Both/And

It's not often that the debate between free will and determinism surfaces.

So, when it does, it's probably a good idea to pay attention.

John Tierney, writing in The New York Times ("Do You Have Free Will? Yes. It's the Only Choice", March 21, 2011) reports on the latest round of debate in this ongoing philosophical discussion.

On one side of the table are those who contend that everything in the world is determined by previous physical events. We do what we do because of things that happened prior to our doing it, going all the way back to the big bang. The effect of such thinking is to diminish our moral responsibility, since we can't really be blamed for anything if we couldn't help whatever it was we did. Such a view troubles the folks on the other side of the table.

Opposite the "determinists" are those who insiste we have a free will, although they are not able to account either for where this comes from or exactly in what it consists. Further, they have to contend with the research of determinists which demonstrates that, whenever people are encouraged to believe the deterministic view of  things, they tend to act in a morally compromised way. If I'm not to blame, why not?

But that just lights up the "free will" camp, who insist that such data only shows all the more reason to encourage people to believe in free will and moral responsibility. Otherwise, we'll never be able to keep people from doing whatever they can imagine.

Free will advocates sometimes even say that, whether or not we have free will, we should believe that we do. It makes for a safer society when people believe they're responsible for their actions, and that they'll be held accountable accordingly.

Then there are the "compatibilists." They believe that, somehow, both views are true: everything is determined, and yet everyone is morally responsible. Mr. Tierney indicates that perhaps most philosophers hold to this view. As Mr. Tierney says, "Compatibilism isn't easy to explain. But it seems to jibe with our gut instinct that Bill is morally responsible even though he's living in a deterministic universe."

Ah, "gut instinct." Another reliable fall back when things just don't fall into neat categories. The compatibilists are right, of course - just as the Scriptures teach. God is sovereign and has determined all things whatsoever come to pass, directing and upholding them by His ever-attending Word of power. But human beings, made in the image of God, are free moral entities, responsible for their decisions and actions as though they alone had everything to do with them.

How can this be so? The Bible doesn't explain. We wouldn't be able to understand it anyway, as Mr. Tierney suggests. We know it's true (hence, Mr. Tierney's catchy title), but that's not the end of the matter. Knowing what to do and how to live is the key question.

We must live as though everything we do depends on our pleasing God according to His Law. And we must adore and implore and invoke God for the strength that only He can provide in order to be able to do precisely that. This is the whole of what it means to be a human being (Eccl. 12.13, 14).

"Gut instinct" is nothing other than the image of God making itself known in the discussions of unbelieving philosophers. They "know" both of these views are true - they have to be. But they don't know why, and they don't really know how to respond to such a reality.

Christians, however, know both the why and the therefore.

Additional related texts: Ephesians 1.11; John 5.14; Luke 13.1-5

A conversation starter: "Most philosophers believe that all our actions are determined, but that, somehow, we are responsible. How can this be? And how do they know that?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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