Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Free Will and Creativity

In discussions about religious topics in which both atheists and Christians take part, the subject of free will plays an interesting role, in that both sides are internally divided on the issue. Atheists, on the one hand, find it difficult to tell whether a scientific understanding of the universe implies some sort of determinism (quantum mechanics notwithstanding) or whether there really is something to the intuitive belief in free agency. Christians add a theological dimension to this struggle, since on the one hand moral agency is non-negotiable in Christianity, but on the other hand so is God's omnipotence.

I wonder if the question of free will can be framed in more useful terms. It feels like every time the subject arises, we just end up spinning our wheels. Yet the topic also seems important, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, if we're interested in justice, it must be important to know whether someone ought to be held responsible for his choices. For another, isn't it depressing to envision a world in which our choices don't really contribute anything?

The latter question has caused me to think that maybe we can frame the free will question in a different way. Are human actions conservative or non-conservative? That is, do human actions contribute something to reality that wasn't previously there, or not? (I here borrow the terms conservative and non-conservative from physics, where they are used to refer to forces which do or do not conserve the amount of mechanical energy in a system.)

Scientifically, we can describe human action as conservative. By this I mean that with every human action, the total matter and energy in the universe is conserved. A painter goes to paint, but he does not get his paint from nothing. An athlete scores a point for his team, but he used up energy to do so. Economic productivity does not actually produce matter ex nihilo; rather it is limited to taking resources currently available and shaping them into a different form. Human behavior is simply matter and energy moving from one place to another. This is what I mean by describing human action as conservative.

But suppose there is another kind of measurement, besides those quantitative measurements of matter and energy. A painter goes to paint, and out of that process comes something new, adding a surplus of meaning to the world around him. A writer creates a story or an essay or a poem, and the product is far more than the sum total of ink that was used in printing. Humans in a market economy trade goods for one another, and the result is a general increase in prosperity. By this measurement, human action may be considered non-conservative.

This is what I propose as a replacement to the concept of "free will": I simply contend that human action is non-conservative in the sense I just illustrated. Put slightly differently, I contend that human beings are genuinely creative, having in a sense the ability to make something that wasn't there before. Not matter and energy, mind you, but rather a surplus of meaning.

To me the advantage of this view is that it seems to side-step questions about both God's sovereignty and scientific determinism. The question of whether or not God is ultimately in control of all that happens, like the question of whether or not scientific laws can be said to predict all that will happen, no longer appears to be the central question. For instance, what will we say to those who complain that we are all merely God's puppets, destined to do only what he allows us to do? We will say this is nonsense, because puppets are not creative; puppets do not add a surplus of meaning to the world around them. (People can create meaning by making puppets; the puppets themselves are not creative.) And what will we say to those who feel their actions are meaningless, because they are the inevitable consequence of scientific laws? We will say that this, too, is nonsense, because meaning is not constrained by matter and energy.

In other words, this alternative concept of free will has nothing to do with causes. Traditionally we have been concerned with what exactly causes our actions. Well, a number of things can be said to cause our actions. Certainly our desires are part of it, but also our social conditioning, the environment around us, our hereditary traits, and so on. Someone might say, "Yes, all these factors play a role, but ultimately it comes down to free will." I will respond to them that perhaps they are trying to answer the wrong question. Instead of worrying about what causes our behaviors, perhaps we should simply be asking whether or not humans are genuinely creative. I would replace free will with creativity.

Theologically, I would think that this view would be more unifying among Christians than the historic debates, say, between Calvinists and their opponents. All Christians agree that humans are moral agents with responsibility for their actions, and presumably all agree that human action is genuinely meaningful, both now and in eternity. The frustrating question that divides us is whether or not this is compatible with a God who is fully in control of all creation. I propose we sidestep this question altogether--not by pretending the question doesn't matter, but by clarifying the real issue. The issue is not cause but value. We can agree that human action has meaningful consequences in the universe. What good will it do to endlessly spin our wheels over the question of primary causes?

Additionally, this theory gives us something more constructive to say to those who have no theology of meaning. Whether or not atheists believe in free will, it is difficult to see how they can derive a metaphysics of meaning, or any sort of theoretical explanation for the value of creativity. In the world as we know it, "Man is the measure of all things" easily morphs into "Powerful men are the measure of all things." What's not clear to me, apart from the testimony of people devoted to the Creator, is why all people should be valued for the meaning they can bring to the world. This is not a new critique of atheism, but it brings some key issues into focus.

However you put the question of creativity--the question of whether human action is conservative or non-conservative--it has social and political implications. In the technological age, the age of efficiency, long-term survival should be fairly easy. Yet we find that the abilities we have acquired from technology have not made it any easier to sustain human flourishing. Perhaps it is pertinent to ask ourselves what sorts of meaning we have created. It is one thing to shape matter and energy into a different form, and it is quite another to think what kind of meaning we have added to the world around us.

In the third world we see a lot of suffering, but it is not truly from lack of resources. Political corruption and instability destroys prosperity. What kind of meaning does the creation of more weapons add to the world? What kind of meaning does training more soldiers add to the world? In the West, particularly in America, we have plenty of wealth, but what kind of meaning are we creating with it? What have we said about the dignity of human life by spending trillions of dollars on wars and foreign military bases? What have we said about human creativity and ingenuity by spending trillions of dollars on the welfare state, and devising endless regulations on nearly every industry? Many of our political choices, it seems, have served to crush human creativity either by destroying freedom or by destroying life itself.

The dark side of human creativity is destruction. As often as we can create hope, beauty, and prosperity, we can easily create despair, ugliness, and poverty. As creators in some capacity, we are responsible for what we create. We are responsible for the meaning we add to the universe.

I have suggested that human action is non-conservative in the sense that it adds a surplus of meaning to the world, but perhaps "meaning" is too constricting. Who knows what we might say is added to the world by human creativity? In any case, if what I have said has any truth in it, I would think that the goal of a just society would be to allow humans to flourish in their creativity and add more and more to the world around them, rather than constricting creativity through violence or through coercion. I began by speaking about "free will," and now I end with speaking about freedom. There is nothing worse than a theory of "free will" that fails to have relevance to the flourishing of free people. I hope that by thinking about the value, rather than the cause, of human action, we, especially Christians, can offer something more constructive than abstract doctrines of free will.


  1. I've recently been seeing creativity as an essential component of free will as well. It's standard to view free will as incompatible with determinism. One way to argue for this is to say that deterministic systems are not creative, since their history is a logical consequence of the laws and initial state. Logical inferences cannot create *information*.

    Physical systems generally cannot create information (even stochastic ones) so free will is incompatible with physicalism in general.

    You're also right that free actions have causes. Creativity requires only that these causes do not determine the action.

    1. Thanks for your response. I'm not entirely convinced that a deterministic system can't be creative. Consider the artist who claims he was *driven* to paint his masterpiece, or the musician who claims the notes just come to him. This is anecdotal, but suppose we can get more evidence than that, and prove that in fact human behavior is determined by the physical laws which govern matter. Does that then imply that we haven't created anything?

      In my opinion the trick is to try to decouple our language from certain instincts and feelings. My feeling is we tend to infuse the word "determined" with a certain feeling of being controlled by someone else, is if it's not really ourselves who act. But if I say that I acted of my own free will without being controlled or coerced by anyone else, and at the same time that I could not have acted differently, is there really any contradiction, a priori, in that?


I love to hear feedback!