Determinism: How Can Free Will Co-Exist with Divine Preordination?

November 19, 2010 at 11:27 am 10 comments

foxtrot-free-will1 A few days ago, someone asked me about God’s preordainment in relation to free will. If God has preordained everything, how then can we have free will?

Well, so much has been said and written on this question that all I can hope to do here is to offer a few preliminary thoughts, all of them quite well-known. Please feel free to skip this post if this is an old hat to you.

The first thing to realize is that this problem is not unique to Christianity, theism or even religion. It has been much discussed within a purely materialistic framework too. The official name for it is “determinism.”

Determinism is the idea that every event in the universe is the result of a prior cause that determined its outcome. Existence, then, functions like a giant clockwork. Theistic determinism posits God as the one who preordained everything, but one does not need to believe in God to be a determinist. Some of the earliest people in the Western tradition inclined toward determinism were the Greek atomists, who thought that every event in the world could ultimately be reduced to the mechanical interaction of atoms. This did not leave much room for free will, no matter if you were a god or a mortal.

It would be tempting to now delve into a historical overview of determinism. But I shall refrain and instead summarize the main options. Essentially, there are three of them. You can (1) reject the premise that all events in the universe are determined and therefore believe in free will (“indeterminism”), (2) accept the premise that all events in the universe are determined and therefore give up the notion of free will (“hard determinism”) or (3) work out how determinism and free will might be compatible (“soft determinism”).

There is also a fourth option, rejecting the premise that all events in the universe are determined and also rejecting the idea of free will, but I won’t get into that now.

Of the three options, I imagine that the third one (“soft determinism”) seems a bit baffling to some people. How can everything be determined and yet some things (namely our will) be free? The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer answered the question like this: “Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” In other words, we do have the power of choice, but we are not the creators of our choices. Nor do we exist in a vacuum, in which we can freely choose what motivates and drives us. Most of our motives and choices are set for us, and yet within that restricted framework we do have the power to choose between several options.

Both theists and atheists can be soft determinists, though I am inclined to think that the problem of determinism is greater for the atheist than for the theist. That is because the atheist has to explain how free agency (=human choice) can develop out of an otherwise completely mechanical universe. Don’t get me wrong. I would not say that it is impossible to explain this. Also, due the advent of quantum mechanics in the last century, the materialistic determinism of the universe has been loosened up a bit, since we now think the universe runs on probability rather than determinism.

Nonetheless, I think the theist has it easier in this respect. He, after all, believes that free agency—namely God—lies at the very foundation of the universe. If one accepts this premise of the ultimate Free Agent, it is not such a big jump to suppose that some creatures are allowed to participate to a degree in free agency as well. As long as you are not a Calvinist, it is perfectly possible to be a Christian and affirm that we are (partially) free agents in this world. In my opinion, God’s foreknowledge does not equal foreordainment, though some have suggested this.

In conclusion, I like what the great American psychologist William James said: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

Anyone want to use their free will to object to the idea of free will?

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Newton’s Greatest Achievement Finally Saw the Book of Kells

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Edward T. Babinski  |  November 22, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Free will of either a hard or soft type makes little sense. It makes more rational sense to argue that the human mind has more “choices” because the human mind knows so much more including language, science, history, etc. But no choice is “free.” Each choice is based on everything we’ve learned by reading and first hand experience right up till the time the “choice” is made, and that when the choice is not obvious, it is determined by the butterfly’s wing, i.e., by some extremely slight, usually unconscious tipping factor. In the end all of our “choices” are based on something and we are connected to the cosmos when we make all of them.

    The alternative is to suggest that our choices are not connected with the cosmos, which means they have no sufficient reason behind them. One might as well spin a wheel of fortune.

    As I’ve stated elsewhere, libertarian free will by definition makes every choice intrinsically unpredictable, so making such “choices” is like spinning a “wheel of fortune.”

    It makes more sense to accept that all of our “choices” are based on the sum total of our environment and knowledge, hormones and subtle immediate influences. Free will
    is like denying our connectivity to everything and everyone and saying we are each islands of free will unconnected with the cosmos as a whole. I think recognizing how embedded we
    each are in the cosmos as a whole makes the best sense, and makes our choices more reasonable rather than inherently unpredictable wheels of fortune “decisions.”

    Apparently the philosopher below agrees with my assessment:

    BOOK REVIEW BY ERIC REITAN Oklahoma State University e-mail: eric.reitan@okstate.edu

    Stewart Goetz Freedom, Teleology, and Evil. (London: Continuum, 2008). Religious Studies (2010), 46: 130-135 Cambridge University Press. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

    “The upshot of all of this is that embracing PRC, as Goetz does, entails that many human choices (in the robust sense) will be rendered teleologically inexplicable. And insofar as Goetz’s theory excludes causal explanations, many human choices
    are thereby rendered inexplicable simpliciter. But insofar as Goetz affirms RC because he thinks that mental actions need to be explained even if the explanations are not causal, there emerges a serious tension within Goetz’s theory of non-causal agency.”

  • 2. Edward T. Babinski  |  November 22, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Free will of either a hard or soft type makes little sense. It makes more rational sense to argue that the human mind has more “choices” because the human mind knows so much more including language, science, history, etc. But no choice is “free.” Each choice is based on everything we’ve learned by reading and first hand experience right up till the time the “choice” is made, and that when the choice is not obvious, it is determined by the butterfly’s wing, i.e., by some extremely slight, usually unconscious tipping factor. In the end all of our “choices” are based on something and we are connected to the cosmos when we make all of them.

    The alternative is to suggest that our choices are not connected with the cosmos, which means they have no sufficient reason behind them. One might as well spin a wheel of fortune.

    As I’ve stated elsewhere, libertarian free will by definition makes every choice intrinsically unpredictable, so making such “choices” is like spinning a “wheel of fortune.”

    It makes more sense to accept that all of our “choices” are based on the sum total of our environment and knowledge, hormones and subtle immediate influences. Free will is like denying our connectivity to everything and everyone and saying we are each islands of free will unconnected with the cosmos as a whole. I think recognizing how embedded we each are in the cosmos as a whole makes the best sense, and makes our choices more reasonable rather than inherently unpredictable wheels of fortune “decisions.”

    Apparently the philosopher below agrees with my assessment:

    BOOK REVIEW BY ERIC REITAN Oklahoma State University e-mail: eric.reitan@okstate.edu

    Stewart Goetz Freedom, Teleology, and Evil. (London: Continuum, 2008). Religious Studies (2010), 46: 130-135 Cambridge University Press. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

    “The upshot of all of this is that embracing PRC, as Goetz does, entails that many human choices (in the robust sense) will be rendered teleologically inexplicable. And insofar as Goetz’s theory excludes causal explanations, many human choices are thereby rendered inexplicable simpliciter. But insofar as Goetz affirms RC because he thinks that mental actions need to be explained even if the explanations are not causal, there emerges a serious tension within Goetz’s theory of non-causal agency.”

  • 3. Edward T. Babinski  |  November 22, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    BELOW IS FROM “C. S. Lewis and the Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”

    Now on to Lewis’ premier argument his statement of the “cardinal difficulty of naturalism.” “A strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’” (from chapter three of MIRACLES)

    Such an argument appears coherent, but it is actually faulty. It concentrates only on atoms and human thought and leaves out every category in between about which we know so little!

    For instance, what if mental processes are _not_ determined “wholly” by the motion of individual “atoms” in our brains? Would that leave supernaturalism as the only alternative? What if the brain’s overall dynamics naturally “took control” of the motions of individual “atoms” within a larger dynamic flow? Or consider the way all the atoms in our bodies are configured very differently than those same atoms in rocks or air and water, and hence, the body’s overall dynamic functioning is very different from that of inanimate matter. But that doesn’t mean our livers, kidneys and hearts function “supernaturally.”

    According to Roger Sperry, psychobiologist and well known philosopher of brain science, “Recall that a molecule in many respects is the master of its inner atoms and electrons. The latter are hauled and forced about in chemical interactions by the over-all configurational properties of the whole molecule. At the same time, if our given molecule is itself part of a single-celled organism such as a paramecium, it in turn is obliged, with all its parts and its partners, to follow along a trail of events in time and space determined largely by the extrinsic over-all dynamics of that paramecium. When it comes to brains, remember that the simpler electric,atomic, molecular, and cellular forces and laws, though still present and operating, have been superseded by the configurational forces of higher-level mechanisms. At the top, in the human brain, these include the powers of perception, cognition, reason, judgment, and the like, the operational, causal effects and forces of which are equally or more potent in brain dynamics than are the outclassed inner chemical forces…

    “We deal instead with a sequence of conscious or subconscious processes that have their own higher laws and dynamics…that move their neuronal details in much the way different program images on a TV receiver determine the pattern of electron flow on the screen…

    “And the molecules of higher living things are… flown… galloped… swung… propelled… mostly by specific holistic, and also mental properties–aims, wants, needs–possessed by the organisms in question. Once evolved, the higher laws and forces exert a downward control over the lower.

    “This does not mean these (higher forces) are supernatural. Those who conceived of vital forces in supernatural terms were just as wrong as those who denied the existence of such forces. In any living of nonliving thing, the spacing and timing of the material elements of which it is composed make all the difference in determining what a thing is.

    “As an example, take a population of copper molecules. You can shape them into a sphere, a pyramid, a long wire, a statue, whatever. All these very different things still reduce to the same material elements, the same identical population of copper molecules. Science has specific laws for the molecules by no such laws for all the differential spacing and timing factors, the nonmaterial pattern or form factors that are crucial in determining what things are and what laws they obey. These nonmaterial space-time components tend to be thrown out and lost in the reduction process as science aims toward ever more elementary levels of explanation.”

    One might add that taking simple elements found in rocks and arranging them into just the right configurations can lead to the production of not just another rock, but a computer (perhaps even a “quantum computer” one day).

    Hence, Sperry’s naturalism does not appear to pose any “cardinal difficulties” for itself.

    Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of computer science, notes in a similar vein, “Even if we understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The ‘laws of thought’ depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells, but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, ‘general’ laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, ‘general’ laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular…

    “It is not a matter of _different_ laws, but of _additional_ kinds of theories and principles that operate at higher levels of organization… Each higher level of description must _add_ to our knowledge about lower levels, rather than replace it.”

    And contrary to Lewis’ claim that “[Naturalism] leaves no room for the acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking depends,” cognitive scientists have clearly demonstrated the validity of positing a level of mental representation. They study “perceptual apparatus, mechanisms of learning, problem solving, classification, memory, and rationality… The conjecture about the various vehicles of knowledge: what is a form, an image, a concept, a word; and how do these ‘modes of representation’ relate to one another… They reflect on language, noting the power and traps entailed in the use of words… Proceeding well beyond armchair speculation, cognitive scientists are fully wedded to the use of empirical methods for testing their theories and hypotheses… Their guiding questions are not just a rehash of the Greek philosophical agenda: new disciplines have arisen; and new questions, like the potential of man-made devices to think, stimulate research.

    “Given the most optimistic scenario for the future of cognitive science, we still cannot reasonably expect an explanation of mind which lays to rest all extant scientific and epistemological problems. Still, I believe that distinct progress has been made on the age-old issues that exercised… Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Darwin.” After all, “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

    C. S. Lewis might reply to all this, “But the very attempt is absurd.” Especially since he believed that man’s ability to reason was due to “Divine Illumination,” and also that _his_ reasons for believing in the supernatural were necessarily so. (Might he have said “Divinely so?”)

    Just what were Lewis’ “reasons?” They seem to revolve around his faith in 1) logic, and 2) the orderliness of nature. Let us examine first “Lewis and Logic,” followed by “Lewis and the Orderliness of Nature.”

    1) LEWIS AND LOGIC

    Lewis’ faith in logical inferences seems to come prior to his faith in God or the Bible. At least it is the first thing he asks his readers to put their trust in. (A distressing thought for some Biblical fundamentalists to consider.) He writes, “My belief that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another is not all based on the fact that I have never caught them behaving otherwise. I see that it ‘must’ be so… We can know nothing, beyond our own sensations at the moment unless the act of inference is the real insight that it claims to be… If (B) ever ‘follows from’ (A) in the logical sense, it does so always.”

    Does it? In the world that I know (A) and (B) vary, certainly they do in terms of time and place. Even the boiling point of water on earth varies based on altitude. What facts about the natural world are always and everywhere “true” in the most exacting sense of the word? And where can you find two people who totally agree on the exact meaning and significance of all (A)s and all (B)s?

    Lewis does not even touch upon logical paradoxes, viz., the liar who admits to lying, and the Barber who shaves all those who do not shave themselves. Would that Lewis had read books such as Paradoxes by R. M. Sainsbury; Paradoxes from A to Z by Michael Clark; Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge by William Poundstone (Editor); or the works of Raymond Smullyan–to appreciate how wide-ranging and unsettled are the questions that remain in the exercise of logic, and the inherent difficulties connected with language and reality (since words are not things; and maps are not the territory).

    Logic itself is based on such simple principles that “some of the earliest computer programs, embodying no more than a hundred or so ‘facts,’ excelled at solving hard problems in mathematical logic. Yet not till the 1970s could we construct robot programs that could see and move well enough to arrange children’s building blocks into simple towers and playhouses. Why could we make programs do grown-up things, like solve hard mathematical logic problems before we could make them do childish things? The answer may seem paradoxical: much of ‘expert’ adult thinking is actually simpler than what is involved when ordinary children play!

    “To Descarte’s [and probably Lewis'] mind, walking was a simple mechanical act that did not require a ‘mind.’ But we now know that walking is a highly complex performance, no less ‘mental’ perhaps than calculating.” Talk about turning reason on its head!

    Moreover, “At the university of Pennsylvania a chimp named Sarah, using colored tokens for words, reportedly grasps the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different,’ as well as the conditional relationship expressed in English ‘if… then’ — in other words, simple logic.”

    Lastly, as Minsky reminds us, “I doubt if we often use logic actually to solve problems or to ‘get’ new ideas [certainly not when it comes to 'solving' the 'big problems' in philosophy, which amount to presuppositions piled on presuppositions to solve mysteries, or employing greater mysteries to solve lesser ones.--E.T.B.].

    “Instead, we formulate our arguments and conclusions in logical terms _after_ we have constructed or discovered them in other ways; only then do we use verbal and other kinds of formal reasoning to ‘clean things up,’ to separate the essential parts from the spaghetti-like tangles of thoughts and ideas in which they first occurred.

    “To see why logic must come afterward, recall the idea of solving problems by using the generate and test methods. In any such process, logic can be only a fraction of the reasoning; it can serve as a test to keep up from coming to invalid conclusions, but it cannot tell us which ideas to generate, or which processes and memories we use. Logic can no more explain how we think than grammar explains how we speak; both can tell us whether or sentences are properly formed, but they cannot tell us which sentences to make.”

    Lewis’ reliance on “Reason” (which he depicts with a capital “R”) is a reliance on what appear to him to be the best “reasons” available to support his overall philosophical position. But study any textbook on the “Problems of Classical Philosophy” and note how often philosophers are unable to resolve any of them using the broad terms and blunt instrument of philosophy alone.

    2) LEWIS AND THE ORDERLINESS OF NATURE

    According to Lewis “The reason of God –is older than Nature, and from it the orderliness of Nature, which alone enables us to know her, is derived.” (Lewis apparently, knows all about the “reason of God,” even prior to knowing all about the orderliness of Nature! I daresay, there is much more of Nature yet to be discovered, which will shed new light on questions of “consciousness and reason.”)

    Of course a naturalist’s concept of the orderliness of nature is different than a supernaturalist’s, but no less coherent. Take Joseph Campbell’s vision (admittedly he’s more of a pantheist than a naturalist, but he expresses the natural relationship between man and the universe as a naturalist might), “We are children of this planet… we have come forth from it. We are its eyes and mind, its seeing and its thinking. And the earth, together with its sun… came forth from a nebula; and that nebula, in turn, from space. No wonder then, if its laws and ours are the same.”

    Man’s ability to reason does not appear to constitute naturalism’s “cardinal difficulty.” Man’s ability to reason is compatible with either a naturalistic or supernaturalistic view of the cosmos. Neither does man’s ability to reason guarantee either the finality or perfection of his conclusions or knowledge. Human knowledge is limited, painstakingly accumulated over centuries, subject to growth, change, challenges from other branches of knowledge, and even decline. From all the classical philosophy Lewis had imbibed he should have known better than to argue so presumptively in favor of supernaturalism and against naturalism.

    There are even Evangelical Christian scientists who find Lewis’ arguments contra naturalism to be presumptive, including Donald M. (for MacCrimmon) MacKay, author of The Clockwork Image: A Christian perspective on science. (Inter-Varsity Press, 1974), who accepts that naturalism may indeed be true and that brains may indeed be unimaginably complex machines, but that God has set things up such that each person’s “information matrix” is recreated or downloaded into the next life, like transferring taped information onto a CD. Such are the varieties of Christian philosophers that some are naturalists too.

    See also the article, “The Brain and Mind Question and Christian Theistic Philosophers*

  • 4. jacobschriftman  |  November 22, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Thanks, Ed, for your – as always – thoughtful and informative comments.

    Perhaps I’m being obtuse, but I still don’t quite see how your position differs significantly from soft determinism. Soft determinism affirms free will in the sense of the “power of choice,” but does not deny our embeddedness in the cosmos.

    In what way exactly do you differ from soft determinism? Do you agree or disagree with Schopenhauer’s statement that “Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills”?

  • 5. Edward T. Babinski  |  November 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    I agree we are as “free” as a rock to fall, or as free as the nuclear reactions in the sun to shine. Our “freedom” consists in being machines that take in sensory input and react based on the total amount of input at the time each decision is made. I agree with Schopenhauer that ultimately we do not will what we will.

    And that also means that to succeed we must treat ourselves as learning machines. One of the rules of success in fact is to do whatever it is you wish to excell at, every day. Do it every day.

    Secondly, this point of view makes a lot of people sad. They say, “we are only machines!” But on the other hand one can look at it this way, “OMG jjust look at what a neurobiological machine can do!”

  • 6. Jonathan M. Dickstein  |  December 1, 2010 at 8:20 am

    My question (and, yes, I am new) for either of you–Where, in the paradigm of soft determinism or of, what I’ll call, pro-cosmology, is responsibility? Is there responsibility? If not, does it matter that there is not responsibility? Taking into account Schopenhauer’s conclusions (denial of the will-to-live), how can anyone reconcile life, death or any sort of final (teleological) or original (etiological) purpose of existence itself? Should one reconcile a teleological or etiological or even ontological purpose? To be subtle and elusive, let me add, Would one reconcile it?

    Psychologically speaking (and I know that Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Freud have been mentioned here–I would also drop in some people like David Hartley, John Monro, Philippe Pinel, Benjamin Rush to add a true early psychiatric flavor to the mix) the question psycho-philosophers pose and avoid is the relationship between sensory perception and the mind. The assumption usually made is either 1] innate ideas determine one’s life and death/afterlife (this seems like Hard Determinism) 2] sensory perception determines one’s life and death/afterlife.

    There is another possibility–that something somewhere in the mind determines the abstract effect (thought) of sensory perception. This is to say that impressions themselves might be intentionally engendered. The usual process of association of these impressions then takes place. And complex ideas are formed. Decisions are being made at every stage of this process, not necessarily conscious decisions. (And what again is the difference between the conscious and unconscious?)

    Of course all of this could be hogwash, all the world could be a shade, and in the end there might be a grinning candle . . . or “mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

  • 7. jacobschriftman  |  December 1, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Hi Jonathan,

    Welcome to my blog. Great question! In fact, the question of (moral) responsibility is so closely intertwined with the question of determinism that I had planned to follow up the blog post on determinism with one on moral responsibility. Perhaps I’ll have time in the next few days. I can’t promise anything revolutionary, though. Just a few basic thoughts. In my own little role on the world’s stage, I have not yet reached that part “with eyes severe and beard of formal cut, full of wise saws” (Shakespeare). I am still in a stage of fairly youthful wonderings and can only offer rather unripe thoughts on most issues.

  • 8. Jonathan M. Dickstein  |  December 2, 2010 at 12:01 am

    I appreciate your reply and look forward to your follow-up response.

    Generally I find this question unsolvable, and a matter of perspective, thus revelatory of an individual’s character–specifically in regards to output (And what I mean, I don’t know).

    I will also say that your post inspired my most recent post http://themoonchildren.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/thirty/—though it is of a very different sort (And yes I know this is self-promotion . . .)

  • 9. Chelsea  |  April 29, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    Imagine a feather floating to the ground – the wind can blow it ever which direction, but eventually it will hit the ground.

  • 10. Jonathan M. Dickstein  |  April 29, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Are you certain (objectively) that the feather ever hits the ground? Or does it your mind (aesthetic imagination) that makes it seem so? And this is not to be Romantic. Nor is it to be subjectivist. The point is not whether the feather hits the ground–I think. The point is rather that in order for the feather to fall, it must lack its destination (gravitation is always already surplus energy (i.e., anxious). It is the spilling). Conceptualize infinitesimal calculus. The point is not uncertainty, rather indeterminacy. Think of the shoreline. That is freedom. I am free in so far as God qua totality (universal knowledge) is lacking (not non-existent–that is, not the Kantian positive noumena–but simply not). Please note the hedonism of your analogy (the feather can blow [every] which way). Recall the Kirillovian maxim from Dostoevsky’s Demons: “If there is no God, then I am God.” Indeed, one cannot resist power relations (as Michel Foucault concludes, such resistance (overturning) would mean desexualization); but one can resist domination. Truth as outside human experience (i.e., beyond human knowledge (the paradoxical non-epistemic knowledge) is just such a domination. Truth in human knowledge (as Wittgenstein to an extent purports) is just as dominating. Permanent truth is always already lacking. The feather hits the ground in so far as one is under the contingent umbrella of science qua a method of discourse. Be there knowing that the blinding sun shines from without.

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