Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Interlude: Is Frankfurtian Freedom a Dodge?

In my last post Jeff made a comment that I like to pull out here as I expect that a few other readers will have a similar response. That is, is Frankfurt dodging the issue of free will versus determinism? The reason why I expect some of you will have that reaction is because I also had that reaction. But I've since thought about it and I now like Frankfurt's position. So, before we go on in this series, let me offer a few reflections. First, Jeff's comment is below so you don't have to surf back for it:

I think I understand the point that having volitional integrity and unanimity would produce a satisfying choice from an agent's internal perspective, I thought a critical component to free will vice determinism was an assent to objective, external ideals - "truth" or "rationality" as concepts?

I suppose my point is that while volitional integrity would leave a subjective agent with no frame of reference to believe anything other than her choices were truly free, that wouldn't really mean the agent was free to choose based on an assent to objective values, right? And if that assent is lost, it seems that volitionally integrated choices might only seem be be based on free choice, when it reality they are not.

In other words, it appears that volitional integrity is a "third way" between free will and determinism, but in reality it seems to be dodging the real issue. I see the real issue between determinism and free will not as a subjectively satisfying choice, but as a choice made in light of external truth and reality - that our noetic equipment is somehow connected or has access to a frame of reference beyond merely the stimulation of our brains to something real and external that can drive our choice, legitimately, even in a volutionally disintegrated direction.

Some reflections...

First, yes, Frankfurt is setting aside the specter of determinism and is focusing on the inner life of the agent. That is, Frankfurt's freedom is not metaphysical but psychological. It's the experience of freedom that he's talking about.

If this is true, isn't he dodging the real issue? Yes and no. Frankfurt notes that as finite creatures the only freedom we can possess and comprehend is the feeling of scope, of having, to use Aristotle's criterion, many possible lives before us. This capacity, Frankfurt correctly notes, is due to that ability we have to insert an "internal separation" in our minds. That ability allows us to take in our experiences and reasonings and objectify them. That is, to step back and observe our minds. Further, we can step back and reflect on our reflections, where second-order reflection can take in our first-order reflections. The philosopher Thomas Nagel aptly describes this process of iterative self-objectification in his book The View from Nowhere.

The point is, as we go through this process, vistas of possibilities and potentialities open before us. And, thus, we experience scope, possibility, and potentiality. Multiple lives open up before us. (Real lives. The mind is connecting with a reality beyond its own chemical workings, it is modeling/simulating an objective reality.) This expansive feeling is what we label as freedom or free will.

But these mental processes and our iterative deliberations do take place within a causal system. As finite reasoning creatures we can, via the processes above, apprehend reality (for theists, God would be a part of that reality) and to reason/deliberate upon that reality. However, given that we are finite--causally bounded--those reasons and our ability to deploy them must take place within the system, they come to us and are deployed by us in a causal relation. We are not omnipotent. We cannot get our reasonings "outside the system," so to speak. As Frankfurt says, we are not powerful enough.

In the end, although determinism may be true, the only freedom available to us or comprehensible to us is the one we currently experience. There really is no other conversation to be had.

For example, let's talk about comprehensibility. What would it mean that we had reasonings or desires with no causal antecedents. What would acausal reason, volition, or love look like? I'm with Frankfurt on this, I can't even envision what this would look like. More strongly stated, these acausal models/speculations (which many theologians have truck with) border on being linguistic and conceptual rubbish. We have the freedom we have and that is the freedom theology must work with.

Now, let's come at this from a different perspective. Our reasoning and choices Frankfurt says (and I'll get to this in my coming posts) are grounded in certain volitional necessities. In my V-Day post I gave this quote from Frankfurt:

"Answers to the normative question are certianly up to us in the sense that they depend upon what we care about. However, what we care about is not always up to us. Our will is not invariably subject to our will. We cannot have, simply for the asking, whatever will we want. There are some things we cannot help caring about. Our caring about them consists of desires and dispositions that are not under our immediate voluntary control. We are committed in ways that we cannot directly affect. Our volitional character does not change just because we want it to change, or because we resolve that it do so. Insofar as answers to the normative question depend upon carings that we cannot alter at will, what we should care about is not up to us at all." p. 24

The point is that caring undergirds all reasoning, all choice. Yet, these investments are not chosen. They are, simply, who we are at the time. We don't choose, ultimately, what we care about or love. Basically, our will looks like this:

Step 1: Our ability to iteratively reflect, reason, and objectify allows for vistas of possibility to open before us.
Step 2: Our volitional investments then make the choice of which possible life we wish to move toward.

And, if we wholehearted embrace #2, we feel that the life we move toward is the life we want. And we experience freedom in this choosing. If we are prevented, internally or externally, from embracing #2 we feel that the path we were put on is not the one we want. We feel the need to back up and try again.

Now, I understand that this raises all kinds of issues about normativity and moral responsibility. I'm going to get to those issues later in this series. For now, at this point in our journey, we're just specifying the nature of the will. And, if theological systems/discourse is to be plausible, it will need to rest on realistic (and not incoherent) notions of the human person.

Let me give an example about these volitional necessities, these carings. My administrative coordinator and I were talking about love and marriage and she said, "Love is a choice." I disagreed and argued thus:

"I understand what you mean and you are correct if you are equating 'love' with 'romantic feelings.' For truly, a marriage must be based on more than infatuation. However, more properly, love is a volitional matter. More specifically, it is a volitional constraint. One you do not choose voluntarily. For example, let's say your feelings for your spouse have cooled and there is conflict in the marriage. Should you persist in the marriage or seek a divorce? As you deliberate on this, possible choices/lives open up before you. In the end, you choose to keep your marriage vows. And you experience freedom in this choice. This is what you want. But why did you choose this way? Only because you care about keeping promises. If you didn't care, and many don't, about keeping promises your choice would go a different way. Yet, you don't choose to care. Because if you tried you would simply hand off the the choice to the next level reflection: Why do you care about caring about keeping your promises? (Which is, btw, a legitimate reflection to entertain.) In the end, it all just bottoms out: Why do I care? I don't know, I just do. That is, choice is an expression of who you are. As God's is an expression of who He is. You find yourself as you are. Love isn't a choice. It's a discovery."

First, note that I'd make a difficult boss. Random comments in the workplace can cause me to go off on long philosophical tangents.

But more importantly, this model of the will helps to fruitfully focus the discussion on the situation at hand: Our will and freedom as it is. For example, if love is not a choice but an expression of who we are, an old, Eastern vision of salvation jumps out at us: Divinization, becoming more like God. Coming to love the things God loves. In sum, yes, I agree that Frankfurt's tabling of the free will vs. determinism debate leaves lots of things unresolved. I'll get to some of these issues later. But I also believe that the vision Frankfurt gives us is both constructive and realistic and, thus, a good model of human freedom to built theological systems upon.

But, I'm no theologian so what do I know?

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4 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Interlude: Is Frankfurtian Freedom a Dodge?”

  1. Richard -

    Thanks for the extensive reply! I need to noodle on this for a while because I'm not sure I'm following Frankfurt's ability to hold to both causality and objectivity. However, for the time being let me as this:

    You say,

    "Frankfurt notes that as finite creatures the only freedom we can possess and comprehend is the feeling of scope, of having, to use Aristotle's criterion, many possible lives before us."

    And, later:

    "However, given that we are finite--causally bounded--those reasons and our ability to deploy them must take place within the system, they come to us and are deployed by us in a causal relation."

    And, finally:

    "In the end, although determinism may be true, the only freedom available to us or comprehensible to us is the one we currently experience. There really is no other conversation to be had."

    Isn't this line of reasoning just constructing a tautology? I mean, aren't you presupposing causal determinism, then arguing for it, and finally proposing it as the result of that presupposition and argumentation?

    I submit that our noetic processes may be governed by deterministic machinery - like a radio receiver mechanically "interprets" the electromagnetic signals into audible sounds - and problems with that interpretative circuitry can result in distorted sound, messages, etc. This is certainly a closed causal chain. But the incoming information may or may not be within that causal system.

    Is that possibility the one that is being precluded before being properly considered or dealt with?

  2. But, I'm no theologian so what do I know?

    Talk about FREEDOM! Its wonderfully liberating to say that at the end of a long post, heavy in theological implications isn't it? (Done it a few times myself)

  3. Matt,
    Yes, it is liberating:-)

    I think I might have just talked past you in this post. If so, I apologize. Regardless, I think the post adds some detail of where I'm going.

    If I'm understanding you right, I think we may agree. Let me try to summarize and you can check me. To wit:

    Even if the brain is causal system it can be exposed to information outside itself which can, via its influence, affect/change a person. Most of this information comes from other causal systems inside the big causal system (i.e., the physical universe). But, as believers, we also believe that information can come from outside the system. Namely, from God. Thus, God influences
    Creation, moving it in directions and toward ends that would not have been reached without His intervention.

    If this is what you are pointing at then I'm in entire agreement and will be making this very point later in the series. My only caveat is that when God does interact with humans His interactions will conform to the Frankfurtian picture I've outlined (not of necessity but from God's own pragmatic concerns). That is, God will not simply present information/choices to Frankfurtian agents. As we have seen, what the agent chooses ultimately boils down to the volitional necessities of the person. So, if God seeks to transform the person He will have to transform the will of the person, change their volitional necessities. In short, and this is a big point in this series, God's activity in saving the world is a little deeper than typically thought. That is, the good news, to be widely accepted, must be more than simply proclaimed (i.e., exposed to the agent's will), it must be transformative (i.e., change the agent's will). And this change must be done to maintain the volitional integrity of the agent. This process is a little more involved and complicated than the model of persons undergirding most visions of evangelism and soteriology.

  4. Richard -

    Thanks - I must've just missed this in your earlier posts. We are in agreement.

    One additional question, though, I suppose, is whether the transformation of the will you speak of must occur entirely within the closed causal chain of the agent or whether it, too, is open to outside influence (e.g., prevenient grace, the movement/influence in some way - psychologically, physically (e.g., at the quantum level), etc. - of the Holy Spirit).

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