In last week’s Thursday Theology post (here) we looked at different theories of determinism. We saw that determinism is the idea that the past determines the future in a literal ’cause and effect’ way, so that theoretically, given the entirety of history and all the laws of physics, there is only one possible future in any given situation.
Determinism raises a number of questions concerning free will, and so it’s logical that following on from last week’s post we should look at different types of free will this week. I will try to condense a complex subject into a few simple definitions, and then offer my own reflections and conclusions concerning the free will problem.
Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Philosophers who believe in this thesis disagree about what exactly free will means, because they acknowledge there are constraints due to circumstances (both in a person’s life and in the world at large) that can impact our choices and decisions.
In practical terms, compatibilism is often relevant to issues of moral responsibility. We might imagine, for instance, a court situation where a jury is trying to discern whether an individual is responsible for a crime, or whether outside factors coerced him or her to commit a crime. The judge might consider how a mental illness led to an illegal act, or that a person was acting under duress, or on the other hand they might argue that the individual on trial was motivated by their own free intentions.
Contemporary compatibilists like Daniel Dennett argue that a certain definition of free will holds true if a coerced agent’s actions coincide with the agent’s personal desires and intentions.
Incompatibilists quite simply deny the compatibility of free will and determinism. They argue that if the world is deterministic then our feeling that we are able to make free choices is simply an illusion. I will have more to say about this in my conclusion, below.
Some contemporary incompatibilist philosophers, like Sam Harris, argue that our thoughts are the product of a lengthy evolutionary process, coupled with our life circumstances, so we are not free at all (to read my post entitled ‘Sam Harris and Free Will’ go here).
Some incompatibilists are libertarians, which is the strongest position in favour of the freedom or ‘liberty’ of the individual. Libertarians argue that because at least some actions of some agents are free, determinism is necessarily false.
One definition of libertarianism is the thesis that an agent is able to take more than one course of action in a given set of circumstances. Some who hold to this view believe that events are influenced by the ‘non-physical’, whether it be a mind, will, or soul.
Assessment and Conclusion
As I concluded last week’s post on determinism, I argued that of crucial importance to the free will debate is the way in which we understand the nature of God. God is often left out of these discussions about determinism and free will, because we live in an age where scientism has led to a proliferation of atheism and great scepticism about God’s existence.
This scenario is unfortunate, as the solution to the problem of free will lies in correctly understanding the nature of God. Without such an understanding, there will always be confusion on this subject.
Theists generally agree that there are certain attributes that are definitional of God; attributes such as omnipotence (God is all-powerful), omniscience (God is all-knowing), and omnipresence (God is everywhere). These attributes are very relevant to the free will debate. If we believe God exists and literally possesses these attributes, then it’s quite obvious there is no room for free will at all.
Let us focus on the attribute of omnipresence. Please consider that this means that every cell of your body, and every particle in the universe, is a part of God. To deny this would be to limit God’s presence in such a way as to deny His omnipresence. This view of God naturally leads us to a panentheistic understanding of existence; panentheism being the idea that all that exists, exists within God.
In practical terms, this makes sense, as theists will happily attribute to God the ability to impact any part of His creation at any time. This would not be the case if there were distance between creator and creation. If God is truly omnipresent, and a living God, then we can rightly surmise that God is unfolding the universe by His omnipotent power in this very moment – this moment being all that actually exists (the past and the future exist only as ideas; not in reality).
It is not the case that the past necessarily leads to the future. This will only happen if God wills a particular succession of events. Being in control of existence, as He is, God is above the laws of nature, and can at any time change those laws if He wishes (which is what is happening when we observe miracles).
Ideas such as cause and effect, past and future, are simply that – ideas. Because events flow into one another, in reality there are no separate events. Similarly, because the past flows into the future without any interruption, we can see that time is illusory – it’s a way of segmenting a single eternal ‘now’ into divisions that don’t exist in reality.
All of these observations beg the question: What is real? And we can observe that there is an ‘unfolding’ happening. Wherever there is activity in existence, there must be a cause of that activity. Considering this deeply should lead us to conclude that there is an all-powerful, omnipresent God – a ‘cosmic animator’, as I like to call Him.
There are many repercussions of this view for the determinism / free will debate. If God is in control of all things, then obviously we don’t have free will. If we apply this understanding to the situation of a jury assessing the crimes of a perpetrator, it would appear to be the case that ‘anything goes’ – they cannot be found guilty because they were simply a puppet in the hands of God. While there is logic to this, I believe it’s important to point out that in reality it’s not actually the case that ‘anything goes’ – only God’s will goes.
Many theists are uncomfortable with a worldview that sees God as the author of everything that we describe as ‘sin’ and ‘evil’. But I believe in the domain of ultimate truth, we must accept that God is indeed in control of everything that happens. This may cause us to see the world a little differently, but it’s actually an immensely liberating idea, knowing that whatever you’ve been through, and whatever you’ve done, represents God’s will for your life. Also, your future is in His hands.
My conclusion is that none of the views of free will presented in the first part of this article are accurate, for they fail to take into account the divine attributes that demonstrate God is unfolding all events in accordance with His sovereign will. There is no free will, only one almighty will; a will so powerful it can create a universe, billions of planets and billions of people, unfathomable complexity and diversity, and a historical process that lasts thousands or even millions of years.
I’m aware that the view of God described in my conclusion presents a challenge to many of the key doctrines and tenets of Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions. For a more in-depth look at the issues, I invite you to read my essay entitled An Almighty Predicament, which you can find as a downloadable PDF at the top of the Essays page.