Free Will

Are we always free to change?  It was argued in my Existentialism class today that no matter our past, we can always reinvent ourselves and pursue a different life.  I disagreed, however, and I have the famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in my corner.

Wilde was blessed with an extraordinary story telling ability.  The characters from his plays and novels leap from the page in vivid plot and description.  Oscar Wilde was known for his gits to be sure, but he was also known for his lecherous behavior which eventually led to imprisonment and disgrace before his death.

Wilde gave both personal and literary testimoy to his destructive behavior.  Shortly before his death he wrote the following words:

I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease…Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation.  I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber, one has some day to cry aloud from the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.

Wilde witnesses the effect that behavior has on character here.  The choices that we make today will determine what options we have in the future.  If I make bad choices, I damage my soul and distort my character.  If I continue down the wrong path long enough, I rob myself of the very freedom that I had once treasured; I will indeed cease to be the captain of my soul.  Wilde wasn’t the first to discover this truth, of course; Aristotle stated much the same thing and the principle of moral sowing and reaping is clearly taught in Scripture (Galatians 6:7).  Every decision we may effectively limits our future decisions: for good or evil.

Wilde’s literary autobiography is contained in the novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray which relates the story of an innocent young man’s descent into debauchery and self-destruction.  Throughout the story, Gray learns that he is able to take part in the vilest of behavior, yet suffer no consequences to his body or appearance; the eponymous picture suffers all of the damage.  However, Dorian eventually discovers that the picture is a representation of his own twisted soul, and at the climax of the narrative when he reveals the ruined painting to the artist who created it (just before murdering him):

“It is the face of my soul.”

“Christ! what a thing I must have worshipped! It has the eyes of a devil.”

“Each of us has heaven and hell in him, Basil,” cried Dorian
with a wild gesture of despair.

Hallward turned again to the portrait and gazed at it.
“My God! If it is true,” he exclaimed, “and this is
what you have done with your life, why, you must be worse
even than those who talk against you fancy you to be!”
He held the light up again to the canvas and examined it.
The surface seemed to be quite undisturbed and as he had left it.
It was from within, apparently, that the foulness and horror
had come. Through some strange quickening of inner life
the leprosies of sin were slowly eating the thing away.
The rotting of a corpse in a watery grave was not
so fearful.

His hand shook, and the candle fell from its socket on the floor
and lay there sputtering. He placed his foot on it and put it out.
Then he flung himself into the rickety chair that was standing by
the table and buried his face in his hands.

“Good God, Dorian, what a lesson! What an awful lesson!”
There was no answer, but he could hear the young man
sobbing at the window. “Pray, Dorian, pray,” he murmured.
“What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood?
‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins.
Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together.
The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your
repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much.
I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are
both punished.”

Dorian Gray turned slowly around and looked at him with tear-dimmed eyes.
“It is too late, Basil,” he faltered.

“It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we
cannot remember a prayer. Isn’t there a verse somewhere,
‘Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white
as snow’?”

“Those words mean nothing to me now.”

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. (Hosea 8:7)


 I recently discovered – via this post on another blog – that Stephen Pinker (popular, Led Robert Plant would be proud!Zeppelinish hair-styled, psychology prof. from Harvard) has published yet another article arguing for a biology-based morality.  You can read the NY Times article here. 

As some of you already know, I have already posted on Pinker’s pernicious problem of a materialistic morality.  Although his most recent article is somewhat longer than his earlier article in Time magazine, his arguments remain the same.

Rather than rehashing my appraisal of his argument in this post, I invite readers to check out my earlier post, “Stephen Pinker and the Morality of a Meat Machine”.

You gotta love that hair though 🙂

One of the thorniest problems that the theist must face is how to understand the concept of human freedom in light of a sovereign God.  By “sovereign” I mean a God who is maximally great and possesses such attributes as omnipotence (maximal power), omniscience (maximal knowledge), and omnibenevolence (maximal goodness).  God’s omnscience, and his foreknowledge in particular, is the attribute that causes the most consternation for theists who want to preserve the notion of human freedom.  If God already knows everything about our future, do we actually have any choice in the matter?  Is every human action already determined by God, or are free human choices undetermined?  There are three basic categories that philosophers and theologians fall into in regard to these questions:

  1. Hard Determinism: This view essentially asserts that everything that happens is causally determined.  The causes may be physical (such as in a materialistic, clockwork universe), due to God’s prescience, or a combination of the two.  Under this view, human  beings are not free in the libertarian since (they cannot act contrary to the causal chain).
  2. Libertarian Free-Will: This view argues that the choices of human beings are not causally determined (at least not completely).  Under this view, free choices are indeterminate, and a free human agent can act contrary to the causal chain.
  3. Soft Determinism (Compatibilism):  As the name implies, this view seeks to mitigate the fatalistic impact of Hard Determinism and the indeterminate fuzziness of Libertarian Free-Will by arguing that Determinism and human free-will are compatible.  To accomplish this, the Soft Determinist must redefine the meaning of a free choice.  The Soft Determinist argues that “freedom” is merely the ability to choose what you desire (although your desires are themselves causally determined).

So what’s the problem?  Why have intelligent individuals argued over these different theories for thousands of years?  Well, let me conclude part one of this topic by listing some of the problems that each view holds for the theist.

  1. Some theists hold to a clear Hard Determinism (usually in Calvinist or Reformed circles).  The unsavory aspects of this view, however, revolve around the idea of fatalism.  If everything that we will ever do has already been determined, do our choices have any real value?  Are they worthy of praise or condemnation if we could not have done otherwise.  Besides, a lot of people don’t consider themselves as organic automatons and actually find the very idea to be repugnant.
  2. Other theists seek to have their Deterministic cake and freely eat it too by espousing Compatiblism (a large chunk of evangelical Christians fall into this group).  However, this view suffers precisely the same problems as Hard Determinism.  How’s that?  Well, remember that the Compatibilist achieves compatibility by redefining free will.  We do what we want, but our wants our determined.  And if our wants are determined, did we really have a choice?
  3. Then there are the theists who take the opposite route by completely denying Determinism in favor of Libertarian Free-Will (many Christians of an Arminian or Wesleyan bent espouse this view).  While this idea seems attractive at first, it apparently produces some serious problems for a sovereign God.  If God foresees that Bob is going to mow his lawn next Thursday, can Bob freely choose not to mow his lawn and thus change God’s mind?  Do human choices trump God’s choices?  If so, then God does not seem to be as great as he is supposed to be.

Now, before the contentious comments begin to arrive :), let me give a quick disclaimer.  I am neither espousing nor condemning any of the above views in this post.  I am only trying to point out the potential problems for each one.  I also realize that this has been an incredibly simple presentation of a topic that is incredibly complex and that there are shades of gray between each of the major theories that I have presented.  I am simply trying to set the stage for future posts on this subject.

In Part 2 of this topic, I would like to begin examining some of the more sophisticated attempts that have been made at producing a solution to the quandary of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will.

 Until then, I would be very interested in hearing anyone else’s thoughts on these weighty matters.