing as free will, then how can we punish people who do bad things?
Doesn’t this idea remove personal responsibility? If free will is just an illusion, then how can we blame anyone for their actions? Before I address that, I want to add another caveat here. While you can’t disprove Hard Determinism (since it’s impossible to rewind time), you also can’t prove that you are not a brain in a vat living in a simulation like the Matrix (this is called Hard Solipsism if you want to read more on that). However, for us to be able to live our lives in any kind of useful way, we have to accept that we share a reality with other thinking beings and that it certainly feels as though we have the ability to make decisions and so we will act as though that is the case.
While we can’t prove that Hard Determinism or Hard Solipsism are false, we must act in the way that best corresponds to the shared reality that we perceive to be the case.
So, if we have to accept a world with consequences, does it matter whether we really have free will or it is just an illusion? In short, no. So why bring it up? And what does this have to do with atheism?
Omniscience, Omnipotence, and Omnibenevolence
If God is all-knowing, then he knows what we’re going to do before we do it. In other words, our actions are pre-determined. If we truly have free will then we could make a choice between A or B and God wouldn’t know which we were going to choose until we did it, which means he’s not omniscient. If he knows that we will choose B, then we don’t really have the freedom to choose otherwise.
This also means that God is ultimately responsible for absolutely everything that happens–Good or Evil–because we are not able to choose otherwise. This may seem unsettling but there’s some biblical evidence for this. In the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh was convinced to let the Israelites go but God “hardened his heart” and prevented him from choosing something different until God had finished unleashing all of the plagues He’d planned.
If all Evil happens because God wills it then Christians cannot say that Evil only exists because of original sin, since Adam and Eve could never have chosen NOT to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.