Will you, won’t you?

Britain must be one of the only places in the world where you can hear a radio programme in which 3 philosophy professors discuss free will with an informed chairman. Free will poses a difficulty for naturalism because although we consciously make decisions – especially moral ones – every day, it is difficult to account for them.

The determinism of natural law would suggest free choice, and so moral accountability, to be impossible. Yet introducing the only other naturalistic mechanism, randomness (by invoking quantum physics for example) would, even if plausible, still exclude moral responsibility because ones will would be the “victim” of external random forces. So there seems no natural mechanism for the alternative to determinism, libertarianism.

Though some of a scientistic bent either dismiss morality or account for it vaguely as a product of natural selection (without explaining how it produces the illusion of free choice), a majority of philosophers adopt the “concordist” view that morality is compatible with determinism, for example on the basis that moral praise and censure modifies behaviour despite its not being freely chosen. But to many it cannot be right to punish in the absence of actual blame. And of course, one has to account for the choice to praise or blame.

In a landmark 1974 essay Peter Strawson argued that basic human responses to behaviour such as gratitude and resentment are so fundamental that, even if free moral choice is an illusion, we cannot ignore it without ceasing to be human. This seems undeniable, but leaves the uncomfortable situation of a core human attribute – choice – being based on an illusion.

It’s certainly hard to argue for genuine morality – meaning not simple altruistism or benevolence, but their negation and accountability for it – being a product of nature. We cannot be judged by the laws of nature for behaviour which is a product of them. And how can humans judge if we too are a result of them?

On the other hand, what if man has a spiritual aspect to his nature? What if he is not only the product of amoral and impersonal physical laws, but of a God who in his very nature is personal, volitional and moral?  Though the issues of the nature and extent of free will still exist, they have a rational basis, and a full explanation becomes less pressing. For if we say to such a God, “How can you blame us if you made us thus?” he has, unlike nature, the capacity to say, “Nevertheless, I do justly blame you.”

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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