Free Will

26 March 2005

The term "free-will" has been used in philosophy and theology to formulate a number of different problems.  Here are some of them:

1)  If there is an omniscient God --- that is, a God who knows everything --- can we act freely?  How can what we do be up to us, if God already knows what we are going to do?

2)  If every event, including human actions --- events that consist of a human being doing something ---  is caused     by the events that lead up to the event, can human actions be free?  If the past determines what we do, how can what we do be up to us?

3)  After Adam and Eve ate the apple, committing original sin and damning all future humans, do humans still have the ability to do the right thing of their own "free-will"?  Or does this require an act of grace on God's part, so the only ones of us that can be righteous are those to whom God chooses to extend his grace?  This is the issue that divided Pelagius, a British monk, and Saint Augustine.  Pelagius thought the answer was "yes",  Augustine thought the answer was "no".  Augustine won the  doctrinal battle, so Pelagius' view is now known as "The Pelagian  Heresy", and has been for about 1600 years.  This question was hotly debated  during the Reformation, too, in works by Luther and Erasmus, for example.

Augustine, interestingly enough, argued in his Dialogue on     Free-Will that humans can have free-will in sense 1).  This seems to conflict a bit with his answer to question 3).  Augustine explains that in his discussion of question 1) he was thinking of  Adam before the Fall.  Part of the Fall was losing part of our  free-will; we can freely choose to sin, but we need God's grace to do the right thing.  At least that's how I understand these  vexed issues of Christian theology.  Maybe some reader or listener who has a better grip on them can straighten me out.

We probably won't get into question 3) when we discuss whether free-will is an illusion, in our program Tuesday (March 29).  I doubt that we will spend much time on 1), either, although it may come up. I dwell on 3) because it is in this context that many of us heard about "free-will" in our early years at Sunday School, and its connection with the other problems may be confusing.

For what its worth, my impression is that although Pelagius' view became a heresy, and Luther, Calvin and other hard-liners had the most influence during the Reformation, today's Christians, whether Catholics, Lutherans, or Presbyterians, are mostly really Pelagians. Here again, perhaps someone who knows more about it can straighten me out.

Our guest on Tuesday's show, John Fischer, is one of the leading contemporary philosophers on the issue raised by question 2).  He is also well-known for work on the philosophy of religion, so perhaps he will say a little about question 1), also. His main interest, and that of most philosophers writing about free-will today, is not in the connection between free-will and an all-knowing God, or the metaphysics of sin, but in the connection of free-will with moral responsibility.

The connection is that free-will seems to be required for moral responsibility.   If I do something wrong, I can expect to be held responsible for it.  But what if I had no choice?  What if I could not have done otherwise?  What if I wasn't free?   Then it seems I am not really responsible.  And if we are never free, we are never morally responisble.  So there seems to be a tight connection between having free-will have moral responsibility.  If there is  a problem  with free-will, there seems also be be a problem with moral responsibility.

And there does seem to be a problem with free-will.  Neil Van Leeuwen,  a graduate student who helps us with Philosophy Talk, credits Allen Wood,  a colleague of Ken's and mine at Stanford, with the following succinct statement of the problem:

Commonsense says we have free will. Commonsense  says our actions are determined. And commonsense  says that free will and determinism are inconsistent. So no matter what you say you have  a contradiction with commonsense.

Suppose Ken and I are sitting at KALW, just before the program begins.  I have forgotten to get myself a styrofoam cup of water, which I badly need, and there isn't time to run and get one.  There is one sitting beside Ken, which he has has clearly gone and gotten in his responsible way.  While he isn't looking, I snatch his cup and move it over to my side of the table. He looks for his water.  Since styrofoam cups of water look exactly alike, he has no reason to suspect the one by me is really his.  I say, "I think you left it down the hall."  He runs off to get another cup, is late for the beginning of the show, and earns a dirty look from Amy Standen, the Roving Philosophical Reporter, who also is our on-the-air producer. I look innocent.

Intuitively, I had a choice. I could have rushed off myself, or gone without water.  I freely chose to do the wrong things; to steal the water, and then lie about it.  So, intutively I am morally responsible for my act, and for all of its forseeable consequences: that Ken would rush off, that he would get back late, that he would get a withering stare from Amy, and perhaps much else besides.

But look.  Why did I do what I did?  Because I am irresponsible, and didn't get my own water; because I badly wanted the water; and because I have a very weak character that is unable to resist temptation, and a well-developed ability to cope with guilt.  Why am I that way?  Some combination of nature and nurture.  I didn't choose to be lazy, irresponsible, and prone to thirst.  And yet, given those causes, my act had to ensue, didn't it?  The laws of nature guarantee that wretches such as me will steal water and lie in these circumstances.  Probably I am just a complex physical system, so each of these things--- my thirst, my irresponsibility, my laziness, my inability to resist temptation---are really just physical states of me.  Not taking the water would mean violating the laws of nature. But no one can violate the laws of nature.  So don't blame me.

Intuitively, if my theft of Ken's water is caused by antecedent conditions, by the deterministic unfolding of a chain of causes and effect that began long before I was even born, I wasn't free to do anything else.  Intuitively, everything does have a cause.  And yet, intuitively, I am morally responsible for my theft, because intuitively I had a choice.

Where does this leave us?  In the grips of the problem of free-will. Now John Fischer, like many philosophers, thinks we have to give up some of our intutions.  There are three places philosopher have tried to break the dilemma:

  • Deny that all human action are caused by previous conditions;    usually called "libertarianism";  this is not the same as the political doctrine advocated by Ayn Rand among others, although    most libertarians in that sense are also libertarians in this one;
  • Maintain that even if an act is caused by previous conditions, it    can still be free; the conflict between causation (or determinism, or in an old-fashioned use of the word, necessity) is an illusion; this was Hume's view, and is now usually called "compatibilism";
  • Distinguish between metaphyisical freedom and the freedom required for moral responsibility.  If every human act is caused by    previous conditions we don't have metaphysical freedom; we can't really do otherwise than we do.  But we still have the sort of  freedom required for moral responsibility.

This last view is held by our guest, John Fischer; he calls it "semi-compatibilism."  Tuesday we'll give him a chance to explain and defend it.