A unique defense of free will

Summary:  Our culture presents a false alternative – either accept science and reason while rejecting free will, or defend free will on the basis of mysticism.  These posts reject both sides of this alternative, and defend free will on the basis of science and reason.  Can you identify why religion is no ally to a defender of free will, and is in fact just as much of a free-will denier as are the modern intellectuals?

Readers of this blog will be aware of its thorough critique of the culturally popular position opposing free will.  Readers of this blog may also have observed that no language or ideas stemming from or related to mysticism are used to defend free will.  The posts presented here emphasize the thinking mind, focus, observation, conceptualization, logic – all the methods of reason.  The arguments presented here come from a reality-oriented perspective, grounded in this world, containing only facts and concepts derived from this world.

However, there is another cultural group, purporting to defend free will – from a religious perspective.  For a non-mystical person, it is perhaps a natural reaction to such a defense to shake one’s head and wearily think “with friends like these…”  A more complete response starts, simply, with the categorical statement that this blog completely disassociates itself from any such attempt at a defense.  Further, even though some religions writers present cogent critiques of the dominant cultural position, what those critiques are based on is a non-rational, otherworldly approach.  Hence, this blog will neither refer to nor discuss those critiques.  It is this blog’s position that reason is fully adequate to refute determinism – no “help” is needed from those who may seem on the surface to be allied but in fact are enemies of reason.  It will also become obvious as their arguments are presented that the religious perspective actually implies determinism, rather than an opposition to it.

Religion has struggled with the concept of free will for millennia.  Discussions of free will are present in all the major theological works, the most well-known of which is St. Augustine’s The City of God.  The problem that these thinkers try to address is inherent in the religious position:  How can there be free will if there is an all-knowing, all-powerful deity that has a full plan for the universe for all of eternity?  If man’s destiny is already written by that plan, how can man determine his own destiny?  And further:  How can man be held accountable for moral crimes – how can morality even exist – with the kind of free will that would be compatible with such a deity?  The answer from theologians, as we’ll see, amounts to various attempts to smuggle free will in through the back door while still denying its roots, attempts that fail utterly to pass the test of logic.  In the end, many of these attempts amount simply to the assertion that one has to accept the contradiction on faith, because the deity’s master plan includes free will for man!

As representative of the sorts of equivocations, and even direct assaults on reason, involved in the religious attempt at a defense, consider the arguments of Augustine.  He uses the Roman Cicero (a critic of God’s foreknowledge of all things) as a foil (Book Fifth, Section 9):

“[Holding] either that something is in our own power, or that there is foreknowledge…of those two [he] chose the freedom of the will … and thus, wishing to make men free, he makes them sacrilegious.  But the religious mind chooses both, confesses both, and maintains both by the faith of piety.”

Although Augustine states here that the religious mind adopts this position by faith (i.e. in the absence of or against reason), he does supply an argument:

“It does not follow that, though there is for God a certain order of all causes, there must therefore be nothing depending on the free exercise of our own wills, for our wills themselves are included in that order of causes which is certain to God, and is embraced by his foreknowledge, for human wills are also causes of human actions; and He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills…”

Now consider this argument.  Augustine is trying to escape the implication of saying God is all-knowing.  By reason this is a contradiction of free will because, if God knows all, then how can man “choose” what God already knows will happen?  If man “chooses” only what God knows will happen already, is that really choice?  Could man choose otherwise?  Of course not.  Augustine’s solution is to assert that God knows everything, including that man will choose.  But is that a solution?  There is no middle ground.  Either man chooses his actions or he doesn’t.  If God knows man has choice, then man has choice, and that means man can take an action that isn’t necessitated, that couldn’t be known in advance.  “Solving” the problem by saying: the Being that knows all, in advance, also knows that man can do something that can’t be known in advance, is a contradiction.  Just because Augustine declares that the Being can do it, doesn’t make it so.

Thomas Aquinas, centuries later, provided a similar but more sophisticated version of Augustine’s argument.  First, it should be emphasized that Thomas is light years ahead of Augustine, in that he made room for reason in his theology.  This ultimately led to the widespread acceptance of reason, and the decline of religion’s power.  Even on the issue of free will, Thomas at times has a very fact-based approach:  Although man possesses emotions that may incline him to act in particular ways, “These [natural] inclinations are subject to the judgment of reason …Therefore this is in no way prejudicial to free choice.” (Summa Theologica, Pt. I, Question 83, Art. I, Reply to Objection 5).

However, when it comes to reconciling man’s free will with God’s omnipotence, His power to do anything, Thomas is in the same situation as Augustine.  Thomas wants to allow for both, despite the contradiction, and he does so by equivocating about priority (man may cause his actions but God caused man to cause his actions).

“… It does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause.  God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary.  And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their actions from being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary; but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them, for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.” (Summa Theologica, Pt. I, Question 83, Art. 1, Reply to Objection 3).

To unravel this complexity, what he is saying here is that God operates in each man, but because man’s nature is to have free will, God operates through man’s free will.  So, in a manner very similar to Augustine, Thomas says that God causes everything, including the man who causes other things.  God causes everything but He doesn’t, just as for Augustine God knows everything but He doesn’t.  The only way this could work is if Thomas limits God’s power, saying He causes some things but not others.  This Thomas does not do (although, true to his Aristotelianism, Thomas says elsewhere that God cannot do what is impossible. See Summa Theologica, Pt. I, Question 25, Art. 4.)

These arguments are not the off-the-cuff arguments of some modern televangelist.  They are the arguments of the two most influential theologians in all of history.   And yet they fail to reconcile the contradictions involved in positing supernatural beings while still attempting to support free will in man.

A recent excellent course on the history of the concept of free will, presented by the philosopher Ben Bayer, shows how theologians ultimately “reconcile” the contradictions by presenting a very delimited definition of free will:  one has free will if he does something and at the same time wants to do it.  This weak definition of free will, however, is not what is rationally meant by the concept.  The definition completely leaves out the essential characteristic: the possibility that a person could have done otherwise.  Later theologians (notably Luther) made just that point in fully rejecting any hint of free will.

To readers who find it both odious and tedious to wade through arguments based on mysticism, your suffering is now over.  The purpose of presenting the above is to illustrate why those in the religious camp are of no value to a pro-reason person in defending free will.  The fact that many today, including many scientists, argue for determinism while rejecting the religious perspective, does not mean that there is a basic opposition between religion and determinism.  In fact, as is easily grasped from the above discussion, religion – with all its emphasis on omnipotent and omniscient beings possessing the unlimited power to defy nature, and know everything for all eternity – is completely deterministic.  Both the modern free-will deniers and the religious thinkers are thus on the same side when it comes to being opposed to free will, whether the latter group acknowledges it or not.

Allying with today’s free-will deniers, just because they appear to be scientific and rational, in contrast to all the so-called free-will defenders who are religious, is no solution.  Whichever side a person chooses if he accepts that false alternative, he leaves out the real opposition to both:  those who embrace the scientific and rational, and on that basis defend free will, with all the best and most rational arguments available.  That is the purpose of the posts presented here.

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