The Problem of Free Will

For discussions about religion, but not specifically Christianity.
Forum rules
For discussions about religion, but not specifically Christianity. Christians and members of any faith or of no faith are welcome, provided they treat others with respect at all times. Remember that detailed discussion about the beliefs of a particular faith will be difficult if no member of that faith is available to take part.

The Problem of Free Will

Postby Bev » February 1st, 2013, 10:02 pm

This is the title of a book written by Sam Harris. On the same day as Dinesh D'Souza and Michael Shermer presented their debate on good and evil, Sam Harris was invited at the end to present his assertions on free will. In a nut shell, he argues it doesn't really exist, that it is an illusion based on unarguable, scientific evidence.

Here is a link to the video of his presentation:

The Problem of Free Will

I'm very anxious for several here to bear through what I found to be a captivating and extremely logically argued defense for his position. In particular, I was fascinated with how his theory aligns so cleanly to the teachings of Jesus, more so on how the absence of free will (as he defines it) precipitates an automatic adoption of Jesus' most difficult teachings (although he only mentions forgiveness in his one example.)

He is an atheist, though, which makes it all the more interesting to me that he would somehow value Jesus' teachings.

I've purchases the book so I can read it. It's only about 100 pages long, but he says that is all it took to clearly and fully explain his position.
Last edited by Bev on February 2nd, 2013, 3:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
Bev
 
Posts: 7388
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:13 am
Location: Orlando, Florida USA

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby Palaeologus » February 2nd, 2013, 9:41 am

Haven't looked at it yet, Bev - I'm afraid my heart sinks at the prospect of having to do so... :cry:

If our will isn't free, there is absolutely no point whatsoever to any of it.
Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.
- St Gregory of Nyssa
User avatar
Palaeologus
 
Posts: 783
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:28 am
Location: Darkest Sussex

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby Sprocket » February 2nd, 2013, 10:03 am

Dr Johnson said of free-will something like "all reason is against it, but all instinct is for it". He believed in it, as do I, though with caveats. It all depends on what you mean by free-will. There are, for starters, strong and weak versions. The strong version says that we can actually mould the future by our present decisions, and that it was undecided whether I would type this post until i decided to do so. The weak version says that all of history, past, present and future is fixed, but that nevertheless we can make genuinely free decisions, which sounds like a contradiction, but, it is argued, isn't. It was fixed from all eternity that I would type this post, but it was nevertheless my free decision to do so. All events have pre-existent causes (at the everyday level, anyway - I don't think that's true at the sub-atomic level), and the pre-existent cause of this post was my decision to write it. That, of course, raises the question of what the cause of my decision was.
Supercrappyfarcicalishbrexitisatrocious.
User avatar
Sprocket
 
Posts: 16321
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:21 am
Location: Hemel Hempstead, Herts.

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby Sprocket » February 2nd, 2013, 10:16 am

Palaeologus wrote:If our will isn't free, there is absolutely no point whatsoever to any of it.

If by "it" you mean life, the universe, and everything, I agree, but what's that got to do with whether our will is free or not? Maybe there is absolutely no point whatsoever to any of it. The desirability or otherwise of a proposition has nothing to do with its truth or falsehood.
Supercrappyfarcicalishbrexitisatrocious.
User avatar
Sprocket
 
Posts: 16321
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:21 am
Location: Hemel Hempstead, Herts.

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby Palaeologus » February 2nd, 2013, 2:01 pm

Sprocket wrote:
Palaeologus wrote:If our will isn't free, there is absolutely no point whatsoever to any of it.

If by "it" you mean life, the universe, and everything, I agree, but what's that got to do with whether our will is free or not? Maybe there is absolutely no point whatsoever to any of it. The desirability or otherwise of a proposition has nothing to do with its truth or falsehood.


Indeed. What I meant was Christianity. It's true that it's possible to "make a convincing case" for practically anything, provided one restricts the perspective appropriately. Calvinism - a variant of which is what, more or less, i suppose we talking about - is impeccably logical and internally coherent (here we go again). It's the "Gospel rewritten by lawyers", as somebody said. Or was that Roman Catholicism? Never mind. The point is that Gospel of Christ simply evaporates in the absence of free-will. Nothing more entirley contrary to the whole scopos of Scripture can be imagined, IMHO
Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.
- St Gregory of Nyssa
User avatar
Palaeologus
 
Posts: 783
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:28 am
Location: Darkest Sussex

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby Bev » February 2nd, 2013, 3:51 pm

One of the reasons I hoped some here would listen to the lecture is because I so much want other intellectual interpretations of how he's defining free will. Sprocket does say this, that it depends on how one defines it.

Harris seems to be defining free will, or rather basing free will on our having complete control over the manufacture of our thoughts. The unarguable, scientific evidence he bases this on involved experiments that proved somehow we simply do not know what our next thought is going to be, and even when we "believe" we do, that is merely an illusion.

He then asserts, if we don't control the manufacture of our thoughts (consciously), then we can't have free will.

Even I, have always believed we might not control the manufacture of our thoughts, that our impulses, desires, temptations originate outside us (evil being Satan, and good being God.) We are, however, responsible for how we respond to them. And this does not threaten any interpretation, from a Christian perspective, of our need for a saving Christ. If anything, it strengthens it.

At one point, Harris seems to be defining free will by what Sprocket has posted here as "the weak version." He argues that even the most odious of criminals cannot be held accountable for his or her actions, because they had no control over who they are, who their parents were, over the influences (often abuses) that early shaped and molded them into who they are. He says we can neither be proud of our strengths nor can we be ashamed of our weaknesses, because we were not involved in the manufacture of who we are.

But, then, he goes on to say toward the end that we are very much responsible for our character, for the choices we make when we are faced with these influences. To me, this is what defines free will. But, even still, I'm having trouble reconciling his argue against free will when he says this.

Harris also says that if we understood how little we are in control of basically who we are, then suddenly Jesus' teaching on forgiveness makes more sense, because we would see everyone as subject to outside influences.

The thing is, I agree with this, but I've always understood the reason differently. We need Jesus as Savior, because we all have sinned and fallen short of God's perfect will for us. The most fundamental, universally-agreed-upon, reason for Jesus was that he paid the price for all sin, which then exempts us from any penalty. The whole idea of Grace requires that we believe somehow that we can't be responsible for our own salvation. That's why Jesus had to die. So, when you actually believe this, you do feel hypocritical about judging others or feeling that you are better than someone else. It's quite humbling to actually believe the gospel of Grace.

If indeed, we believe that every human is somehow a victim of his or her unfortunate circumstance, then Jesus' teaching on forgiveness, turning the other cheek (which he does in the same sentence where he's refuting any form of retribution as God's will), giving not only ones shirt but ones coat to the one who asks for it, loving and praying for ones enemies, all of this suddenly makes sense if we truly look at everyone in the world as a victim of something beyond their control for whom Jesus had to die (and rescue.)

(I have struggled a long time over Jesus' teachings, as they all seem impossible to follow, and yet, they comprise the bulk of what he had to say to us.)

If you listen to the lecture, you will see Harris does not believe in God. He defines God as a psychopath who creates us at an extreme disadvantage the holds us accountable for it with the threat of eternal damnation. Even I would agree that such a God would be difficult to see as loving and good. Harris just supports once again what I've always seen in the basic atheist argument against God, that they argument is against an interpretation of God, which I've always seen as flawed.

By the way, one might wonder why on earth I would even bother with something like this. The short answer is, there are just too many people in my real world here, young people mainly, who ask me to, and these are young men and women who are struggling with faith in any god at all. Sometimes, I feel they are testing my faith just to see if it will hold up. How can I not take the challenge (with God's help, and with lots of prayer!)?
User avatar
Bev
 
Posts: 7388
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:13 am
Location: Orlando, Florida USA

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby GregB » February 3rd, 2013, 1:19 pm

Well, as it seems to be midnight in the thread of good and evil, I'll put in a few thoughts here.

With books of such a serious nature (Harris's lecture is based on his book 'Free Will'), I always find it interesting to consult the reviews on Amazon, which often provide a reasonably extensive critique, pro and anti, of the book in question. It's worth looking at the reviews here on the Amazon.uk page, especially the second one down on the left (from one Peter Clarke) which criticises Harris for limiting his postulations to just one of the various versions of what constitutes free will, and a rather outdated one at that (the 'weak' one?)
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Free-Will-Sam-H ... 011&sr=1-4

Even if we go along with the latest neurological science which Harris explains and accept that we cannot consciously control the disjointed flux of thoughts which our brains pump into our consciousness (often before we are even aware of it) as well as all the other determining factors behind our thinking (and much of Harris's thesis is basically warmed-over reductionism, determinism and a good dose of behaviourism delivered with angel-of-light, nice guy charm*), there are clearly still areas where we have some kind of autonomous, directional, purposive control over our thoughts, an obvious example being when we concentrate on a specific topic and dredge up the facts stored in our memory to expand it (as opposed to the brain just randomly showering our conscious mind with disparate thoughts.) I would insist that we do have a 'self', an identity, however imperfectly it may operate and that despite all the neurological inputs, the evolutionary 'hard-wiring', the conditioning by environment, upbringing and the like, there is that in us which is uniquely us and which can choose a path to follow.

All right, evidently there are those who are sadly hampered by such physical factors as the brain tumour Harris refers to which may turn someone into a psychotic killer. I don't accept, though, that we are all victims of some such conditioning or other, which would absolve everyone from harbouring some kind of innate evil within them, regardless of such factors (I am sure there were sadistic guards in Auschwitz who didn't come from dysfunctional families or had brain tumours) and that is why I cannot accept the idea of blanket forgiveness. (Actually, I thought Harris' reference to Jesus' example was more in the way of offering love and compassion rather than forgiveness per se.) So, I cannot accept Bev's assertions: "Harris also says that if we understood how little we are in control of basically who we are, then suddenly Jesus' teaching on forgiveness makes more sense, because we would see everyone as subject to outside influences." (Yes, but not all controlled or determined by such influences. We are not programmed androids.) Or: "If indeed, we believe that every human is somehow a victim of his or her unfortunate circumstance." (I don't.)

[* At one point in the Q&A, he says that the cough medicine - he had a bad cold - seemed to be taking over his answers. Well, given the rational clarity, at least, of his exposition, I can only say "I'll have what he's having..." :D ]
"I hate reality but it's still the best place to get a good steak."
- Woody Allen
User avatar
GregB
 
Posts: 16121
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:23 am
Location: Barcelona, Spain

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby Bev » February 3rd, 2013, 11:57 pm

GregB wrote: (Actually, I thought Harris' reference to Jesus' example was more in the way of offering love and compassion rather than forgiveness per se.) So, I cannot accept Bev's assertions: "Harris also says that if we understood how little we are in control of basically who we are, then suddenly Jesus' teaching on forgiveness makes more sense, because we would see everyone as subject to outside influences." (Yes, but not all controlled or determined by such influences. We are not programmed androids.) Or: "If indeed, we believe that every human is somehow a victim of his or her unfortunate circumstance." (I don't.)


You are right, Greg, that Harris pointed more to Jesus' "love your enemies" saying than on forgiveness. I tend to think of the two as the same, though. To me, loving ones enemies and praying for them requires forgiveness.

The linked review is really good. Clarke gives other sources that support something Sprocket mentioned here, that there are different interpretations of free will. Harris seems to weaken his own position on free will when he then goes on to say we are responsible for our character. But, I suspect he might--if asked--clarify by claiming those who are good have the responsibility to be compassionate and look for solutions to the "problem of evil." The bad, he seems to say at one point, are just that, bad and require managing.

Today, when Bobby and I talked more about this particular point, I told him my own view that without God, without some notion of accountability, without any hope of any life beyond this one, Harris' message of "compassion," could end up becoming something quite sinister. A truly godless society could easily embrace Harris' ideas of a complete lack of free will, that someone truly can't help being evil, and simply classify them as "the problem." A godless majority could then determine the way to remedy the "problem of evil" is to eliminate their DNA. It's a logical course of events, especially if this majority scientifically attributes all evil to some biological process. Under such a situation, we end up with another holocaust only this time it will be highly unlikely anyone in the world would see the wrong in such an effort.


[* At one point in the Q&A, he says that the cough medicine - he had a bad cold - seemed to be taking over his answers. Well, given the rational clarity, at least, of his exposition, I can only say "I'll have what he's having..." :D ]


:lol: He was admirably articulate!

One last comment: Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Harris' convincing argument that we don't control our thoughts was in the question of where and how our thoughts are manufactured. I believe so strongly the answer to this is partly biological and most importantly partly nurture (or environmental "input.") I couldn't help but think of the scripture that encourages us "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the world of God. (Ro 10:17), and also Philippians 4:8,9:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


I believe our thoughts come to us (yes without our control) from a reservoir deep within us that is filled throughout our lives by in part what we have been exposed to. When we become Christians, scripture is something we probably read more than any other text. And so, we begin filling this reservoir with God's word, which is healing and conducive to life-giving peace, love, joy, etc...

Of course, the opposite is just as true. So, the next time the kids come over for a discussion, I want to propose this to them, which of course will follow with a discussion on what is good and what is evil, to which I will challenge them to begin reading the words of Jesus and see how they would classify his teachings. I so look forward to being able to encourage them in this one thing.
User avatar
Bev
 
Posts: 7388
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:13 am
Location: Orlando, Florida USA

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby Lyn » February 4th, 2013, 2:40 pm

Thank you for this thread Bev. I am going to make no comments but you can be assured I have studied what you have put on the thread. It is a subject that occupies my mind a lot of the time. I will leave it to you and others (Greg and anyone else who comments) to write posts about it because I feel very anxious when I start getting into such a debate and have to protect myself. I will read every post and value it. Thank you, not just Bev but Greg who has replied and I understand all that you say.

God bless you both.
Lyn
 
Posts: 51209
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:25 am

Re: The Problem of Free Will

Postby GregB » February 4th, 2013, 5:23 pm

Thanks, Vix. ;)

Bev wrote:
Today, when Bobby and I talked more about this particular point, I told him my own view that without God, without some notion of accountability, without any hope of any life beyond this one, Harris' message of "compassion," could end up becoming something quite sinister. A truly godless society could easily embrace Harris' ideas of a complete lack of free will, that someone truly can't help being evil, and simply classify them as "the problem." A godless majority could then determine the way to remedy the "problem of evil" is to eliminate their DNA. It's a logical course of events, especially if this majority scientifically attributes all evil to some biological process. Under such a situation, we end up with another holocaust only this time it will be highly unlikely anyone in the world would see the wrong in such an effort.

Excellent, sobering point. Once science alone determines the zeitgeist, then such a dystopia may not be so far away. Serious considerations apart, it could be the basis of a novel to put on the shelf next to 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', 'Brave New World', 'We' and other such fables of latter-day totalitarianism, scientific and political.

As for Philippians 4:8,9, funnily enough that crossed my mind too at one point in Harris's lecture. We may not be able to control or completely systematise or order all our mental output but we can certainly direct more and more of our thoughts into those things which St. Paul so well describes.
I believe our thoughts come to us (yes without our control) from a reservoir deep within us that is filled throughout our lives by in part what we have been exposed to

Yes, indeed! It's like grooves which are gradually cut into our brains until they 'play back' the stored material like a disc.

By the way, I asked a friend to pass on some thoughts on this subject, but what I got back was a film review. Must have been a bad line because he thought I'd said it was about 'free willy'... :blink:
"I hate reality but it's still the best place to get a good steak."
- Woody Allen
User avatar
GregB
 
Posts: 16121
Joined: October 25th, 2007, 11:23 am
Location: Barcelona, Spain

Next

Return to Talking Stick

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest