Free Will, Determinism, & Responsibiity


I recently listened to episode 93 of the Partially Examined Life podcast (you can listen to it or read about it here). It is fascinating to listen to non-religious people (these are not rabid militant “New Atheism” people, just fun and thoughtful agnostic/atheists) grapple with a problem that we have been looking at from a theological perspective for millennia. What stuck out in my mind after listening to this is that there is a real question, given a naturalist materialist perspective, as to whether free will choices are even possible. When they say “free will” it ends up boiling down to a question of moral choice in philosophical circles. I think this is because if there is no possibility of moral free will choice then there is no possibility of responsibility. They are aiming at establishing the possibility of responsibility because this has enormous implications as to justice, law, society, interpersonal relationships, and a whole bevy of other things.

Why is the possibility of free will a question at all? It would seem that the hallmark of atheism is that there is no God to tell you what you must or mustn’t do. We see this in the ad campaign in Great Britain which says, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The chief benefit to atheism then is the freedom (read, free will) to throw off antiquated moral restraints and enjoy life. Of course most atheists would say that they are atheists because science indicates that atheism is true. However, there is tremendous controversy swirling around this notion now, more and more. The fine-tuned universe, the big bang, the information-rich nature of even the first appearance of life, the non-gradualistic explosion of life in the cambrian period, all point empirically to a different answer. But the origins debate is not the point of this post.

The reason for the question of the possibility of free will is that the naturalistic perspective suggests that there is a non-metaphysical, material cause for all that we experience. If we love someone, it is because some convergence of random physical phenomena from the big bang to now have emerged to cause us to love them. Human history, culture, genetics, mutation, adaptive survival instincts and other things came together to cause all that you are: your aesthetic opinions, your attractions, your moral proclivities, your career, everything. There is no real “you”; you may think you are making certain choices and decisions but you are not. This is called “determinism”.

If you are a compatibilist, it means that you think that determinism and free will are compatible. I am going to skip a great deal of buildup and just come out and say what I think. I think a huge part of what we are as created in the image of God is that we are a free will rational being. The forbidden tree in the garden was all about allowing choice – interestingly, moral choice. However, whether in atheist or theist circles, this is no small question. We find this passage in Romans:

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.

19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?

potterLet me paraphrase that: “If God has made men deterministic, then how is there any possibility of moral responsibility?” It is a question that should sound very familiar to philosophers wrestling with determinism and moral responsibility; the only difference is the source of the determinism. However, I think that the source of the determinism is all-important. We have an outside intelligent referent, who is the ultimate arbiter of what is determined and what is chosen: God. Paul’s answer here is, this is all a mystery, to be left to God’s arbitration. It is truly beyond us. Don’t ask! In some way that is beyond the ability for humans to comprehend, we cannot plumb the depths of our logical ability to say that we are deterministic beings while still being morally responsible beings. He is not saying that there is some balance between the two positions. He is not even giving an answer. He is really saying that determinism and moral choice are both fully true at once and that we ought not try to understand it.

It is even more fascinating that naturalistic about human freedom and escape from arbitrary moral restraint go straight down these same paths. What you find in these discussions is that people contort their minds into all kinds of strange theories about the nature of moral responsibility under a deterministic system, and then chuck it out the window when it comes to real life. Theologians and atheists then both say, after reflection, that we are completely under determinism and yet can never live practically this way. In naturalistic philosophical discussions there end up being a lot of very strange and impractical theory, and then a lot of reliance on extreme examples so you can figure out what one should really do. The fact is, we know right from wrong intrinsically and no one knows why or how. That is why people ultimately resort to stories (“suppose someone raped your daughter…”) to sort this out, which they then try to extract principle from. But you can always find a new example that you somehow know the answer for intuitively which breaks your extracted principle. It is really a huge clue to the nature of things. Clearly the idea of deterministic freedom — compatibilism — can’t work, it is putting two mutually exclusive things together.

Theists are clear that we are created as free will beings. The power of the idea of “sin” is that we freely choose evil, and bear moral responsibility. People presume that the essential Christian message is that there is a uniquely heavy moral burden placed upon us. Some Christians presume that the message is that our deterministic nature is so overwhelming that we truly have no genuine free will. However, I believe that it is a Christian observation that our actions are predetermined, and born of free will, both fully at once. It is a mystery born of God. Further, the true Christian answer is that one way or another, we sin; we abuse our free moral agency. In fact the way we exercise our free will is to abuse it. The final Christian solution is that our deterministic/free will nature is redeemed, our sense of moral good is reunited with our sense of aesthetic good, in the cross of Christ. One-way unearned unbreakable love from God despite our moral choices, good or bad, is the new determinism.

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