"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Free Will, Responsibility, and Openness

Greg Boyd has written an interesting post on his view of free will, openness and moral responsibility over at his blog. In light of our current conversation on free will I just wanted to toss it out for consideration. Greg writes:

to the extent that we deliberate about decisions, weighing the different possibilities before us, we may assume the future is genuinely open. Indeed, we need to presuppose it’s open in order to deliberate about it (which is why I argue that everybody presupposes [and thus unconsciously believes] the open view of the future is true, despite the fact that they may sincerely think it’s false!

Read the entire post here.

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27 Comments:

Blogger james higham said...

Did I already write this on an earlier post? Anyway, determinism and free will have a cool analogy to explain them:

It's like a small boy playing with his boat at the seaside. He could, if he wished, keep his hand on it and push it through the water but where's the pleasure in that?

Or he can let it go of its own free will, let it fall over, get up again and so on and get infinite pleasure from it.

Then if it chanced to head completely out to sea, he could step in and lightly tap it back on course.

That's how I see the thing working.

4:01 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

he could step in and lightly tap it back on course.

There seems to be a general absence of such guidance though.

The problem with free will from a religious POV, is that God seemingly not only allowed us to decide our own path, but also instilled a propensity for violent and immoral behaviour under certain conditions.

The Rwandan genocide, for example, was not simply a case of people "deciding" to butcher their neighbours, but was a situation fueled by the fear, hatred and anger which seem an integral part of the human experience. It stemmed not from reason, not from choice, but human nature.

9:18 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
There seems to be a general absence of such guidance though.

I would say this is where James's analogy falls apart. His boat has no will of it's own. If it had a motor of some kind that would get us a little closer to truth, then the boat could at least try to get away. But still, you can only take that so far. For instance since it's his boat, perhaps he shouldn't have put a motor on it in the first place.

It would seem the helpfulness of the analogy ends with the concept that a certain amount of chance is required for enjoyment of any kind. Beyond that you just start punching holes the analogy can't fill.

But on to the rest of your comment.

I think you will notice that when it comes to humanity, not only will the greatest evils flow from our existence, but the greatest good as well.

We were created with enormous potential for good. However, as with all things with high degrees of potential for good there must be the possibility for it to go wrong.

Take a cow, for example. A cow can only be so good or so bad. It doesn't have the potential to go too far in either direction.

But a dog on the other hand can be quite a bit better, but also quite a bit worse. (These are Lewis's thoughts btw)

This even works with non living things. Fire can cook your food. It can also burn your hand. Nuclear energy has incredible potential for the production of energy, but it also can be harnessed to destroy nations.

The point I am trying to make is that all evil you will see is essentially good gone bad. The enormity of evil you see in this world is a reflection of the potential we have for good. For God to create us with the potential for good, by it's very definition, there needed to be the possibility for us to go bad. Who's responsible for making that choice is another question. If we are, in that degree, free, we are. If we are not, He is.

This goes hand in hand with my love needing to be free to be real argument.

10:13 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

The point I am trying to make is that all evil you will see is essentially good gone bad.

In the case of situations like Rwanda (though I'm in danger of positing a simplistic explanation for a complex event) we're looking at aggression and its ability to over-ride empathy under the right conditions. Now, that's a great survival trait, without it the human race probably wouldn't have been able to achieve anything near what is has.

For Lewis's thoughts to hold up, we'd need to show that it's also a trait which can have largely positive outcomes, which I'm not so sure of. Wouldn't boosting empathy to the point where it can keep aggression and fear better in check (while allowing them to act when absolutely required) lead to greater good?

11:26 AM

 
Blogger james higham said...

Matt, why do you instinctively put the bad down to G-d's doing? Wouldn't the bad be done by the other side? Didn't the reporter who was there describe 'demonic madness' in the eyes of the perpetrators? That doesn't seem G-d's doing to me.

...Wouldn't boosting empathy to the point where it can keep aggression and fear better in check (while allowing them to act when absolutely required) lead to greater good?...

And that's precisely what the Christian ethic does but people turn their back on it.

2:44 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Wouldn't the bad be done by the other side?

But, in Christian theology isn't Satan supposed to be a fallen angel? That just shifts the ground on which the question must be answered. Why did God create a creature that could fall?

3:10 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Perhaps you can imagine a creature that could have free will (required for love), yet could not possibly go bad.

I, however, cannot.

So my short answer is because of love he created creatures that could fall.

3:30 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I do think you can make a distinction between choosing not to do good, and doing evil.

It's the difference between choosing not to help someone in need and deliberately making their situation worse.

Lucifer could have exercised his free will simply by choosing not to emulate God, pursuing his own interests, etc. This wouldn't necessitate the ability to cause pain and suffering on horrific scales.

3:47 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

(Also, such a view raises a couple of questions about Heaven. Do you lose your free will, or is evil possible there?)

3:58 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

When I say that "all evil is good gone bad" I do not mean that all evil is a neglect of good.

For instance in your Rwandan example. There is a long history of mutual abuse. Justice (which is a good thing) has been violated on both sides. Therefore, the execution of this perceived justice on rival tribes feels just. Where this concept of justice has gone wrong is the idea that we can personally be the judge, jury and executioner. Unspeakable horrors are the result. I do not imagine any of them decided to slaughter their fellow man because they perceived slaughter in it's self to be evil and therefore desirable. Each player believes they are doing right.

Lucifer could have exercised his free will simply by choosing not to emulate God, pursuing his own interests, etc. This wouldn't necessitate the ability to cause pain and suffering on horrific scales.

I don't believe we can understand the degree of glory and beauty that Lucifer was capable of, or the degree of horror if he went wrong. Have you ever felt the pangs of vengeance? Can you imagine a being of incredible power completely consumed with vengeance?

4:14 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Also, such a view raises a couple of questions about Heaven. Do you lose your free will, or is evil possible there?

pondered that myself. have not yet looked into it to be honest. Will do some looking and thinking.

4:15 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Another question to be filed under "I don't know" would be: If God already had the angles... why us?

4:59 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Another question to ponder: Why is the desire for vengeance useful? Why not just a calm determination to prevent further injustice?

6:16 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Shouldn't all good little Murrells be in bed this tim o'night?

6:53 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It all depends on what my genes want me to do.

6:28 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I'm not so sure that abhorrent behaviour can be explained away through the presence of free will. Though obviously I can't go too far with this argument until I get my ideas on free will sorted out.

However, one example springs to mind: Let's say that I'm experiencing computer troubles - it's running slow, or won't do what I want it to, or whatever. Given the state of my computer, that's a fairly regular occurrence, and the usual result is that I find myself becoming irritable and annoyed. Now, if someone comes in at this point and makes a comment which annoys me, I'm likely to snap at them. The end result being that they feel bad, and that makes me feel bad.

That bad feeling is only a consequence of free will if my becoming irritable and annoyed was a conscious decision - which it wasn't. I can't help getting annoyed at inanimate objects playing up, and I've certainly tried!

To push this one stage further, let's say that someone with a violent temper (which is hardly a consequence of free will, but more likely down to genetic and environmental factors) finds themselves, like me, becoming increasingly annoyed at something to the point of anger. They then, instinctively, lash out at somebody and - unintentionally - either seriously injure or kill them (by knocking them over or into something).

Such behaviour is predominantly emotional rather than rational, and so far less subject to will-power. Nor would the absence of it really damage free will - I know a lot of people who can become far angrier than I can manage, but that doesn't mean I'm less free than they are.

10:45 AM

 
Anonymous Moe said...

Alex,
Do you think less of me now?

9:15 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Moe,
You mean now that I've discovered you are my brother-in-law? You wiener! Nah, you're still cool.

Not sure why everyone feels they need to pretend they are someone else around here. Seems to be happening an aweful lot latley. I'm just waiting to find out that Matt is actually my wife messing with my head! =)

10:58 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Also, such a view raises a couple of questions about Heaven. Do you lose your free will, or is evil possible there?

Okay trying to get back at it here. Here's what I've come up with and I have to admit it makes some sense. Although to actually 'know' for a certainty the reality of this situation is, I believe, quite beyond us as creatures of this creation.

Having said that yes we still have free will (but of a different sort) and no evil is not possible there (at least not after the Lord brings our history to completion). Obviously in the age that God created the angels there was the possibility that they would fall, because they did. Obviously when God created man on earth there was the possibility that they would fall, because they did as well.

Now we are told that when man is resurrected he will be 'made new' our old nature will pass away and all that will be left is the nature that we were given when we trusted God in this life. We are told that we will be 'in' Christ. Now the theology gets a bit deep here, but the gist of it is that our hearts and minds will be in unity with God. We will still be the unique beings that he created us to be, but there will be a union that we can never know in this life. We will be free to be who we are, but the temptations that we now know will be foreign to us. The nature that we acquired at the fall will have passed away.

Now the question then remains: Why on earth did he not just create us that way in the first place???

It's a good question. Why would God create man free but not knowing evil, only to allow him to fall – causing God to have to go to such great lengths to redeem man and the creation in which he dwells – ending up with a perfected creature that has passed through the fires of this life, yet still trusted him? Why bother with the carnage that results?

All I can do is venture a guess. Perhaps it would not be possible to have a heaven free from revolt and full of love without first having given each created being ample opportunity to choose for themselves to either trust God or Reject him. It would seem that once a free agent chooses to trust God there is no going back – not because of some limit on our freedom, but because the desire to revolt is no longer there. The result would be a realm free of evil, yet also a realm where freedom would be honored.

1:03 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

This, I think, is what I really stumble over here:

ample opportunity to choose for themselves to either trust God or Reject him

A choice is only meaningful if we're in full possession of the facts. If I'm going to buy a new TV, my choice isn't really meaningful unless I understand the technology involved and how different models compare.

If someone came to you and argued for a particular TV on the basis that they'd simply trusted that it was the best, and that they thought that they were right, would you simply accept that and buy the (extremely expensive) TV? Or would you still try to find out for yourself what it was like and how it compared?

Because that's the position we seem to be in - people like you are saying: "This is the best TV, trust me," while denying that we can ever really know how it works, what it can do or if it really is the best.

I don't want to buy a TV on that basis, and I really wish I could come up with better metaphors.

It would seem that once a free agent chooses to trust God there is no going back

Except, of course, that some do.

Besides, in order to be a free agent you need to be free from external influence - people raised Christians (or atheists, or Muslims, or Jews, etc.) never get to make that choice. What happens to them?

the desire to revolt is no longer there

But the idea that we make this decision doesn't make sense: Do you really think that people, knowing - on some level - God's love and the existence of paradise in Heaven really look at it and go: "Hmmm... you know what, it's just not for me."

If we know with any degree of certainty of God's existence then the decision to reject it is madness. If we don't know with any degree certainty of God's existence then the whole thing is completely unfair.

What I'm essentially trying to say is this: Either non-Christians are insane to reject God's love, or the level of evidence of its existence is too inadequate for the decision to accept or reject it to be meaningful.

11:26 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Excited to dig into your latest comment. But before I do, I believe the question was "is there free will in heaven?". Leaving aside for the moment the nature of the choice we have to make, did my answer sound at all plausible?

12:50 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Sorry - I did go off on a bit of a tangent there.

"all that will be left is the nature that we were given when we trusted God in this life"

Could you expand on this a little? Are you saying that once we truly know God we no longer want to rebel? Or that we become fundamentally different once we ascend?

2:04 PM

 
Anonymous Fred said...

Do you think that "Glorified Alex" will still have the inate desire to ride a Road Star?

9:37 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Are you saying that once we truly know God we no longer want to rebel? Or that we become fundamentally different once we ascend?

Probably a bit of both.

However, I would disagree that anyone who truly knows God would not want to rebel. This gets back a bit to your questions earlier... God desires a relationship with us. You can only have a relationship with someone if they want to have a relationship with you in return. A relationship with God is obviously fundamentally different than a relationship with other people. For one thing... He's God. Therefore, what should be the response of His rebellious created beings be in order for them to have a relationship with him?

Total surrender.

Have you ever seen a rebellious three year old who has just been told to stop doing something that his father did not approve of? Pouting? Perhaps a tantrum? It's often our natural reaction to authority. Even if we know the authority has our best interest at heart.

The point I'm trying to make here is that our initial reaction to God in the midst of our rebellion must first be an act of surrender. If we are not willing to make that initial step we will want nothing to do with God. For the one who refuses to surrender, even if they were to see the fullness of Gods glory, it would not be enough to sway them. In fact they would be repulsed. They would be repulsed because they would see that at the end of the day this story is God's. And if we are going to exist in heaven with Him, it's on His terms. Granted, His terms unspeakably beautiful, just and every other type of perfection, but to the one who wants things their own way it will seem as though heaven is the ultimate of horrors.

Heaven will not be simply paradise as we would conceive it. It's not going to be just an all you can eat buffet and you don't get full, kind of thing. It's going to consist of first and foremost of glorifying God. This is why there is so much talk in the Bible about dying to yourself. It's because, in the end, it's not about you! If all you want to do is be your own person and have your own way you will be repulsed by an eternity of giving glory to God.

So I disagree that people would have to be insane in order to reject God if they really knew him. Self centered, yes, but not insane.

I guess that bit wall all just background on what I'm about to say in answer to your question: Are you saying that once we truly know God we no longer want to rebel?

Only if we first choose to surrender.

Then in response to this question: Or that we become fundamentally different once we ascend?

Yes I do believe in some ways we will be fundamentally different in our nature. We are told that by choosing to trust God we are rejecting the nature we now have as creatures who are often ruled by our biological impulses. In the here and now, our "natural" impulses often win out over what we feel we "ought" to be doing. The things we feel we should be doing are often shoved aside to make room for what feels natural.

After the death in this life, we are told we will be given a new physical body. One that is fundamentally different from the one we have now. We will have complete mastery over this new body. It will not rule us as our body now often does. We will rule it. So in that way our sin nature will pass away and the character of the person we have developed will be exposed for what it truly has become.

I hope this all makes some sense. I'm sure you'll let me know if it doesn't.

1:24 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

I'm afraid I have more questions...

God desires a relationship with us.

How do you know this?

He's God. Therefore, what should be the response of His rebellious created beings be in order for them to have a relationship with him?

If God is a perfect being, then rebelling against him is a little nuts, so: yes, total surrender to his will would be a good thing.

Provided you knew pretty much for certain that he was perfect. If not, you're taking a risk with no guarantee.

The point I'm trying to make here is that our initial reaction to God in the midst of our rebellion must first be an act of surrender.

But without a good reason to surrender, the decision is meaningless.

You can't surrender to someone you don't believe in - in my experience, most people have to believe (or want to believe) in God (or Allah, or whatever) before they can "find" Him.

Without that belief, or desire to believe, the concept of surrendering in that way doesn't make sense.

Interestingly (to me), atheism requires a surrender as well: surrendering to the idea that we are probably not the creation of a divine being and play no part in a grand masterplan.

So I disagree that people would have to be insane in order to reject God if they really knew him. Self centered, yes, but not insane.

In my opinion, anyone self-centred enough to reject a perfect (or even near-perfect) being is clearly insane. How can you care about yourself and yet give up eternity with an all-knowing, all-loving being? It doesn't make sense to me.

If God exists as you believe He exists, then the only rational option would be to follow Him and give your life to Him.

In the here and now, our "natural" impulses often win out over what we feel we "ought" to be doing.

Hardly fair, is it? Why would God mess with us like that? Why not allow us to make important decisions in a rational, dispassionate manner?

6:05 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:11 PM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

From Pinker's article:
The brain's spin doctoring is displayed even more dramatically in neurological conditions in which the healthy parts of the brain explain away the foibles of the damaged parts (which are invisible to the self because they are part of the self). A patient who fails to experience a visceral click of recognition when he sees his wife but who acknowledges that she looks and acts just like her deduces that she is an amazingly well-trained impostor. A patient who believes he is at home and is shown the hospital elevator says without missing a beat, "You wouldn't believe what it cost us to have that installed."

At the risk of being overtly controversial, the manner in which the brain 'justifies' its experiences in terms of its preconceptions seems to me a pretty viable explanation for the role of religion in the world. Why do people support ID? Largely because they (in fact everyone; me included) cannot comprehend on a visceral level just how the apparent randomness of genetic variability could result in such refined complexity. We just haven't the capacity to 'think' about a process of that time scale and magnitude. On a personal level scientists simply learn to ignore their emotional reaction to these ideas by concentrating on the numbers; like a pilot who learns to trust his instruments instead of his inner ear when judging an aircraft's orientation in zero vis. However, the rub is that many people can't interpret the numbers and are thus as reliant on the integrity of the scientist/s who interpret them as they are on the priests who interpret the scriptures. Essentially, that's asking the layman to drop one 'faith' in favour of another. People being naturally conservative, and more importantly perceiving that science endangers some fundamental principles of human character (e.g. free will, equality etc), tend to stick with The Old Ways. There are satisfactory arguments to be made for why that is a good thing rather than a bad thing (I strongly believe in the placebo affect of faith), but that's another issue.

Pinker's view is provided something of an example in the long running flaw of ID theory: who created the creator? The conventional response given (that God is beyond creation) unfortunately puts a bullet in the common argument against evolution (that something intelligent must be behind the creation of intelligence). If the intelligent design buck has to stop somewhere, why with God? Or with God's god? That means on the one hand we have an argument that has a significant body of empirical evidence supporting it, but that just doesn't 'feel' right. On the other hand, we have an argument that leads to an insolvable paradox, but that due to the manner in which our brains work, is made to 'feel' satisfactory. Pinker's argument is that such a stance betrays an unconscious desire to make the world conform to our preconceptions of it, based as they are on hundreds of thousands of years of social programming. That it has long been conducive to ourselves for our own good. Or more bluntly, that Col. Jessep was absolutely right.

3:14 PM

 

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