Thursday, January 17, 2013

Free will

Alvin Plantinga isn't impressed by Sam Harris's argument that free will is an illusion and his review of the book is very interesting. Toward the end of the review Plantinga says that predestination and determinism aren't the same thing and differentiates between two authorities on Calvinism [Calvin being one]:
.... Several Christian thinkers have at least flirted with determinism, motivated for the most part by considerations of divine sovereignty. If God is truly sovereign, truly ruler over all, won't it be the case that whatever happens in the world, happens because he intends it to happen? Indeed, won't it be because God causes it to happen? Reformed thinkers in particular have sometimes seemed to endorse determinism. Some people think of John Calvin himself, that fons et origo of Reformedom, as accepting determinism. But this is far from clear. Calvin did, of course, endorse predestination: but determinism doesn't follow. Predestination, as Calvin thinks of it, has to do with salvation; it implies nothing about whether I can freely choose to take a walk this afternoon. Calvin did indeed have invidious things to say about the freedom of the will; much ink has been spilt on this topic, and the question of just what Calvin believed here is vexed. But as Richard Muller, as good a Calvin scholar as one can find, says, "When Calvin indicates that we are deprived of free choice, he is certainly indicating only that we cannot choose freely between good and evil, or more precisely, we cannot choose between performing nominally good acts in a sinful way and performing them in an utterly good way. He certainly does not mean either that the will … is unfree or coerced in any way; nor does he mean that a person is not free to choose between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon."

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), on the other hand, perhaps the greatest thinker America has produced, certainly did embrace divine determinism. And Edwards endorsed determinism, for the most part, out of concern for divine sovereignty. His idea, ultimately, is that God's sovereignty requires that God himself be the only real cause of whatever happens. In the final analysis, God is the only agent, the only being capable of action, and the only cause of whatever events occur.

Edwards' endorsement is weighty; and divine sovereignty is indeed important; but there are enormously high costs associated with his view. This is not the place for a full-dress discussion, but, just to indicate where the discussion could go, I note two problems for Edwards' view. First, if God is the real cause of everything, then he is also the real cause of sin; he is the real cause of every sinful action. But Christians have for the most part strenuously avoided the conclusion that God is the author of sin. God permits sin, certainly; but does he cause it? Does he cause the wickedness and the atrocities that our sad world displays? Does God cause genocide in Africa? Did he cause the Holocaust? Does he cause all the less conspicuous but nonetheless appalling sins committed by humankind? That seems impossible to square with God's perfect goodness.

And second, we human beings often do what we know is wrong, and are both responsible for so doing and guilty for so doing. But if determinism is true, then on any occasion when I do what is wrong, it isn't possible for me to refrain from doing wrong. And if it isn't possible for me to refrain from doing wrong, then I can't really be responsible for that wrong-doing—not in the relevant sense anyway. We do sometimes say that arterial plaque is responsible for many heart attacks, but that's not the relevant sense of "responsibility." The relevant sense involves being properly subject to disapprobation, moral criticism, and even punishment; no one would consider criticizing or punishing a deposit of plaque. By contrast, if I knowingly do what is wrong, I am indeed properly subject to disapproval and blame. But I am not properly blamed for doing what it was not within my power not to do. On Edwards' view, we seem to lose any notion of human responsibility. These are costs for Edwards' divine determinism, and they are certainly substantial. .... [more]
Johnson and Boswell from Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson:
Boswell: "The argument for the moral necessity of human actions is always, I observe, fortified by supposing universal prescience to be one of the attributes of the Deity." Johnson: "You are surer that you are free, than you are of prescience; you are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any conclusion from a deduction of reasoning. But let us consider a little the objection from prescience. It is certain I am either to go home tonight or not; that does not prevent my freedom." Boswell: "That it is certain you are either to go home or not, does not prevent your freedom; because the liberty of choice between the two is compatible with that certainty. But if one of these events be certain now, you have no future power of volition. If it be certain you are to go home to-night, you must go home." Johnson: "If I am well acquainted with a man, I can judge with great probability how he will act in any case, without his being restrained by my judging. God may have this probability increased to certainty." Boswell: When it is increased to certainty, freedom ceases, because that cannot be certainly foreknown, which is not certain at the time; but if it be certain at the time, it is a contradiction in terms to maintain that there can be afterwards any contingency dependent on the exercise of will or anything else." Johnson: "All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it."
"Sir, we know our will is free, and there's an end on it."

Alvin Plantinga, "Bait and Switch," Books & Culture