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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Shape Of Reality: Are We Really Free?

As noted in the opening post in this series, I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. The second post addressed the need for an objective foundation for morality. Of course, using the language of morality only makes sense if we are moral beings - that is, if we are significant moral agents who have an obligation to choose good and avoid evil.  This can only happen if we are free to make that choice, and therein lies another key question: Are we really free?
Generally, people believe that at some point everyone freely chooses  to make good and/or bad choices. Jaegwon Kim, philosopher at Brown University, has noted,

"We commonly think that we, as persons, have a mental and bodily dimension.... Something like this dualism of personhood, I believe, is common lore shared across most cultures and religious traditions." 

 Mind and Language published a paper in 2010 entitled “Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?” After studying a broad sample of people in the United States, Hong Kong, India and Columbia,
“The results revealed a striking degree of cross-cultural convergence. In all four cultural groups, the majority of participants said that (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.” 
Consensus is not an air-tight way to arrive at truth, of course, but it is an insightful way to see what experiences humanity in general share. Most people believe we exercise some form of free will.

Not everyone agrees. When Rodney Brooks and Rosalind Picard debated the question, “Can Robots Become Human?” at a Veritas Forum at MIT in 2007, the following exchange took place (as recorded in “Living Machines” and published in A Place For Truth) :
Brooks: “ I think of myself as a robot, as a bag of skin full of biomolecules, and if I step back, that’s what [my wife] is, that’s what my kids are. But I have this completely different way of interacting with them, with unconditional love, which is not part of that scientific view. So I have multiple views I operate under every day.”
Picard: “I don’t just call those multiple views, I call those inconsistent views…so there’s no purpose, there’s no meaning, there’s no free will.”
Brooks: “That’s why I said I have a set of inconsistent views that I live under, because that’s really desolate, but it’s the truth.”
Picard: “Yeah, that does seem pretty desolate, and I wonder how you – why you care?”
Brooks: “I live in a fantasyland. That’s the fantasyland I’ve chosen to live in…”
So what is actually happening?

For those demanding an all-encompassing materialistic explanation for the world, our choices are simply behaviors that inevitably arise from the impact of evolution, genetics and environment. The chemicals inside our body fire; our pre-programmed evolutionary urges surface; our families and communities mold us. As for free will?  Well… 

  • Publishers Weekly began their review of philosopher John Gray's book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals this way: “Humans think they are free, conscious beings, but they are deluded animals.”
  • Alex Rosenberg writes: “"If the brain is nothing but a complex physical object whose states are as much governed by physical laws as any other physical object, then what goes on in our heads is as fixed and determined by prior events as what goes on when one domino topples another in a long row of them.”
  • Psychology Today noted, (“Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature) ”Evolutionary psychologists see human nature as a collection of psychological adaptations that often operate beneath conscious thinking to solve problems of survival and reproduction by predisposing us to think or feel in certain ways. Our preference for sweets and fats is an evolved psychological mechanism. We do not consciously choose to like sweets and fats; they just taste good to us.”
If we are deluded animals whose thoughts topple like dominoes in our subconscious, then no, we are not free. That’s fine when it comes to eating habits -  nothing of much import hangs in the balance if I eat Reece’s instead of Fritos. (Bacon is another matter, but I digress). What about more significant decisions in life? Are all of our actions reducible to biological and psychological mechanisms? If  we live in a purely naturalistic, mechanical world, then perhaps they are.

  • E.O Wilson believes that we are "puppet egos" with an illusion of free will that we should passionately believe in because the idea is helpful.
  • Anthony Cashmore notes, ““The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.”  He goes on to argue that the justice system has it all wrong, since we are not actually guilty of making bad choices.
  • Nicholas Humphrey goes even further. “The bottom line about how consciousness changes the human outlook — as deep an existential truth as anyone could ask for — is this: We do not want to be zombies. We like ‘being present,’ we like having it ‘be like something to be me.’ ” Alas, this "want" is a "benign evolutionary illusion."
  • Tom Clark writes, “Judged from a scientific and logical perspective, the belief that we stand outside the causal web in any respect is an absurdity, the height of human egoism and exceptionalism.” (naturalism.org)
As interesting as the philosophical discussion may be, it faces a bumpy road when faced with the practical reality of every day life. French philosopher Luc Ferry provides a great summary of this tension: (a full account can be read  in his international bestseller A Brief History of Doubt)
“The cross of materialism is that it never quite succeeds in believing what it preaches, in thinking its own thought. This may sound complicated, but is in fact simple: the materialist says, for example, that we are not free, though he is convinced, of course, that he asserts this freely…He says that we are wholly determined by our history, but never stops urging us to free ourselves, to change our destiny, to revolt where possible! He says that we must love the world as it is, turning our backs on past and future so as to live in the present, but he never stops trying, like you or me, when the present weights upon us, to change it in the hope of a better world. In brief, the materialist sets forth philosophical theses that are profound, but always for you and me, never for himself. Always he reintroduces transcendence – liberty, a vision for society, the ideal – because in truth he cannot not believe himself to be free…” 
We live as if our subjective experiences, consciousness, and choices matter. Our legal system is based on the premise that people choose to do things. How can we hold people accountable for something that is not their fault? If someone robs, or murders, rapes, or drives impaired, we expect the people involved to be treated as morally responsible people.  We certainly act as if people have libertarian agency  - the ability to rise above their influences, be they biological, societal, or chemical.

If the atrocities alleged to have taken place in Gosnell’s clinic  and Ariel Castro’s home are true, we face a choice: will they be held accountable because they are morally significant people who chose to do terrible things, or are they are no more free than any animal, operating from programming that necessitates they take a particular path toward brute survival and reproduction?

The premise of this short series of posts is that Christianity offers a worldview matches the shape of reality. In this case, Christianity claims that we are indeed human beings who freely make morally significant decisions.

Christians believe in substance dualism, claiming that both material and immaterial things make up the furniture of the universe. We are biological beings , but we are not merely biological. James Oliver Buswell wrote,  in A Christian View of Being and Knowing, “We find in the created universe an important difference between beings which think, and being which are spatially extended, or spiritual beings and material beings… In the body and mind of man we see integrated interaction between the spiritual thinking being, and the material extended being.” Our physical nature interacts with our mind, our spirit, that part of us that interacts with but is not caused by our material bodies.

Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland offers the following argument:
(1) I am essentially indivisible, simple spiritual substance. I do not exist in degrees; my ongoing mental states and personal experiences are unified; I have a strong sense that "I" and my physical body have different persistence conditions, etc.
(2) My physical body is essentially a divisible or complex entity (like any physical body, it has spatial extension or separable parts).
(3) The Principle of Indiscernibility of Identicals says that if the mind has properties the body does not (or vice versa),they are not the same thing.
(4) Because they do not share all properties, I am not identical with my (or any) physical body.
Moreland has a lot more to say about the topic, but what he offers is a defense of substance dualism that confirms what we intuitively believe to be true about our consciousness and identity. Paul Copan (How Do You Know You're Not Wrong?”) takes a more specifically theological approach:
  • We experience self-consciousness. Christianity says this reflects the consciousness of the Creator (consciousness arises from consciousness); atheism says this may be an illusion. If there is consciousness, it has arisen from mindless non-consciousness.
  • We believe personal beings exist. Christianity says this reflects the personal nature of a Creator; atheism says the personal has been produced by impersonal processes.
  • We believe we make free personal choices. Christianity says our Creator freely chose to act, and we reflect His nature. Atheism says this may well be an illusion. If there is free personal choice, it arose from materialistic, deterministic processes.
Christianity claims that our ability to choose feels real because it is real. While we are influenced by many things, we are at the mercy of none of them. They may form us, but they don't finish us. Because we can choose, our history is not our destiny. We can truly approbate those who do well, because their life reflects a conscious choice to be better than they once were. We can admonish and challenge those who choose poorly, because we know that they do not have to resign themselves to the cruel dictates of history.

Alistair McGrath, a former atheist who now teaches at Oxford, has noted :
“Atheism just sees a meaningless world, devoid of purpose, as Richard Dawkins so often emphasizes. But faith goes deeper, and sees purpose and meaning beneath the surface. This sort of hope is not about running away from reality. It’s about going deeper than a purely surface reading of things. It’s a hope that is deeply grounded in the way things really are!”  (as quoted in Socrates in the City)


Up next: What Is Justice?