Some of my blog neighbors have recently been discussing the mind and the case for the existence of free will. There are implications for how we view our thoughts, behavior, emotions, and even spirituality. I think it’s safe to say I’m of the minority opinion in Christian circles: I don't quite see why people think the mind is something other than physical or why a physical mind would imply a deterministic trap.
Mark has recently discussed free will in several posts and has hit on one of the perennial problems when discussing free will: how do we define it? What, exactly, do we mean by "free will"? There is little use discussing whether or not we have it unless we have some idea what it is. Is "free will" the ability to do something without any compelling reason, or the ability to behave in ways that cannot be predicted? I'm not sure either of those is a good thing in and of itself; unreasonableness and unpredictability are hardly what I would want to argue for in holding out dignity for humanity.
Is free will best described by creativity or especially originality? Then that leaves awkward questions about all the things even artists do that are uncreative or unoriginal, of our daily love of habit and routine, and the tendency of human behavior to form repeating, recognizable patterns. What percentage of human actions ever attain to the heights of "free will" under the definition of originality?
I suspect that pursuing a theory of "free will" leads us wrong in the quest for human dignity. Rather than defining human dignity in terms of free will, I would take a closer look at either self-control or the ability to dedicate ourselves to things beyond survival. Granted that both of these involve decision-making; but here even unoriginal, predictable decisions may have dignity in pursuit of kindness or some other form of excellence. If we value novelty and unpredictability over excellence, then a mediocre experimental artist is worth more than an excellent traditional one. But if we value devotion and dedication, then all kinds of simple human acts become dignified. The simple, repetitive fabric of human life can participate in a pursuit of gladness, joy, kindness, and love, can have dignity regardless of its repetition or its predictability. If we say that a life gains value by breaking away from the normal, then we confess that we do not value the ordinary and everyday life. If we say that a life gains value by dedicating itself toward the eternal or transcendent things of God -- which oddly enough are humble things like bread and wine and visiting the neighbor who is sick -- then even the ordinary life gains meaning and dignity from that.
Previous posts on related subjects:
Is man a machine or a masterpiece?
The kingdom of heaven is like ...
On natural factors in behavior, evil, reason, and faith
The image of God and the fall of man