Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What is "free will," anyway?

Inspired by a comment I got today, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to post my thoughts on free will. It seems that this debate continues to go on, especially in Christian circles, where Calvinism seems to be everyone's favorite enemy--except, of course, for Calvinists, who pride themselves on believing the true biblical doctrine in spite of all common objections. Personally, I am continually shocked by the confidence with which either side can make their case. How both sides be so confident when it is logically certain that at least one of them is wrong?

Yesterday I thought a lot about how the way we use words confuses a lot of arguments. This is certainly true of free will. We use the words "free will" largely as a gap-filler. There's something about our actions we don't quite understand, and we attribute the part that remains mysterious to something innate in ourselves that can't be broken down any further. "Free will" becomes the same kind of answer as "God did it." It almost becomes a non-answer.

Here's what I mean. We've all had the sensation of wanting to do something, and then doing it. And probably all of us have had the sensation of wanting to do something and not being able to do it. Likewise, we've had the experience of not wanting to do something but being forced to do it anyway. So in common experience, it's easy for me to differentiate between things I do according to my own free will and things I do, or don't do, against my will.

But this only gets at sensation. What's behind that sensation? I have the experience of wanting to do something. Where did that desire come from in the first place? Did I create it, ex nihilo? I suppose there are some who might maintain such a position (I tried to argue this position in a philosophy class once), but after a little consideration, it seems kind of absurd. Our desires are very much based on things we have very little control over--primarily our own bodies, but also the culture we've grown up in. It's hard to underestimate just how much our culture helps create desires for us. Why do I have such a desire to pass my oral proficiency exams this week? Probably because I've been taught to think of this kind of success as a good thing. Do you think that if the academy didn't exist I would have any desire to take a test in mathematics?

So it's not so simple as just saying we have free will. From a scientific perspective, we have to deal with the fact that we are made of matter, just like everything else. Hence the stuff we're made of follows the same basic laws that all the other stuff in the universe does. Whatever free will is, then, it can't be so dramatic that it fundamentally violates this fact.

But before you accuse me of scientific determinism, consider the matter from a theological perspective. It's not really much different. Is God omnipotent or not? Are we capable of changing his plans? Does he somehow depend on us for input? Whatever free will is, it can hardly be so dramatic as to make God depend on humans. Ultimately, we're creatures, just like everything else. As Genesis puts it, we are dust. That doesn't mean we're not noble creatures. It just means that when you get right down to it, even the noblest of creatures can hardly violate God's control over his creation.

At this point it's natural to bring up the key objection to all of this. If everything is predetermined, why am I responsible for anything I do? That's the real heart of this whole "free will" debate: responsibility. And underneath responsibility, of course, has to be our basic understanding of justice. How do we deal with evil? How do we honor what is good?

The words "free will" really short-circuit any real discussion about justice. It is far from obvious how to deal with various real-world encounters with evil. Our culture is profoundly confused on this topic. Some are so convinced that every evil person is just a product of outside factors, that they will attempt to fix crime in every way except punishing criminals. Some take the opposite approach, insisting that every criminal is a product solely of his own choices. Both have profoundly detrimental effects on society. The reality is, evil is not so simple. It is hiding around every corner. It affects both our individual choices and our cultural influences. There is no more certain lesson from history than that one can never really draw a line between good guys and bad guys; evil cuts through everything.

Justice comes up a lot when talking about God and predestination. How can God be justified in punishing sin, when he predetermines every sin ever committed? But an equally potent question would be, how can God be justified in leaving mere creatures left to their free will? To make the force of this question clear, just consider the question in the context of saving faith. Good Protestants believe that if you believe in Jesus Christ, you will be saved--and if you don't, most would say, you will face God's judgment. How, then, would God be so cruel to leave that decision up to each individual human, knowing full well what the consequence of a wrong decision will be, as if by allowing humans decide for themselves he's washed his hands of guilt?

And in my mind, we're back to the same question we started with. Some say that we choose to believe in Christ or not based on free will. Okay, but what does that mean? Isn't that just an empty phrase to fill in the gap between what we know and what we don't? We know that some believe, and that others don't. What we don't really know is why. Why are some people convinced that the gospel is true, and others not? "Free will" answers nothing; it only allows people to quickly place the blame where they feel it belongs.

The more I reflect on these matters, both theological and philosophical, the more I am inclined to try to escape the question of free will altogether. That's because I believe more and more that what's really important, and what we can actually accomplish in life, is to try to oppose evil in a creative, redemptive way. Assigning blame doesn't accomplish that, whether you're assigning blame to individuals who do evil or to the influences that drive those individuals. The only thing way to really oppose evil is to become more aware of it, understanding how all-pervasive it is, and fighting it at every turn. It's both inside and outside, in every culture and every individual. Because of this, we may never really know why we do what we do. I'm often shocked by the evil I'm capable of doing. I'm surprised how often I hurt people, especially people I love. Romans 7 hits close to home for most of us, I think. Free will just doesn't seem to explain the real world, after all.

But even if we never understand why we do what we do, we can understand the difference between good and evil. It seems far more useful and important to focus on our actions, rather than on the "ultimate cause" of those actions (i.e. free will or predestination). Identifying good and evil may be difficult, but I do think we are capable of improvement. I don't have such hope for understanding free will.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!