Friday, May 2, 2014

Free Will vs Determinism

The following post comes from the Free Will/Determinism section of the term paper for my "Human Nature and Person" class, with some modifications.

I experience myself as having the freedom to define my destiny or life course by virtue of free will. By free will, I mean the capacity of human beings to actually choose how they will think or act at any given moment. The concept of free will does not exclude influences based on the biology, environment, and circumstances of a person. Rather, it simply means that in the end, regardless of whatever various influences and pressures may be placed on a person, they are ultimately responsible for their actions. If you are tracing blame back through a causal chain of events, you can stop at each individual and not the atoms that make up their physical brain. It’s interesting how impossible it is to eradicate the concept of free will from the human mind. Even the most staunch materialistic atheists cannot completely abandon the concepts implied by free will, such as credit, blame, and appreciation.

A High Price to Pay

If human beings do not have free will, then there is no justifiable reason to congratulate, thank, admire, or even punish anyone. Every justice system in history is based on the assumption that people freely choose their actions. That is why we call it "justice." Admittedly, part of the purpose of incarcerating people is to remove them from society and prevent them from harming others again. However, in court we declare those convicted to be "guilty." This is not a description of the biological, environmental, or circumstantial influences experienced by the person leading up to the crime. It is the recognition of the convicted person's free choice to commit the crime. I do not in any way wish to undermine the importance of studies within the realm of psychology and sociology, which are essential for understanding human nature better and help us to identify the ways we can improve as a society in terms of parenting, education, punishment, and rehabilitation. Rather, I'm simply arguing that it is impossible to construct and uphold a real justice system without recognizing the human capacity of free will.

On the materialist/determinist view, if someone were to (God forbid) murder your loved one, you could be angry, but it would really be pointless to say the murderer was actually to blame for it, or that he was acting immorally, because of course, his decision to commit the crime can ultimately be explained by the sum of all the physical and chemical processes occurring in his brain. These processes, while admittedly highly complex, are still completely determined by their respective physical laws. On a somewhat more positive note (no pun intended), people who hold strictly to materialism would have to agree that, from the instant that the Big Bang occurred, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” had to be written. This would mean that Bach did not freely respond to the creative urges in his heart, freely choose to spend countless hours practicing the organ and writing liturgical music, or even freely choose to pen any of his greatest works that bring people to tears centuries after his death. He couldn’t have done anything differently then what he did. I think almost any person with a love for art and its expression would be extremely skeptical of materialism if they understood this fact.

Materialism Destroys Itself

The materialists who I’ve encountered fail to see just how self-refuting it is to believe in materialism. If everything you believe is reducible to chemical reactions and the movement of subatomic particles within your brain, all of which operate according to the laws of chemistry and physics, then it is meaningless to claim that one belief is “better” or more true than any other. This would of course include the belief that materialism is true. Ironically, people who believe in determinism, if they are right, are determined to believe in it! Obviously, the self-refuting nature of materialism that makes it impossible to defend does not in itself prove that materialism is false, or that humans do have free will. Moreover, if all reality was in fact completely reducible to matter and controlled only by fixed laws, then I would agree that what we perceive as free will must really be just an illusion. I’ve always wondered, why would a purely material process of random mutation and natural selection produce in our minds the illusion of a will that was immaterial? Why would we learn to feel proud or ashamed of the way we acted, when in reality, we couldn’t have acted any other way? In any case, I have not encountered any good arguments to give me reason to believe that all reality is reducible to matter. Therefore, I feel justified in holding the belief that the reason I feel so responsible for making the right choice in a given situation is because I really am responsible, because I really am free to choose.

Thanks be to God for helping us avoid the snares of dehumanizing philosophies by creating us with the ability to reason about the truth and to choose it freely.  Also, for revealing the Truth in its fullness through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer