As with all such documents, a revision history is included at the bottom.
Strange…a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied seventy times seven and invented Hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!
— Mark Twain
Are we responsible for our own actions? Can society justifiably hold us responsible for our actions through a legal system? Can God be justified in holding us responsible for our own actions through divine reward and punishment?
Welcome, my dear readers, to the free will/determinism debate.
Culpability generally requires agency, the possibility of choosing an action over alternatives. Imagine that you were knocked unconscious by an assailant, who then placed a gun in your hand and used your finger to pull the trigger, shooting the gun and killing an innocent bystander. If these were the only relevant facts of the case, I doubt anyone would hold you culpable for the death, because regardless of your finger on the trigger, it was the assailant’s actions that caused the bystander’s death, not yours. Within a society’s legal system, responsibility for crimes typically require that the accused be (a) reasonably able to foresee the criminal outcome of the actions and (b) reasonably able to have acted in another manner that would have prevented the criminal outcome. There are, certainly, subtleties to these criteria. For example, being “reasonably able to foresee the criminal outcome” doesn’t mean you did foresee it, hence charges of criminal negligence. But most of these subtleties are not likely to play a significant role in this discussion, so I’ll leave culpability at the broad-brush-stroke version for now.
Determinism is the notion that a future outcome is determined by the past state of the universe. If you push over the first domino, then, assuming you have set the system up right, what follows is completely determined by that first push. I’ve already addressed issues of linear causality (the first philosophical point in this essay, so I won’t rehash that here. But even without linear causality, it is conceivable for the universe to be fully deterministic, where a prior state of the universe fully determines a future state. A situation this extreme is known as metaphysical determinism, and is assumed by many theists, including C.S. Lewis in his treatise, Miracles, to be the natural conclusion of pure naturalism. The same essay I just linked to addresses that claim, which the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics denies.
Even without metaphysical determinism, however, individual outcomes might be determined by prior states of the universe. If the dominoes are sufficiently lined up, we know what will happen even if there is some slop in their positioning. In those cases, for all practical purposes, the outcome is determined. I call this “pragmatic determinism.”
If, however, metaphysical determinism were correct, there is nothing in metaphysical determinism that says that we would be able to do the determining. Determined does not mean predictable. James Gleick’s book Chaos is an excellent exploration of this concept.
So what we have in the end is no necessary connection between determinism on a metaphysical level and determinism from a human perspective concerning a particular outcome; all four possible combinations are at least logically coherent, even if one or more don’t match the available data.
Determinism is often contrasted with free will, which is the contention that the mind has the power to make choices that are not predetermined by a prior state of the universe. While it is true that determinism and free will do not together fully map out the range of logical possibilities (for example, quantum mechanical indeterminism does not necessarily imply any connection to mental choices), the point of discussing these two positions in this essay is to address issues of responsibility, where the two extremes are likely to be sufficient.
It seems clear that metaphysical determinism rules out metaphysical free will. If, to a subatomic level, everything in the universe were precisely determined by the prior states of the universe, then there is no true choice that is possible. Metaphysical determinism doesn’t eliminate the phenomenological appearance of choice, for if we are not privy to the full, detailed causal chain that determines the outcome of the choice, then it will feel like a choice. Putting that another way, the experience of weighing the options and selecting one of them is experienced as a choice, even if our upbringing, history, and other factors make no choice possible other than the one we end up with.
I call this feeling of being able to choose, “pragmatic free will.” For all practical purposes, we have free will, whether we actually do at a metaphysical level or not.
Society and the Justice System
A common claim made by people who have not thought deeply about these issues is that determinism means that we should not be held responsible for our actions. After all, if the outcomes of our perceived choices are nonetheless already determined, then, the argument goes, we cannot be said to be responsible for them? It’s like the assailant pulling the trigger using our finger.
From a societal perspective, however, this is not a tenable position in cases where determinism doesn’t equate to foreknowledge. Societies, and their legal systems, are in a Darwinian sense in competition with each other. More successful societal approaches tend to survive and propagate. This is true regardless of the determinism/free will debate. A society wherein people are not held responsible for their actions leads to an environment that favors selfish behavior, and selfish behavior, when propagated up to a societal level, is likely to be less successful, again in a Darwinian sense, than the alternative. Societies that say, “Everything is permitted because you’re just going to do what you are destined to do anyway,” will fall before the cooperative efforts of societies that make the reverse claim.
There can certainly be individual cases where the causal chain is well-enough understood to shift responsibility further back. Maybe I pulled the trigger, but someone else should be held responsible because that other person had a gun to my head, forcing my actions. This might be a reasonable shifting-of-responsibility in some cases. But in large measure, my contention is that from a societal standpoint, individual responsibility will be based on pragmatic free will, not metaphysical free will. Notice that I did not say that it “should be,” or even “must be,” but rather that it “will be.” Because societies that do assign individual responsibility in this way are the ones that survive.
So, in short, the experience of choosing directly leads to individual responsibility to society for the resulting choice, regardless of the underlying metaphysics.
The situation changes, however, from God’s perspective. If metaphysical determinism were correct, it seems to me clear that God’s judgment of and resulting reward or punishment for our behavior would be misplaced. From God’s perspective we have no choice at all in what we do. The only individual that could have made a choice turn out differently is God. So therefore, from God’s perspective, metaphysical determinism turns God into a puppet master, who rewards or punishes his puppets based on what he set them up to do. There is no fairness of any kind in such judgment.
This is, of course, why most religions include metaphysical free will as a fundamental doctrine, usually embodied in a soul or spirit that is outside of any possible naturalistic determinism, and can affect the natural world by influencing our actions. I have already discussed why I consider such supernaturalism to be an incoherent concept, so I won’t retread that ground at the moment.
Instead, let me grant the theist, for the sake of argument, nearly everything that is asked for. God exists. This God has several characteristics that are commonly associated with God, including complete knowledge of all events everywhere and everywhen (omniscience) and the role of creator of our universe including the ability to set up the universe in any logically-consistent manner he so chooses (omnipotent creation). Metaphysical free will for humans exists. Usually this set of points are reconciled by asserting that God exists outside of our timeline (though I still contend he must exist in some kind of timeline in order for him to be said to make decisions), allowing him to have perfect foreknowledge without determinism. Given that set of granted points (other possible points that might be asked for are, I believe, irrelevant), I contend that God’s judgment of and resulting reward or punishment for our behavior would still be misplaced.
Let’s go through the argument. God creates the universe, knowing at the point of creation how absolutely everything will turn out. God could have created any universe he wanted to, within the possible constraints of logical consistency, but he chose to create this one. And in this one someone sins and doesn’t repent. God could have created the universe differently where the sin didn’t happen, but he didn’t. Again, even without determinism, God is left holding the responsibility. Foreknowledge plus creation, while it doesn’t really equal metaphysical determinism, has the same effect as metaphysical determinism on any attempts to justify God’s judgment of his creation. Given this argument, such a God is unjust.
How can God get out of this logical bind? Something has to be assumed differently. Here are the choices that I can identify:
- God doesn’t have perfect foreknowledge.
- God didn’t have choice in how to create the universe.
- God doesn’t judge or reward/punish people.
- God is unjust.
- God doesn’t exist.
I don’t see any possible way out of the argument other than one or more of these choices.
Responses to Criticisms
Multiple readers have pointed out that the argument I am making in the last section is a variant on the “problem of evil.” While I disagree that the argument is the same, because the classic formulation of the problem has more to do with God allowing evil to exist than it does the appropriateness of God judging us to be culpable for that evil, I do agree that many discussions of the problem of evil do cover much the same ground that I have. One reader (thank you, Julia R.) pointed me to this article discussing in great detail many of the same issues I have discussed. I am actually surprised at the degree of agreement between the author of that article and my arguments above.
Based on his article, I have constructed the following flow chart of the argument.
The author of the article defines “libertarian free will” as the type of free will that is necessary to assign culpability. I have assigned the various outcomes of the questions I pose as either green (which are possibly consistent with the existence of libertarian free will) or red (which are not). What is striking to me is that there is really only one point of disagreement between the author of that article and me: the “yes” answer to question 3. I was expecting the biggest area of disagreement to be with the “yes” answer to question 6, but the author clearly states that such an answer to 6 leads to exactly the problem I outlined.
So what are we to make of the author’s alternate response to answering “yes” to question 3? As near as I can tell from that article, the reasoning is as follows:
- God does indeed hold people responsible for their actions.
- God must be justified in doing so.
- Therefore, the actions must indeed be ultimately the responsibility of the people directly performing them.
- Thus, people have libertarian free will, even though the only entity that could have altered the outcome of the decision is God.
This is logical poppycock. Libertarian free will is defined in a way that excludes situations described by the last half of step 4 (of the list, not the flow chart). What the author has done is argue through my flow chart to the point of eliminating all possible answers as acceptable except for the “yes” answer to question 3, and then before drawing the direct conclusion that follows, which is also not acceptable, he puts the argument on hold, and then makes an argument starting from the conclusion he wants to be true. He then works backwards to that same “yes” answer to question 3 so that he has now approached it from both sides. From one side, God determines the outcomes of decisions. From the other side, we have libertarian free will. The author then declares these contradictory conclusions to be reconciled. Argument by declaration that 1 = -1 is not convincing. The only real response is that there must be a mistake somewhere else in the development. But as we see from the flow chart, decisions about such mistakes usually lead to conclusions about the nature of God or the universe that are at odds with the common understanding of each. We could decide to throw out libertarian free will, or God’s omnipotence, or God’s perfect foreknowledge… any of these will resolve the contradiction. We could even dispense with the notion that God is just.
But whichever of these postulates is thrown out does severe damage to the traditional theistic views of God. The only logically-consistent conclusion is that the traditional theistic God doesn’t exist. Some other God might, but not the God that is specified simultaneously by the postulates within this argument.
So which God is the real one? If any?
- September 9, 2014: Added the concluding section.