In this article, I want to share a conversation I had with a Mormon trying to convert me to his religion. Unfortunately for him, I have read a lot about this topic, and I was knowledgeable enough to answer his questions with scientific evidence. The conversation lasted about 15 minutes and ended up with him questioning his own free will.
After writing the first version of this article, I discussed the topic with other people, and I was made aware that in the Christian sense, free will is the ability to choose between good or evil. So if you define it as the decision-making process taking place in our minds, even though this process is completely deterministic, then yes, you could say that we have this kind of free will. But I'd call it freedom to act instead of free will. But if you, like me, define it as "the ability to have acted differently than what you did", then this kind of free will is not compatible with the deterministic worldview, and this makes the concept of sin meaningless. Therefore, I think determinism is the only logical method in which reality works.
Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.
-- Arthur Schopenhauer
So while I was waiting to cross the street, the Mormon came to me and asked if I've ever heard of the Mormon church. I said yes, to which he was surprised, and asked me to tell him what do I know about Mormonism. I said I'm not really familiar with their beliefs, but I'm strongly against all the organized religions. He seemed interested in my opinions for some reason because after we crossed the street, we were obviously heading different ways, but he still stopped to talk to me. After an awkward silent second, he asks me, am I an atheist? What do I believe in? Why do I think religions are bad? Oh boy, he didn't know what he was getting into, as this was one of the many topics I often debate (sometimes rant) online, but for some reason, I did avoid it in real life, as to not offend someone's beliefs. As of now, I feel confident discussing controversial topics with other people.
Anyway, back to the Mormon. I told him yes, I'm an atheist, I believe in nothing that can't be proven scientifically. To which he replied ignorantly "so you don't believe in anything you can't see?" No, you can prove things scientifically without seeing them, like the gravity maybe? Do you need to see the gravity to know it's there? No, but you can see the consequences of the gravity, and if you let a book lose, it will definitely hit the ground, you don't need to see the gravity to prove its existence. Things fall on the ground, that's how we know the gravity is there.
I also told him why I think religions are detrimental to our society. I should probably write another blog post about this topic because I have a lot to say about that. But the tl;dr version of what I told him is that religions make people satisfied with irrational answers, so every time they don't understand something they say it's God, a miracle, or something sacred, instead of investigating and finding out exactly what's going on. That impulse to do irrational things by otherwise smart people has its roots in that person's beliefs. Beliefs lead to actions, and actions do have consequences.
He asked me then what parts of the Bible do I consider irrational, and the thing is, I don't even know where to start, so I say the first example that pops into my head, about the Noah. I say it's impossible to build a ship that can hold so many animals, and it's mathematically impossible that so many organisms we have alive today descended from a single pair few thousand years ago. All of the species evolved over millions of years. That was new information to him, he said he never thought about that, and he also didn't even know how old the earth was, or how inaccurate the Bible really is. Did he even read that thing?
At this point, he seemed pretty disappointed and it was my turn to start asking him questions. One technique I often use, and will probably cover in the next post, is asking the "why" question, over and over again, trying to get at the root of their beliefs, until I see a flaw in their logic and point it out to them. Usually, people answer 4-5 of those questions, then they start to get stuck, and give an answer based on their feeling, it's because "I feel that it's right". This is not a good explanation to base your decisions on, and I'd say it's a dangerous mindworm, that generates a lot of hate in our society, like people hating on homosexuals cause it's not "the way God wants it", or anti-abortion activists which claim the fetuses have souls and shouldn't be killed.
So the conversation went like this:
- Why do you believe in God? - Because the Bible says so. - Good enough. And why do you think what's written in the Bible is true? - Because God created us... - No, he didn't... - ... and gave us free will... - No, free will is an illusion, you don't have free will... ```
At this point, he started smiling awkwardly and saying "That's not true, I have free will". I have thought about free will a lot before, but after this conversation, it triggered me again, and I decided to dedicate my first blog post to this topic. My answer to free will is hard determinism. I think that knowing all the variables to a situation, the outcome could be determined. The universe we live in obeys the laws of physics, and given all the events in that person's life, I could accurately predict his next decision. We are just very complex intelligent biological machines obeying the laws of nature.
We don't have free will, we have the illusion of free will, which is a very powerful illusion, and because of our ignorance to all of the conditions, that we can't see the whole picture, we don't have all of the variables to calculate the best outcome, and our minds create the illusion of control, but in reality there's not much what makes us ourselves that doesn't come from other people or our environment. Some might argue, that due to the indeterministic properties of quantum mechanics, there's still some hope left that we do indeed have the free will. However, I think that any indeterminism in quantum mechanics occurs at a scale too small to influence biological or neurological systems, which in turn shape our actions and beliefs. In addition to that, the quantum world isn't completely unpredictable, as we can use statistics to estimate the probability of a specific outcome.  Which means that the quantum world could be completely predictable in theory, and we can't determine the outcome with certainty because of our ignorance, and there could exist other factors we have not discovered yet that influence the outcome of our experiments.
Contrary to the popular opinion that we are free to choose our own religion, I'd argue that we don't have that freedom. We get the religion from our parents and relatives, we get our habits, taste in music, or pretty much everything else from other people. The society you're living in shapes your personality.
We can not say for sure, but according to all of the research done in neuroscience on the topic of free will, the evidence supports the deterministic theory. A person's decision could be predicted few seconds before that person was aware of the decision, using fMRI brain scans.
When the Mormon decided to come to me and talk about the religion, why did he do it? His answer was because he wanted to. I said yes, but why did you want to do this? Probably because you've done this before, you have seen the outcome, you were satisfied enough with the outcome so that you decided to do that again, and talk to me about that. Now imagine for a second that I was a serial killer. After you ask me some questions, I get mad, take out a knife and try to kill you. If you get alive after that, you'll probably not want to talk to random strangers about religion again. So that's how your brain decided that this would be the best outcome for your survival. That's why you did it. You don't have free will.
I think his brain stopped working at this point. He had a very confused and sad face, and he told me that this is an interesting idea that he hasn't thought about before. He wanted to give me a card with his church address, in case I want to ask more questions, I politely declined, and said I'm not interested. He wished me than a nice evening and left away with a sad face.
I really hope that I have added some doubts about his beliefs in his mind... I think that every bit of doubt helps because people will not change their beliefs overnight. I did not lose my faith in a day, a week, nor a month. It happened gradually over several years. More and more doubts made me question my beliefs, and in the end, I decided to research about it, and make my own conclusions. I have read from both of the extremes. I have read the Bible, and I have read Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens and decided to make my own conclusions, and from all of the evidence I have gathered, science is the only one explaining the true nature of the universe.
Of course, we don't know everything about the universe, but science is the closest approximation of the reality that we can get. We discover new things, and we expand our understandings of the universe. In comparison to that, religion is just a belief based on some thousand years old book, with lots and lots of irrational, downright disgusting things happening. Everything the Bible gets right is purely by chance, but unfortunately, religions will exist as long as humans are afraid of death.
You may ask me, how do I live thinking that I don't have a free will, and everything could be predetermined. I just don't worry about it. There's no life after death. There's no sin, and no one to save me. There's no evil nor good. Everything is relative. Even a terrorist attack is a good thing for the terrorists. It's neither good nor bad, it just is, and some people think it's good, others think it's bad. No one has the moral responsibility for their actions, because no one had the choice to have done otherwise. You can read more about this idea in a thought-provoking book I highly recommend, by Sam Harris titled simply Free Will. So what I'm trying to do with my life? I just do whatever I want, without caring if other people find it stupid, disgusting, unholy, or immoral. Morality changes over time in the society, things that are moral now were banned in the past. Morality is subjective, and it doesn't have to be defined by religion anymore.