Sunday 20 July 2014

Summary of the metaphysics of free will


I have written quite often about free will on this blog


The reason why people (why I myself) find it hard to grasp this subject is that it is metaphysical, not scientific; i.e. it is about our assumptions concerning reality - not about our investigations of reality.

Another problem is that the metaphysics of free will is that - to be real - the free will must be an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause.

It must be - so it is!


That places free will outside of science - because science is only concerned with caused things.

This means that science is necessarily incomplete - since there must BE uncaused causes, or else we have infinite regress in a-caused-b-caused-c-caused-d forever! - and a situation which nothing could happen (this was pointed-out centuries ago by Aquinas).


But free will conceptualized as an uncaused cause implies that each Man (and maybe other things) is to some extent an uncaused cause - and this creates difficulties for most philosophies, which are monist - and refer all causes back to one cause.

The conclusion seems to be that God has free will and is an uncaused cause; but the same also applies to each Man.

How can this be understood?

The only two rational conclusions I can see; are either

1. To state that God caused each uncaused cause: i.e. God caused (created) each Man to as an uncaused cause.


2. The theology of pluralism: that God and also each Man are alike in being uncaused causes, and 'always'-have-been. God and each Man are (at the level of being uncaused causes -  although not necessarily as 'persons') basic constituents in the universe.


The first is the solution of Aquinas, the second is the solution of Mormon theology. Each solution has advantages and problems - and different implications.

I personally favour the Mormon metaphysics, partly from temperament - but mostly because it solves the problems that are most dominant for me, and I find the consequences congenial; while the Thomist solution  seems too obviously paradoxical and leads to problems (such as the problems of pain/ suffering and moral responsibility) further down the line.

But both solutions are viable in some ways, unsatisfactory in others; and both are much preferable to the up-front, in-your-face nihilistic incoherence of denying the reality of free will!


David said...

It seems the most pertinent caveat to free will as far as mortal life is concerned is that it is not a binary commodity and exists on a sliding continuum. I assume I have it or do no and that sets the game we play from there on in. Those who believe they do not have it are in serious trouble from the off. Those who know/believe they possess it have a good handhold to begin climbing. Satan wants us to be enslaved and give up our freewill so if we fold immediately when a media neuroscientist tells us we don't have it, well, so much the better. But most addictive behaviours (sex,drugs, alcohol,gambling,gluttony,etc.) represent a gradual diminishing of free will as we hand it over incrementally to darkness; each time we go back to look at the ring (just one last time of course, we can stop when we want and put it down, but well...will one last drink, guilt sexual fantasy, line of cocaine be such a problem in the long run right? We can stop and repent after that one last time but weakness draws us on. We can stop using our innate free will can't we?!) Like froddo could not help himself whilst under the spell. Every moment of looking, of holding and being with its dark satisfaction, another precious sprinkle of freewill slips away through the hourglass and into the hands of another master. Perhaps we should begin training our free will as vigorously as we moderns train our physical bodies in a gym. Only then can we be safe from temptation.Of course though, if you don't believe you have it to begin with, you can't train it.

Max said...

How do you square free will with the existence of an omniscient God? I don't see how the two can co-exist.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Max - "How do you square free will with the existence of an omniscient God?"

You can't square them, in my opinion - at least not with time being regarded as linear and sequential (which I do).

The tradition solution is to adopt the idea from Boethius which regards God as outside of time and 'viewing' everything that has happened and will happen simultaneously (as it were). This is also what CS Lewis argues in Mere Christianity.

However, I reject the Platonic metaphysics, so I can't do that - therefore I deny God's omniscience (in the traditional sense of omniscience. Of course He has extremely accurate foresight in a probabilistic sense, and the ability to influence events in ways that fulfill prophecies etc).

I also deny that the Bible shows God as omniscient, or states (overall, not in decontextualized verses) that God is omniscient.

I regard the attribution of omniscience (and omnipotence) as post-Apostolic philosophical additions to (and distortions of) Christianity.

But when I say 'I' - the fact is I found this in Mormon theology, especially as explained by Sterling McMurrin, Blake Ostler and Terryl Givens.

Imnobody said...


The fact that God knows what my actions are is compatible with the fact that I have free will to decide them.

My friends know me well and know what my reactions would be before a given situation. This does not mean that the decision is mine and only mine.

God knows what we are going to do in the future, but the decision is only ours.

So there is no contradiction between omniscience and free will.

Max said...

Thanks Bruce. I've actually been speaking with some Mormon missionaries for the past few weeks, largely (if not quite entirely) because of your writings here. To be honest, I've found the process far less persuasive/helpful than simply reading your archives; I'm considering suggesting that they brush up on your blog before we meet again. =P