Stealing from God: Reason, Part 1

In chapter two, Turek elaborates on a point he initially raises earlier in the book, namely that given atheism, we cannot trust any of our reasoning. In a godless universe, he claims, “we are mere meat machines without free will,” and thus “have no justification to believe anything we think, including any thought that atheism is true.”
What he’s essentially arguing, then, is that the absence of free will is incompatible with reasoning — which means he’s now conflating atheism not just with materialism, but with determinism as well.

At any rate, the idea behind the argument is that reasoning only occurs when we freely accept conclusions. If the conclusions we reach are the result of deterministic laws of cause and effect, then we have no choice but to accept them — and in that case, how can we know that we’ve reached the correct conclusion? As Turek puts it, given atheism, you have “no control over what you are doing or what you are thinking.”

This argument has actually been around for a while, and many people (including many atheists) find it persuasive — as an argument against determinism. But what, exactly, does freely accepting a conclusion have to do with reasoning? Apparently nothing.

Suppose that you are asked to consider the following argument:

All women are mortal; Xanthippe is a woman; therefore, Xanthippe is mortal.

The reasoning here is obviously valid. Does it make any difference whether you “freely” accepted that fact or did so as a result of your brain operating in accordance with causal laws? If so, I fail to see what it is. What makes an instance of reasoning correct has nothing to do with the nature of the thing performing it. Computers and calculators obviously arrive at the correct answer to a problem even though they operate entirely deterministically. And in any case, are you really free to arrive at the conclusion that Xanthippe is mortal — or does the fact that your mind works logically compel you to do so?

I think the underlying reason the above argument convinces so many people has to do with the different ways we naturally view the mind and other things, including the brain. We experience our minds from a first-person point of view, everything else from a third-person point of view. Turek believes that in order to reason, one needs an immaterial mind. The brain, on this view, cannot do so because after all it is made up of parts, and those parts must work together in one way rather than another. This appears inconsistent with how the mind feels to us from the inside. How could there be something underlying our thought processes if our thought processes are free and due only to ourselves?

Note that those like Turek never explain how the immaterial mind manages to do what the brain supposedly can’t. How does it operate? They never say. But there’s a very good reason for that: They don’t have an answer because any answer would raise exactly the same problem that they see with respect to the brain. The “magic” of the mind would in that case disappear.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.