January 05, 2005
Born free, but everywhere in chains

I did not, of course, know that the tsunami was coming when I blogged about the theology of nature (here, here, here, here and here) but it underscored rather more than I would have liked why this subject is important. The disaster doesn't directly touch Darwinism, of course, but it has gotten a lot of folks talking about how to understand natural evil. Some especially strong posts came from the Salty Vicar, Rob, Michael Spencer, Progressive Christian and Get Religion.

On the Get Religion post, a commenter brings up a theory that I didn't quite deal with in my previous rundown:

That God could have created a universe in which no clashes of this kind would occur is not imaginable. He could still the waters, but a continual procession of miracles would make natural law unreal. The choice is between a cosmos in which law is the norm and miracle the exception or one in which constant divine action imposes pain-free harmony.

A little reflection reveals that life in the latter universe would be pointless. We would be denizens of an eternal nursery, with no reason to think or act. That fate would be worse than the risk of being struck down prematurely by flood, fire, pestilence or famine.

One thing I already had in common with Telford when I first met him was a dislike of C.S. Lewis. That puts us in a lonely minority in the Christian blogosphere, so finding this out was a relief. And at least one thing we both dislike about him is exactly that point: the idea that overmuch Godly control would make us robots. So if suffering and evil weren't options, free will would be meaningless. And therefore, life would be meaningless.

I object to this for many reasons, but for present purposes I'll stick to the topic of science and religion. And there's no question that one aspect of science that makes Christians nervous is its tendency toward determinism. Lewis' viewpoint -- shared by much of American Christendom, apparently -- places the individual human will at the center of the Christian drama, so that it becomes indispensable. One friend at the Lutheran church told me that I could never be a Christian so long as I continue to have doubts that people even have free will, properly speaking.

My doubts stem from my scientific understanding of the world. Science, after all, understands the universe as operating by laws, and there's no reason to think human beings don't also operate by laws. And (getting back to Darwinism), if humans are animals then there's no reason to distinguish between instinct, which is programmed into us, and free will, which supposedly isn't. Where would this free-floating decision generator have come from?

I was thinking about this also because of the wild reaction by some commenters at open book to Peter's article about his prison ministry. I see now that it got so out of hand that Amy removed the thread, but basically some people took his comments about social responsibility to absurd extremes -- he wants to release all the rapists! he thinks crime is all genetics! he doesn't believe in personal responsibility! None of which Peter said, of course. But it shows how much conservative Christians are worried about the erosion of belief in free will, and the fear that morality and justice will be replaced by social engineering.

Some of that worry is founded. A lot of folks in the history of psychology, especially behaviorists, have tended to view humans as machines that can, with enough knowledge, be programmed to do whatever you want. In fact, at the end of the classic 1930s sci-fi novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, a crewman on a future spaceship ends up usurping the captain and bending the crew to his wishes simply by piping in sounds and smells that set off the right Pavolovian associations in their minds.

I think also, as Lewis' "nursery" remark makes clear, conservatives see liberals as wanting to keep everyone in a perpetual childhood, where a parental State cares for and molds its citizens rather than letting them make their own decisions. I guess this explains why many of the folks who reject social explanations for criminal behavior seem well aware of how moldable their own children are when it comes to sex education or smutty entertainment. Children are formed by outside influences, I guess, but once they're adults they suddenly become free agents.

But I get the feeling that free-will advocates, like creationists, will find themselves defending an ever-shrinking zone of "what science can't explain." As I said in my comments about Pelagianism, it simply defies reality to claim that everyone has equal freedom to choose the good, no matter what circumstances they were born under (or conditions they were born with). Therefore, I think these Christians are fighting a losing battle here.

The good news, though, is that Christianity seemed to get along fine for quite some time without a Lewisian focus on personal autonomy. As was pointed out in the previous discussion, the older view of the Atonement (which the Eastern Orthodox still hold) makes sinful humanity less a hardened criminal than a damsel in distress, rescued by God from her captivity to Satan. The language of sin as a form of enslavement pops up all over the New Testament (and survives to this day at the start of the Lutheran Sunday liturgy: "Merciful Father, we confess we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves..."). And the Fathers of the Church were known to say things like this:

If your neighbor sins, then you also sin. For if you had kept yourself as the Word demands, your neighbor would have been so ashamed on seeing how you live that he would not have sinned.

So how did the church reconcile all this with the language of good, evil, will and punishment, which it also used copiously? I don't completely know, but I suspect these factors are important:

--A corporate rather than individual understanding of freedom. Humanity collectively had the ability to turn away from God, but that doesn't mean that everyone is a little Adam or Eve free to make the same decision over again. In fact, the doctrine of original sin says precisely the opposite: because of human interdependence, once one person sinned it infected everyone else. So a baby born into the fallen world can't not sin.

To use a concrete analogy, our experience in places like Somalia and Iraq show that the societies that are freest of government -- i.e. that have none -- are among the most unfree for individuals, because they are imprisoned by fear of their neighbors. Even hard libertarians admit that individual freedom needs the state to keep people from oppressing each other. So the cosmic freedom of humanity paradoxically resulted in the enslavement of human beings.

-- A different understanding of adulthood. In the premodern era, childhood was both longer and shorter than in the present. Most children started working alongside adults as soon as they were able, and adopted a lot of responsibility at an early age. On the other hand, in most cases they didn't move off and start a life independent of their parents when they grew up -- they usually stayed in the same town, doing the same job, and often married to someone their parents chose. Adulthood, then, means replacing your parents rather than shaking them loose. So Pauls' language of being heirs to the kingdom and coming into one's inheritance wouldn't have referred to a cosmic trust fund, but the idea that, now that God's laws were written on their hearts, Christians could truly image God on earth and in heaven.

Sin, then, signifies a lack of the wisdom and maturity to take this role. So Paul tells the Corinthians that they're spiritual "children," and therefore he has to play the disciplinarian with them. I don't see him using, as we do, a different standard for adult and juvenile justice, where punishment moves from educational to punitive. Childhood isn't an age, it's a state of mind.

-- A certain humility when it comes to social policy. Yoder alludes to this in the chapter that I haven't blogged yet. It is beyond human capacity to engineer the direction of society, he argues (which is why the scenario in The Voyage of the Space Beagle has yet to happen). So all Christians can do is be faithful to God's commands and trust that he'll work it out, and not try to calculate exactly what the consequences will be. This applies, of course, both to conservatives and liberals who are trying to figure out how to suppress crime.

-- The example of Jesus himself. It's striking how Jesus didn't set up these zero-sum games that we're so fond of today. So he could both forgive transgressors and comfort the transgressed against, preach social justice and personal morality, warn of God's judgment and tell people not to judge, redeem people from sin and cure them of mental illness. To him, it was all part of the same saving mission.

It would be nice if Christians today could follow that example. So that, for instance, psychiatrists and prosecutors, prison ministers and rape-crisis counselors, could see themselves as both fighting the same enemies -- sin and death -- rather than as foes who automatically lose if the other gains.

Anyway, I don't think I can solve the whole free will/determinism thing here. But I do hope the debate could be reframed more productively.

Posted by Camassia at January 05, 2005 03:54 PM | TrackBack

Great post, Camassia. It's pretty ironic that a Lutheran(!) told you that you couldn't be a Christian unless you believe in free will. Has he/she read Luther's debate with Erasmus??

Maybe the obsession with free will is itself a manifestation of sin. We want to hold on to that little corner of creation where we really are in charge.

Anyway, in his book "God So Loved the World" Jonathan Wilson talks about how the different theories of atonement are complementary in that they're relevant to different situations. When we are victimized and oppressed by forces beyond our control the "Christus Victor" model reminds us that sin is a power that grips us and that Christ is our liberator. But when we sin against others, the Anselmian/Substiution models offer us forgiveness and reconciliation. Wilson suggests that a complete picture needs to hold on to both of these perspectives.

Of course, this doesn't solve the intellectual problem of free will, but I think we need to at least start with the phenomena as we experience them: sometimes we're victims and sometimes we're victimizers (and sometimes both).

Posted by: Lee on January 6, 2005 06:02 AM

The Get Religion commenter is mistaken. A universe without flood, fire, pestilence or famine is not only imaginable, it is promised.

A life in such a place may strike the commenter as pointless, but that's the life for which we were created, the life toward which Christ calls us.

Posted by: Tom on January 6, 2005 09:05 AM

I think determinism and free will may well exist at the same time, perhaps in a similar way to a coin being tossed 100 times, free will being the equivalent to a choice in each instance between heads and tails, determinism showing itself in the long run.

Also, as with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, each may be impossible to pin down in relation to the other at any moment.

Posted by: jim on January 6, 2005 09:52 AM

Where would this free-floating decision generator have come from?

Well... from God, right?

Posted by: Tom on January 6, 2005 10:11 AM

Sure, lets call it God. Why not?

Posted by: jim on January 6, 2005 10:30 AM

"A life in such a place may strike the commenter as pointless, but that's the life for which we were created, the life toward which Christ calls us."

The other thing that is promised along with that is the perfection of humanity, though. What kind of relationship do you think we fallible humans would have to God in the face of a stopped tidal wave off some coast, held there by God's hand? Especially in the age of CNN?

Not to mention the inevitable fighting, leading to violence even, as people bicker over whose god was responsible for the great miracle. People in the fallen world do not react as faithfully in the face of miracles here as I hope we will in the life you mention, Tom.

Posted by: C.C. Tidings on January 6, 2005 11:02 AM

I should make clear here that I'm not so much arguing that free will doesn't exist, as that if it exists it does so in much too constrained a fashion to bear the theological weight that Lewis puts on it. We do not face infinite possibilities every time we make a decision; our decisions are forced by circumstances. It is rather like a servant whose master tells him to go to Harrod's and pick out a green tie suitable for tonight's dinner party. The servant has a choice of ties, but everything else about the situation (including the fact that he's choosing ties to begin with) is beyond his control. I don't see that as enough to explain the problem of evil, let alone the meaning of life.

I also agree with Tom that the idea that evil is somehow necessary for freedom also creates a problem for the promise of heaven. In fact, I've known some atheists who say that they don't want to get into the Christian heaven because it sounds like they'll be God's eternal lapdog. Evil, in fact, sounds freer than good, because good is simply obeying the Big Daddy's commands while sin is making your own decisions. As I said, Christian tradition actually portrays it as the reverse: sin is slavery, Christ is freedom.

I agree that the perfection of humanity is supposed to go along with the arrival of heaven, and perhaps that's why we aren't there yet. Still, C.C.'s scenario assumes that, if God spares us from disasters, everything else about the world would be the same -- there would still be CNN, different religions, etc. Maybe that would be true in a one-off case, but obviously if we lived in a world generally without natural evil, human society would be very different. Different in what way, is beyond my powers to speculate.

Posted by: Camassia on January 6, 2005 11:32 AM

Will it be humanity as a whole or could it be one soul at a time that is perfected and attains heaven? Could it be as according to Thomas' Jesus that: "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'here it is' or 'there it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it."(?)

Posted by: jim on January 6, 2005 12:18 PM

As Camassia suggests, a universe in which there are no tidal waves that must be stopped is hardly unimaginable. Nor would it require endless miracles.

Or, put differently, a universe in which a continual procession of miracles occurs is one in which a continual procession of miracles is part of the natural laws, which means they aren't miracles.

I'm not sure how much religious bickering has occurred over the miracle of gravity.

Posted by: Tom on January 6, 2005 01:46 PM

The existence of the universe is a miracle in itself and subject to revision--*at any time now*--by its Author.
But the rock that free will crashes up against is not material determinism, but divine Omniscience.

Posted by: Rob on January 6, 2005 01:55 PM

For Aquinas, free will follows necessarily from the ability of humans to think rationally. If you can choose between courses of action, you have free will -- and in fact, free will is precisely the ability to choose between more than one thing, each of which is good in some respect.

I'd be surprised to learn of a scientific experiment that can demonstrate humans lack the ability to choose.

Posted by: Tom on January 6, 2005 02:01 PM

The difference between determinism and predestination based on God's omniscience, is that, as jim has pointed out, determinism is limited by the laws of physics and may be, or seem to be, locally and temporarily inoperative. God's will is not, however, limited, either temporally or spatially, since it is eternal. In the mind of God, then what was and what will be must not be differentiated in any way, but must simply be what is, now and forever more. What God has seen that you will be and do, you will be and do.

Posted by: Rob on January 6, 2005 06:17 PM

I'm definitely not in the lonely minority that doesn't like C.S. Lewis; I loved his Narnia books as a child, enjoyed the wit of The Screwtape Letters, and have the usual ready store of favorite quotes form his other works. But his theodicy in _The Problem of Pain_ left me cold, I have to admit. I much preferred _A Grief Observed_, where he was wrestling with the loss of his wife and not having his thoughts about God work out so neatly. For what it's worth.

When I first glanced at your post, the line "The choice is between a cosmos in which law is the norm and miracle the exception ..." leapt out at me and I was going to say, "Yes!" until I realized the writer was going somewhere completely different with that juxtaposition from where I go. When I've thought in those terms, it didn't really have anything to do with theodicy, or free will, or whether we really need to live in a world where tsunamis cause massive destruction; it was more my way of phrasing my resistance to a certain variety of Christian thinking which assumes scientific knowledge is particularly unreliable. And saying that God put us in a world which actually works the way it looks, where what you can infer about natural law by the scientific method makes some sort of sense, not one where what looks like a lot of darn good evidence for evolution has just been stuck there to confuse us. (I suppose Tom is right that a world where miracle is the norm would simply be a world where miracle was natural law, but then, you'd still be able to see, by observation, that that is the way the world works.)

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on January 6, 2005 08:12 PM

This wins my "best post of the first week of 2005" award. This bit is superb, and will have me thinking quite a bit:

Adulthood, then, means replacing your parents rather than shaking them loose. So Pauls' language of being heirs to the kingdom and coming into one's inheritance wouldn't have referred to a cosmic trust fund, but the idea that, now that God's laws were written on their hearts, Christians could truly image God on earth and in heaven.


Posted by: Hugo on January 7, 2005 02:06 PM

First, determinism basically claims that the universe is a clockwork system whose future is completely determined to result in one set or determined chain of events. This seemed to be an understandable position in the nineteenth century when everything we could examine seemed to work strictly according to rigid, mechanistic, nonrandom laws. But Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle tells us that the universe is fundamentally non-deterministic, for it shows that randomness exists in nature at the most fundamental level. If there are random events at the subatomic level, then events at larger levels cannot be completely unrandom, although in many situations there can be a high degree of predictability as to the relative frequency of certain outcomes. Of course, this doesn't necessarily address the issue of our free will, but it does suggest that a person who experiences a particular set of conditions does not by necessity end up as one pre-determined end product (or to explain differently, if we could construct a scenario where two genetically identical people underwent identical experiences, they would not necessarily end up exactly the same; very similar, perhaps, but not exactly the same). Determinism seems to be implausible, but free will may still be a chimera. I think both philosophers and theologians have yet to come to terms with the facts that nature is both so highly predictable *and* so highly random at the same time. Acknowledgment of this paradox might be helpful for solving, or at least moving us in the direction of understanding better, some of the topics you talk about here.

Second, Tom says:

"As Camassia suggests, a universe in which there are no tidal waves that must be stopped is hardly unimaginable. ... I'm not sure how much religious bickering has occurred over the miracle of gravity."

Indeed, I find it hard to imagine a world that has anything similar to the chemistry and physics of ours (and if we're going to "imagine" a different kind of world, we would need to account for such details as plate tectonics, radioactive decay (which keeps Earth's core from freezing, and thus allows for molten rock, which allows for plate tectonics, etc.) that doesn't require the possibility of tidal waves, or other such natural disasters. It would be a much different universe, and thus our relation to it would necessarily be much different. If we had a universe that was supported by a constant string of (relatively) unpredictable miracles (since (relatively) predictable miracles are not miracles at all but natural laws; I don't see why people want to call something like gravity a miracle, but I think it has to do with Christianity's current anti-scientific predilection to define miracles as something God does while what happens in nature isn't as connected to God (and thus if we want to say God *is* working through natural laws like gravity, we have to name that as a "miracle"), whereas I think it makes much more sense to think of God as creating natural laws to order to universe while creating miracles if and when he wants to work outside that natural law framework; both are created by God, but a miracle is only a subset of God's creative action and is the exception, not the rule), we wouldn't be able to rely on any of our measurements, any of our calculations, and even precious few of our experience-based intuitions. Such a universe may end up seeming completely random and un-intelligible; I can't really imagine such a universe, but I know that I don't want to live in it. And I know I wouldn't want to live in a world which had almost none of the complexity that ours has (which seems to be the other option for "imagining" a world in which tsunamis couldn't exist).

Some of this conversation reminds me of Marvin's recent comments over at . He talks about how wild animals and native hunter gatherers were in tune with nature enough to know that a tsunami was coming and to get to higher ground; very few of them were killed. Those who were in a position close to nature (in an experiential sense, not in a scientific understanding sense), were able to survive.

Posted by: Kyle on January 8, 2005 12:44 AM

It would be a much different universe, and thus our relation to it would necessarily be much different.

Sure. For one thing, we don't exist in that universe.

But my point was that universes are easily imagined in which nothing is destroyed. That nothing is destroyed is a sufficient condition for the absence of natural evil without a constant string of miracles; there are probably other conditions that would work, too. How complex these imagined universes are would depend, I suppose, on how long we spent imagining them.

I don't know that anyone particularly wants to call gravity a miracle, other than to make a rhetorical point. My rhetorical point was that we don't call gravity a miracle, because it is a law of this universe. Scientists in a universe in which nothing is destroyed and there is no gravity would not call nothing being destroyed a miracle, but they might call gravity a miracle if they observed it (and if they weren't dogmatic materialists).

By the way, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has to do with how accurately an observer can measure both position and momentum of an object, not with randomness.

Finally, I think we need to be very careful about using scientific evidence of randomness in our philosophy. Scientifically, randomness is a way of modeling behavior; philosophically, it's a problem of epistemology. We should probably just leave it out of our theology altogether; at the least we shouldn't import it simply because scientists talk about it, since there's no telling what they will be saying in fifty years.

Posted by: Tom on January 9, 2005 07:15 PM
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