Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Human dignity and the question of free will

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


TheraP said...

The importance of a "concept" of "free will" - at least biblically and spiritually is to guard against a kind of Manichean idea that God is responsible for evil. Thus, the Genesis story of the Tree of the Knowledge (some say "knowing") of good and evil is to say, from the get-go, that we humans are responsible for our actions. And that when we choose actions, which are contrary to Life, to Good, to God's graciousness and blessings upon us and His creation, that we are the ones responsible for the evil outcomes, not God.

The limits of what we can actually do "freely" are very great. We are hemmed in on all sides by these limits. And thus we are not totally "free" all the time. Indeed, if every action needed to be preceded by great deliberation, we'd never get going in the morning. We'd have to mediate before getting out of bed, brushing our teeth, etc. Thus, many "habits," even good ones, infringe our "free will."

But I come back to the plain issue. We are responsible for our actions. We cannot blame them on others, least of all on God. And the presence of evil in the world, while a great mystery, is due to the actions of people.

Of course the biblical writers were keen to figure out why there is pain and death in terms of our physical life. And blamed this on a curse for having transgressed God's law. I personally see the idea of pain, death, and physical suffering as part of our life. Our life on earth includes death and the knowledge that physical death will come. I think this fact helps us to learn what is truly important in life.

As far as eternal life, Divine Life, which God offers us through Christ, that is altogether different from the human life we experience on earth. Even though we can "participate" in God's Divine Life during our physical lifetime and look forward to union with God in a way we cannot really understand - after this physical life.

Free Will. It has to do with evil and how we view the effects of human actions. In the spiritual sphere it assures us that God is Good and never brings about evil. God may foresee evil. God may permit that others do evil.

Think of our courts. People are tried and found guilty... based upon a view that they can choose to do or not do evil deeds. So the court system depends on this as well.

I totally agree there is no point debating a theory of "free will." I think it is an assumption in both spiritual and social settings in every society I know of. Otherwise, why put someone on trial or punish evil deeds? If people truly believed that evil was not "chosen" - then we all efforts to enforce civil laws would break down.

Some like to debate theories. Go right ahead. I'm willing to go on certain assumptions. Call them beliefs, if you like.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

Yes, "free will" comes up in a couple of contexts, especially the context of evil (like you're discussing) and the context of whether our minds work biologically.

Myself, I'm not quite sure why our minds working biologically makes people start worrying about the trap of determinism, etc.

I'm with you that God is clear on the question of evil, that we made that call ourselves.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

TheraP said...

The "trap of determinism." Well, I'm guessing that for people who have only the concept of this physical world, biologically they figure that "choice" is impossible. But the way out of that, I think, is something called "stochastic process," which means "selection" out of "randomness." Very interesting ideas related to that can be found in Gregory Bateson's books (he was married to Margaret Mede briefly, also an anthropologist).

Keep up your good work! Maranatha.

Martin Cooke said...

I don't quite see why people think the mind is something other than physical

If the mind were purely physical then someone, e.g. some mad scientist of the 21st century, could change my mind just by poking around in my brain.

I guess that God could miraculously preserve my moral integrity, but then why not just be an Idealist and be done with physics altogether? But basically, the brain seems like something that could be Caesar's (at least in the times of slavery), the soul as God's...

...there are other reasons to do with determinism and such (recently discussed, in the context of why theists don't believe that robots will be able to think, at The Prosblogion - the later comments by Pruss are especially informative) but for me it's just like not identifying the heart, the muscular pumper of blood, with my propensity to love.

But for me such arguments and definitions are not the reasons for such beliefs, but are rather attempts to express or justify such immediate intuitions as that the ways (the logic) of love just do not seem to be the ways (the logic) of physics. But what strikes me is how, although the opposite view (that the mind is physical) therefore strikes me as wrong, to hold the opposite view is not so obviously wrong, but seems rather to be just another (good enough) approach to the same (very big) reality - cf. Inclusivism, I guess.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi enigman

I read the whole thread, and there are some interesting comments. There are also so many assumptions that I think a vast percentage of what is being said there is unfounded.

The whole conversation continues while "think" and "understand" and "meaning" go undefined. I have no objections to the idea of a machine "thinking"; I think AI will be achieved, and genuinely have no idea why people would think it's impossible on Christian grounds, unless (as some of the comments mentioned) people decided that thought could only possibly be the product of dualism.

And as far as the intentionality argument ... the idea that machines intentionality wouldn't be true because it would be derived kind of backfires on theists, doesn't it? After all, our intentionality is derivative: we can either seek God and pursue the vision of paradise or we can seek to become our own gods ... both derivative.

Thanks for showing me that thread, btw. Gotta go comment ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF