Rapid Response: “We Don’t Need God to Explain the Existence of Free Agency”

free-agencyIn our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone said, “Christians describe God as a Divine Mind who creates humans in his own image with consciousness and free will. But you don’t need God to account for the kind of free agency Christian describe. Free will can be explained from an atheistic perspective.” How would you respond to such a claim? Here is a conversational example of how I recently replied:

“Several years ago, when I was serving on a police surveillance team, I arrested a guy who we followed for several days. We watched him burglarize a home. He walked through the neighborhoods, knocking on doors. If a resident responded, he’d ask, ‘Is so and so here?’ The resident would say, ‘No,’ and he would answer, ‘Sorry to bother you,’ and move on to the next house. Well, eventually he found a house where no one answered his knocking. He entered the backyard, and I jumped over walls to watch him from the house behind the victim’s residence. As I watched over the backyard fence, I could see him standing by the back door. He seemed to hesitate as he was thinking about what he was going to do next. From researching this man, I knew he was a committed drug addict and came from a family history of addiction and crime. His father and brother were also burglars. Now, as I watched him think about his next move, I could see he was struggling with his decision. He sat down and smoked a cigarette. He eventually stood up and kicked the door in; he committed the burglary.

Months later, when we went to trial, an important question was raised: ‘Did the defendant commit the crime of his own free will?’ He was, after all, coming off a heroin high, so one might wonder, ‘Did he commit the crime because his mind was altered by the drug?’ We might also ask, ‘Was he genetically predisposed to do this, given his family behavior?’ The defendant raised both defenses at his trial. The jury and judge were quick to answer, however: they found him guilty, and at his sentencing hearing, the judge said, in essence, ‘Despite these influences and circumstances, you had a choice; you chose to do this.”

But if atheism is true, we live in a purely material universe, consisting of nothing more than space, time, and matter, governed by nothing more than the laws of physics and chemistry. If that’s the case, everything in our purely physical universe is determined by prior physical causes. The neurons in your physical brain are firing based on the prior firing of neurons. These events are like dominoes that fall because they were struck by prior falling dominoes; you don’t have any control of this sequence of events. That’s why atheists like Sam Harris (trained as a neuroscientist) deny the existence of human free agency altogether. Atheists such as Harris claim free agency is an illusion.

But we have good evidence to demonstrate that the universe is not how atheists describe it. All of us experience free agency on a daily basis. In fact, authors like Harris expect us to use our free agency to assess what he’s writing in his books. We require free will to reason freely between two ideas, to choose between two claims, to show true empathy and compassion and to create artistically. Perhaps more importantly, we believe people are culpable for their free actions. This kind of culpability is impossible unless people have the freedom to act rightly (or wrongly). Where does this kind of free agency come from, if we’re living in a purely physical, deterministic universe, as atheists describe?

Maybe the atheists are wrong. If we are the product of a conscious Creator Mind possessing free agency, choosing to create freely, and fashioning us in His own image, then we should expect to be conscious minds with the ability to decide freely. Theism, and the existence of this kind of Creator accounts for our experience of free agency in a way that atheistic determinism cannot.”

This brief answer was modified from my interview with Bobby Conway. To learn more and watch many other short answers to difficult questions, please visit the One-Minute Apologist website.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, and God’s Crime Scene.

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