Monday, 10 January 2011

Free Will - Do We Have It?

Over the last few years I have been asking myself some pretty big questions, often where science, philosophy and theology all need to be taken into account. It doesn't hurt to take things one at a time, it can actually be beneficial as the mind can't always handle being bombarded with all the big questions at once, plus one answer can often lead to a cascade of revelations. One of the questions I put off for a while was the question of the soul - does it exist and what is it? The position I found satisfactory (scientifically, philosophically and theologically) was theistic monism, which I almost immediately wrote about. The nature of the soul was something which eluded me for a while, making me very uncomfortable as it kept cropping up. Another such question has been on my mind for a while now - do we have free will?

For a while now I have been aware of a degree of determinism in nature, but had not properly assessed it. Free will was a difficult idea to drop, especially as it gave comfortable answers to some theological issues (I loathed Calvinism for quite some time). Last year, before I finished my first year of uni, I bought Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett, in a bid to get myself thinking about this difficult subject. I figured that he might be a good philosopher to start with as I knew that he would address things from an evolutionary viewpoint, making it easier for me personally to digest, but also because he is an atheist and compatibilist. I figured that if he persuaded me then it would hold more weight, due to our different theological starting points. I am ashamed to say that I read the first two chapters, scratched my head a lot, then left it for another day. I now feel ready to read it again and actually absorb it.

Since that time I have been reading Facebook debates and recently waded in, allowing the discussions to shape my views as it went along. I felt quite comfortable as I was not the only theist supporting a deterministic reading of human volition. I have also been watching some videos from this website, helping me to grasp some of the issues. Interestingly I discovered the site through a creationist who sadly does not often present things which make me think. In the last discussion I had about free will I laid things out as I have come to see them over the last few months, so yet again I am going to do that thing which bugs me and post something from a Facebook discussion. I will, however, edit it, as it was aimed at a specific person, so I may also add to it as well.

First though, a little background into my theology in order to give context. I believe humans are intimately connected to creation through evolution, so any talk of free will which did not take this into account would be useless to me. I am also a theistic monist, so I believe free will must be a product of the brain, if it does exist. That was one of the main thoughts when going into this debate. I have also settled on universalism when it comes to Salvation, which softens the blow of determinism somewhat. I do, however, also believe in Hell, but that it is limited and purifying, something which I think also softens the blow of determinism on theology. Free will was no longer the explanation I had to cling to in my theology, though a freedom to "be" will likely always be emphasised. So, onto the post:

Here is the way I see it. We can start with the physical data, with our observations of the natural processes of the world, and acknowledge that our brains are subject to the same forces. We do struggle to unpack and untangle what is going on in order to establish a causal change, because at any one time there are myriad influences on a single action and we have extras like feedback loops and even emergence to contend with. Our decisions are often made before we are consciously aware of having a choice. So we end up with the acknowledgement that antecedent events necessitate the current and future states. Determinism is an observation, not a theory.

On the other hand we have those subjective experiences of free will, that persuasive pragmatism which really does get the job done. We are conscious of many of our choices and how such choices can be constrained. We are therefore faced with two seemingly contradictory notions - determinism and free will - which appear to be self evident. Either they must be reconciled, which can mean the reduction of one for the other, or one must be jettisoned completely. 

If we try to rid ourselves of determinacy then we have indeterminacy. Indeterminacy is found in nature, most notably in quantum mechanics, but the regularity when we surpass this level gives us little hope for establishing free will. If, however, we did view our world as indeterminate, then we have the same problem - it is also not compatible with free will. Instead of choices being determined before the event, they are instead selected for by lottery. Separate events may be possible from a single choice, but which is chosen is random. So it seems that with or without determinism, free will just does not work.

In order to circumvent the determinism of nature it is not uncommon to find that the "free" part of a person is thought to be metaphysical; the elusive soul controlling machines which we call bodies. Yet this simply moves the issue into another playing field; the issue remains, but is more difficult to talk about. This metaphysical soul itself would be either deterministic or indeterministic, which are both incompatible with free will. 

For this reason I often ask about the locus of choice and what constitutes us as people. If you go for a monist anthropology then you are faced with the determinism of the brain. If you prefer substance dualism then you face the question of whether the soul is deterministic or indeterministic. Free will just does not seem tenable either way.

So what option do we have? One option is clearly to throw away free will completely, to wave away the pragmatism of free will as mere illusion. The debate then becomes whether or not we can live like that. Do we go along with the illusion? or is there a way to see through the fog? Do we acknowledge that we cannot untangle the causal strings, meaning our free will is important even if it is an illusion? 

We could also redefine free will so that it is compatible with determinism. The freedom is then to act, even if it is determined. This allows us to embrace the free will, to follow its pragmatism wherever it leads. Through science we can acknowledge that free will, which could be such a burden and a cost to us, actually did evolve and must not be wasted. With a compatibilist view comes the risk of losing free will (I do wonder if a theological case can be made for this). Our uncertainty about the future is therefore to be embraced, for it frees us and allows us to determine what happens, even if that is ultimately determined. 

That is where I see it if we look to science and philosophy, but of course as Christians theology is important. With theology we have determinism again if God is held to be omniscient. This does not mean God forced us to act, but that our actions can lead only to one result. We are then faced with the issues of accountability and of Hell. How can I be held responsible if all is determined? How can God send people to Hell if they had no chance of avoiding it? 

With regards to responsibility we can still claim it with regards to our choices. It is us doing the choosing, based on our character, based on our desires, based on our beliefs and past experiences. It is I doing the choosing even if those choices can only ever lead to one result. Which leads us to the next question: is Hell justified if I am destined for it and can do nothing about it?

When answering this question we do risk letting emotion answer it for us. We also have a major presupposition to contend with, as our views of Hell will shape our understanding. If Hell is seen as eternal conflagration then the punishment for our inability to change our path seems incompatible with a just and loving God. If Hell is a wispy existence, out of God's comfort, languishing in rejection of Love, then profligacy becomes a characteristic of God, for we are naught but waste - the chaff cut from the wheat. If, however, one is a universalist (whether the instantaneous variety or believing in a purgative Hell which purifies) then we are all predestined for Heavenly life and our deterministic selves are not wasted but perfected. 

To conclude, I appear to be a compatibilist. I see determinism as a scientific inevitability, which goes hand in hand with belief in an omniscient God (though I do believe that God could limit His omniscience if He so chooses). I see free will as a strongly convincing illusion which has a purpose; it is pragmatic and is to be embraced. We do not see the mechanistic thought processes, the chains of causality in each individual, so to treat ourselves and others as free agents is the most effective way to act. I do not see us as mere puppets having our strings pulled, but active agents, affected and affecting. We will be judged on our actions and effects, determined by our past, by our nature, but all of us have the potential to grow in the love of God. Hopefully this view of mine will mature, but it is in its infancy in my mind and may change dramatically for all I know. Whatever happens, I look forward to it.

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