We seem to be able to decide our behavior for ourselves – what we do is up to us. But if everything that we do can be explained by physics, does this leave room for freedom? Are all of our actio
There's a long history of philosophers worrying about whether we’re really free. One of the first worries was whether we can be free, given God’s alleged omniscience, which seems to mean He knows what we are going to do before we do it.
Take yourself back to the time when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, for disobeying him and eating from the apple tree. Suppose you travel back in time, and offer your services to Adam and Eve as a defense attorney. What would you say?
I think I'd say this: "Look God, you created everything, including Adam and Eve, the apple tree, and the serpent. You decided what the world was going to be like--- every detail. You are all-powerful and all-knowing. So you knew what the serpent would say to Eve, and what Eve would say to Adam. And you knew how Adam would react. So how can you blame Adam, when you created him just the way he was --- a spineless wuss who would do what his wife told him. If you didn’t want him to eat the apple, you should have created him differently; you should have created someone who would have said, 'Sorry Eve, I cannot disobey God, and you musn’t either'.”
Now what if God replied: "But Adam was free. He could have eaten the apple, or he could have refrained from eating the apple. It was up to him. It was his choice. He made the wrong choice, so I’m mad at him, and intend to punish him, and all his descendants, including you."
I’d bolster my courage and say, ``Look God, that makes no sense. Adam may have thought to himself: I can eat the apple, or I can not eat the apple. But that thought was an illusion. No finite mortal can do something that God already knows he won’t do. You created Adam with the sense of freedom, but not the reality of freedom. So it is grossly unfair to punish him."
This response gets at the answers to the core questions, What does `freedom’ mean? And Why is freedom important? What we seem to mean by freedom is the power to choose between two actions. We not only have the thought ``I can do A, and I also can refrain from doing A”, but the thought is true. And this is important, because unless one can really choose, one doesn’t deserve to be punished. So there's the first challenge to free will: If God really knows ahead of time what we're going to do, we really can’t do otherwise. So if no one is really to blame for what they do, then no one should be punished for what they do.
There's a second serious challenge to free will – where the problem isn’t that God knows everything, but that everything is caused, including our own thoughts and decisions. In other words, can we really be free if our decisions are caused by our brain states, which themselves have prior causes, and so forth and so on, so that our decisions are really caused by events in the remote past, and what we decide now was really settled long before we were born.
This is what people mean by ``determinism”. Everything we do is determined by the laws of nature, and past events. Suppose you get a ticket today for speeding. Given the state of the world in say, 19oo, long before Ken or I or our listeners were born, and the laws of nature, it follows that you was going to break the speed limit today. You can’t do anything about what the world was like in 1900. And I can’t violate the laws of nature. So how can you really do anything except that is determined by those facts? It seemed that youI could slow down, but really, you couldn’t.
Still, if you'd been stopped by a police officer, and explained all of this to her to avoid getting a ticket, what do you think he would have said?
Perhaps if she had philosophical training, she might have said, ``That may be, but it is equally determined that I should give you a ticket”. Or maybe she would have said: ``that doesn’t matter, because quantum physics tells us that determinism isn’t true after all.”
To this you might respond: ``Look, quantum physics might show there's a little leeway in the way the universe unfolds, but it hardly shows that my speeding wasn’t the inevitable consequence of the state my brain was in, which was the inevitable result of my experiences throughout life and the nature I was born with. So don’t give me a ticket. Please."
So freedom seems to pose a challenge for two quite different philosophical world-views. Theists have to worry about whether free-will is compatible with God’s foreknowledge. While people who go for determinism - naturalists, who believe humans and all that we do are subject to the laws of nature - also have to worry about it.
For today’s program, we had a brilliant young philosopher, Manuel Vargas from the University of San Francisco, to help us think it through.