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.


  1. I appreciate you writing out all your thoughts from an objective standpoint (if that is a logical possibility). Reading through this, I see just in your last paragraph you mentioned that either side lead to skepticism at some point. So there is either determinism leading to theistic skepticism or libertarianism leading to atheistic skepticism. Now, I'm not a big thinker, but I was just wondering if you had thought of it being put that way... If it is going to lead to skepticism either way, should that be more likely to look like theistic skepticism or atheistic skepticism? Especially looking at this from a Christian standpoint, since you said that the latter is not a viable option for the Christian theist... The only thing I can come to from this is that if compatibalism is not good enough, I would have to go with determinism, because there would always be something that affected your decisions. I think I could almost reason some form of compatibalism being the solution for libertarianism as well. Correct me if I have an incorrect view of libertarianism, but I'd like to get my thoughts across. The fact that one can have a struggle over two thought patterns and two finally make a decision about one says that the decision is not free. I don't know if that makes sense. However, maybe coming to no solution to this proves even more freedom of the will.

    Now, on desires... Can desire come from within us or are they external? Natural hunger seems to come from within, since there is no experience of eating food needed for one to know that they need to eat something, they would just need to know the means by which they can fill their hunger. Thoughts, however, seem to always be based on some sort of experience (external). Once we are old enough, we have the experience to be able to do something to meet our desires. If we are hungry, we will eat, because that is what was how we learned to meet that desire. We can make a decision to not eat, but our hunger, our desire, will not simply go away. If we can make a decision to not eat, then we should be able to make a decision to eat, but either way, that desire of hunger was there to begin with. If we could simply decide not to be hungry, then libertarian freedom truly exists.

    In my mind, I don't think that I could say anything is truly internal, including this hunger. God created our bodies to react a certain way, and He has determined that we would hunger for food, therefore, we must eat. Any thoughts we have originate from outside ourselves, whether God gave them to us or our experiences gave them to us, or a combination. If you would argue that it is God who determines our thoughts, then you have determinism. If you might say that our thoughts are more based on our experiences, while our desires are determined by God, you have compatibalism. Even free thoughts (those you have based on your experiences) must lead to actions that meet your desires.

    Concluding Example: If our desire of hunger is given to us by God (which we know that we cannot "choose" to be hungry or to be not hungry), then either He makes us eat, or by experience, we know that eating will fulfill this desire. If we accept the latter, that we have free thought, we still HAVE to eat in order to meet this desire. There is no other way of fulfilling the desire of hunger but by eating, therefore, I would have to say that libertarianism cannot work. This leaves us with determinism or compatibalism, which hangs with the question of
    in what way are our thoughts and actions determined? Are they directly ordained by God? Or, are they indirectly ordained based on the desires which God gives us that MUST be met? Are these pointless questions?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. The problem is I'm not sure a Christian theist can really be a skeptic either. We want to claim to know that God exists, that Christ died for us, etc. You can't make such claims to knowledge (even on a very lenient definition of knowledge), or even claim to have a reasonable belief about them. The entire basis for your building these beliefs is swept away if this form of skepticism is true.

    So I may need to clarify my post a little bit. The dilemma it seems needs one of two solutions: either (1) a way out of skepticism for the determinist (and I'm arguing that compatabalism doesn't work for that, but maybe you can see a way that it does), or (2) a definition of libertarian freedom that allows for causation.

    I think your discussion of desires and thoughts is interesting. However, when a compatabilist talks about desires, I don't think they normally mean our biological drives. Typically (especially since compatibalists tend to be Calvinists), they are referring to more moral desires- the desire to do good or evil in a particular situation, the desire to love God or be his enemy, and more specific desires along the same lines. If those desires are internal, I don't think they could just occur like hunger. They seem to require some-sort of conscious decision (but maybe I'm wrong), and if that is the case then their being internal would imply libertarian freedom.

    The libertarian wants to say that our thoughts are based on experiences and not determined by God. The problem is whether that can be said to be truly free or do we then have to say that our experiences determine our thoughts? And if they do determine them, what makes this determinism any different from compatibalism?

  3. So, if we have crossed out determinism and libertarianism as options since they both lead to some sort of skepticism, which cannot be accepted by a Christian theist, then we must be left with compatibalism. Even your last statement left libertarians with the end result of compatibalism, which was a thesis out of the end of my first paragraph.

    I think our desires are given to us by God, or by nature through the fall. We will either desire sin or desire to please God. However both of these desires cannot be met, although they co-exist within us.

    In the case of sexual desire, which most people have, this conflicts with the desire to please God for the Christian (particularly for those not married). I don't see how a Christian could truly have a greater desire for the former, however, they seem to choose to meet this desire on many occasions. It would seem to me, that to really have free will, one would be able to meet two conflicting desires. I am not sure if that is logical, but its just my thoughts.

    I'm not sure how the reformed view of Hamariology works, but to me it doesn't make sense that would God would ordain one of His own to fall in to sin.

    As far as thoughts being determined by our experieces, I think that this crucial, not leading so much to skepticism. Without experiences, what are we? Experiences are what make us who we are, so how can we be skeptical that our experiences determine our thoughts. I could not see any other option... What are thoughts without experiences? For a baby in its mother's womb, he or she could not have any thoughts beyond being in the womb. They are not looking forward to the day when they will go into the world because they have never experienced this. Does this make sense?

    You say that desires seem to come from a conscious decision, but I would argue that your response to that desire, rather, is the conscious decision. It would seem illogical for us to think up two conflicting desires at any time, when we could not meet both desires at any one time. However, our thoughts lead us to make decision about which desire to meet.

    Maybe this clarifies my points more...

  4. Unless I am seriously misunderstanding it, I think Compatibalism is the same thing as Determinism. Its a solution employed by determinists to answer the question of how we can be held responsible for our actions under determinism. I'm not sure it really answers that question either... but most people would disagree with me there, I think.

    Point being, compatibalism isn't a third option left when we eliminate determinism and libertarianism. If we eliminate determinism, we have eliminated compatibalism.

    As for our experiences determining our thoughts, the question is are our thoughts determined by our experience or are they influenced by them? And where does that line get drawn between influence and determination? I don't think punting to experience necessarily helps with the problem of skepticism,though, because as many philosophers have shown (Descartes, Hume, etc.), experience can be seen as completely unreliable. We can get around that problem for experience, I think, but that doesn't help us to in any way explain why determinism doesn't lead to skepticism.

    I think we can definitely have conflicting desires. That's probably not a problem for compatibalism, though, because they can say we choose based on our greatest desire, not every desire.

    I hope that makes some semblance of sense. It was all written about one in the morning, so please forgive me if its garbage.


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