In corresponding with a professor, I turned the discussion to materialism and the views of Dr. Sam Harris, and those who believe as he does. Many atheists reasonably (on their view) conclude that there is no such thing as “free will,” which is a secondary result stemming from their materialism. The man I was discussing this with wrote me,
As a materialist, Harris doesn’t believe that there is an immaterial soul which exercises causal power on material reality. All that you are, therefore, is your body (including your brain). Since the brain, as a physical object, follows the laws of physics and chemistry, then your thoughts/decisions must also follow the laws of physics and chemistry.
Perhaps a better way that Harris might put it is to say that there really isn’t a “you” that can be responsible for the state of your brain. You just are the state of your brain.
We should reject this viewpoint because of our firsthand experience. You mentioned that you have the experience of taking action. Notice that this is incompatible with Harris’ view. You don’t ever really take action on his view, rather your brain reacts to various internal and external chemical stimuli.
Everything you think and do is reactionary on his view. Your experience of exercising proactive causal power is incompatible with this view, and thus your firsthand experience is evidence against the view.
I believe that this professor was correct, and he worded it better than I ever have. Hopefully he’ll give me permission to use his name, but I know that such can be sketchy territory in the world of academia and the twitterverse.
There are startling implications of this view of life. Consider the love of your life—in the materialistic realm, the “love” you feel is just a chemical reaction. Your entire experience of “knowing” your husband or wife is reducible to a chemistry equation. In fact, with advanced enough technology and chemicals, you could completely replace them by simply modifying one’s brain—they need not even exist.
Why? Because all “they” are to “you” is the state of your brain at any given time. There is no real overlap between the atoms that make “them” with the atoms that make “you.” The sum of your experience is merely a certain arrangement of chemicals and neural structures in your amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex.
With advanced enough technology, on this view, we could someday replace the love of your life simply by altering your brain. You could kill off that person and replace the memories and emotions with better ones—more intense physical pleasure, more intense emotional bonding, and even alter the mind so that the memories with your former love are with someone much more physically attractive. All without needing another human.
Why? Because all “you” are is an arrangement of atoms; if we can alter that arrangement, we can alter you. This is a world without spirit, free will, or God.
Of course, it means that the “love” your partner has for you isn’t anything other than an illusion, and isn’t something that they had a choice in, anyway. And if you’re reading this, it means that you didn’t have a choice but to read it. And whatever you do one minute from now—well that’s not your choice, either.
PS—I have to believe that, in the view of atheism, there can be no more foolish belief than this: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” —John 15:13