Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Free-Will Dilemma: Skepticism or Atheism?

Probably the most hotly debated question in Christian theology, and perhaps in philosophy in general, is the question of human free-will. There are essentially two options- Determinism and Libertarianism. Determinism claims that all things are determined by some "external" factor- be it the natural laws of the universe that govern how things physically interact or the will of God that decrees how all things will be. Libertarianism claims the opposite- no external force such as this compels us to the decisions we make or the actions we take. The implications of these two views is what interests me and I think leads to a rather unsettling dilemma.

I have previously argued that determinism leads to a radical skepticism. If all things are determined, this includes my thoughts and beliefs. This raises an important question: what reason do I have to trust that my beliefs are in any way valid or true if they have been determined for me? If determinism is true, I cannot even objectively wrestle with this question, my thoughts and conclusions concerning it are also going to be determined! Thus, it seems that this leads to a radical skepticism in which I have no reason to trust my mental faculties to tell me anything true.

Some determinists try to argue for compatibalism, which is an attempt to preserve some semblance of free-will under determinism. In essence, compatibalism argues that our actions are "free" if they coincide with our desires. This is primarily a solution employed in Christian theology to answer the question of how we can be held morally responsible for our actions under determinism, but some thinkers attempt to employ it to answer the question of skepticism as well, claiming that if our thoughts coincide with our desires, we have freely reached our beliefs and thus can trust them. There seems to be an underlying philosophical problem for this solution however, namely that it only pushes our problem back one step. Desires are not self-existing entities anymore than thoughts are. They too originate from somewhere, and if their source is external (ie, God shapes our desires in some sense), then we seem to gotten no closer to a solution to the problem of skepticism. If our desires are not externally determined (we determine them, in other words), then we are now libertarians and not determinists.

Libertarianism has its own set of philosophical problems. At the heart of these issues is the question of whether or not we can have any sort of "neutral decisions." In other words, do we really have equally available options when we make a decision or are other things influencing us in our decision? On face value, it seems that we obviously do not- there are always things that influence us or our desires. So to say our options in any decision really are equally viable, we have to say we have the ability to go against our strongest inclination. If this is even logically consistent (wouldn't the final choice we make turn out to be our strongest inclination?), then it seems to throw out causality (at least in terms of our decisions, but this probably has a wider scope as well). Once we have denied causality, however, we find ourselves on a quick slope to a form of atheism in which there are no reasons for anything that happens (interestingly, this form of atheism seems to also have to deal with a form of skepticism). This doesn't seem to be a viable option for a Christian theist.

However, if we say that our free decisions are not neutral, they are influenced by external factors, then it becomes very unclear how they are actually free. It would seem that external cause(s) are "causing" us to make the decisions we make, leading us back to a form of determinism, and thus to face the issue of skepticism again. So we seem stuck in a dilemma between skepticism and atheism (combined with another form of skepticism), neither a particularly appealing option.

This post is not meant to be a capitulation to skepticism or atheism or a throwing up in the air of my hands to give up thinking about these issues. I am sure solutions to these problems exist on both sides (I am certain I am not the only person to think about these issues), but I am unsure what they might be or how solid they actually are. So really this is meant to be a call for some sort of dialogue to be opened up.

Clarification: The dilemma it seems is going to require one of two solutions: either (1) a way out of skepticism for the determinist, or (2) a definition of libertarian freedom that allows for causation.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Irrationality of Naturalism

The enlightenment and Modernist philosophy have posed a dramatic philosophical challenge to Christianity, with, for the first time in philosophical history, atheism becoming a dominant presupposition. Indeed, atheism seems the inevitable conclusion of Modernist philosophy. The problem, however, is that this results in a complete logical absurdity.

Modernist philosophy replaces the ancient concept of "telos" (the idea that all things are striving to fulfill a purpose) with naturalistic determinism: the regularity of the universe is explained by set natural laws. If we follow the naturalist thought process, this eliminates all supernatural existences- God, human souls, angels, etc.- and reduces us to a completely material universe governed by the physical laws. If this state of things is correct, then all things are completely deterministic. Under naturalism, this must also include the activities of our minds, which are natural entities. Thus our thoughts, desires, beliefs, etc. are all determined by the natural laws of the physical universe.

This description of our mental state results in a radical skepticism. If my thoughts and beliefs are merely the products of physical reactions that have been determined since the moment the universe came into existence then what reason do I have to trust that these beliefs are in any way sound? It does not seem that such a reason exists, and even if I could come up with such a reason that conclusion would also be reached only because of chemical reactions over which I had no control. This eventually results in an absurdity because even my beliefs in naturalism or the deterministic nature of the universe would also be subject to the same criticism. Ultimately then, I not only have no basis for knowing anything (the usual claim of skepticism), I actually do not know anything under naturalistic determinism.

This is certainly not an argument for Christianity. In fact, this could be used just as well by a pantheist mystic as by a Christian. What this does establish to me, though, is that if we want to maintain any claims to knowledge then we cannot embrace a fully naturalistic worldview. Even if we scrap naturalism, though, the question remains whether the modernist paradigm of science (which has an anti-supernatural balance and attempts to explain natural phenomenon according to set scientific laws) can be maintained without a naturalist conclusion. In other words, can we maintain Descartes dualism and claim that the natural world operates by fixed laws but somehow our minds are able to escape those laws (despite being attached to bodies that are subject to them)? This seems to be a very flimsy solution at best.

Instead, I think that we have to return to a more ancient way of looking at the universe and reinterpret Aristotle's concept of "telos." Christianity should have no problem adopting the idea that all things are working toward accomplishing an ultimate purpose. This idea also explains the regularity that science observes without moving toward a conclusion that is completely naturalistic and irrational.

Blog has moved, searching new blog...