There's an article by Dennis Overbye in the New York Times on the question of free will and determinism, and Joe Carter, who tips us to the piece, has an interesting discussion of it at Evangelical Outpost. Most interesting are the exchanges with some of his critical readers in the comment section. Check it out.
The question of volitional freedom is important inasmuch as we have to at least assume we are in some sense free if we wish to hold on to a belief in personal moral accountability. If all of our decisions, particularly our moral decisions, are somehow the inevitable product of forces and influences which have acted upon us from before the time we were born then we are nothing more than machines and we bear no more responsibility for those choices than a computer bears for the "choices" it appears to make.
To say that we're free is to say that at any given moment there are at least two genuinely possible futures. If, however, our choices are the product of physical necessity then there can really only be one possible future and the sense that we have a real choice is an illusion. On the other hand, the concept of a free moral choice is difficult to formulate. A free choice cannot simply be something that happens spontaneously. It must somehow be a product of our character and our beliefs, otherwise it would not really be our choice, we would not really be the responsible agent for it. It would just be a random event.
But if the choice is the product of our character and if those virtues which comprise our character have been shaped by those forces and influences that have acted upon us throughout our lives, then how do we escape the conclusion that ultimately the choice we made was, in fact, determined?
It seems that both total freedom and total determinism are incompatible with moral responsibility. Only if there is something about us, like a mind or a soul, that is non-physical and which contributes to our choosings without itself having been programmed by nature can we escape the conclusion that we are merely flesh and bone machines.
Put differently, even though it is difficult to conceptualize the kind of freedom we must have to be morally accountable for what we do, if determinism is true there really is no such thing as morality at all. That is, there is no truth value to claims that we should behave in certain ways, that certain behaviors are right and others are wrong. Words like should and ought only have meaning if there are genuine alternatives involved. Right and wrong only have meaning if there is a genuine choice. Otherwise, a man who wantonly harms another is no more guilty of a moral breach than is a Tourette's sufferer who unwillingly but invariably blurts out obscenities.
So, either morality really exists and we are indeed accountable for what we do, or there is no moral right and wrong and what we do has no moral significance. The only reason we could have for believing the former is a prior belief that there exists a personal God who has woven right and wrong into the fabric of the cosmos and who confers upon us the ability to make genuine moral choices. Even if we cannot explain how we are free, we can, based on our belief in God, maintain that we must, in some sense, be free.
On the other hand, if we are atheistic materialists who hold that there is no personal deity, that there's only matter and energy, then we have no reason whatsoever to persist in the belief that morality is any less illusory than a mirage or a hallucination. Our choices are merely chemical reactions occuring in the brain and those reactions were ineluctably foreordained by the conditions existing at the instant of the Big Bang. For the materialist right and wrong are purely arbitrary conventions based upon subjective preferences and no obligation to observe those conventions can possibly bind us. This is the theme that Dostoyevsky comes back to over and over again in his novels - "if God is dead, then everything is permitted."
If one believes in morality, moral responsibility, and free will then one should be a theist, and if one is not a theist one should, it seems to me, be a determinist and, consequently, a moral nihilist. It is a peculiarity of the contemporary theism/atheism debate that atheists, who should logically be determinists who believe that no one freely chooses what they do and that no one is therefore truly responsible for their choices, actually fault theists for choosing to believe in God.
Our conviction that we are free only makes sense, it can only be an accurate belief about the way things really are, if there is a God. To quote the rock group Rush - I will choose free will.RLC