Imagine a man who arrives at the airport for his flight. His suitcase is stuffed full, closed and firmly latched, and yet there are all sorts of items still hanging out from the sides---a few socks, a tie, a shirt sleeve here, a pant leg there, part of what looks like a sweater.
The lady at the check-in counter says, "Sir, you will need to make sure everything is in your bag before we can check it." Hearing this, the man takes a pair of scissors from his pocket and proceeds to carefully cut around the outside of his suitcase, trimming away everything that he wasn't able to fit inside. He soon finishes, looks at the attendant and says, 'OK, now everything is in my suitcase.'”
As we've seen, the atheist is like this man. He insists he can explain everything in terms of his naturalist-materialist worldview. He insists that everything can be accounted for, that everything "fits". And lo and behold, everything does fit. Because whatever doesn't fit, he simply trims away. If it doesn't fit into his philosophical suitcase, it doesn't exist. It's illusion.
For instance, free will. It doesn't exist. It's an illusion.
The Common Conception is the Biblical Conception
No one denies that there exists a common sense and virtually universal understanding of “free will”. Simply put, it's that a person acts “freely” only if his or her choices are not “determined” by forces outside the person's own will. Philosophers refer to this as "libertarian free will".
This is our common understanding and it's rooted in our common experience. Each of us is simply aware—immediately and intuitively—that we are agents with the power to choose. You can choose to eat an apple or an orange, to walk around the block or up and down the street, to watch a movie or a TV show or (most often, best) neither. And while your choices are all "influenced", sometimes powerfully influenced, they are not "determined". This is how we experience our freedom of will.
And it's important to point out that atheists admit this.
In fact, Sam Harris complains that "people find the idea of libertarian free will so intuitively compelling" that it's hard to even get them to "think clearly about determinism." Atheist philosopher of mind John Searle admits that this common notion of free will (libertarian free will) is so inescapable that even if it is an illusion we would have to live as though it were not!
It also happens to fit the biblical worldview.
As we’ve seen with other fundamental aspects of human experience---including morality, human value and dignity, human rights, consciousness---the biblical worldview accounts for what we seem to intuitively know to be true. It makes sense of our experience. The existence of God and our creation in the image and likeness of God provides a foundation for free will.
More than that, the biblical worldview requires such a view of free will. After all, belief in moral responsibility and accountability are central to that worldview. And as even little children understand, moral responsibility and accountability presuppose free will. It’s simply not reasonable to hold someone morally accountable for an act they had no freedom to avoid committing.
Free Will and Naturalism
So what happens to free will if the universe is what the naturalist says it is?
Let's back up a step. Everyone agrees that physical systems are deterministic. There's simply no way to get around this simple fact. Fire a rocket into the sky and it will go precisely where it must, given all the physical conditions in play. Drop a pin on the floor and it will wind up exactly where it must, given all the physical conditions in play. Physical systems are deterministic.
And since the naturalist worldview holds that our entire universe represents one, massive physical system, the naturalist worldview is inescapably deterministic.
But then, what are we, according to the naturalist worldview?
You and I, we're merely a part of this massive, mechanical, deterministic, physical system. The "machine" we call the universe includes you and me and everything about us---including our brains which produce our thoughts, intentions and choices. Because of this, free will is simply not possible. It cannot be accounted for within a naturalist worldview. The conditions don't exist.
This is something atheists admit readily. For instance, John Searle:
[W]e are inclined to say that since nature consists of particles and their relations with each other, and since everything can be accounted for in terms of those particles and their relations, there is simply no room for freedom of will…. It really does look as if everything we know about physics forces us to some form of denial of human freedom."
The brain is a physical system whose operation is governed solely by the laws of chemistry and physics. What does this mean? It means that all of your thoughts and hopes and dreams and feelings are produced by chemical reactions going on in your head."
No wonder Darwin could describe thoughts as "excretions of brain".
With all this "in mind" (no pun intended) Sam Harris, the most well-known atheist speaking and writing on this subject at the present, has no problem declaring that free will is "an illusion".
Human thought and behavior are determined by prior states of the universe and its laws.... We are driven by chance and necessity, just as a marionette is set dancing on its strings."
Powerful jaw-busting words from a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em human robot.
Materialism and Moral Accountability
But we'll come back to this question in our next lesson. For now, notice the massive implications of Harris's view in the realm of morals. How can we hold a person morally accountable for anything they do if it's all particles and their relations, chemical reactions in the brain?
Now Harris is consistent. And because of this he does not talk about accountability in moral terms. According to Harris, Ted Bundy had no more choice in whether or not he would kidnap, torture and murder young women than a rattle snake has in whether or not he will bite someone who crosses his path. Like the snake, Bundy did only what he had to do given his nature. If we understood this, we wouldn't "hate" Mr. Bundy, and we wouldn't throw around words like "evil" and "guilty" and all the rest. We would lock him away to protect the innocent and that's that.
I can hear Sam Harris making his closing argument as Ted Bundy's defense attorney:
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. As you move now from this courtroom to deliberations, I ask you to keep a few things in mind. Remember first of all that my client is nothing more than a marionette dancing on his strings. Given the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature, he did only what chemical reactions in his brain determined he must do. Remember also that the way each of you votes will be determined by chemical reactions inside your individual brains. And finally, when the judge passes sentence, keep in mind that his sentence will be entirely determined by chemical reactions inside his brain. Everything here is accounted for by particles and their relations. In the light of this, I ask you, good citizens, how is my client possibly to obtain an impartial verdict?”
Back to Apologetics
I hope you're beginning to see how important it is to understand the worldview of the person you're evangelizing, and to understand the implications of that worldview. You see, apologetics is not just a matter of presenting arguments for God's existence and the truth of the Christian worldview. It's also a matter of presenting arguments against opposing worldviews.
And when it comes to evangelizing those who doubt or deny the existence of God, apologetics will include showing our friends just where a consistent materialism leads, and how badly it fails to make sense of even the most basic and fundamental aspects of human experience.
I'm talking about the issues discussed beginning with lesson four: meaning, human value, human rights, morality, consciousness, and now free will. All of them trimmed away and discarded as illusion.
Doing apologetics isn't easy, but here's something you've got in your favor: The person you're talking to is not a biochemical machine. He's not a marionette set dancing on his strings. He's not a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Human Robot. He's the image and likeness of God.
And because of this, even though he may "say" there is no God and that materialism is true, one thing you can be sure of is that he cannot live with the logical implications of his worldview.
He may have never thought these implications through to their bitter end. And when you deal these cards and lay them squarely on the table, he will wish he could be dealt a fresh hand. At minimum, he will have become more open than he was to hearing what you have to say.