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

Friday, September 07, 2007

Greg Boyd, ISOHP & Free Will Part 1

For ages now we have been kicking around the notion of "Free Will". I'm not sure where everyone stands on this issue other than Matt and myself. (...well, on second thought, I think I do recall Revvvvvd leaning in the compatibilist direction as well. At any rate...) Matt has decided that he feels the compatibilist stance best coheres with reality as he experiences it. I, on the other hand, have always felt that determinism does violence to the way we experience the world. Still I had never really read much on either side of the debate to have whole lot of confidence in my hunch. Thus, for a time I was left in limbo. I knew that compatibilism seemed untenable, but I had not come across any other concepts that adequately dealt with the free will problem.

I've recently begun reading Greg Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Good and Evil. In usual Boydian fashion Greg picks apart the various positions on this topic in a way that actually made some sense. The following exploration constitutes the beginning of my exploration of this topic. You will see a familiar vein of my own thinking, but I will also be borrowing heavily from Boyd's book. (which is honestly the only serious interaction with the material I have engaged with.)

You will notice that this exploration will be more about deconstructing compatibilism, than it is about describing self-determining freedom. I think this mostly owes to the fact that no one really knows how self-determining freedom works. In much the same way, no one really knows what "matter" is. We only know what it is by what it does. That said, I say we define our terms and dig in!

Self-Determining Freedom
Self-Determining Freedom states that the reason one action is performed verses another is ultimately determined by the agent. This sentiment is captured in the oft heard statement that in order for us to be free we must genuinely possess the ability to have done other than we did in-fact do.

Compatibilistic Freedom
Agents need not be self-determining to be genuinely free. Agents are free if there is nothing that constrains them from doing what they want. But they need not be—and, most would argue, cannot be—free to determine what they want.
Satan and the Problem of Good and Evil pp.58

According to compatibilism, determinism is considered to be compatible with free will. Hence the name. But can this stance be sustained if we are not the originators of the actions in question? Robert Kane argues that unless the agent possesses the power to be the final cause or explanation for their actions, any attempt at rendering them free becomes unintelligible. He goes on to say:

When we trace the causal or explanatory chains of action back to their sources in the purposes of free agents, these causal chains must come to an end or terminate in the willings (choices, decisions, or efforts) of the agents, which cause or bring about their purpose.
Significance of Free will pp.4

"Simply being able to do what one wants does not render one free or morally responsible if the want itself is outside of one's control"1. Boyd uses an illustration that I will paraphrase to illustrate this point.

Imagine I had developed a chip that I could insert into the head of another person thereby controlling their mind. Imagine I put this chip into some random stranger then willed them to carry out a murder. Now, we both get caught and all this evidence comes to light. What judge in their right mind would convict the random stranger who was acting on an impulse that was ultimately my own? Any person viewing this data must conclude that the individual was not free to commit the murder. It is simply absurd to conclude that we can be held morally responsible when the ultimacy of our actions can be traced beyond us to uncontrollable external factors.

It is because of this, that the determinist must declare that moral responsibility has become an illusion. Rather than explaining our experience as morally accountable agents, the compatibilist has simply rendered the phenomenon illusory. It is for this reason that I see the compatibilist attempt at dealing with free will and moral responsibility to be a failure. It set out to demonstrate the compatible nature of determinism and moral responsibility, but in the end it has merely rendered the terms "moral responsibility" and "free will" either neutered of any desirable meaning or illusory altogether.

Compatibilist objections to Self-determining Freedom
Thus far, I hope I have made it clear that the compatibilist position does not seem to be reasonable. Still, many prefer to go this route then to consider self-determining freedom which they see as being either implausible at best, or incoherent at worst. We will now consider two of the main objections to self-determining freedom.

A scientific objection
Many would argue that recent advances in modern science have rendered the concept of self-determining freedom incoherent. Some feel that studies involving the role of genetics and environment on our personality and behavior indicate that personal actions are exhaustively determined by factors antecedent to the agents themselves. In keeping with this line of thinking, they argue that if we had exhaustive knowledge of what made up any given individual as well as exhaustive knowledge of the environment in which the individual was placed, we would then be able flawlessly predict the future actions of the individual. Here again, freedom of the will is considered pure illusion.

Galen Strawson crystalizes this argument:
(1)It is undeniable that one is the way one is as a result of one's heredity and experience. (2) One cannot somehow accede to true responsibility for oneself by trying to change the way one is as a result of heredity and experience. For (3), both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one's success in the attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and experience.

It seems unavoidable that if premise (1) is accepted the logic flows unavoidably from there. Boyd rejects premise (1) then goes on to offer six arguments against it, five of which we will briefly consider.

Inconclusive evidence
"...the evidence supporting genetic or environmental determinism is simply not conclusive ... While empirical evidence proves that genes and environment strongly influence human behavior, this evidence fails to prove that these factors determine our behavior."2.

Determinism and moral responsibility
This argument has already been made above. Essentially, if we are mechanically determined by our genetics and environment then holding people morally accountable for their actions is analogous to punishing someone for the color of their hair or the size of their spleen. It is clear that we do believe people ought to be held responsible for their actions. Thus, this universal belief, ought to constitute one very strong bit of evidence that we do indeed possess self-determining freedom.

Physical determinism is self-refuting
If all known reality is physically determined then the belief "all known reality is physically determined" is also physically determined. The problem here is that it is not at all clear that physically determined conditions are capable of possessing truth values. They simply are. If indeed physical determinism rules the day, all our discussion on this topic is, and always has been, incapable of possessing either truth or falsehood. I think this is what I was trying to get at here, albeit in my typical rather ham fisted way.

Failure to explain the phenomenon of freedom and moral conviction
Also noted above, "if the goal of any philosophical or scientific theory is to render puzzling phenomenon intelligible, then compatibilism must be judged to be a poor theory. Not only does it fail to explain our basic sense of morality, it also fails to explain our phenomenological experience of ourselves as self-determining personal agents. Indeed compatibilism dismisses this as illusory."3. Though it is true that we also experience ourselves as significantly affected by variables outside of our control, (place of birth, biological factors, etc...) it can be equally affirmed that within these externally determined parameters we uniformly experience ourselves as self-determining agents.

Determinism and the pragmatic criterion for truth
This final response the the scientific objection deals with the fact that it is impossible for us to live as though we believe our choices are exhaustively settled prior to our consideration. We can only deliberate about what we genuinely believe to be within our own power. For instance, I cannot genuinely deliberate about whether or not I might spend the afternoon as a chipmunk with x-ray vision. I rightly realize that it's not much of an option for me. On the other hand, I find my day filled with innumerable choices that I genuinely believe to be within my power to deliberate on. It is unclear how a determinist might conduct one's life under the impression that every move they make, every thought they think, has been exhaustively determine for them before they ever entered the scene. This strongly suggests that deterministic views are false, if not meaningless.

In summation
For the sake of making this exploration somewhat bearable to write, let alone to read through, I will now bring part one of this post to a close. So far, I have sought to put forth working definitions for self-determining and compatibilist freedom while voicing my objection to the supposed solution compatibilism brings to the problem of moral responsibility and determinism. I have also reviewed several responses to scientific objections to self-determining freedom. My conclusion, thus far, is that self-determining freedom is not jeopardized, at least as it relates to the supposed scientific objections. Stay tuned for part two when we will be tackling the more difficult philosophical objection that self-determining freedom is incoherent.

1. Satan and the Problem of Good and Evil pp.60
2. Satan and the Problem of Good and Evil pp.63
3. Satan and the Problem of Good and Evil pp.65

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20 Comments:

Blogger Just Thinking said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:52 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I've leave aside the issue of what your version of free will actually is and how it works, as it looks like you'll be tackling that next.

I'm not so sure you can use the term "Self-Determining Freedom", as I believe that my "self" plays a large part in my decisions as well.

but then, if you don't know what it really is, naming it's going to be tricky.

It is simply absurd to conclude that we can be held morally responsible when the ultimacy of our actions can be traced beyond us to uncontrollable external factors.

I'll move onto the issue of moral responsibility in a second, first I want to say something about this idea of "ultimacy".

Isn't this rather like saying that it's absurd to treat something as a desk, when ultimately it's actually a particular collection of atoms, etc.? But I'm at risk getting ahead of myself...

Turning to the objections to determinism:

Inconclusive evidence

As we've established elsewhere, conclusive evidence isn't required for a theory to be valid.

Determinism and moral responsibility

It depends on the purpose of holding people responsible for their actions.

In terms of metaphysical comment, it's pretty pointless to blame people for actions if they're responding to biological and environmental factors. It'd be like holding a car responsible for breaking down.

But we hold people responsible for their actions in order to try to affect change. If putting someone in prison, or simply making them feel bad, is designed to change their behaviour then the concept of determinism poses no threat to that. (In fact, it probably strengthens it).

Physical determinism is self-refuting

This is an interesting point, but I'm not so sure that LFW is necessary for rationality. A computer has no free will, but is still capable of responding to the world in a useful way.

Besides, as people like Thomas Nagal have argued, if you junk the concept of reason the argument grinds to a halt - so we have to assume that it holds.

Failure to explain the phenomenon of freedom and moral conviction

In evolutionary terms, the illusion of free will and moral conviction can be explained quite adequately. The former can be seen as simply due to a lack of knowledge (we don't need to know what causes us to act in certain ways), while the latter simply leads to a stronger survival instinct (indecision kills, etc.). While this is just speculation, I think it shows that there's no real incompatibility.

...it also fails to explain our phenomenological experience of ourselves as self-determining personal agents.

The problem with this is that, as Simon Blackburn argues in 'Think', the propositions:

I am not conscious of the causal background needed for me to do Y

and

I am conscious that there is no causal background needed for me to do Y

...are indistinguishable at the subjective level.

It is unclear how a determinist might conduct one's life under the impression that every move they make, every thought they think, has been exhaustively determine for them before they ever entered the scene.

A determinist wouldn't have to worry about how to conduct their life... because they're a determinist.

So far, as I see it, we have no real explanation of LFW and no knock-out argument against determinism.

5:50 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

just thinking,
"will you be referring to scripture at all in this quest? What better reference than the words from the source Himself? Or is that a faux pas in the world of philosophical debates?"

Depends who you are debating with I think. In my personal walk I am constantly holding up these theories against scripture. My world view is distinctly Christian, so it would behoove me to consult the texts that ground my faith. However, in my philosophical debates with Matt and Co. citing scripture verses to support my position would do me little good. They don't accept scripture as having any particular weight beyond that of any other human book. It's authority to them would extend only so far as it happens to cohere with their already held convictions. ...which isn't all that helpful.

"In an earlier comment directed to me, you warned against "walking on dangerously thin ice." Isn't that what you would be doing if you set out to learn more about God without giving His own words a chance?"

Certainly! And I think this is nicely evidenced by how Matt, using sound logic and reason, has followed the logic of his atheistic world view all the way to it's end. He now finds himself in what I would view to be a rather dismal place.

In his view, there is no such thing as an overarching moral truth which we are to follow. All we have is our own preferences and pragmatic instinct. In an earlier post, using impeccable logic, he came to the point of stating:

"...in the ultimate sense, Nazi morality is just as valid as humanitarian morality..."

Furthermore, he continues to follow the logic of atheism to the doorstep of the annihilation of self altogether. If there is no God and all we are is mindless matter reacting, then freedom of the will must be illusionary. I cannot help but see this as a supreme devaluation of what it means to "be yourself". Suddenly, nothing we do can be helped and hence nothing we do really matters. To his credit, Matt does not seem to be living out this philosophy in practice, but I can only wonder what effects it might have on him if he continues to try and internalize this view.

The point I'm making is that depending on our starting point, we can use our reasoning and the laws of logic to come to believe all sorts of rubbish. My starting point is that of Jesus, but I will be continually holding my interpretation of him against my experience of the world to see how it holds. To the degree that it coheres, I have greater confidence in my interpretation, to the degree that it falls apart, I am more hesitant to take a stand on it.

"You know....I'm beginning to think that debating with unbelievers at their philosophical level will prove to be futile in the end."

It all depends on the heart of who you are speaking with. Matt and I have been going at it for... wow! almost a year now and quite honestly, he seems more entrenched in his atheism than ever. I don't chalk that up to the failure of reasoned discussion. It's a lot more complicated than that. The bright spot I see in all this is that two guys with drastically divergent ways of seeing the world have maintained a steady, respectful, even amiable dialog for months. I consider Matt to be one of my friends and we have both come to enjoy our conversations and value the discussion. So I guess I see the relationship we have maintained as probably a more powerful witness to the reality God than the knock-down-drag-out debates. Matt doesn't see it that way... yet. Honestly, I don't really see it as my job to change him in the first place. That's between him and God. All I can do is be one of many "causes" that come up against him. God's spirit must be another. The "effect" that is brought about in his life, is ultimately up to him. Further still, I am in no position to speak about whether or not Matt is moving towards or away from God. The life he leads (that I am basically oblivious to) will say more about where his faith is than the positions he advocates.

I would also like to point out that I have had conversations with other atheists where interacting with them on their "philosophical level" had lead to a dramatic change in their position. You just never know how an honest interaction with the data will affect someone. We are dealing with unique people here and there are many more factors in play than just our conversations.

Oops! Did I use "God" and "incapable" in the same sentence? seems like an oxymoron.

Oh dear... see here for a in depth flogging of that topic.

"Anyway, I hope you're not completely rolling your eyes at me by now. I like you and your tenacity in searching for answers. But perhaps you already have them... (Col 2:8-10)"

Ha ha! No eye rolling here! I understand your concern. I have a tendency to garner this reaction from people who's faith comes easier than my own. For whatever reason, I am wired in such a way as to find it very difficult to just accept things at face value. (including the Bible and various religious perspectives that have been spun off it) I know all to well the fallible nature of man and our ridiculous aptitude for taking fuzzy data and weaving it into a strongly held dogmatic position. I want to know the truth with every fiber of my being, but to accomplish this end I must do the hard work of seeing as much as I can of what goes on "behind the curtain". I rejoice in the fact that the more research and study I engage in, the more plausible, and mind-blowingly beautiful Jesus becomes! The joy that comes from knowing the King is beyond compare!

My faith is an act of the will on information that I have varying levels of confidence in. I will never be able to put all the pieces together, but I want my faith to be as well informed with reality as I can possibly make it.

Thanks for your thoughts!

10:01 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
"So far, as I see it, we have no real explanation of LFW...

The explanation is quite simple. When it comes to the question of where the ultimacy of the action of the agent lies the Self-determinist will simply reply, "the agent". SDF sees the agent capable of bringing out of numerous possible courses of action one actual course of action.

Not being able to explain what all is going on here has no bearing on the truth of falsity of the theory. The same holds for consciousness. No one can explain what consciousness IS all we know is that it is a phenomenon we all experience. So if you want to deny your experience of freedom on the grounds that you don't know what it is, well, you may as well deny your own conscious experience as well.

"...and no knock-out argument against determinism."

Depends who's looking at the data, I guess.

I'm going to let the rest of your comment ride for the time being. I'd like to spend a little time working on "part 2" before I break for the day.

word.

10:23 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

To his credit, Matt does not seem to be living out this philosophy in practice

Heh. That's probably one of the nicest ways I've been called a hypocrite.

SDF sees the agent capable of bringing out of numerous possible courses of action one actual course of action.

But how?

On what basis do you make decisions?

As far as I can see, my choices are determined by my preferences/desires and my ability to reason.

It's possible that, in any given situation, I might have chosen differently. It's just a question of why I'd do so.

Why would you choose differently?

I'm going to let the rest of your comment ride for the time being. I'd like to spend a little time working on "part 2" before I break for the day.

Cool. They were only initial thoughts. I figured it'd be best to wait for the next part before really trying to get into the issues.

Plus I'm feeling kinda lethargic today. Normally I'd blame the fact that I had a busy weekend, but obviously that would mean my behaviour is being determined by my circumstances, so I'll just leave it at that. :-)

10:34 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Bit short of time, so this will probably ramble a bit...

"...no knock-out argument against determinism."

Twentieth century physics certainly makes it difficult to dismiss determinism out of hand (other than to say that it doesn't seem very nice; which is a fairly dubious quality assessment based on conditioning more than anything else). Thing to remember about determinism though is that just because something is predetermined does not necessarily mean it is easily predicted by observers as perceptually constrained as we are to a strict set of dimensions. Chaos theory demonstrates how even apparent randomness follows distinct patterns, and yet our predictions of chaotic systems are seriously limited. Even armed with all the possible specs of this physical universe, we find ourselves stymied by aspects of quantum physics that simply appear to obey a different set of laws. This is something of a "get out of jail free" card for determinists, because we can simply appeal to the fact that a rationale knowledge of determinism does not in anyway allow us to consciously be aware of it.

The old argument about crime and responsibility stems from the essentially duelistic thinking of determinism's critics. It starts with a straw man by assuming their is a separation between the "Agent" and the "Body", in order to contend that the determinist's view is that the Agent is a slave of the Body. There is no evidence that this is the case, and yet a fairly compelling bank of evidence that it is not. There is no reason why a man should get off free by blaming his genes. He is the product of his genes. They do not control him, they simply are him. There is no separation of powers. As Matt points out, the advantages and disadvantages of punishment (and or rehabilitation) do not differ just because determinism is true. They still exercise a purpose.

Like I said right at the beginning, though, I don't think it's biology that provides the force behind the concept of determinism; I think you can go further down the scale ands support it by appealing to physics. The moment one accepts that "the arrow of time" is a perceptual illusion (that just happens to be advantageous to our humble little lifeform), one must also accept that to an observer unconstrained as we are, everything that has, will and is happening is laid out on the fabric of spacetime in plain view. There is no other place to go but with determinism at that juncture.

One could possibly go further and simply drop science altogether and tackle this issue from a theological perspective. For God to be omnipotent, he must surely know past, future and present (to all intents and purposes, He is the observer mentioned above). If he knows these things though, and his creation is laid out in full in front of him as we are led to believe, where is our Free Will?

10:53 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"Heh. That's probably one of the nicest ways I've been called a hypocrite."

Your welcome. ;-)

"As far as I can see, my choices are determined by my preferences/desires and my ability to reason."

Your ability to reason shouldn't even factor, since according to determinism your reason itself is determined. If you need to pitch determinism to allow for reason... well, I'd say pitch away!

I think the point that I'd like to make would be there is a profound conceptual difference between being determined and being influenced.

As to why you'd choose to act one way vs another, I think you are asking a very interesting question. I get this feeling that the answer would be both tremendously complicated, yet surprisingly simple at the same time. I think it would get to the heart of what God is after in our lives.

I'm tempted to say that ultimately it comes down to the bias of our spirit and the process of it's formation.

Enough for now... sandwiches to build and seats to make!

10:55 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Your ability to reason shouldn't even factor, since according to determinism your reason itself is determined.

By reason I simply mean logic (I want X, Y is the way to get X, therefore I should do Y, etc. though the two can be seen as separate... but I'm tired) - so obviously it is determined, it has a pre-existing structure based on the nature of the universe.

I'm tempted to say that ultimately it comes down to the bias of our spirit and the process of it's formation.

That's gonna take a lot of explaining...

2:17 PM

 
Blogger moe said...

I read it, I didn’t understand it, and I don’t get it. From the words of a great theologicallyismist person guy once said. "I'm not a smart man, but I know what love is." I read what you type and most of it goes right over my head. However when you grace me with your presence oh Alex of the mighty, and speak in your native poetic tongue. Then I understand. Hearing you and reading your intellect are two different things for me I guess.

PS. There will be a great cloud of fire and smoke when the day of turkey comes upon us.

7:44 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Of course you don't understand it... your a capybara.

9:17 AM

 
Blogger moe said...

I take that very personally.

9:24 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I bet you do. You've always been a sensitve little rodent.

...err, or giant rodent.

9:39 AM

 
Blogger moe said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:47 AM

 
Blogger moe said...

At the end of each post please send me the DVD version along with the comments which can be included as bonus features or as a commentary. Preferably each post would be recorded with you on that massive and loud monster of a bike. I would gladly pay you for them with a big fat burrito.

9:49 AM

 
Blogger Just Thinking said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:59 AM

 
Blogger moe said...

Moe is the man behind the curtain so to speak. I can freely mold this Alex feller into what I see fit. Either that or I am full of BS and have too much time on my hands.

I am with you though, I have posed a similar question to the Alex of the Great. I believe and feel in the same mind as he does. However, my question is “so, now what”. I believe in the higher power and I believe there is only ONE way to truth. Having said that I don’t have that passion for more knowledge as he does. I am perfectly fine with how I am ‘right now.’ Why should I concern myself with adding more congestion to my already overflowing hard drive in my head? I am feeling sort of, what has he done for me lately? Why should I search for more answers when all they will do is raise more questions? I believe Jesus is the way. Isn’t that enough?

10:11 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Linda,
Moe = my brother-in-law. He's a good guy, if not a tad eccentric.

"I received full knowledge of all there is to know about the truth at the moment of my renewal"

But surely you don't take that to mean that God has given us some kind of "download" and therefore we just need to "see it". The fact that Christians can hardly agree upon what central doctrines are to mean (let alone the peripherals!) is evidence to the fact that whatever "receiving the fullness of knowledge of truth" is taken to mean, it should not be construed as being given the knowledge of everything there is to know. (even as it relates to that of salvation.)

I'm not so sure that being "in" Christ and having Christ "in" us should be taken to mean that the mind of "us" is simply dissolved.

Honestly though, we are getting into theology, and thus far, it's not really my strong point.

11:07 AM

 
Blogger Just Thinking said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:21 PM

 
Blogger Just Thinking said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:05 PM

 
Blogger Just Thinking said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:47 PM

 

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