Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thoughts on the Will's Freedom

I was listening to an interesting discussion on the will's freedom, in which the compatibilist noted the following:

1) The standard contemporary definition for Libertarian Free Will is the ability to do otherwise, given all preceding causal factors.

2) Thus, to take an example, if we choose to pull a trigger - we could have chosen NOT to pull the trigger.

3) If we give any reason, or set of reasons, for why we pulled the trigger - it must be that if we had NOT chosen to pull the trigger, the reasons would be the same.

4) But this is absurd.

I hope I've summarized the argument well - but perhaps not. Here's my source (link), which has some interesting further discussion on the topic.

I see some weaknesses with this argument - but exposing them actually demonstrates a slightly stronger argument.

As to (3), it's rather absurd to imagine that our desire for venison would be BOTH a reason why we chose to pull the trigger and the reason why did not choose to pull the trigger. Instead, we'd probably filter our the "favorable" and "unfavorable" reasons. Perhaps our sympathies stirred up by the movie Bambi would be the reason why we did not choose to pull the trigger - but not our love of venison.

Ultimately, though, we have to realize that in doing so - in filtering the preceding causes based on the actual choice - we are not really giving an explanation for the choice at all. Our love of venison does not explain the choice - it simply relates favorably to the outcome. The goes for our love of Bambi if we do not choose to pull the trigger: we only pick it as a "reason" after the fact.

To think about it another way, if we did not love venison, would we not have chosen to pull the trigger? If the choice is explained by the love of venison, then the answer would seem to be yes. But then, it would appear that our love of venison in some sense determined the outcome. The consistent LFW advocate must say that if the preceding causes had been different, the choice still could have gone either way.

This seems to close any loophole for the person to claim that there are reasons for human choices.

But perhaps the LFW advocate will seek refuge in the idea that there is no reason or explanation for human choices. The choice just exists. There are two responses:

1) Our intuitions strongly oppose such an idea. Every young heart in (as yet) unrequited love has believed that it is possible to influence the decisions of love's object. Every hyponist (and most of those watching) believe it is possible for the hypnotist to influence his subject's decisions. Every advertiser thinks its a good investment to advertize, because it will influence human decisions. Every crook who has tried to bribe a judge has thought he could influence human decisions. Is all that collective intuition wrong? It certainly could be. I don't mean to suggest that human intuition is always right - the fall has corrupted men's minds. But isn't it worthy of careful consideration?

2) And when we turn to a standard that we trust, Scripture, don't 'we see the same thing? Doesn't Scripture explain human choices? Doesn't Scripture specifically warn judges NOT to take bribes? If it does, can we reject that?

I suppose a third option is to insist on partial, or incomplete libertarianism. That is to say, choices are determined, but only partially. But what on earth does that mean? How is something being partially determined work? How's partial determination different from no determination?

The argument here seems to be, give 10 judges a dollar and 9 out of 10 will render you a favorable decisions - but there is that 10th guy who still renders just judgment. Isn't this more easily explained though as the gift having a different effect on different people - and not by the people's choices being only partially determined?

In other words, isn't it the case that we can more easily explain the matter as any given cause being only a partial explanation, but the sum of all the causes (including the condition of the preson's own heart) being the full explanation? After all - that's what we'd do with the case of a pharmaceutical. Ten people take, nine recover, but one does not. Does that mean that the recovery was not caused in the 9 cases? Or does that mean that somehow the body itself has free will to accept the effects of the drug? Surely not. It means that some people's bodies (or diseases) are different. The drug has an effect, but the sum of the effects is different in different people, so the drug doesn't always cure.

These arguments seem to leave no room for "Libertarian" Free Will. Nevertheless, I invite my firends who insist that men have the "ability to do otherwise" (regardless of all preceding causes) to consider the matter with a few questions:

1) Is it the LFW position that the sum (or product) of all preceding causes (including the state of man's heart) does not determine the choice, but that given that same exact set of preceding causes (both external and internal) man could have chosen otherwise? This question is important, because otherwise the argument is just so much straw-man-defeating, in which we shouldn't be investing any time.

2) Can we meaningfully speak of reasons for choices, reasons that explain the choices?

3) If we can, how can we do so consistently with the concept of libertarian free will?

4) So why not just define Free Will as Calvinists typically do, as man choosing in accordance with his desires?



orthodox said...

"But then, it would appear that our love of venison in some sense determined the outcome. The consistent LFW advocate must say that if the preceding causes had been different, the choice still could have gone either way."

Orthodox believe that what we love is in part determined by our previous choices. This is why we fast, as a spiritual discipline to control our fleshly desires. So we wouldn't just say we are a pure victim of what we love and what movies we saw. Yes, we are influenced by them, but even those are in part the result of our previous exercise of will. So if I spend a month watching Bambi, I'll probably be less likely to kill the dear, but then I most likely chose to spend a month watching Bambi. So we have to watch our whole lives, because everything affects everything, and our will is involved in it all. If our will is heading in the exact wrong direction we won't be easily turned around on a dime. It's like turning around an ocean liner.

If spent a life time getting drunk, do you have free will to stop drinking? Well, yes you do, but it won't be without struggle. There are lots of factors in the world conspiring to influence us in the wrong direction. The struggle against them is not an easy or straightforward one. You could I suppose call that "partial libertarianism", but I don't see the point. People admittedly don't exist in in a morally neutral vacuum where all choices can be made dispassionately from influence. But it is the very overcoming of the world, and the overcoming of following the obvious choice which is the nature of the Christian life.

Turretinfan said...

Dear O:

Thanks for your thoughts. It's my impression that issues related to freedom of the will are only loosely guided in the traditions of eastern Orthodoxy.

I'm reminded of the confession/ petition for forgiveness in the liturgy with respect to "all sins ... voluntary and involuntary." Surely you recall that.

But the main point that you raise, that our loves don't necessarily just pop out of nowhere, is acceptable.

It's nature plus nurture, and some of that is self-nurture. Some of our cultivation is from our parents/guardians - some is voluntary - some is unconscious or subconscious.

As you note, we may come to love deer, because we previously chose to spend hours and hours watching and rewatching Bambi.


Mitch said...

I am surprised that only one has commented on this post. I thought for sure that you would hear about our choices being certain, but not necessary and all kinds of other rationale to cling to LFW. I have asked similar question’s along the lines of if ALL things were the same and you have the ability to “do otherwise” then how is that different than flipping a coin? Usually the answer is ambiguous and runs along the lines of “well I believe that the individual is the cause” or “certainty does not mean necessity”. That one still baffles me, if something is “certain” to God and he uses that *certainty* to bring about his divine plan then does it not become “necessary” as well?

I had hoped that more LFW would comment here and perhaps shed more light on the subject, but it was not meant to be. Thank you though for a wonderful post.

Praise be to God

Godismyjudge said...

Dear Mitch,

If your interested, please see the link in the "comments elseware" section.

God be with you,

orthodox said...

I highly doubt that whoever coined "all sins ... voluntary and involuntary" had in mind to make a theological statement about LFW versus determinism, don't you think?

Turretinfan said...


Occassionally people provide responses to my blog posts on their own blogs, and simply link back to my page, thereby triggering Blogger to generate an automatic link to their blog in my "Comments Elsewhere" section.

It's really my preferred way that people handle these things if they have a long or controversial response - primarily because I don't normally publish long or controversial responses until I have time to address them.

In this case, I have had time to address Dan's comment in a new post here (link).



Mitch said...

I did not know that feature existed, what a great tool.

Dan thank you for pointing me to your response and TurretinFan thank you for tackling this issue.

I admit that I am biased, but I just do not see how our choices are indeterminate.

Peace & Grace to you both

Anonymous said...

I thought that the definition of free will was action in accord with the nature of the actor - you mention "desire" but isn't the more fundamental concept the very nature of the entity which itself precedes desire - to use a scriptural analogy a fig tree brings forth figs.

A minor point admittedly but I think an important one.

Turretinfan said...

Dear Anonymous,

Well, our nature determines (to a large degree) our desires. So, basically, I'd agree with you.


Turretinfan said...


I have no idea what he had in mind. The "free will" debate is older than the apostles. Nevertheless, the idea of involuntary sin is crippling to an LFW harmatiology.