Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Necessity of Free Will

Last month we cited the thread at Evangelical Outpost addressing the free will /determinism problem. It's a difficult puzzle, for which a satisfactory resolution has eluded philosophers for over two thousand years.

The fundamental question is this: Is there more than one possible future, or is the future wholly determined by our environment, our genes, and/or God?

Those who argue for determinism often make two arguments, one stronger than the other. The weaker is simply an untestable assertion that we always act in accord with our strongest desire. Our strongest motives determine our action. As many people have pointed out, however, this is based upon a tautology since our strongest desire is defined as whichever one we act upon. It's therefore true that we always act upon our strongest desire, but its a trivial truth.

We might break out of the tautology and define strongest desire as whichever one we feel most urgently, but then, since it is possible to act on desires that we're not aware of at all, the claim that we always act in accord with our strongest desire becomes problematic. The determinist has no way to demonstrate that we always act in accord with the desire we feel most strongly and his position is thereby undermined.

The determinist's second, more compelling argument, is based on the difficulty of stating exactly what is meant by a free choice. The determinist rightly points out that an absolutely free choice cannot be one which has no causes. If our choices, or at least some of them, were completely uncaused then they would be spontaneous, constantly surprising, and totally unpredictable. But if our choices do have causes then, the argument goes, isn't it those causes which determine the choice? If so, in what sense is the choice free?

We might say that if atheism is true there would really be no point in defending the idea that we are in some sense, at least, free and that the future is open. If atheism is true then the world is almost certainly a closed system of cause and effect under the tyranny of unyielding physical laws. There's no more reason to believe that human freedom can exist in such a system than there is to believe that opposite poles of magnets can choose not to attract.

What difference, then, does God make? The theist believes, first of all, that we are morally responsible. This is implied in the teaching of the Bible, but such teaching would be incoherent were we not free to make moral choices. Responsibility entails freedom to choose. We may be unable to accurately describe what that freedom consists in, but that it exists must be the case if we are significantly responsible for our actions.

Secondly, the theist believes that human beings have dignity and worth, but if our behavior is purely the result of mechanistic forces over which we have no control then we are little more than a particularly interesting form of laboratory rat with no dignity at all. We simply respond to the stimuli in our environment and the pressures of our genetic complement just like the rat does. Since human dignity and worth are the grounds for human rights, if we are just flesh and bone machines there really is nothing upon which to build any notion of "rights". Thus significant moral freedom is a pre-condition for human rights.

Thirdly, theists believe we are created in God's image. Part of what that entails, perhaps, is having the power to choose. God is not constrained by anything outside of Himself, nor by anything in His past that He does not choose. It is possible that we, too, share in God's freedom, at least to some extent.

Fourthly, theists believe that God is good and just, but we confess that these words must mean something completely different to God than they do to us if we are not morally free. If God has created beings to live a vanishingly brief time on earth with no freedom to choose their destiny and then to be divinely consigned to eternal punishment for living and choosing in ways for which they were programmed by their environment, genes, or by God Himself, then we at are a loss to understand what is meant by God's goodness and justice.

Immanuel Kant said that we cannot prove we have free will but we have to assume that we do in order to make sense out of our lives, but the assumption itself makes no sense unless there is a God who somehow grants us a measure of moral freedom.

Our belief that we possess a significant degree of such freedom is based on our belief that God is good and just in ways which are meaningful to us, that we are created in His image, that we are morally responsible for our actions, and that we have dignity and worth. No doubt there are atheistic materialists who believe in free-will but it seems that such a belief is inconsistent with their atheism. Take God away and there is no moral responsibility, there is no human dignity or worth, and there is no basis for believing we are free except the powerful conviction that we are.

In a Godless world, however, that conviction is a chimera.