Apologetics to the Glory of God

An Informal Introduction to Covenantal Apologetics: Part 23 – Subject determined or free.

By C.L. Bolt

Causality and freedom create problems for the subject as well. Suppose we hold that all physical changes are to be explained through physical causes and that we as humans are purely physical. Whenever a physical change takes place it does so due to prior physical causes operating in accordance with the laws of physics. Any physical changes made with respect to our bodies are no exception to this rule including changes described in terms of mental states. Our mental states and our actions are bound to the physical causal chain so that freedom has no place in the description of the self. This physicalist view leads to problems with intellectual and moral rationality and responsibility if we assume that in order for a person to be held responsible that person must be free in some sense to choose between different actions.

Everyday people speak and act in ways that presuppose the responsibility of humans. However, responsibility does not fit with the view described above because of the apparent inconsistency between determinism and freedom. In response to this worry we might make an argument that the physicalist view is compatible with human freedom. There are times when human freedom and responsibility are completely absent due to causal factors. For example, when a storm picks a person up and throws him or her into the middle of a flower patch, destroying the flowers, it is not his or her fault that the flowers have been destroyed. What happened here was that a natural and impersonal force cast the person into to flowers without any intention on the part of the individual involved. However, the objection is that in the physicalist view human actions are no different in their relation to the causal chain than they are in the flower patch example. Physical and psychological causes are essentially the same on the physicalist view. Perhaps we can think of rational desires in a different way from other determined events. Perhaps physical causes and laws of physics external to individuals cause physical movement of their bodies but nothing is contributed by those individuals to that bodily movement. Then we can say that the movement is compulsory rather than voluntary. This is only repeating what was stated earlier about physicalism allowing that human freedom or responsibility is sometimes completely absent due to causal factors. The agent involved would not be held responsible in such a situation.

But we want to go further and say that when physical causes inside of an individual yield bodily movement or behavior with some contribution on the part of the individual the action may be deemed voluntary. Voluntary actions could be contingent upon physical causes within an agent who is aware of some of the results of his or her actions. Perhaps desire and thought can be taken as the factors which distinguish voluntary actions from involuntary actions, and these are the physical causes which bring about human behavior in some instances. Intentional actions on the part of human beings are part of a causal chain but these actions can still be voluntary. Have we saved voluntary actions and therefore intellectual and moral responsibility through rejecting that determinism is incompatible with voluntary actions?

Certainly not. We do not throw storms into the same category as rational desires as far as causes are concerned. All agree on this, but all do not agree that we should do anything other than throw them all together in the same category if physicalism is correct. This is the very point in contention and it is question begging to overlook this and proceed upon the general view that the physicalist view may very well be in conflict with. The objection against the view presented here is not that causes which lead to action are not found within humans; it is that there seems to be no reason to differentiate between these and any other physical cause, internal or external, which may bring about particular behavior or bodily movement.

With regards to physical causation, both internal and external events are the same. The point raised seems so far to be irrelevant to defending physicalism against the argument from responsibility and freedom brought against it. Why draw a distinction between what is inside of an individual and outside of an individual, if both are the same with regards to physical causation? Voluntary actions are caused by desires, but as stated earlier, desires are physical and thus part of the deterministic causal chain.

We might try again to escape from the problem here by saying that voluntary internal acts are caused in the right way to be labeled such. But what does the phrase “in the right way” refer to? If it refers to internal voluntary acts which are caused in the right way to be voluntary acts, then we are only stating the same thing twice, namely that voluntary acts are those acts which are caused in the right way to be voluntary acts. The phrase may be taken to refer to internal actions which are caused by desires, but still nothing has been shown which would even close to imply that these desires are to be taken seriously as things which distinguish internal, allegedly voluntary acts from external, involuntary acts. Both are still physically caused, and both are still a part of the determinative chain just like bodies that are thrown through the air by storms. There is no reason to think that a normal human action is any different as a segment in a causal chain than being taken up by storm is and there is every reason to think that they are the same. There are causes in both of these events and nothing special about the causal factors which makes one differ from the other.

We cannot give up so easily though. What if some voluntary actions are actually not free in the sense that they warrant responsibility? Someone might voluntarily do something without actually deliberating about and choosing that thing. However if an action is deliberated about then it is voluntary and free in the way which warrants responsibility. The playing field is considerably narrower than when the discussion first started. The alleged crucial difference between the actions and events that are necessary for intellectual and moral freedom, rationality, and responsibility is deliberation. A strong case must therefore be made in favor of deliberation somehow implying freedom and the corresponding responsibility.

Unfortunately it is unclear as to how being able to reflect upon the results of actions entails the freedom necessary for responsibility. It does make sense to say that if a person has no idea of the consequences of his or her action, this should be figured into whether or not this person may be held responsible. However, in the event of a storm which has the power to pick a person up and drop him or her into the middle of flower patch that person may very well know possible outcomes of being thrust into such a predicament. The same is true when it comes to personal decisions, and it is possible that the outcomes may not be as well known as they even are in the storm example. The storm is still determined with no real freedom being possible and there is no reason to infer that things are any different in the case of human actions.

Maybe we can try again. Maybe we can hold that while even deliberation and anything which would be described in more popular language as a mental event is physical and part of the causal chain, there is not necessarily such a thing as psychological determinism. The move is tricky and arbitrary. Not only is it difficult to understand how one may deliberate when there are no such things as truly open options, but there needs to be a stronger argument in favor of rejecting determinism at the psychological level but not at other levels. While we may not speak of types of events which yield specific other types when it comes to psychological conditions (largely because of their complexity), other physical events often involve so many factors that they are not easily classified as types either. The reason for the rejection of the necessity of psychological determinism even when determinism is held in every other area seems to be based more upon a current lack of human knowledge with regards to psychological states and what they yield. Mere appeal to human experience of freedom is not enough in this instance to refute the causal explanation entailed by physicalism. If it is the case that psychological determinism still holds along with the other determinism presented, then the point in contention is again that this is incompatible with human experience and therefore either there is no real human freedom or physicalism must be tweaked or rejected to make room for it.

When someone’s deliberations are part of a physical causal chain there is no way that the person’s deliberations or resulting actions could have been other than what they were, and this means that the person’s deliberations and actions were not free at all. If one cannot do other than what one actually does, then one is by virtue of our definition here not free. An individual who is determined by causal factors to act in a certain way does not possess the ability to act otherwise, for there is no capacity present in the individual, no potential to do anything else. This is what is normally meant by ability. The physical causes which may prevent a boy from playing the trumpet, including never having lessons or not owning a trumpet, are no different from the physical causes that would bring it about that the talented trumpet player who owns a trumpet has no desires to play the trumpet or is in a psychological state which determines that he does not play the trumpet.

We have attempted to reconcile a physicalist view with the intellectual and moral rationality and responsibility implied by everyday human experience. While some interesting points have been raised in attempting to base freedom upon determinism via deliberation, there is much more argument needed to support this position. Given the determinism discussed, there is no other option but to assume that a major part of human experience is somewhat of a farce due to determinism in decision making and actions. We have not shown why some causes are truly different from others with respect to the determinate physical causal chain of events we as humans belong to. Forced intellectual conclusions are certainly not arrived at rationally, and forced moral actions appear to eliminate responsibility. What we have discussed thus far regarding the subject of knowledge in terms of a popular view of human constitution is therefore exceedingly problematic.

There are those who still wish to defend freedom over against a position like the one discussed above in a somewhat different way. It is often asserted that determinism of any kind precludes free will such that if we possess free will then indeterminism must be the case. Since there is free will indeterminism is true (and the determinism described above is false).

Note that the inconsistency between free will and determinism is assumed. The assumption may be granted as definitional. Note also that free will is merely assumed rather than proven. One might just as easily assert that if determinism is true then free will is false and follow the argument out there instead. The concept of free will itself in light of the challenge posed by our discussion above will be briefly examined.

Apparently free will by its very definition would have it that indeterminism obtains. However, if indeterminism is the case then the choices people make are not determined in any sense by the people who make them. Choices are therefore arbitrary. It may be objected that while choices are not determined they are still influenced by factors like the character or emotions of the agent making the choices and therefore they are not arbitrary.

However if the aforementioned factors (e.g. character, emotions) do not determine choices but only influence them then people might still make choices against their inclinations. If people can make choices against their inclinations then the objection is obsolete since the actual choices people make are still not necessarily affected in any sense by the people who make them. The same problem of arbitrariness mentioned before is still a problem.

Perhaps what the objector means to say is that our choices are delineated by the aforementioned influences. In this case a choice is made between options not excluded by the factors which “influence” the people making decisions. However again there is no relevant way in which the factors influence actual choices between the remaining options. Choices are apparently still separate from the people ‘making’ the choices and we are back to the same problem of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness, of course, does not preserve intellectual and moral rationality and responsibility anymore than our prior account of physical determinism does, and so we are left with some real problems concerning the constitution of the subject.

We have said that skepticism might be thought of as a problem of connection. Here we have seen an illustration showing that the connection between cause and effect within the subject on a non-Christian view is either too strong or too weak. We have accomplished this assuming that there is some connection between subjects and objects even though we were unable to establish this connection on an unbelieving scheme, and we have assumed further some connections between objects. Later on we will see that this assumption is not justified on an unbelieving scheme either. There is one more fatal problem to be discussed concerning the memories, senses, and reasoning of the subject of knowledge, then we will see that even what we have stated with respect to the subject thus far has assumed far too much in terms of connection within the subject.

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