Friday, November 21, 2008

Free Will, part 1.

Ok, so I'm responding again to a friend's blog, who argues against free will as a Christian concept. I'm going to argue against his view. I am not, however, going to base the majority of this discussion on Biblical references, simply because at this very moment I don't have the resources at hand to do so. Obviously, this means that this is only a partial argument since I believe the Bible to be the only perfectly reliable source of truth. The majority of my argument therefore, is going to be about the definition of 'free will'. My actual conclusion is going to be rather nuanced, so bear with me and I hope it makes sense.

My friend defines free will as a "fact concerning a human's being, which states that he can make a decision by himself, totally free of any control by God." I'm going to sort of take a Reductio ad absurdum approach. In order to do this, I'm going to expand the definition slightly, and remove the "by God". Free will, is therefore:
A fact concerning a human's being, which states that he can make a decision by himself, totally free of any control.

Now, as John Donne famously penned, "no man is an island". It is obvious that a person is not completely free to outside influences. If a person is hanged by the neck for more than a few seconds, he will die, regardless of all the will in the world he might have to live. A lot of what happens in our life is completely outside of our control. We are all agreed then, that there is no such thing as absolute free will.

There are, however, many instances where we do have a choice as to the outcome of some event. Please note that choice is not the same thing as free will; it is simply having more than one option available to a given situation. The choice that we make may well be, and often is, determined. Now, here is an important part of my argument: the consequences of having free will and not having free will are often the same thing. Here is an example. Bob is hungry. There is a sandwich in front of him. He has two options: he can eat the sandwich, or he can leave it. Most of us agree that, if no other factors came into play (the flavour, whether Bob is wheat intolerant, whether he only eats white bread, etc.), he would eat the sandwich. But does Bob have any choice in the matter? As we can see, Bob acts in the way that, according to all visible factors, is most beneficial to him. We can summarise as thus:

Bob is hungry --> Bob eats

To a given stimulus, there is a given response. There are plenty of examples for this. If Bob is tired, the logical response is for him to sleep. Therefore, for any given stimulus (S) we get a given response (R). S --> R. Now, the response does not need to temporally follow the stimulus, it can precede it. If we believe something might happen, we might act in a particular way. For example, you might go to the toilet before going on a long car journey. Or you might lock the front door when you go to work to prevent your house being burgled. Most of our life works in this way. When given alternative courses of actions, we choose, save ignorance or impediment, to act in a way which is most productive. But does this mean we have free will?

In short, the answer is, we don't know. Either we have a true and genuine choice to decide between different options, in which we will most likely choose the better, or we have no choice, and we are determined to choose the option which has the most likely benefits. Of course, if we didn't have free will, we could be just as likely forced to choose the least beneficial option, but this isn't the case, and if it were, it would be obvious that we don't have free will.

Now, my friend argues that, "If free-will exists, then we are all like the massive amount of keys, in Harry Potter, flying around the chamber at random." Although I like the reference to J.K. Rowling's works, I have to disagree. As demonstrated, free will does not mean random will. A given stimulus does not produce an unrelated response. For example:

I am hungry: I go swimming
I am tired: I cut off my foot

is not free will. In fact, when a person behaves in a way where their response does not match the stimulus, this is often a sign of mental illness, and as stated above, demonstrates that we do not have free will. Of course, there's the argument of whether we can rely on our perception of stimuli, but I might come back to that later.

Therefore, arguing that people have free will is not "the deification of man". To choose to come to God does not mean that "we are glorious". Are we glorious in choosing to eat when we are hungry, or to drink when we have thirst? I think not. Nor do I think that we deserve any particular praise in making a perfectly logical decision when coming to God, since it is simply making the decision which is most beneficial to us. This is even more the case when it is God who granted us logic. In choosing God, I do not in any way believe that we are responsible for our salvation. Let us take the example of Paul. His conversion was rather dramatic, so much so, that any sudden paradigm shift is often referred to as a Damascus experience, or a version thereof. We can summarise his conversion as thus:

Paul witnesses God: Paul is converted.

We can see that his witnessing God is the stimulus for his conversion. Now, did Paul have any choice in the matter? We can clearly see that Paul had no choice in the stimulus. He did not choose for God to come down and blind him. But with his conversion, this is a different question. Did Paul, in witnessing God, make what would generally be considered the logical choice in converting to Christianity? Or did Paul have no choice: simply through witnessing God, he had no choice but to convert. The answer, which is simple, is, we don't know, and nor does it matter much.

So, if I believe that our choices would be no different if we had free will or if we didn't, why am I opposed to Nathan's argument? Surely, I shouldn't really care about whether we have free will if this is what I believe. Well, you're going to have to wait for the rest of that, since I've been writing this for a rather long time and can't be bothered to finish it at the moment. So, till next time, adieu.

1 comment:

  1. Acknowledging that you've only written part 1 of your argument, my question for ow is: "for the man who chooses God out of logic, he needs to recognize the logic of it. Where does this logic come from?" The Bible states that in creation God reveals his greatness to man in manifest fashion, so that no man can say that they had no chance of knowing God (Romans 1). But man is stubborn. Man is forever blind to God. We're stuffed! We're what Paul calls being "of the flesh, sold under sin" (Ro 7.14). Enter regeneration (the work of God within a man to take away his blindness and let him see God). That implies absence of free-will.
    I think that without regeneration (an act of God on man's will) you can't come to belief, however logical and obvious and plain the fact is. It is simply obscure to so many people... But do continue, I'm all ears.