Tag Archives: free will

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

malleable will

Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.

I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead.  This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers.  Why did my muscles do what they did?  Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function.  What made me think about this?  Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously.  Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger?  Of course not.

I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker.  This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities.  On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable.  I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition.  On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions.  No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.

Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline.  But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly.  (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!)  I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’.  I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.

Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills.  Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.

Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you.  But others are not only realistic, but also freeing.  For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.).  But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.

To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol.  Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices.  Send them to a party with their mates.  Have someone offer them their favourite beer.  Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity.  Yay for technology!  Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you?   Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking.  They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go.  Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun.  And you know what?  If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well.  The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make.  One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).

So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means.  Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals.  It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

kenotic God

A true swordsman is recognised not simply by ability to swing the largest of swords with great speed and strength, but by the skill and agility to wield any sword in the best way.  Likewise, the vision of God in Christian Scripture (not only in the NT – explicitly in passages like Philippians 2:5-11 – but in the OT) is of a God who does not mindlessly brandish the sword of omnipotence around like a brute or side-show stuntman, but rather wisely wields it in ways that are not about mere strength but intent, skill and purpose.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that basically no Christian doctrine about God makes any sense at all if God’s omnipotence is not seen in this particular way.  Just as a skilled swordsman most probably indeed could swing a sword quite fast and powerfully, but would only do so at rare occasions or perhaps only once, so also there are many things that an omnipotent God is able to do, but not willing.

The kenotic, or ‘self-emptying’, God is not shackled to ‘logical’ expectations for what omnipotence would do.  God both a) refrains from doing things he has capacity to do, as well as b) does things he does not need to do.  God could have not created.  It’s not as though there could be any force or person or will ‘above’ God that caused God to create.  But create he did – and does.  To venture into the conversation of sovereignty and process theology and ‘free will’, etc., God could have chosen to have a very deterministic and micro-managerial rule over the world.  It’s not as though that would be un-fitting or impossible for omnipotence.  But his sovereign rule is far more respecting of freedom, and what we have is a mixture of inability to do many things (i.e. breathe in space, fly, etc.), and ability to direct our own courses of action.  We are dependent enough upon the world and each other such that the degree of indifference we can fall to has limits, yet we are also independent enough from it and others such that an annoyingly persistent responsibility for our actions is perpetually ensured.

against the flow

another ‘free will’ post came to mind.

Whether or not you believe that ‘free will’ is illusory or not, there seems to be an agreed spectrum from, say, rock to Raymond, when it comes to apparent capacity for self-determination: to determine one’s own action.  Rocks are utterly a slave to physical forces or agents other than themselves; being forced into rock walls or river beds.  Raymond however, though his father’s vocation may affect his choice, determines for himself whether he will be a rock wall builder or a fresh water biologist.

Somewhere in the middle would be plants and animals.  Plants ‘choose’ to grow toward the sunlight, apparently.  And animals can ‘choose’ a mate, etc.  I believe I’ve correctly applied the quote-marks around ‘choose’, because as far as we know, the plant and animals are ‘going with the flow’ of the biological and cultural pressure that presses upon them.

Humans at least appear to be able to swim at or hold their heads above, the surface and breathe the air of self-determination.  Rather than being entirely determined by others, we can choose to reject a religion, a meal, a person, an idea, or life itself1 .  A few observations:

  • As a rock cannot choose to be this or that colour, we cannot choose to, for example, fly or levitate.  So we’re talking about possible choices, not impossible ones.
  • Whilst our heads are above the water, our bodies are under water.  We don’t consciously choose to distribute blood throughout the circulatory system, or say to our toenails, ‘Grow!’
  • We easily (and regularly) slip beneath the surface.  Sleep, for example, takes us under.  By contrast, whilst sleep is a refreshing, re-fuelling, humane subconscious state, getting drunk or taking meth-amphetamines pulls you under in a most dehumanising way.  I’ve been drunk many times in my life (particularly if not entirely between ages 18-20!).  There were periods that I don’t remember at all.  These points I was blurring the line between human and non-human.  My ability for self-determination was decreased to the point of nearly vanishing.
  • In light of the above, some macro-choices seem to set up subsequent micro-choices.  The macro-choice to get drunk (itself preceded by choosing to drink ‘one more’… and ‘just one more’…) will lead to all manner of other, progressively less self-determined (!!) micro-choices – including choosing to drive home sleepy and drunk (as I did at least once!!).
  • Because individual self-determining humans do not exist in a vacuum, there will be all kinds of influence from others (and circumstances) upon this self-determination.  Though a) the mere presence of influence does not determine how the influence will be responded to (the flow of influence may be yielded to or opposed), and b) the mere presence of influence on the chooser does not mean that the choice made is unreal; even an experiment where a subject must ‘choose’ the mathematical equation that is balanced is still a choice, though entirely prescribed.
  • In the same way, I see no reason that the ability to predict a choice means that it is not an actual, real choice.
  1. I don’t think suicide occurs in the animal or plant worlds? []

random choice

Scenario 1: After instructing a person to make a random choice between two options in front of her, a computer detects brain activity in a human subject before she clicks the button to communicate her choice.  The experiment conductor, upon repeats of the same experiment, can predict her choice seconds before she is aware of it.  It is still a choice, for although the choice emerged from brain processes, she was not told which one to choose.

Scenario 2: After asking her son to choose between strawberry or vanilla ice cream, a mother detects a facial expression on her son before he verbalises his choice.  The mother, upon repeated instances of this scenario, can predict his choice before it is communicated.  It is still a choice, for although he has a tendency to choose vanilla, both flavours were on offer.

Scenario 3: Having eternally given to creation (humans in particular) the freedom to move toward good and order or evil and chaos, the omniscient Creator has full knowledge of the direction taken before, after and during the moment (from their perspective) it is made.  The Creator, in all places and times, can predict the direction taken.  It is still a free initiative, for although the result was known, both were live options.