Simply Irresistible (or not?)

As a slight but necessary tangent to my series on free will and choice, which is itself a slight but necessary tangent to the issue of universalism, it’s necessary here to discuss the three basic views (there are subcategories, but these are the main ones to consider) regarding free will, or the lack thereof.

Libertarianism (not to be confused, in this context, with the odious political party or the even more odious political philosophy) is the belief that humans do indeed have free will.  Free will, in short, is real, not an illusion.  Just so we’re clear, we’re talking about the commonsense definition of “free will” as “the ability to do whatever you want, within the constraints of ability and duress”.  The last clause is important.  I am not free to flap my arms and fly to the moon, since that’s impossible.  The poor man is not free to eat at the Ritz, as the saying goes, since he lacks the money.  If I’m in jail or under the influence of drugs, my free choices may be prevented (I can’t just walk out of jail) or suppressed (I might do things under the influence that I normally wouldn’t).  Still, the basic definition–that I can do what I want, if I’m able to do so–is a good one for free will.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is worth saying at this juncture that free will implies moral responsibility for one’s actions.  If I freely do something bad, I am responsible for that and worthy of blame, or even imprisonment or execution, if what I do is bad enough.  If I do something good through my own free will, I am worthy of praise and perhaps even honors and accolades.  This accords with the commonsense view of what free will is and what it entails.

Hard determinism (a subset of incompatibilism) is next.  Determinism in general means exactly what it says:  everything that happens, including all human actions and behaviors, is determined ahead of time.  If I have a row of dominoes set up and tip the first, the outcome is in no doubt–one topples the next, and so on, until the pattern is finished and the last domino drops.  The great French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace said it best in A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

In short, everything that happens, including our actions and even our inmost thoughts, right down to my typing this post at this very moment, was determined from the beginning of time.  Free will is an illusion.  It’s important to point out that the existence of God is not germane to this notion.  Whether it was God who set the inexorable processes of the cosmos in motion or the random action of natural forces in a godless cosmos, either way the result is the same:  we are compelled to do as we do, with no choice in the matter.  Everything is “simply irresistible”.

What distinguishes so-called “hard” determinism, or incompatibilism, from other forms is that it denies the possibility of free will.  In short, if outside factors make you choose, say, to eat a broccoli fudge sundae, if this is determined from all eternity, then you lack free will.  This would seem to be pure common sense.  Further, hard determinism would argue that since humans lack free will, it is not possible to blame–or praise–them for their actions, any more than one could blame an earthquake or praise a beautiful sunny day.  Hitler was no more responsible for his actions than an earthquake.  Those who opposed him, won the war, and imprisoned ex-Nazis are no more praiseworthy than a sunny day.  We are, in effect, automatons who “strut and fret our hour upon the stage” and who cannot do otherwise.

Finally we have soft determinism, or compatibilism.  Soft determinism agrees with hard determinism in saying that all things are determined.  Laplace, to them, was correct.  It disagrees with hard determinism, though, in saying that determinism is in fact compatible with free will.  That is, though everything I do is determined before I was born, nevertheless I have free will.  By corollary to this, I can indeed be blamed or praised for my (determined) actions.  The way this is argued is in the compatibilist definition of “free will”.

Everyone agrees that free will is to some extent dependent on external circumstance:  if I’m in jail, I can’t just walk out, no matter how strongly I will to do so.  If someone straps me down and forces a broccoli fudge sundae down my throat, my free will is obviously compromised.  We agree that free will can be exercised only when there is no duress.  For example, if I’m trying to decide if I want to go to the movie or stay home, no one is going to force either decision upon me.  I’m completely free to make either decision.  This is where soft determinism comes in.  Soft determinists say that free will is any action exercised without external constraint or duress–e.g. in the example above, I decide to go to the movie.  They would locate the determinism in my motivations.  In short, they’d say that I am free because no one made me go to the movie; but that I am determined in that the mental state that eventually tipped towards “go to the  movie” and thus motivated me to do so, was itself determined from the beginning of time.

The way pastor and writer Robert Short put it in Short Meditations on the Bible and Peanuts, if you walk into an ice cream parlor and buy an ice cream cone, you may be free to choose any flavor of ice cream you want, but you are not free to choose which flavor you like in the first place.

The two important dichotomies here are free will vs. determinism and hard vs. soft determinism.  The first is abstract; the latter hits us where we live.  The question as to whether we actually have free will or whether our actions are totally determined is not answerable, at least not in an empirical way, despite the beliefs of each side that it is obviously true.  It may never be an answerable question.  Despite this, most people probably believe in free will.  Even those who claim not to actually behave as if they did in their daily life.  If you punched a determinist in the nose and told him that you couldn’t help it because it was determined, he’d not likely take it any better than anyone else would!

This points out the key issue–responsibility.  Hard determinism denies human responsibility for all actions, whereas both free will theory and soft determinism affirm responsibility.  To the hard determinist, I am indeed not responsible for punching him in the nose (though he may act in contradiction to that and attack me back or have me arrested, anyway).  To the advocate of free will and the soft determinist, whether or not I could help punching someone (and they’d disagree on that), I’m still responsible and should suffer the consequences.

In the larger context of universalism, the possession or lack of free will, and the culpability, or lack thereof, for personal actions by humans and angels is obviously relevant to whether or not they can be said to “deserve” either salvation or damnation.

We’ll save the application of this to a later post. I will make this much clear regarding my opinions here.  I am a libertarian (a supporter of free will, not a political libertarian!), full stop.  I can’t prove my position, but it can’t be disproved either.  In any case, it’s a good working hypothesis since we all feel internally that we do have free will; and as I said, the most adamant hard determinist acts as if he and others have free will, his very life a contradiction of his philosophy.

As to determinism, while I reject it, I think that the hard determinist perspective is at least logical and consistent, and I can respect it.  The soft determinist position seemed to me to be incoherent or at best playing games with words from the moment I first encountered it in a Philosophy 101 class in around 1988.  In all the years since, nothing has induced me to change my mind in this regard.  Soft determinists mean well, but they’re just trying to square a circle that can’t be squared, in my view.

At that point, we’ll close.  In an upcoming post I’ll tie these viewpoints into the issue at hand regarding free will, and see if they have any implications for Connor MacLeod and whether he has his bizarre sundae after all.

Part of the series “You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances: Free Will



Posted on 22/01/2014, in 80's, Christianity, metaphysics, music, music videos, philosophy, religion, rock, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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