On Free Will

In recent months I've been hard on free will and on those who place a lot of theological weight on that notion. Given my criticisms, I thought I'd briefly sketch how I think about human freedom.

To repeat my criticism, I don't think "free will" means "causally unconstrained." I don't see how it is possible for the human brain--the apparatus of human volition--to step outside the causal flux. That ability, as Harry Frankfurt points out, is a question of power, not freedom. Humans are not omnipotent. We are finite, causally bounded creatures. Consequently, we are unable to step outside the system.

So for me, free will isn't about causality. It is, rather, more akin to what we might call political freedom. Emancipation.

There are two aspects, positive and negative, related to this notion. The first is a negative. If I lock you up in a jail you are not free. If I let you out you become free. Freedom here is liberation, a freedom from.

I think this frame on freedom fits well with biblical metaphors. In the bible human freedom isn't about causality. It's about slavery. Freedom, therefore, is emancipation, being set free from our bondage to sin and death.

But this liberation isn't from causality into non-causality. It is, rather, becoming set free to become bound to a new Master. One sort of causality is exchanged for another. We become "slaves of Christ."

If being released from jail is an example of negative freedom, freedom from the jail, then education is a good example of positive freedom, freedom to.

For example, one of the reasons we educate ourselves and our children is to increase our opportunities, to increase our choices. We become free to do this or free to do that. Thus, we become more free with education. Our horizons expand. We have greater knowledge and skill. As they say, "Knowledge is power." That power is the expansion of choice. What was once closed to us is now open. Less a freedom from than a freedom to.

And education isn't the only factor here. Virtue is intimately associated with freedom. Think of self-control. While it seems that self-control--saying "No" to the self--is a form of self-limitation it is actually a form of self-liberation. Contrast the addict or the impulsive shopper with the self-controlled person. Who is more free? The person pushed and pulled by compulsions, cravings, and obsessions? Or the person able to master herself? In short, virtue--the Fruits of the Spirit--creates freedom. In becoming more Christ-like be become more human and more free.

The best capsule summary of how I see freedom is a notion I've borrowed from Buddhism. Specifically, free will is less a matter of choice than a matter of skill. That's the best summary I have. Free will is skill. And the greater the skill the greater the freedom.

And this dramatically alters how I approach my spiritual life. I don't see myself as an omnipotent ego standing outside the causal flux making choices. Rather, I see myself as engaged in practices to increase my skill in the faith, to become a skilled Christian. And as my skill increases so does my freedom.

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51 thoughts on “On Free Will”

  1. I believe that freedom is accurately expressed by a person's 'freedom to love'. It many situations throughout life we become scarred by rejection and relational pain and thererfore become less open to 'loving our neighbour'. Christ empowers and enables us to love and be loved. For many that can be a huge source of freedom, to extend themselves in relationships and to believe that they have value and therefore are worthy of being loved. This became apparent to me while working in a camp ministry, where we dealt with some of the fringe children who came from broken homes.

  2. To be honest, I don't know where I fall on the philosophical positions in the free will and materialism debates. So let me sidestep that to step back and paint a vision of what I think is going on. Be warned, though, I'm about to get very abstract...

    I think the thing people fear is this notion that if some form of materialism or determinism were true that any "meaningful view of freedom, personhood and rationality" is destroyed. That we're stuck with a sort of fatalism. That things are "determined" to be just as they are, with no hope of deviation.

    But I don't think that's the proper picture. What separates me from, say, my dog Bandit is that, due to my higher cognitive powers, I have more options in front of me than he does. I'm more free in this sense. Free to do things, feel things and think things Bandit cannot. More of life is available to me. Crudely, if Bandit has 10 degrees of freedom I have, what?, a million? Let's just say a lot.

    Now what is interesting about my mental abilities is that my degrees of freedom can expand. I can go, via things like education, from one million to two million. I can increase my freedom.

    Now add into this the fact that we aren't doing this in isolation. We live in community. We have input into the degrees of freedom of others. So as I educate myself I feed that back into my kids, readers of this blog, my students, my church. As my degrees of freedom expand I expand the degrees of freedom of others. And vice versa. Our volitional horizons overlap, intersect, and create feedback loops.

    And as our degrees of freedom expand we become increasingly sensitive to additional input. We move further and further away from looking like a hardwired system. Our minds are chaotic systems sensitively dependent upon initial conditions--the butterfly effect. That is, as our degrees of freedom expand we become exquisitely poised to detect the slightest breeze and are able to response in more and more diverse ways. And those ways will converge on beauty as these will be the paths that will pull us into their orbit as our degrees of freedom expand. Our lives will become forms of artistic expression. The skill I talk about in the post.

    And the more degrees of freedom and the more communal overlap the more chaotic and unpredictable the system becomes. Life isn't fixed in a rut. It is, rather, a chaotic system that is evolving toward greater and greater unpredictability, surprise, and novelity. Life isn't following a pre-determined path. It is openning up. Freedom is evolving. We are becoming free. And I think this is a very biblical idea. Freedom isn't anything we have right now, though we are moving toward it. It's something we get in the end. What Christians call salvation.

    Add into increasingly chaotic mix the Incarnation and the Paraclete--butterfly wings flapping here and there--and, well, the whole system is nudging toward "God being all in all."

    I have no idea if that makes any sense. But it's the vision I have in my head. I feel God pulling me toward freedom. Everyday. And I try to pull along others.

  3. Being a relative newbie here, I missed the previous discussions of free will (and I am "constrained" by my lack of familiarity with some of the terms you used), so I may need help catching up.

    I get that our free will is constrained.  As you note, we are not omnipotent so the first constraint is based on being human. This should not be particularly controversial.

    Within that realm of "things that are possible for humans to do" it seems there are wide ranges of freedoms.  Given enough money and brains and physical ability it is possible for someone to do most (although not all) things that it is possible for a human to do.  On the other hand, for a poor paralyzed untouchable living in rural India very few things are possible.  Although we don't acknowledge these differences when we speak of free will, it is not too hard to assent to the reality. 

    These differences in our nurture also influence our ability to hear and accept the Gospel, which is the most common context in which free will discussed.

    In this post, however, it sounds like you are talking about free will with respect to the choices we make each day to do the right thing.  This ability is constrained on one hand by our willingness to exchange an illusory view of freedom ("I can do as I please") with genuine freedom; and on the other hand by our past practices in developing the spiritual muscles necessary to make the decision to do the right thing.

    Is that an accurate summary of what you are getting at here? 

    This seems to be a recurring theme in my reading and listening lately: that spiritual maturity is about consciously developing the habits, little-by-little, that one needs in order to make the right decisions, so that eventually those decisions are made instinctively.  NT Wright in After You Believe uses the example of the pilot who landed his plane on the Hudson River; he didn't have time to think about what to do, but his training and long experience allowed him to do the right thing automatically.  Someone else used the example of Secret Service agents who (since Kennedy's assassination) are trained in such a way that they will act without thinking to protect the president.  Likewise a musician or athlete trains in such a way that the muscles will react nearly automatically when necessary.  Perhaps this is what I Cor. 3:2 and Hebrews 6:1 (and others) are referring to.

  4. Hi Joe,
    This seems to be a recurring theme in my reading and listening lately:
    that spiritual maturity is about consciously developing the habits,
    little-by-little, that one needs in order to make the right decisions,
    so that eventually those decisions are made instinctively.

    Yes, that's what I'm trying to describe. In fact, let me make a few provocative statements along this line:

    I think Christians have been hampered by focusing too much on free will. It has tempted us into thinking that the Christian life is decisional rather than formational. I think we'd be better served if we switched the focus away from cognitive states (beliefs, doctrine) to virtue, the fruits of the spirit.

    Why have we been so enamored with free will? In my opinion? So we can blame people for going to hell. That's really what the issue is about: Blame. Erode free will you erode blame and, thus, place great pressure upon the notion that hell (as traditionally conceived) is just.

  5. p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

    Hey Joe,
    Since you mention 1 Cor 3:2, I'd like to suggest a look at 1 Cor 3:3. Spiritual maturity (which is I guess, well, ... a spiritual thing in contrast to a physical thing like flying a plane???) has to do with the degree to which a person is under the influence of their physical nature in contrast to the Holy Spirit (and I am not in any way suggesting stuff like 'speaking in tongues,' etc.). It's not so much an issue of practice as it is an issue of submission.

  6. Having lived for seven years in a country where religious choices are tightly constrained by government, society, and family, I am painfully aware of the lack of free will in many parts of the world with respect to these choices, and I fervently hope and pray that God's justice does, indeed, take such things into account.

  7. This topic goes to the heart of my own loss of faith over the past 60 years.  My question is this, and it touches on both justice and free will:  What "freedom" (either kind as you describe) did I exercise in the Fact of my birth?  In addition, if "sin" is a matter of individual choice in a free agent, how am I responsible for the "Original Sin" of another?  Why am I then to suffer "eternally" for the finite sins I have committed in this life?  If humans hold within them a sense of Justice (ala C. S. Lewis) which points to a completely Just Creator, he therefore cannot condemn eternally all souls for limited sin.  That is not Justice -- it is revenge.  Or else Lewis simply got it terribly wrong.

  8. Yes, it starts with submission to the Holy Spirit, but it doesn't end there.  We still have to make conscious choices every day to do the right thing.  Aside from the euphoric period immediately after salvation (for those who had dramatic conversion experiences), spirituality does not come naturally, at least at first.  The Holy Spirit is not a puppeteer.  With the Holy Spirit's help, however, we can make those right decisions often enough that they do start to come naturally.

  9. I hear what you are saying. This is why I believe, no matter what our starting points are in life, God gathers it all and brings it home.

  10. Excellent. The complexities of the world around us, our universe, our earth, our climates and a simple blade of grass would seem to imply that we are a part of a greater journey with all its veils and shades of reality. Into this comes the light of a Message from the Ultimate Reality, who tells us, "Love and becoming... Discovery in relationships... Living beyond the self...Freedom through service...." The journey is to explore the journey, and the more we learn of the journey, even the determinism/free will dichotomy, the more we step beyond the veils.  Rumi:  "I am the bird of the spiritual Garden, not of this world of dust; For a few days, they have a cage of my body made."

  11. Hi guy,
    I'm unfamiliar with source incompatiblism. I've not read in this area for some time, so I'm not sure what's going on at the cutting edge of this conversation.

    But truth be told, the reason I gave up on that literature is that I think the issue is pretty straightforward: Are humans finite, physical, causally bounded creatures? I answer in the affirmative.

    The rest is just about psychology, the attempt to explain the "feeling" of voluntary action.

  12. Richard,

    So are you simply a determinist?  What's the relationship between "freedom" and responsibility or blame? 


  13. I don't know what you mean by "determinist" or "free will." Sometimes I think, channeling my inner Wittgenstein here, this is all just a pseudoproblem, a linguistic knot. If you defined each term I think I could answer better.

  14. Richard - I appreciate your response here, but think you may go too far in dismissing free will entirely as a concept. As I've said before, I am absolutely convinced - in large part by your writings and references - of limited volitionalism and of universal salvation - so I"m not dodging anything. Free will, as I understand it (or as I *don't* understand it as the case may well be!) is a necessary assumption for both agency, intention, persistence of self and rationality. Without this as a philosophical starting point, it gets very difficult to say we are anything other than random experiments gone simultaneously beautifully and terribly wrong. So I don't think the only purpose of free will (or the need to defend it) is to create a way to blame people for their poor choices. While I completely agree that platonic (idealist) free will *does not exist* for human beings and that we have erroneously clung to it (especially among the fundamentalists) as an undergirding basis for flawed soteriology, there is more to it than merely that I think.

  15. I can understand the lack of resonance. But I think you are placing your weight in the wrong place.

    I don't think free will is what gives life meaning and poignancy. It's consciousness and sensation. What gives life meaning and depth isn't that my choices have no prior cause (whatever that means). It's that I feel. Pleasure and pain. Love and joy. Surprise and regret. It's our attachments that is the stuff of love. Not some metaphysical abstraction like free will.

    So the quibble I have with your view of "molecules banging around" is that you leave out the fact that those molecules have consciousness attached to them. And it's that consciousness that renders life moral and meaningful. We don't shoot puppies because they have free will. We don't shoot them because they feel pain. It's consciousness, and not free will, that is the crux of life and love.

  16. Oh, I'm sure I've gone too far. To be fair, I was trying to shift the topic in this post but the comments are pulling me back into contentious waters. I don't mind. I just don't think there are any solutions here. Just a centuries old debate. Still, I do like philosophical conversation.

    In light of that, I'd quibble with your view that free will is a "necessary assumption for both agency, intention, persistence of self and rationality." I'm a psychologist. I'm trained in prefectly naturalistic accounts of all these things.

  17. Determinism--for any given state-of-affairs (A) in the world, there is a unique state-of-affairs (B) that necessarily follows from it.  Thus, (i) given A, B was the only possible consequent and no other, and (ii) if we knew exhaustively the state-of-affairs of the world and any given time and the laws which govern them, we could know all states-of-affairs both past and future relative to that state-of-affairs.

    Would you say you agree with the above?

    Regarding "freedom"--does assigning responsibility or blame or praise to me for an action imply that the way in which i bring about things must be significantly different than other goings on in the world?  Does responsibility imply that my connection to my actions is more than or different from the connection between one billiard ball hitting another?


  18. That helps a wee bit. I guess what I was wanting is how you apply the words "determinism" and "free will" to the human mind as rival hypotheses. That is, what is a "deterministic" view of the human brain? And, as a rival hypothesis, what is a "free will" view of the human brain? In unclear to me what the relevant contrast is. What is the one saying about the brain that the other denies? 

  19. Wow--okay, do you take it that all mental states are identical brain states?  --you're not a mind/body dualist?


  20. A "necessary assumption" from a philosophical perspective. Psychology deals entirely with externalized behaviors - there is no penetration to the "reality" (or lack thereof) behind it. Just as the surgeon doesn't know or care if his patient has a soul - it's irrelevant to working on the body. In other words, as we measure it, most psychologically intact persons appear to have agency, intention, persistence of self and rationality. The problem is a *philosophical* one in that such concepts do not cohere in a radically deterministic setting. This is also related to the "hard problem" of consciousness as I understand it. The question is presuppositional in nature.

  21. Thanks, again for the reply.

    I wasn't saying free will is necessary for there to be meaning (whatever that is) or that I find meaning *in* free will. Instead, I was saying for my sense of "meaning" to *mean* anything, there has to be a "me" at the center of that sense (not an "illusion" of a "me"). Without something *more than chemical determinism* - there is no "me" - it's pure delusion. (In this paragraph I hope I've distinguished that it's not merely "free will" that needs to exist, but simply something more than chemical determinism.)

    You equate consciousness with life and love. But what is consciousness? You seem to equate human and canine consciousness - are these categorically the same? And what is consciousness? You seem to think it something rather special. But isn't it merely some illusion or epiphenomenon that exists as an after-effect of those randomly colliding molecules?

  22. By "brain state" you mean something like a neuron's action potential? And by "mental state" something like the sensation of red? That is, do I think a neuron firing is "identical" to, say, the sensation of red?

    They seem to me to be two aspects of the same thing, described subjectively ("red") and objectively ("action potential"). So that brings me up against what you mean by "identical."

  23. "I don't see how it is possible for the human brain--the apparatus of human volition--to step outside the causal flux." 

    I'd like to suggest a distinction that I see you making, without explicitly calling it to our attention as a rider and qualification to the statement above. 

    In reply to Jeff you note, "What separates me from, say, my dog Bandit, is that, due to my higher cognitive powers, I have more options in front of me than he does." 

    It seems clear that the advantage of having more options is that when the option at hand is not desirable a further option can be worked toward. And thus the skill you advocate as an enhancement to freedom comes into play. But then we do step outside of the casual flux as something passively accepted to engage in an effort to change whatever end in sight we don't want into one that we do. 

    So the distinction would be this. No, we do not can cannot step outside of the causal flux absolutely. But yes, human consciousness does provide an inner sanctum from which to observe the existing options and marshal our resolve to change those options, when we don't like them. I guess I'm advocating that there is no metaphysical, absolute ability to step outside the causal flux, but there sure seems to be a practical, relative human ability to observe the world, retreat into an inner space to consider further possibilities, and advance effort toward preferred outcomes that would not have existed without human consciousness. 

    The problem is that in denying the former (absolute, metaphysical) kind of freedom one can seem to be denying the second. Which, again, I don't take you to be doing. It's just that it would help to make the distinction explicit. Or have I missed something? 

  24. Hi Jeff,
    You said "Psychology deals entirely with externalized behaviors."

    That's news to me. We deal with feelings, emotions, moods, personality, intelligence, cognition, needs, pleasure, pain, love, grief, joy, attitudes, empathy, motivations needs, obsessions, selfhood, identity. And on and on. We spend most of our time with, well, the psychological.

  25. Let me back up.  i think we're still in the right field, but currently playing at the edge.

    When you say that psychologically we have a feeling of voluntary action, do you mean to say then this is *solely* phenomenological?  In other words, voluntary action is mere appearance or seeming, but metaphysically, it is false that our actions are voluntary?


  26. "When you say that psychologically we have a feeling of voluntary
    action, do you mean to say then this is *solely* phenomenological?"

    I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know and was seeking clarification. That is, it's clear we feel free. Now how that feeling relates to "metaphysical freedom" I don't know. I don't know what "metaphysical freedom" means. Does it mean there are brain events that have no prior cause? Little neuronal miracles? Synaptic unmoved movers? What does "metaphysical freedom" mean, neuroscientifically speaking? Or does "metaphysical freedom" mean there are events taking place on a separate, unobserved metaphysical plane of existence?

    Where's the action taking place? And what kind of action is it? Metaphysical or neuronal? Where is "free will" taking place?

  27. Richard,

    You're asking some question to which entire books are devoted!  =o)

    Here's what i think:

    i think that if i shoot someone and kill them, i am responsible for their death in a way that the bullet is not.  i believe that implies that my bringing about of the victim's death differs *qualitatively* from the way that the bullet brought about the victim's death.  What i mean by qualitatively is that i am not merely a few more steps back in the causal chain than the bullet and that's the only difference, nor are there simply more atoms knocking together inside me than inside the bullet.  i mean my causal power somehow differs in kind from the causal relations of other things in the world.  i take that to be the important sense of "freedom."  i am free to bring things about  *in a way* that no other non-personal object in the world can.

    So what "way" is that?  Hell, i don't know.

    Does that position commit me to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities?  (PAP would be the denial of what i said above--that B must follow A and nothing else could've followed.)  Well, maybe, but even if it does, i don't think PAP is the real meaty part of freedom, action, and responsibility; i think this "source" issue is more to the heart of the matter.

    Does that position commit me to saying that there was no prior cause to my decision? Maybe, but i honestly don't think so.

    Let me ask you again though--do you think that there's any part of a human being that is immaterial or non-physical in nature?


  28. Richard - I didn't mean to say you were dealing with physical things, but that you are dealing with behavioral things which you analyze "on top of" some unsubstantiated assumptions which are though not stated or substantiated nonetheless practically justified. Agency, persistence of self and apparent free will being among these. You treat people based on statements, tests and analysis that are "outside" the person (otherwise you couldn't observe them) and you are dependent on these "behaviors" for your analysis. Your assumption of agency for example is just that. You justify it based on observed behaviors that make it appear that the person is exercising and possesses agency. The fact that agency as a concept makes no sense in a physicalist universe never enters into your equation. Again - it's presuppositional.

  29. I see what you are saying about responsibility. My quick take is that I don't know if we need free will for responsibility because the way we are different from bullets is that we have adjustable software where bullets do not. We censor, punish and blame software. Why? Because it's adjustable and those adjustments help the common good. But I could be wrong about this. Philosophers might think we need more for a robust notion of responsibility.

    Regarding the last question, I'm not sure. Sometimes I think so. Sometimes I don't. I waffle on that a lot. I'd like to think I have a soul or spirit, but if I had one I don't know what it would look like.

  30. Tracy - I think you are hitting on exactly the same distinction I am searching for - though perhaps in different terms. There must be, it seems to me, some distinctive about human consciousness that is "apart" from the purely chemical interactions in our brains if our choices, reasoning, and sense of self are to be anything other than mere illusions. I'm not advocating necessarily a soul separate from our physical existence, but there must be something "other" somewhere in the mix or it all falls apart.

    And this "distinction" is light years away from any kind of idealist, Platonic "free will" where we are always, anywhere capable of any choice.

  31. I think I'm tracking with you. And I agree with what you are describing. Freedom isn't simply more forks in the road. More options, more choices. It's also about depth, reflection, contemplation, and wisdom. Thinking ahead. Slowing down. Reflecting deeply. Rethinking our decisions. Consulting others. Psychologists call this "meta-cognition," and it's what makes us less pulled by whim, addiction, impulse, or craving. Wise people are more reflective and deliberative. And thus, I'd argue, more free. 

  32. Yes, it seems obvious to me that there is--clearly must be--a cognitive dimension to human causality that is not just neurons firing: If I recall that I was supposed to drop off my infant child at day care and forgot, thereby leaving her in the car when I went in to work, the horror I feel is not a product of a neural impulse that makes me feel horror, but a realization of a horrible situation. A situation to which i would react by trying to rip my arm out of shackles, if I were so imprisoned. The neurons must carry the psychological weight, but they are not it. That much seems clear, in which case the difference between a dog and a person in terms of cognition becomes directly relevant, just as Richard noted. 

    I have no expertise here--just noting the obvious, I hope...

  33. I have over the past few years challenged many Christian apologists, including Dr. Frank Turek, with the questions I asked this morning.  So far none has answered in a way which leads me closer to some Truth.  Since I had no "free choice" in my own creation, how am I either accountable or responsible for Original Sin?  In this respect, there IS no freedom, no matter your definition.  Is it possible to exist and not be conscious?  How would you know?  

  34. Sam, I, for one, don't think you are accountable for Original Sin. You're just accountable for yourself.

  35. Hi Sam,

    You're tracking with Kant's c. 1790 position against original sin in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and Berkeley's 1713 position in The Dialogs of Hylas and Philonous. So the questions have been around for longer than just this morning...

    My favorite entry into them is Augustine's making of eternity into a perspective onto each moment of temporal existence. But since there is no eternal perspective available to us, it must remain a pure metaphysical speculation. Perhaps someday, if physicists come up with a GUT, there will be something like an eternal reality accompanying the temporal, that we have some sense of... And of course, if someday we will see as we are seen by God, much, much better!

    Good luck finding an answer. And I hope you will share it with me if you find it.

  36. Okay, I see that. Yes, psychology is going to rely on observables, even when we are studying subjective states like pain. No one can see pain on a measurement device. You have to rely the on, say, the self-report (a behavior) of the person. (This, btw, is a constant location of friction between chronic pain suffers and physicians who are treating them skeptically.)

  37. I'm not really equating consciousness with love. Just that love is built out of conscious experiences, as is the rest of life. It's a prereq. Rocks don't love because, I'm guessing, they lack consciousness.

    I do think consciousness is special because it makes me Richard Beck. And, yes, I think that's special! But I can't say what consciousness is, what it consists of. But it most definitely exists. Even if it is an illusion it's a phenomenological illusion.

  38. Hi Everyone,
    It's been a fun conversation today. Summer classes don't meet on Fridays at ACU so I was able to interact more in the thread than I normally do. It was fun talking about free will in between doing yard work today. But now I'm off to my son's baseball game. It's 107 degrees outside. Pray for me.

    Signing off for the night. Pax Christi.

    P.S.--I think all of you have free will. :-) Use it wisely.

  39. Thank you, Dr. Beck.  To whom am I accountable, and for what?  As I understand it, Christianity collapses of its own weight if we are not all "stained" from birth by Original Sin.  It is the "explanation" for the state of our world, as well as our need for salvation, but more importantly (as I have been told) the reason why we continue to sin. Why else do we need, as you say -- liberation? 

    Freedom of choice inevitably leads to errors (sin).  It is, in a word, that which defines us as human beings before a Just God.  Somehow I see little place for "freedom" in this paradigm.  I would imagine that you tend to agree.  I simply wish there were some alternative, as I continue to seek a true spiritual dimension to my own existence.

  40. Hi Sam,
    You said As I understand it, Christianity collapses of its own weight if we are not all "stained" from birth by Original Sin.

    You'd be wrong about that. Not all Christians believe this. In my faith tradition we believe babies are born pure and innocent.

  41. Dr. Beck, you said, "I don't see how it is possible for the human brain--the apparatus of human volition--to step outside the causal flux....I'd like to think I have a soul or spirit, but if I had one I don't know what it would look like...I don't know what metaphysical freedom means. Does it mean there are brain events that have no prior cause? Little neuronal miracles? Synaptic unmoved movers? What does metaphysical freedom mean, neuroscientifically speaking? Or does metaphysical freedom mean there are events taking place on a separate, unobserved metaphysical plane of existence?"  And so forth.  And then you summed it all up (in qb's reconstruction here, I mean) with this gem:  "I'm a psychologist. I'm trained in prefectly [sic] naturalistic accounts of all these things."

    It is a pretty simple matter to build from those excerpts a narrative account whose elegance would have delighted Sir William:  You have _a priori_ excluded spirit as a dimension or category of reality.

    So it appears a bit disingenuous, or at least misleading, to say that you'd "like to think [you] have a soul or spirit."  You might like it in some trivial sense, but every sinew of your being protests against the very idea as being quaint, unsophisticated...and unworthy.

    It's intriguing to qb that faith - as the canonical writer to the Hebrews defines it - is even an operative category for you.  You write as if the great achievements of the Enlightenment, which if anything consist in the "prefectly [sic] naturalistic accounts" of everything we observe, were the ultimate key unlocking a remarkably positivist vision of unaided human capabilities and exclusively human ends.

    Finally, if there is an overwhelming theme in our canon concerning the nature of God, it is that God is spirit, and therefore unseen.  How you can, with a straight face and without observable cognitive dissonance, maintain a personal identity as a Christian from within such a naturalistic, positivistic world view is a delightful paradox.



  42. I see that. I do live between these tensions, between my training as a psychologist and its scientific worldview and my Christian commitments. But that's what this blog is all about: the two senses of experimental theology. The messy, confused, and provisional attempt to bring the social sciences into conversation with Christian theology. And if the picture isn't pretty at times, well, that's because it's all a work in progress.

    I mean, I don't think I'm right about any of this stuff. So let me state my research goal here: Does Christian theology require free will? I'm not sure. I'm trying to find out. I'm not trying to say we don't have free will. That's not a question I'm particularly interested in. My project here is theological. How does free will, if we pull it out, affect Christian theology?

    See, it's all in the effort to be experimental. I'm manipulating the Independent Variable (free will vs. no free will) to see its effects on the Dependent Variable (Christian theology). I'm wiggling the IV back and forth to see its effects on the DV.

    The point here, for every reader, is to go back to the title of this blog and why I write. I'm not trying to preach. I'm trying to think.

    But to get to the heart of your comment the quick response is this:

    My faith is rooted in theology, not anthropology.

  43. I'm wondering what happens if you keep this conversation going here. Does it end up looking





  44. This week, I listened to an NPR broadcast about the PCL-R test that is being used to identify psychopaths among convicted prisoners.  In this broadcast, psychopaths are described as being physically incapable of feeling empathy, guilt or even love.

    In the context of this discussion, an entire realm of "causal constraints" are eliminated from psychopathic decision-making.  By extension, they are born with a greater degree of freedom in their decision-making.

    But, society demands accountability for one's decisions.  So, when all is said and done, free will is irrelevant.

  45. You're probably just more honest about the inner tension than qb is. qb

  46. Some good ideas here, but free will is about causality as well (if not more so). If we cannot cause our own actions through our volitions then that leaves God as the source of evil...that doesn't leave us with a very good God; it does leave us with a God that Descartes postulated. The human mind IS outside the causal flux. If it was not, then all of our choices would be determined by the interaction of molecules in our brain. This gets rid of moral agency and retributive justice; if we cannot be held accountable for our actions the world becomes a scary place. Clearly we are still bound by sin, but having libertarian free will (the ability to choose our own actions) shows a spark of the image of God we were created in! I'd love to talk to you more about this. This is a great topic and one that even quantum physics supports in the observer phenomenon and quantum entanglement!

    P.S. sweet blog, you just gained a new follower haha. I also didn't have time to read the entire comment list so I'm sorry if I repeated anything that has already been said.

    P.P.S. If you'd like, you can follow my Christian worldview blog here: http://runningonfaith1.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-is-love.html
    It just runs through some Christian thoughts and perspectives on various issues like the Mind-Body problem, love, causality, things Christians must work on in today's secular society, and a ton of other topics. I'd love to have you read them and hear your opinion.

  47. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that denying acausal free will dissolves blame. If you're just saying that this is so in the minds of those who want there to be a Hell, that does seem to be true. But I don't think the sentiment holds even when put in a positive sense ("by removing references to acausal free will, we free ourselves of the concept of 'blame.'")

    Almost all compatibilists (and some incompatibilists, like Strawson) think that praise and blame are appropriate reactions to actions that are compatibilist-free and incompatibilist-unfree. First, because as concrete social action assigning praise and blame has affects on people's behavior, and is so a crucial element of building up virtue; second, because (tautologically) it is good that good events should occur and bad that bad events should occur, and so praise and blame are desirable (or not) instances of affective reactions in general. And just as we can say that an event is good, we can say that the system that consistently produces it is good at least in that respect, and perform the utterly crucial task of asking (which accepting acausal free will makes impossible) what makes systems good in that way, so we (the systems in question) can have more of that.

    Of course none of this is good enough to rescue eternal torture, but that has other problems (as I'm sure you agree.)

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