Saturday, April 28, 2007

Calvin & Hobbes

Using a word game that seems to be more at home in the Sunday comics, some philosophers and theologians argue that determinism is not inconsistent with free will.

They say that a person is free as long as he can choose to do what he wills.

(For more background, read this.)

This seems to make sense. But the problem is that the words don't mean what they seem to mean.

R. J. Rummel Professor Emeritus of Political Science from University of Hawaii explains:

What does it mean to say that we are free? One answer, proposed by Hobbes and Tolstoy and favored by the contemporary empiricist, is that we are free insofar as we may do as we wish without hindrance or constraint. If thus free the question about the will's freedom is meaningless, for freedom then refers to whether a person can do what he chooses, not to the choosing itself; it refers to the freedom of the action, not to the choice of act. A person's will could be enslaved by the passions, chained to Freudian complexes, bound to the body's needs, limited by heredity, and necessitated by environmental causes, and yet by this meaning of freedom, he could be totally free to do that which is determined.

Translation: Free will defined in this way is meaningless. In this definition, free will only means that I am "free" to do what I am compelled to do by my completely-determined will. This is a category mistake. It confuses the freedom to act with the freedom to choose. In this view, a brainwashed person is free.

Rummel continues:

Freedom thus defined may resolve simply and satisfactorily the determinism-free will controversy for some, but at the cost of ignoring its essence, for freedom as simply measuring a lack of constraint or opposition is not freedom as usually intuited by those posing the question. It violates common sense to call free a person who is determined in his course like an object thrown through the air and following its trajectory without opposition.

Translation: While this definition may allow people to win philosophical or theological arguments, in practical terms it is bankrupt. This "freedom" is not freedom. This is doubletalk worthy of Orwell's label of Newspeak. Inevitability is really choice. White is really black. Manipulation is really freedom.

Rummel again:

For Kant, freedom is an independence of the will of motivations, character, and external causes. It is more than just the power to choose. Freedom is the power to fulfill our moral oughts (ought implies can), to will as reason directs, to be a first cause of events.

At the heart of this doublespeak is a reductionist view of the human will.

Calvin and Hobbes reduce the will to nothing more than a calculator, one that can perform only one operation: determining which of two numbers is greater.

In other words, this view of the will makes a human being no different from an animal in acting on desires. An animal "chooses" to act in response to its strongest desire. Yet humans seem to have the capacity to choose between desires on the basis of values.

This view of the will also does not allow for second-order desires: desires to have or not have a desire. As humans, we can want a piece of cake, but we can also want not to want the cake. We can choose to act on our second-order desire instead of being a slave to our first-order desire.

A robust view of free will does not require that people always can choose to act in a different way. It only requires that in some cases a person could have chosen a different course of action.

The compatibilist would argue that a person's choices are determined by his or her character. The answer is that, while character influences actions, actions also shape character. And at least some of our choices are free in a libertarian sense. If all a person's choices are determined, then in what sense is he or she a person?

If no choices are free in the libertarian sense, then most the Bible collapses into nonsense.

In Genesis 4:6–7, Yahweh says to Cain,

"Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."

Is this just a piece of theater, or does Cain have a real choice?

Joshua's call to choose (Joshua 24) is pointless pilling on, if the people really are "not able to serve the Lord."

Paul explains to the Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:16–18):

When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.

He is saying that

  • He has no choice whether to preach the gospel.
  • He is compelled by God to do so.
  • The only free act he can choose is to preach the gospel "free of charge," not to insist upon his rights to receive compensation from those to whom he preaches.

The compatibilist would turn this argument into gibberish.

If I were all powerful, I wouldn't make everyone believe in libertarian free will. But I would make people stop using the word choice to mean something that is entirely determined.

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"


daniel the smith said...

A more interesting question for me (since I agree with what you're saying here) is this: If it is determined in the future that the human brain is deterministic, can we preserve a meaningful concept of free will?

As an explanation, by "deterministic", I mean theoretically simulate-able, i.e. it doesn't rely on quantum effects. It looks likely at the moment that this is the case; however, I'm very skeptical that it will ever be possible to actually simulate it, for the same reasons that are behind the inaccuracy of our weather forecasts (extreme sensitivity to initial conditions), and due to the sheer amount of computational power necessary to accomplish the task (it seems likely to me that simulating neurons isn't enough, one would have to simulate hormones and such-- almost requiring a molecule-by-molecule simulation of the entire system).

I think the answer is "yes", but I'm curious what others might think (or if anyone even cares). Hopefully that's not *too* big of a diversion from the topic. :)

Pastor Rod said...


Of course the Turing test says that the only thing that is important is that the output from a complex computer cannot distinguished from the communication of a human being. It is immaterial (pun intended) whether the computer is actually thinking.

From this materialistic view, there can be no such thing as free will, even personhood.


M. Pease said...

Hi Folks;

This is one of those topics that makes my head hurt, and one for which I have had work to form a tentative position.

Free will is necessary, therefore it is. This is not to say that what we have is absolute free will, but that the freedom to do as we choose within our environmental and social limitations is sufficient to give us a sense of personhood and a sense of accomplishment and responsibility. I came to this view as the result of reading the introduction to a borrowed rabbinical commentary on Bereishis (Genesis) as part of addressing the problem of good and evil.

According to the commentary, you cannot start at the beginning, you have to go back farther than that. Before the beginning there was only the glory of God. It is impossible to imagine that, since even the wildest of tales has its roots on Earth. God, being good, wished to do good to other beings than himself. This is the imperative that initiated the creation of a universe populated with humans. Now God, being perfect, wanted the good that He was going to do to be perfect as well. The wanted to share the rewards of goodness and perfection with His creations, but He could not simply lavish these on His creations because blessings unearned are the "bread of shame". The need to earn God's blessings required that humans have free choice and a real possibility of erring. In turn this meant that choices between good and evil could not always be obvious or the choice would become automatic, gaining no merit. So if man could live in a world where evil was not only plausible, but tempting and not only tempting but rewarding, then a successful struggle against evil would slowly elevate him. There would always be new challenges in the struggles against the comforts of the flesh, and if a man could surmount the temptations and remain on the Godward way, he would eventually be worthy of God's reward.

Below is a quote from Wikipedia - Free will in Theology

"In Rabbinic literature, there is much discussion as to the contradiction between God's omniscience and free will. The representative view is that "Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given" (Rabbi Akiva, Pirkei Avoth 3:15). Based on this understanding, the problem is formally described as a paradox, beyond our understanding.

The paradox is explained, but not resolved, by observing that God exists outside of time, and therefore, His knowledge of the future is exactly the same as His knowledge of the past and present. Just as His knowledge of the past does not interfere with man's free will, neither does His knowledge of the future"

For the whole thing Visit.

Not very original I'm afraid, but it's the best I can do at the moment.

daniel the smith said...

"...the freedom to do as we choose within our environmental and social limitations is sufficient to give us a sense of personhood and a sense of accomplishment and responsibility."

I would like to say that this is the sort of free choice that matters, and that everyone acts like they have this freedom, even if they don't believe they are free in the libertarian sense.

I think it's entirely possible, likely even, that in the next 10-50 years we will develop an understanding of the human brain that leaves very little room for a "ghost in the machine". (I still hold out a little hope for quantum consciousness (google it), but there's only a small chance things actually work like that.) So, I think it would behoove us to philosophize about that ahead of time. I think that even if the brain and human body are (essentially) a machine, there can still be a useful concept of free will and personhood. (And, after all, christianity teaches that we *are* our bodies, right? So that development would be a point in our favor over other religions...)

daniel the smith said...

I know this is an old post now, but newscientist just posted a relevant story:

Pastor Rod said...


I had intended to spend more energy on this meta. Actually, I was expecting my students to interact more here. I guess it was too complex for them.

That is an interesting article. I do find it amusing how scientists like to take little things (like chaotic behavior) and invest them with all sorts of philosophical import (like free will).


daniel the smith said...

Chaos theory has more to do with free will than it may seem like at first--

One of the theories about how we can have free will (if I recall correctly) is basically that our brains are so unbelievably complicated that they are unsimulateable, and hence gain "emergent properties"-- just like chaotic equations exhibit very surprising behavior and cannot be completely calculated because the numbers need an infinite number of decimal places.

Of course it's pretty problematic to go all the way there only based on a fruit fly's motion. (It's also hard for me to believe they really did the math *perfectly*-- that's some pretty complex stuff they're trying to model)

Pastor Rod said...


I do think that chaos theory is an interesting field for research. I also agree that it has potential for helping us to better understand how the brain works.

I just don't see how a materialist explanation for free will could ever be satisfactory.