Having done a piece recently on free-will, referring back to the work of one of America’s greatest philosophers, Jonathan Edwards, I see that V J Torley has done a new column on the same theme. His interest is more the denial of the will in materialism than the theological debate, but I want to pick up on one of his intial points for my own purpose:
The ambitious view of free will can be described as a libertarian account, in contrast with what Mele refers to as the modest view, which says that “the ability to make rational, informed, conscious decisions in the absence of undue force – no one holding a gun to your head – is enough for free will.” The modest view is fully compatible with determinism, which makes it a rather unexciting version of free will: all of my choices might be pre-determined by my past history, even though nobody is forcing me to act the way I do. The ambitious view of free will challenges this dreary determinism. [my emphasis]
Now philosopher Alfred Mele’s twofold distinction seems to match Jonathan Edwards’, whose critique is of the “ambitious” version rather than the “modest”. As I said in my other post, one needs to read Edwards to understand the issues, but sufficient to note here that the “modest” version does not deny choice that is conscious (“I think I will choose” – “I myself have chosen”), rational (“Let’s see – A makes more sense or will do more good than B, so I’ll choose that”) and informed (“Now I know the arguments, I prefer X to Y.”)
You may ask what more could be added to make choice “libertarian” – as does Edwards, who seeks to demonstrate that most of what is, in practice, added is incoherent. But the thing that Torley sees as the key no-no for being modest is “determinism” – and that is what Edwards finds as well. I described this in my previous post in terms of libertarian objections to the reality of divine foreknowledge, which inevitably entails that a choice is “determined” in its original sense of “fixed” – yet may still be still rational, informed and conscious. If you can’t live with that you become an Open Theist, or more often fudge the issue.
Torley, particularly focusing on scientific determinism, speaks only of “past history” as the determinant of will, conjuring up images of “what has happened to me from outside” in terms of moving particles and blind physical laws. But Mele’s category would equally apply to the “determinism” arising from my past decisions, my character, my education, my predilections – in fact, everything that in real life does govern our choices – and that before one gets to any question of divine involvement. Edwards points out how irrational is the attempt to divide choice from all determining causation – not least because in the end it necessitates all decisions to be made purely by chance. After all, nobody ever says, “My office is first right on the corridor, and I’ve worked there happily for ten years. I’ve always had a strong work ethic. Furthermore, my bonus will be on the desk when I arrive. I’m in good health and a normal mood, and have no desire to make any libertarian gestures, so since these things all increase my inclination to start work I’ll turn 3rd left. Well, that was a surprise – it’s the broom closet, but hey-ho at least it was a free decision!”
But I want to concentrate on the sentence in bold, and its “dreary determinism“. But first, two caveats.
First, in the “free-process creation” scheme, I’ve often pointed out the incoherence of talking about “freedom” with respect to irrational creatures anyway. So does Jonathan Edwards:
If this which I have mentioned be the meaning of the word Liberty, in the ordinary use of language; as I trust that none that has ever learned to talk, and is unprejudiced, will deny; then it will follow, that in propriety of speech, neither Liberty, nor its contrary, can properly be ascribed to any being or thing, but that which has such a faculty, power or property, as is called will. For that which is possessed of no will, cannot have any power or opportunity of doing according to its will, nor be necessitated to act contrary to its will, nor be restrained from acting agreeably to it.
Which is blindingly obvious, except to most TEs. Incidentally he adds that by the same token, the idea that the will itself is free is nonsensical – people can be free, but their faculties can’t. A bird’s power of flight can’t have the power of flight – and the will can’t determine itself. This is important if one is saying that the will is free of our own previous knowledge, inclinations or reasoning.
Second, in the question of human choice, the issue of the justice of divine involvement, by concurrence or otherwise, and human responsibility is another story for another day. In both areas, though, the idea that God’s determination somehow makes things “dreary” is quite common as a separate argument. I mentioned in the previously linked post the idea of “the dead hand of design” preventing true spontaneity and originality in creation; and I guess Vincent Torley has the same idea in mind in the human realm. But though it makes an emotional appeal, it’s hard to find any real meaning in it.
It reminds me of a worthy old song by Bert Jansch, Anti-Apartheid. Written from the heart, it contains justified outrage at what South Africa was like in 1965. But it also contains some lines at which one initially nods in emotional agreement, though they turn out to be totally nonsensical:
if men were of one colour how silly life would be
a regimented army to work the factories
that produces daily a gift of boredom given free
This says more about his own Bohemian lifestyle than about race: why on earth would the non-existence of races lead to a regimented industrialised dystopia? And how does racial diversity prevent it, other than the tendency in the pre-Wilberforce centuries to turn just one race into the regimented and oppressed workforce? (I have no beef against Jansch, by the way – he made me a cup of coffee once).
Similarly, there is nothing whatsoever in determinism of the kind Mele describes that makes it “dreary” to either God or man, except for that tiny minority with the education to understand “determinism” and the stupidity to let it either depress them or rule their lives (for example, Christians who take God at his word that their lives are foreknown, but won’t take him at his word that they have true choice and real accountability). Remember that for most of history, most people have believed that God, gods or heavenly bodies influenced their choices, and that God knows the future, and yet they went on making choices just the same. Another song is a little more philosophically intriguing and playful than Bert’s, and that’s Paul Mc Cartney’s Penny Lane, in which he says of the pretty nurse selling poppies that:
Though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway.
We wonder if she’s been reading too much philosophy or Hypercalvinist theology, or is the joke that she can never avoid being a line in the song that Paul has written to include her existential angst? But if a real nurse felt that way, she’d soon shake herself out of it and get on with exercising her power of choice daily, because whatever she may believe about determinism, she knows she is making real choices. Many of them, I’ll wager, are fun and not dreary at all.
The play is, in this instance, a good analogy for examining divine determination and dreariness (though it is proportionately less so when thinking about determination and accountability). Imagine creation as a play written by God and performed just the once for us, the audience as well as the actors. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume it’s fully scripted and directed rather than in any way improvised.
Now, if you go to see a new play by your favourite author, without having read any reviews, you’re fully aware that the thing is scripted, and has been rehearsed to perfection by the cast. But that doesn’t alter your anticipation, nor your absorbtion into the story, the tears that come in the weepy bits, the laughter at the funny bits, and the surprise at the plot turns. It’s all new, and exciting, because you’re living out the performance in real time. It’s fully determined – but not dreary at all, if it’s a good play.
Let’s consider poor old God, though, as some of the writers do, particularly in the “open process” camp. They imagine, I suppose, God’s having everything worked out at the beginning of creation and then being bored stiff to see it play out like the 50th TV Christmas showing of The Sound of Music. It’s made even worse because, in general, they don’t picture God acting in creation in real time, which would be “interfering”, so they seem to think he wants to see creation itself provide the laughs and tears for his jaded divine entertainment.
But of course, God creates not in time, but in eternity. In this he is somewhat like a human playwrite, who has a whole different experience of the play from the audience, working in a different time-frame as he discovers the nuances of his characters, invents novel sub-plots and so on. He may write from page one through to the end, inventing as he goes along. Or he might see the whole story in one beatific vision and let it all pour out in stream-of-consciousness fashion. He may write the end first and then work up to it. He may deliberate and correct endlessly. But whatever his methodology, if he likes his craft, the fact that what emerges is a fully determined blueprint for a future theatre performance is not dreary to him in the least. It’s what writing plays is about. And like all creative efforts it has both its pains and its sheer joy – but is only ever dreary if the creative juices run dry – which is hardly to be supposed of God.
The one thing one has to remember is that the playwrite is always in on the play in a fundamentally different way from the audience and the characters. God, likewise, is in heaven, and we on earth. It makes all the difference.