January 08, 2005
Ask her why we're who we are

Judging from the comments on my post yesterday, I had probably better define what I mean by free will. Tom wrote:

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.

OK, by that definition there's obviously no disputing that free will exists. Certainly people make choices, and certainly those choices affect things. What I was doubting was whether even the choices we make are not fundamentally determined by causes outside ourselves.

Calvinist blogger David Heddle explained it this way:

If Alice does make a choice, she will in fact choose the path for which she is more inclined at that moment, however subtle the difference. All other things being equal, if she chooses the left it is because she prefers shade trees. If she chooses the right, it is because she prefers flowers.

Her choice was determined not by God steering her left or right, but by her own desires and inclinations. ...

Your choices are free because no one makes them for you; nobody steers you left when you really want to go right. You are free to choose according to your heart's desire. There is no external coercion. Yet they are self-determined because you will choose on the basis of your desires. You are not only free to choose according to your hearts desire, you must choose according to your heart's desire. You are a slave to your own heart.

This is why I don't buy C.S. Lewis' claim that if we did not have the ability to do evil, we would not really be free. Simply by how we are made, there are innumerable things we can't do. We can't fly, breathe water, shape-shift, see ultraviolet colors, reproduce asexually, and so on and so on. Likewise, there are a great many desires that we don't have; I don't especially want to remove my own eyeball with a fork, so the fact that I'm not doing that isn't exactly a deliberate free-will decision. Yet Lewis does not interpret this lack of abilities and desires as making us automatons. That is simply the type of creature that we are.

David is a physicist, so he likes a law-governed universe, and dislikes the idea of things popping out of thin air as much as I do. For him, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination settles the matter. Where I part company with David (and with Calvin, I guess) is at the idea that God has all the power but somehow humanity has all the blame. If God created us, our hearts, and our environment, and we are subject to the laws of determinism like everything else in the universe, then God has no cause to complain about how things turned out. We are what we were made to be. So I side with Fr. Jake on this one: if you're taking a hard line about the sovereignty of God, Ireneus makes more sense than Augustine.

Of course, I suppose a lot of Calvinists would make like Paul in Romans 9 and say, "Shut up and don't question your maker." And that would be fine if we were following a pagan god who wants nothing but obedience. It's a little more complicated if we're talking about a God who wants us to love him and, more importantly, imitate him. Portraying God as the one thing in the universe that is all-powerful and capable of acting independently, while humans are entirely subject to predetermined forces, begs the question of how we are made in his image, or destined to be his children and heirs.

I get the feeling that free will (in the indeterminate sense) explains this for a lot of people. God could only make us in his image if he created us with some part of ourselves deliberately outside of everything else's control -- including his -- so that we, too, have sovereign power to create something out of nothing. Telford, in fact, told me that he doesn't believe the fallen-angel theory of demonology; he thinks we create demons, unwittingly but no less effectually. (And I'm talking literal demons here, not "inner demons" and such.) So back when I was saying that Christianity only really made sense if it was dualist, he said basically there is an evil god in the universe, and it's us.

Now, there are a few problems with this. One, it seems awfully close to hubris. Two, the idea that we have this Godly decision generator in our brains somewhere doesn't comport that well with how we actually make decisions. Far from making decisions "for no reason at all", we offer abundant reasons for our decisions -- more importantly, for our good decisions. And generally those reasons ultimately stem from somewhere outside ourselves.

For people raised on the idea that free choice is what makes us human, it comes as a disappointment to realize how easily -- and predictably -- a lot of our choices are influenced. Parents and teachers train us, marketers manipulate us, cultures acculturate us. And perhaps most disturbingly for Christians, people tend to believe in the religions they were brought up to believe in. In no way does everyone have an equal opportunity to choose Christ.

As I suggested in my last post, the idea of human freedom is somewhat more plausible to me if understood collectively rather than individually. Human societies take on lives of their own, apart from individual intent, and perhaps this whole is what is analogous to God, rather than any one person. The Bride of Christ, after all, is the Church, not a person. Just as sin was collective, so must salvation be.

But the final problem here is the one we started with: natural evil. However much power you ascribe to human beings, you're still hard pressed to explain what we have to do with the cycles of predation, disaster and extinction that began before we even existed. Did we appear on earth already under the universal reign of death, and if so, how could we not have sinned? Ultimately are we nature's masters, or its victims? Or both?

Posted by Camassia at January 08, 2005 10:09 AM | TrackBack

There's a tension in the bible too, isn't there? There is the corporate salvation idea in the idea that just by being Jewish you are saved. Or that you were a member of Noah's family. Or that you put blood on the door and were passed by. And yet there are plenty of examples of individual failure due to poor choices, most horribly seen in Judas. So I guess it's one of these and/boths.

Posted by: TSO on January 8, 2005 12:41 PM

We are free when we choose the Good, that is, we choose that which conforms to the will of God. There is a distinction to be made between "free will" and "self-will". Self-will is able to choose that which God would not have us choose. This may give the illusion of "freedom", but, in fact, when we choose against the will of God, we do so because we are being controlled by forces that turn us away from God and the good; we are far from being "free". We are free when we can say "Not I, but Christ in me."

Posted by: Rob on January 8, 2005 01:43 PM

If God created us, our hearts, and our environment, and we are subject to the laws of determinism like everything else in the universe, then God has no cause to complain about how things turned out.

Will this would certainly be true of the superlapsarians (who believe that God made creation and the fall because he wanted to save and condemn) but not necessarily the infralapsarians, who would say that humanity had the free will and chose the fall, and only as a remedy to this did God determine everything.

Posted by: NJL on January 8, 2005 03:06 PM

Is Rob really saying that free will is choosing to do what God wants and anything else is choosing to do what evil forces want? That doesn't seem like "choosing" to me. Either way you're just responding to pressure.

And just to throw another thought into the mix, I can't help thinking about a show I saw on people with certain types of brain injury. They would do odd or stupid or unreasonable things, and when asked why they did them they would come up with reasons for why they did them. But it was clear that in fact they were acting first and coming up with justifications for their actions afterwards - not just for the benefit of the questioner, but for the benefit of themselves. Makes me wonder how many of our quick decisions are made by some very primitive part of ourselves, and the moral and intellectual compass comes trotting along behind to give us the impression that it was a conscious selection.

Posted by: Jessamyn on January 8, 2005 09:21 PM

David's account of the scoop on choice looks suspiciously like psychological determinism.

Even Leibniz couldn't stomach what was called the "liberty of indifference," and insisted that if so and so chose A over B then A somehow looked better to so and so. No problem of tie-breaking for L, who insists there are never ties.

He even insisted on this for God, claiming ours is the unique best of all possible worlds, and insisting that if there had not been a unique best among worlds God could not have created at all.

Oh? And is that what we mean by "free choice"?

PS. L's passion for uniqueness and horror of sameness even extended to such things as his principle of the the identity of indiscernibles, known to sceptics as "Leibniz's lie." Odd.

PPS. You might do better with your account of freedom if you stop thinking it's the brain that chooses.

Still, it is true that any philosophical account of libertarian choice will end up agreeing that it involves an interruption of lawful behavior in the body, somewhere or other. The traditional physicalist word for this goes back to Epicurus' doctrine of swerve.

Substance dualists think of it as something that parallels God's relationship to the world. The Muslims colorfully say, "God has only to say to a thing, 'Be,' and it is." Thus a mental even like a volition commands, as it were, a motion of the body, and Lo! One occurs!

[Don't be deceived by the joking tone. This is my own real view. No kidding.]

Descartes, if I recall correctly, suggested the pineal gland as the locus at which the body first obeys the command and does something that plays out, now fully in accord with physical law, as, say, the raising of an arm.

The idea of anything so radical, or of any causal interaction at all as between the human mind (aka "soul") and the body, so disturbed Leibniz that he invented his famous doctrine of pre-established harmony to avoid it.

A view that Kant picked up when he fissured reality as between noumenal and phenomenal, limiting knowledge to make room for faith.

But, how I do go on!

Anyway, stop being quite so much the physical girl. It'll go better.

And what kind of a God do you believe in, anyway, that you have so much trouble with merely human immateriality?

Posted by: Marcus Tullius Cicero on January 9, 2005 03:58 AM

Yes, I am saying that anything we do that does not conform to the will of God must therefore conform to that which is not-God, and therefore, evil. God sustains all that is good. By giving up self-will, and by striving to do the good, as revealed to us in Jesus Christ, we will be always striving to do the good. We will usually fail, because our fallen nature does not allow us to keep our attention focused in the direction of the good, but we will be doing the best that we can. This is why St. Paul admonished us to pray constantly. This does not negate the role of our God-given reason. It is reason that we need to use in order to receive, understand, and enact the teachings of Jesus Christ as presented in the revelation, and to differentiate the good from the evil. We can do this, however, not through the exercise of self-will, but only with the help of God's grace. If you can't call this "free will", I have no problem with that; I'm not fully committed to the term myself. I am committed to "the truth shall set you free", however, and this may be exactly how "free will" is established in an individual.

Posted by: Rob on January 9, 2005 05:38 AM

"We can't fly, breathe water..."

Have you seen the movie The Abyss? They breathe water in that movie, and they said that that stuff really exists!


Posted by: Eric Lee on January 9, 2005 06:26 PM

What I was doubting was whether even the choices we make are not fundamentally determined by causes outside ourselves.

I think the idea is that either we have the capacity to make free -- that is, contingent or non-necessary -- choices, or our ability to choose is imaginary, a false perception rather than a reality.

The language of choice implies, don't you think, a true capacity to choose. We wouldn't ordinarily say that the typical piano chooses which note it plays, and if the choices we make are fundamentally determined by causes outside ourselves, what we think of as our will is in the same position as a piano, being played by (for example) the state of the universe at the time we do what we perceive as making a choice.

We all have the experience of making a choice between two options, each of which is in some way desireable. Is that experience wholly illusionary, or only partially so? Can it ever wholly reflect reality?

Posted by: Tom on January 10, 2005 07:53 AM

"Is that experience wholly illusionary, or only partially so? Can it ever wholly reflect reality?"

If your choice is in accord with God's will, because you *want* to choose in accordance with God's will, then your choice is free, and you have chosen the good, which is the ultimate reality. Otherwise, I think, your freedom is only illusory, be it based on brain chemistry, or demonic influence.

Posted by: Rob on January 10, 2005 08:55 AM

I think it all started when man discovered The Knowledge of Good & Evil, i.e. the Adam & Eve story. (And I personally think this represents a time when we evolutionarily branched off from the apes.)

Thus man is made in the image of God, because God has knowledge of good & evil. You don't *judge* a dog when it attacks -- it is not MEAN because it cannot choose (although it may need to be put down as a danger to society). You don't *judge* a wild animal for killing/harming another -- it is acting instinctively, and does not choose. It does not know right from wrong -- in fact, it does not even function under such definitions. It does not possess knowledge of good & evil.

But man DOES have that knowledge. And therefore is capable of choice. That, I think, is free will.

(And the fact that we have not necessarily evolved very far and often act from base instinct or are easily manipulated does not negate the fact that we do possess free will.)

PS, just found your site today, and like it very much!

Posted by: cj on January 14, 2005 09:46 AM
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